An interview with Bill Berkson
That the critic and the poet should be the same person is not a surprise when it comes to the work of Bill Berkson. Both activities have fruitfully informed one another over five decades of writing. What remains engaging in all of Berkson’s writing is how each poem and how every essay continues to be so distinctively and affectionately rendered. In his “Critical Reflections,” Berkson expresses a commitment to “communicating the spontaneously dense, specific and often paradoxical events of consciousness in the face of contemporary works,” that he desires “to tell the polymorphous story of the thing.”
There are some affinities in Berkson’s polymorphous poetry to John Ashbery, especially The Tennis Court Oath, but Berkson marks the lyric poem in ways distinct from Ashbery. In Berkson’s collaboration with Bernadette Mayer, What’s Your Idea of a Good Time?, Mayer asks: “Do you think clarity, in poetry, is a thing to be worked toward?” Berkson answers:
I don’t think of clarity as an ideal. It’s just one face, very often very superficial. But declaration seems like a miracle. Why be so equivocal like everything else? The style of the times is equivocal, so the best poets seem like raving solipsists. Anyhow, poetry starts with a clarity flash — lines that open up a space, even if by themselves they don’t look so clear. Most poems I like are clear all the way, or are mostly forthright.
Berkson’s poems can be playful, but he is not a trickster. In fact, the more you read, the more you see just how forthright the poems are. Anselm Berrigan has commented that Berkson’s poems “quietly demand a clear eye without forcing a kind of clarity onto the reader.” And he quotes: “Nothing is more perfectly obscure / than the trace of intention and no mess.”
There is a great untangled fusion in Berkson’s best poems. The fusion is manifest in nearly every aspect of the work, including his use of talk (often decentered) as well as his artful description (often understated). Berkson’s poem portraits, such as “Roy Eldridge, Little Jazz,” “To Lynn,” and “An Ives,” are all achievements in this art of finely fused description. There is a deceptively matter-of-fact quality in Berkson’s poetry that emerges from his ability to consolidate object and subject. The latter is indicative of Berkson’s light yet incisive touch. He writes:
A man sitting at a piano, singing and talking.
A woman using an electric fan on her hair.
Berkson’s fact poems intertwine and become part of the poem’s history. In his compelling longer poem “Start Over,” facts and personal history intersect on specific days in specific places. Another favorite fact-driven poem is his “Broom Genealogy.” The poem turns on distinctions, but here personal history and facts overlap and becoming nearly indistinguishable. Berkson writes:
Eventually I learn to distinguish between two kinds of broom plants,
French and Scotch. Every time I take a walk with you I get to ask
one question about plant life, another you say I always forget
the answer next time around so my questions are repetitive like
an absurdist play or catechism. Both French and Scotch broom are
somehow naturally fixed in the mesa ground, the clay and sand and
real dirt of it, thought the Scotch kind you generally find
closer to the cliffs. […]
In the landscape, in the relationship with the narrator’s walking partner, in the intricate family genealogies — the poem continues on.
Some context for Berkson’s poetry can be gleaned from historian Christine Stansell’s American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. Stansell writes:
The talk was artful, with formal principles at work. The urbane, politically aware conversation was notable not for its discursive unity but for its juxtapositions: it was pastiche of speech, a bricolage, a collage. Lack of cohesion was the fundamental principle, random items and topics from the vast range of American life assembled with tonic excitement. It was an aesthetic exercise in daily life, a quotidian American corollary to European high-modernist aesthetics of language […]. Broadly speaking, the linguistic play of Ulysses and the urbane stream of consciousness of Greenwich Village talk were fostered by similar urban forces: a booming print culture, the spread of advertising, and the compression of polylingual populations, all touching off an explosion of language.
In all of his poems Berkson is singular in multiplicities, and perhaps he is most powerfully so in some of his shortest poems, which are simultaneously maximalist and minimalist. In the poem “Stamina,” he writes:
worn like sweaters against dark drifts.
He blinks in several places.
