Editorial note: This interview was conducted in New York City on September 27, 2010. Bruce Andrews writes, “Dennis did the painstaking transcription of this interview; I massaged it a teeny bit, mostly deleting a few ‘you know’s and ‘so’s & adding a few commas & dashes to capture something of the rhythm, but keeping it as loose & informal as it was, rather than trying to jazz it up or make it more official or impressive. I’m happy to leave in the more relaxed instances of ‘gonna’ & ‘wanna’ & ‘gotta’ along with my idiosyncratic valorizing of the ‘aerated’ em dashes (with a little space before & after). This was a lovely afternoon for me; many thanks to Dennis for all his enthusiasm during his month in the USA as a self-identified ‘fan boy’ — the breath of fresh air still reverberates!” — Katie L. Price
Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich: Many thanks, Bruce, for inviting me and taking the time to do this interview. So, let’s jump right in. Before going into the more theoretically-inclined questions, would you mind giving us a short rundown of how you got involved with the downtown New York art scene and became a driving force of so-called ‘Language Poetry’ in the 1970s?
Bruce Andrews: That’s a huge autobiographical question. But … a couple of short things. I had some connection with that scene before I moved to New York, when I was in graduate school in the early 70s. Some of that is represented in my editing of the special issue of Toothpick, Lisbon, and the Orcas Islands in 1973 — and that is up on the web now as part of Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse site, so you can take a look at some of what I was interested in, in 1973. I came to New York City in 1975. I started writing in 1969, and began to be in touch with some of the people that, later in the 1970s, came to be called the ‘Language Poets.’ I was in correspondence with them in the early ’70s. So, in the early ’70s I’m going to grad school, I’m fascinated by avant-garde art activities in a variety of fields, and I’m starting to write and publish, and I’m in touch now with people that would form this phenomenon a little bit later. So I come to New York in 1975, partly as a coincidence (that was the only professorial job that I got … at that age I wasn’t just moving to New York in order to be in New York). It was just a stroke of incredible luck for me that I got a teaching job here [Fordham University] in political science. So, I moved to town still with this fascination about what was going on in music in a variety of genres, what’s going on in theatre, what’s going on in dance, what’s going on in the visual arts … and dropped right in a hotbed of incredible activity in all those fields. And that interest in those other fields shaped my conception — as you can see a little bit in the Toothpick issue — of what would be a relevant kind of literary writing.
I’ve said this before in interviews, but when what we were calling, in our correspondence, ‘Language-centered Writing’ started to become known outside of the immediate participants it came to be known as ‘Language Poetry.’ And I have said before that, to me, it was the P-part rather than the L-part that I thought was a problem. I wasn’t really thinking that we were helping to create a new sub-genre of poetry, but that we were creating a new formulation or articulation of a type of arts activity that would have some parallels with what was going on in these other art fields. And for a while in New York, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it seemed possible to sustain a community of people in the literary world that were also in touch — in close, intimate touch — with what was going on with people of the same age in these other art forms and that we could form a kind of multi-arts community. So, you know, a few of us were closer in touch with things going on in the music world, in the dance world, in the theater world, etc., and those people came to our readings and were interested in our texts to some extent. But that was hard to sustain; it didn’t really last, and after a while it became clear that whatever interest some of us had, or that I had, for instance, in these other fields, was not going to result in our work getting any kind of outreach. The outreach was likely to come from the poetry world.
Editorial note: The following conversation has been adapted and edited from episode 15 of PoemTalk, recorded March 9, 2009, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and transcribed by Michael Nardone. In this episode, PoemTalk host Al Filreis discusses Lyn Hejinian’s “constant change figures” with Thomas Devaney, Tom Mandel, and Bob Perelman. Listen to the show here. — Katie L. Price
Al Filreis: I’m Al Filreis, and this is PoemTalk at the Writers House, where I have the pleasure of convening friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close, but not too close, reading of a poem. We’ll talk, maybe even disagree a bit and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities, and, we hope, gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners. And I say “listeners” because PoemTalk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our PennSound archive.
Today, I’m joined here in Philadelphia in the Arts Café of the Kelly Writers House by: Thomas Devaney, poet, critic, teacher, reviewer extraordinaire, whose latest book of poems is A Series of Small Boxes; and by Bob Perelman, long-time Penn colleague from the Bay Area, of course, before that, author most recently of a book of poems Iflife, published by Roof Books, which we celebrated here at the Writers House when it came out, and recorded the reading for Bob’s great PennSound page, to which I happily direct everyone within earshot; and by Tom Mandel, one of the early language poets and the author of fifteen books. Tom studied with Hannah Arendt and Saul Bellow on the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and taught at the U of C, the University of Illinois, and San Francisco State, where he was Director of the Poetry Center. How many years, Tom?