Then I wiped out the face
and when the face was gone
the skyline was standing
broke “in what
childhood scuffle I forget”
Employing numerous devices, Berkson continues to expand the reach of the lyric. Perhaps the most explicit characteristic, of my favorite Berkson poems, is an unflagging sense of forward momentum and “a forward love.” Here the senses promote the heart and mind and all that can intersect it into his nuanced idiom. In his poem “By Halves” Berkson’s synthesis is manifest. He writes:
do limits build
both sweet and cruel
or over to you off at
your compass studies,
visor to odd angles perforated,
plumb to sky
to service mouthful signage in pearly
cantina load where squawks from a ceiling,
headed down the demon slopes
for work place, total their sheer
carbon feed on an average night
that at any guardrail slick nails the morphological in bins?
Thus backup wealth lifts an ancient spume, glowering with grammar
whose joined bronze gives pause,
erect lapse paging glory, when wing is rag
This interview was conducted in 2008 at the San Francisco home of Berkson and his wife Constance Lewallen. It was first published in Zoland Poetry no. 5 (2011).
Thomas Devaney: Your poem “Blue Is the Hero” leads with the line “leading with his chin” and ends on “like fun in the sun, air in the air.” It’s a portrait of sorts: one of a time that has passed and that is currently passing in the moment of the poem.
Bill Berkson: Thanks. I think of it as what Gregory Corso would call a “top shot” for me, at least up until that time, summer of 1968.
Devaney: Sometimes it seems you’ve found your form in shorter poems. Poe, in his perfect Poe way, says that long poems do not exist. Still, it’s interesting that a slightly longer poem like “Fugue State” highlights a central mode in your own idiom.
Berkson: Soon after it appeared in print, Kenneth Koch told me how much he liked that poem and another called “In Gray Sweats.” He said they indicated something fresh in my work, which in retrospect seems true — or at least they went on at greater length. I think it was then that Kenneth urged me to write a really long poem for a change — something I still feel honor-bound to try. I don’t write long poems, or haven’t. The model I have in mind for one is Kenneth’s own 100-page, twenty-five lines per page “When the Sun Tries to Go On.”
Devaney: You’ve really explored the possibilities of the shorter form for sure. I like your poem “15 ½ / 34.” It’s not that it’s just both tight and open, but it’s tailored too, cut and fit: everything is where it needs to be. Anyway, “Fugue State,” long as it might be for you, is still in my own Bill Berkson anthology.
Berkson: Well, it’s funny you say that because that’s the one Dave Brinks asked me especially to read in New Orleans last week when I read at the Gold Mine. And it came home to me — not for the first time — but I said to him, I always hesitate reading that poem. It’s a very hard one to read. I think the difficulty may date to my years with severe lung disease. It’s hard to get up to speed, to arrive at the proper tempo when one is short of breath.
Devaney: That’s no small thing. Shortly before he died Creeley remarked upon having a “crisis of breath.” In 2004 you nearly died from lung disease. Your health — and that fact that you’re alive right now and we’re talking here — is a remarkable thing. How is your health right now?
Berkson: I’m in pretty good health, allowing for all the medications a post-transplant patient has to take to maintain the middle way between the ills immunosuppression can foster and the rejection of transplant organs it’s supposed to prevent.
Devaney: Well you made it. It’s miraculous. Now when you said that “Fugue State” is a difficult poem to read out loud, is that because of your own shortness of breath, or for other reasons, not including the challenges of reading any poem in a bar setting?
Berkson: Yes, well, shortness of breath can defeat just about any poem of significant length, especially if it’s meant to zip along, too. By now — post-transplant, as they say — I can meet the demands set by any poem pretty well, and I enjoy trying out different tempos and “vocal stylings,” as it were. But I should emphasize that reading for Brinks at the Gold Mine Saloon has come to be an extraordinary pleasure. As Andrei Codrescu said after the reading, it’s the only bar in the world where the ambient noise actually lifts instead of defeating you. The whole scene is so exhilarating. At the start of my reading I heard some ring tones coming from the far end of the bar. I stopped and said, “Somebody turn off their cell phone,” and a voice answered, “It’s not a cell phone, it’s the pinball machine and it doesn’t turn off.” Poetry plus pinball. So that continued — no problem — and it turned out inspiring.
Devaney: So that one actually worked in the crowded murmur of the bar?
Berkson: Yes, you know, something in that poem and some few others comes clear for me that has persisted in the poems from the get-go. I think of it as my “Waste Land” mode.
Devaney: Eliot and you, that’s interesting, please say more.
Berkson: Encountering Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in high school yielded my first sense of serious poetry, and of modern poetry altogether. It was really the beginning for me. Before “The Waste Land,” although I had begun to write poetry, it was just a general field where I was casting about haphazardly. I had absolutely no taste. I would look at and try to copy poems in The Saturday Evening Post or The Saturday Review of Literature or virtually anywhere. You know, whatever anthologies we were handed in school, with their smatterings of Shakespeare and Milton, Vachel Lindsay and John Masefield. “The Waste Land” was the first modern poem for me that was recognizably that, but also I sensed that this was a poem of some power.
Devaney: So you’re still talking about being in high school, right?
Berkson: Yes, at this point I was fifteen or sixteen. I thought I knew what Eliot’s poem was about, or anyhow I was determined to find out. So I read up on it, all the secondary literature, which wasn’t much then, but then I also took this other initiative, which was to educate myself through Eliot. I followed the notes to “The Waste Land.” So that gave me John Donne and Dante, Jessie Weston, The Golden Bough, John Webster, Ovid, and so on. Then a teacher at Lawrenceville kindly handed me his annotated copy of Pound’s Personae and I got the Eliot-Pound connection. That was the beginning of a real poetry education, you know, where before it had been mostly osmosis — unconscious absorption. I paid so much attention to — not the method — but how “The Waste Land” happens as you read it. And about reading it: you have to wrench the poem audibly away from Eliot’s way of reading it, the one that’s on record anyway. It’s like Ron Padgett said about Wallace Stevens — at some point, you have to hear the poems read, not in the author’s rather stuffy intonations, but in the voice of some Ozark balladeer.
Spoleto, 1965: Bill Berkson, John Ashbery, John Wieners, unknown, Desmond O’Grady, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Olga Rudge, unknown, and two unknown in background.
Devaney: All the same, “The Waste Land” is a landmark. There’s still something immediate in the voices and bits here and there that retain their mystery after all this time. And how the classical and the contemporary (at least at that moment) were put together in the way that they were.
Berkson: One of the critics called it a “cinematographic” way of composing. So that business of one line put next to the other, phrases from diverse sources — I now realize how that persists with me. Frank O’Hara once introduced me at a reading at NYU by saying that I was the only young American poet making an interesting use of T. S. Eliot. How he figured that out I’ll never know. There’s a funny connection, too, between that brief phase of Eliot and what is loosely called Cubist poetry, “Lundi rue Christine” by Apollinaire or certain poems of Reverdy, the really adventurous French poets Eliot seems to have had no interest in. But then on to “Europe”: from “The Waste Land” to John Ashbery’s “Europe” seemed like a simple step.
Berkson: No, but clear to me. “Europe” was, in those terms, immediately comprehensible. Both “The Waste Land” and “Europe” — and this is, I think, key — allowed for a sense of format. Which is to say, whether it was Coolidge or Padgett, Dick Gallup or Ted Berrigan, Joe Ceravolo — those of us inspired by what John Ashbery was doing in the poems of The Tennis Court Oath, particularly “Europe” — each poet responded in his own way. Format was the handy aspect there. Ashbery was taking apart his native language, which had, because he was living a French life in Paris, become distant to him; his relation to language being already aslant with irony as it is. The so-called ‘pulverized’ language of “Europe” and those other poems was different from ours in that ours would not or had not yet composed itself. For myself, a nonsyntactical grid of words and phrases — or one where the syntax is slippery — allowed for a way of locating what I had. For the poems, or some of them, early on, all I had was a feeling for how to lay them out, some of which came from print culture generally, some from how “Europe” looked on the page, and otherwise from visual art and music. In some of the poems in my first book Saturday Night I repeated the layout of one poem for the next.
Devaney: That sounds right, so what did you do with that?
Berkson: Right, or what did I have to do? A lot of words banging around in my head, and not a lot of experience, not a lot of ideas or philosophy — though I could sort of fake or try it out, like trying out a philosophical tone. But for “experience” as in an “I do this, I do that” type of experience …what did I know? Very little.
Devaney: You’re smiling. It is a question of knowing?
Berkson: Well, yes and no, but all I knew was that I was sort of in love with words, and putting them together — phrases, one phrase next to another. The introduction to that kind of love is part of what Kenneth Koch provided in his workshop.
Devaney: What an enduring gift to give to a class and to receive as a student.
Berkson: It had a deep impact on me. My taste had improved, but I didn’t have much in the way of character. Through studying that one year with Kenneth I got to know O’Hara and Ashbery and Kenneth’s own poetry, and with their poems, this wonderful sense of high surface. But I took it that surface could be made of an almost innate sense of design or format into or through which I could put what I had, what I was carrying. I had words and phrases, music and patter, but no syntax. Or else the syntax, the language so to speak, that was available — the official language of 1950s America, the language of grownups in my social class, upper-middle, more or less — was absurd to the point of oppressive. Growing up absurd. As Saint Augustine says, “I heard the language of men,” at some distance, as if from the back seat of a car. I had some instinctual and also some well-trained formalities, but Americans are no good at forms. We seem to be very handy with design or what I tend to call format. Looking back, I understood that Ashbery was — just as Burroughs was — working in a completely different way, and both of course wildly different from each other, from different angles.
Devaney: What were their different ways in your view?
Berkson: Well Ashbery was refamiliarizing himself with his American language because he was living away from and lonesome for it. Burroughs was trying to attack the logical order of words. “Breakthrough in the grey room.” The subtext was Korzybski, whom Ted Berrigan also admired. I was maybe, in a way, closer to Burroughs’s way of seeing it, because I felt very aggressive about trying to short circuit any kind of anticipated meaning, to defeat the reader’s habitual expectations at all costs. I thought I wanted to write poems that didn’t mean anything.
Devaney: This is either a very simple, or a very loaded question, but is that possible?
Berkson: I thought it was. I was schooled to read any poem or story for a defined meaning — everything was symbol and metaphor — after which, if you get it, you sort of discard the text, a system I found nauseating and reacted accordingly. Then again I came to this sort of joyful, but also scary realization that meaning is unavoidable — you have to watch your language, what it might be saying. I got more interested in poems with a presence of meaning, or in which meaning is a sort of felt presence. Sometimes you feel you could get it, grasp and define it, and sometimes not, but you feel an impingement, an atmosphere where shifting connotations appear almost graspable.
Devaney: I think that describes something of what happens in a number of your poems. “A presence of meaning.” I like that.
Berkson: Presentiment. The sense of shifting or multiple meanings thickens the plot. With that came this other realization, that the scatter all fits, whether one intervenes or not, to make it so. As Beckett says, the mess gets accommodated. A similar thing became obvious to me much later — very recently, in fact — in the works of visual artists. Like the way Americans — and some immigrant Americans too — took cubism. Stuart Davis for one, and Arshile Gorky for another, took cubism as design, a design style. It wasn’t composition like it was for Braque and Picasso, or even Gleizes and the other Parisian cubists. Shifting planes — “planometrics,” they called it in midcentury art classes, when cubism had become an easy teaching tool — for Gorky and Davis was a format into which you could plug in whatever meaningful matter you were carrying.
Devaney: [Smiling.] Well, you’re describing an entire world, or several. Gorky’s painting “How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life” seems to be relevant for your poems: the concert and the abstract. Can you break it down a little more?
Berkson: Well Gorky came to America with his Armenian memory baggage, some of it mightily traumatic. You can see in his pictures all the stuff that goes into Turkish or Armenian rugs, birds, flowers, his mother’s apron, Paradise, the gate to Paradise. He found a place for it in the configurations that cubism made possible. Better there than in some surrealist stage set. Same thing with Davis. For him it was New York or Gloucester, as well as the look of an environment freshly plastered with signage. It’s a way of putting your specificity into a larger, mediating context. That’s what Americans tend to do about form; and what they do about subject matter — maybe because the sense of particulars is so strong in us — if they have enough respect for the art they’re dealing with, what O’Hara called poetry-respecting objectivity — which is also to say a bigger applicability. If Ashbery were writing a sestina about growing up in upstate New York — you know, with those cherry trees and the canning factory down the path — OK, the sestina is the setting for it, the front-page layout.
Another aspect of this is visible in the Guston drawing there across the [dining] room. Guston said, “I want to make or do something that will baffle me for some time.” I’ve been baffled by this drawing for almost fifty years, gladly, you know.
Devaney: That’s wonderful, because the drawing keeps revealing itself?
Berkson: Yes, I keep seeing new things in it. Someone was here and said that they saw a woman reading a book. That I’ve never seen. Connie’s five-year-old granddaughter sees it as just a bunch of squiggles. I’ve seen all kinds of things in it: syringe, leaf, schlong, hand, balloon, balloon head, tendrils. But what I love about it is the in-between-ness of — similar to what goes on in Jackson Pollock’s late black and white works — going towards an identifiable image and at just the last millimeter, flick of the wrist; veering away so that an “almost” recognition is left. A suggestion, suggestibility, furthering multiple suggestions. So that it’s not so literal. In writing, it’s not so much saying something, spelling it out or expressing some unfathomable “inside,” as an atmosphere that allows words to be taken as they’re given, one put next to another, line knocking against line — as someone said recently about the poem inspired by Richard Tuttle, like boats moored next to one another — open to meanings that accrue.
Devaney: And that’s a kind of description of some of your work, too.
Berkson: Yeah, some of it. A French translator whom you know, Béatrice Trotignon, asked which connotations I intended for certain words in a poem she was working on — or did I mean it to be polysemic? I wrote her that there should be as much polysemy as the poem could hold. But, at the same time, obviously some of my poems perform like those Gustons that, as he said, tell stories. If you have a story to tell, you tell the story or you find that it is a story by way of the telling. But even there there’s a little something, a texture perhaps, that calls the literalness of the account into question.
Devaney: I’ve never thought about Guston’s work in terms of telling a story. And you used the word baffling a minute ago, so it’s another way that he continues to baffle us in his raw and gorgeous work as story. Anyway, you can plug in what you’re carrying — each in his or her own way. But when I think about Eliot and Four Quartets after “The Waste Land,” and then Ashbery — they also have powerful forms. Whether it all works or not, there’s such a presiding tone in Four Quartets — and then Ashbery’s tone, or tones.
Berkson: Interesting, because after “The Skaters” came out — which is to say, after he put the language back together — we had lunch in New York at Larrés and I said that the poem reminded me of The Four Quartets, and he said he’d always meant to read them, and probably would. I think what happened was he had so steeped himself in secondhand Eliot — he may not have read Eliot much at all, though God knows Eliot was almost unavoidable in the ’40s — but he had read the post-Eliot poets: Devlin, Delmore Schwartz, F. T. Prince, John Wheelwright. Even the hoax poet Ern Malley of Angry Penguins fame was a post-Eliot poet, in some ways the most exemplary.
Devaney: Avoiding Eliot would have impossible altogether. Auden seemed to engage Eliot by fruitfully swerving from him.
Berkson: John, Frank and Kenneth loved the early poems of Auden, who was Eliot’s direct successor. So I think it came through that way. Then later on he wrote an essay — John Ashbery did — on Kitaj, and he connected Kitaj with Eliot. So obviously by then he had been reading Eliot. This was in the ’70s or ’80s.
Devaney: For me Auden does something different from his modernist predecessors; I feel your poems are similar to Auden’s in that you both used mixed styles and are not grand actors in historical dramas, but are both present in actual histories in other ways. Still I understand there are some threads in Eliot that are not obvious and remain generative for you. But early on, it was more the forms that got you rather than the tones?
Berkson: No, early on it was that curious thing, you know — when you’re a teenager, depressing literature is very appealing. Angst, despair, melancholy — they all answer the confusion you feel, which feels heavy but may not be the same as despair. All those books that I read — Dostoyevsky, all the existentialist material and so forth, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, which is sort of a guide to the depressed side of existentialism, which I now know wasn’t all that existentialism was about — but that was the cover story, the popular view. Like Funny Face — sallow-faced girls in berets and leotards, sullen boys and everybody sort of down. And so depressed literature just answered my confusion and sense of the absurd, which I then followed, responded to by getting into a serious funk as a kid. Kenneth to a certain extent saved me from indulging that funk too much.
Devaney: You once mentioned a teacher you had, who you said said: “You may not know it, but you are all existentialists!”
Berkson: Oh yeah — Gerald Weales, who taught a wonderful seminar in my freshman year at Brown and who now lives in Philadelphia. You met him when he came to the Kelly Writers House the day Trevor Winkfield and I were there. And it’s very interesting because I thought, if you walked into the classroom today, could you look around the table and say, “You may not know it, but you are all Pragmatists” — or Neo-Pragmatists. Actually, Neo-Pragmatism grew out of — certainly in the shape of Richard Rorty — rereading Sartre, along with Pierce, Dewey and William James, in a different way. So it continues in a certain way. But it’s not so French. The French went elsewhere, less productively, I think.
Devaney: These are large ideas and forces you’re talking about.
Berkson: Yes, but at the poetry level I think it is this willingness to see — it is like, where are you going to project juvenile confusion and rage? I found my analogies in existentialist and protoexistentialist literature, because that’s the way things were supposed to be in the ’50s anyway. There was a kind of glamour attached to that mess.
Devaney: So how have your feelings held up or not about some of these ideas?
Berkson: About ten years ago I wondered what it would be like to read those books now. It certainly is a shock to understand Sartre or Dostoievski, say, from the point of having lived fifty or sixty years. At sixteen or seventeen, I hadn’t a clue, other than that subterranean connection. It was just the general aura of the thing. Edwin Denby said about Goethe’s Elective Affinities that it’s a book you shouldn’t read until you’re sixty years old. Funny because Elective Affinities is about two relatively young couples and their falling in love in more or less tic-tac-toe fashion. There are, however, books you probably shouldn’t read, won’t really understand, until you’re at least forty. I wasn’t alone in reading somewhat precociously — I belonged to this group of schoolboys who were just avid readers.
Devaney: For the record, or tape — or this digital sound device we’re talking into now — I want to question if the word “avid” is the best one to describe your reading habits? You were probably a few notches above avid, no?
Berkson: Well the idea was to read the whole of the Modern Library series. But we were really after the really depressing or dangerous ones — the taboo authors like André Gide with his act gratuit, and any obscenity, smatterings of homosexuality were in. Whether it was Radclyffe Hall or, you know — any sex. Henry Miller was banned in the USA then, so was Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Anaïs Nin. Absurd. Sex books were high on the list for obvious reasons.
Devaney: A great confluence no doubt. It’s a certain continental modernism you’re talking about too, and somewhere in all of that (and so so much) there’s some through-line to Ashbery’s “Europe” as well?
Berkson: “Europe” appeared, fortuitously, in the same issue of Big Table as a poem of mine that constituted my first magazine appearance outside of school journals. What number? Four. Paul Carroll decided to call a section of that issue “The New American Poets.”
Devaney: What year was that? Sometime in the late ’50s?
Berkson: 1959. Kenneth Koch encouraged me to send some poems to Don Allen for his anthology. And also to Paul Carroll, who was continuing Big Table with contents forbidden when it was Chicago Review. I sent just one poem off to Paul Carroll, a poem called “Poem,” which Larry Fagin reprinted last year in his anonymous issue of Sal Mimeo. It’s also in my Portrait and Dream. It begins, “You showed me the greatest poem of the century, / and then I wrote the greatest poem of the century.” A little Ashbery-esque, probably influenced by the long-uncollected poem that he published in the Evergreen Review called “The Poems” that Ted Berrigan kept referring to in The Sonnets. It was a poem in numbered sections.
Devaney: Interesting, until recently I thought Berrigan was referring to his own poem there. But to keep things straight, you were talking about your own poem called “Poem” right?
Berkson: Yes, well, Paul Carroll replied with a postcard saying, “I think you are a poet.” Wow, you know, “poet”? Ordained, so to speak. So the thing comes out, and there were maybe three or four quite young people, Diane DiPrima, me, I forget who else. But anyway “Europe” appeared. That was the first time anyone in New York other than maybe Kenneth and Frank had seen it. Other poems that were in The Tennis Court Oath may have appeared — I think some were in Floating Bear. So then next came The Tennis Court Oath.
Devaney: It’s a significant moment. And when was your first book published, in ’61?
Berkson: That’s right. And those Ashbery poems were already coming out, like “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher.” The Tennis Court Oath didn’t come out until 1962.
Devaney: There’s a lot going on with many different people all over the place too.
Berkson: Well, in October ’61, four months after Saturday Night appeared, I was in Paris and went with O’Hara to Joan Mitchell’s loft. She had the galley proofs of The Tennis Court Oath, which I immediately grabbed and went over in a corner and just started poring over. And I remember Joan saying, about “Europe,” “God, how I worked on that poem!” and Frank then saying, “John is the foremost poet of our age.” For people who at least were on to those magazines, the excitement was gathering well before the book came out.
Devaney: Even today The Tennis Court Oath still serves as a litmus test sensibility-wise.
Berkson: For me the book is important. I had a strange opportunity to say as much to Seamus Heaney, whom I met when Clark Coolidge and I went to Harvard to talk about Philip Guston. They sat me next to Heaney in the Faculty Club. It turned out that Heaney’s wife had met my mother in Dublin and they liked each other. I knew that Heaney knew Ashbery, so John’s name came up. At one point, knowing I was crossing some line, I said, The Tennis Court Oath was the most important of John’s books for my generation of poets. Well, Heaney’s the same generation! We were born the same year, he’s about five months older. But there I was, seeing him as a grown-up, as I tend to with unknown quantities. In such company I forget that I am an old man too! Well anyway, his face just fell. And I thought, uh-oh, an Ashbery too far. But I had made my point. There’s this camp of people — Harold Bloom is the least of them — who think John is great for whatever reason they have devised, but that The Tennis Court Oath was a brief aberration. I mean Ashbery really is, as Frank said, the foremost, along with a few other foremosts, and that’s not to say John’s other work isn’t great — I also love his recent poetry — but The Tennis Court Oath remains superb and the most suggestive of possibilities. I keep looking back into it, and it still holds up, just as dazzling.
Devaney: What I’m interested in is the fact that even Ashbery’s public remarks on his own book help to keep the conversation from simply being another predigested Raw and Cooked debate.
Berkson: Well, the talk about the book is one thing and what it means to me is another. In fact I’ve had two inclinations lately. You mentioned The Four Quartets. I have about three paperback editions — one very pretty one, the Harper Torchbook edition. Nick Dorsky, the filmmaker, who’s always reading those poems, inspired me to think it would be interesting to go back into the Quartets and write a sort of parallel text. Now I think the same about The Tennis Court Oath — that I’d like to go back into it and work off it in some way. I don’t know how. But it’s tantamount to the impulse to write some of Saturday Night again, but fifty years later.
Devaney: Maybe that’s what you are doing?
Berkson: It’s possible. Because, as I intimate in that Skowhegan lecture, you get to a point where you recognize that you’re doing certain things, themes or motifs that you went after when you were you were starting out but couldn’t quite address. The matter needed more handiness or clarity, a level of technique that the young artist or poet can’t muster. I’ve seen this more plainly in visual artists. A painter will come back, consciously or not — older and wiser, like they say, or just plain handier — to a certain image. You don’t necessarily declare this for yourself. The worker ant inside you takes care of that, recognizes that possibility.
Devaney: There’s also this idea, about the Four Quartets and The Tennis Court Oath, kind of doing another text: the tradition of art responding to art, and the criticism actually becoming the next work.
Berkson: Well that’s Pound’s assertion, that the best criticism of a poem was the next poem, and that just keeps coming up for me, that sense of ongoing conversation.
Devaney: There’s a word you used another time we were talking, it was “contemporaneous.”
Bill Berkson and George Schneeman, "Stars Fell …," egg tempera on paper, 2008.
Berkson: It’s funny. I was just reading in Art in America, the obit for Mike Goldberg, who died at eighty-three. John’s eighty now. So the obit says, “one of the last original abstract expressionists,” which puts him in the same class as de Kooning and Pollock.
Devaney: But Goldberg was second generation?
Berkson: Yeah, he was second generation. Um, yeah. You get past a certain age, and some are older than others — eighty isn’t sixty — but you never feel your age, really. Except when the creaks in the system occur.
Devaney: Good lord we can’t escape the body. But back to the artifactual idea of the contemporaneous.
Berkson: Amiri Baraka was here in San Francisco to give a reading recently, and I went backstage to see him. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. We hadn’t talked, probably, in 40 years. So I go back and introduce myself to him. Why? Because I’ve probably changed over time and he might not know me. And he says, “My god, when I knew you when you were just a kid!” OK, but he’s just five years older than I am.
Devaney: Ah, is that right?
Berkson: Yes, he’s born 1934, I’m born in 1939. Think of it, the generation of 1934 is him, Joanne Kyger, Diane Di Prima, John Wieners, Ted Berrigan, quite an array. But he was LeRoi Jones when I met him — you know, editor of Yugen, poet of Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. That already had happened, and he was in the New American Poetry, on and on. So I said to him, “Yes, isn’t it great? Now we’re the same age!” You know, five years doesn’t matter anymore. I’m three years older than Ron Padgett, you’ll be sixty someday with me around or not, and so it goes, on down the line.
Devaney: What you’re saying is completely right, but at certain points five years is a huge difference, and then voilá, you and Baraka are the same age! Still it was still a vote of confidence for Koch to urge you to send poems to Don Allen. After all you were young at that time.
Berkson: I was. I don’t know if there was anybody that young … David Meltzer, Kirby Doyle. Much later I ran into Don Allen at the Living Theater and made so bold as to walk up to him and say, “Did you get those poems I sent you?” Because I never heard “boo” from him. He didn’t send me a — Don wasn’t the most gracious of men. “Aspish as ever” is what Jimmy Schuyler said when he saw him here in the late ’80s. So when I asked Don he said outright, “Yes, but I thought they were too much like John Ashbery.” He was probably right. I certainly had no comeback to that. At that time, too much Ashbery was good enough for me.
Devaney: You hadn’t published Saturday Night at that point, right?
Berkson: That’s right, Saturday Night wasn’t even part of the package. You know, Don must have sewn up his anthology by ’59 to get it out by ’60. I think. I don’t know. I never felt like, “I should have been in there.” Joanne Kyger should have been in there. I don’t know who else. It’s an extraordinary book, and Don Allen took a lot of good advice to make it as solid as it is. Jordan Davies has apparently embarked on research into the making of The New American Poetry anthology, which should be interesting.
Devaney: You grew up in New York City. Did your parents take you to museums and things like that?
Berkson: No, but probably my governess took me to the Metropolitan Museum. I didn’t know or learn anything about art until I got to Brown. I had no introduction, except the pictures in our house that I later realized were pretty good, some of them. What art meant to me was the medieval armor section in the Met, mannequin knights on horseback with armor on. Everything came from movies — pirate movies, and knights-on-horseback-with-shining-armor movies, Western singing cowboy gunslinger movies. Romance movies. The English thrillers my parents liked, with Ann Todd. That was what was available and what I responded to. I looked at the armor and fantasized.
Devaney: It sounds wonderful.
Berkson: It was, and then I got into, like little kids do, the Egyptian area — mummies, tombs, and hieroglyphs. The mystery of the tomb with the mummy seen through a peephole. The same thing happened with my son when he was very, very young when the King Tut show came here, to the De Young. He really got on to Egypt. He’s in Egypt now, seeing it for the first time.
Devaney: How old is your son?
Devaney: What’s his name?
Berkson: Moses. Moses goes to Egypt. He’s got to find his boat in those reeds, discover his real birthplace.
Devaney: That’s great, a father’s instant poem for his son: Moses in Egypt. It’s interesting when you’re saying you had no introduction, and earlier you used the phrase “educating myself” — those terms come up a lot. Because I think there could be an essay written, or maybe even the title of this interview, could be “The Education of Bill Berkson.” Henry Adams’s book imaginatively reveals a boggling nexus of “interrelatedness” that I sense in your own relation to poetry, people, art, and the world. I like how broad your tastes are: from medieval art to pop art, so many strains.
Berkson: “Plato or comic books — I’m versatile” is the motto the Lawrenceville yearbook editors plopped under my picture the year I graduated. I think that, first of all, there’s the bedrock culture of — well, first of all growing up in a fairly articulate household. Both my parents were journalists. If they weren’t so smart, there were certainly talkative, joke-telling, verbally expressive people coming to our house all the time. So words are there. I’m at home with words at least to that extent. Then there’s what Larry Fagin calls my “Fifth Avenue language,” which amazes me as much as it does him. Words, turns of phrases that come from my initial surroundings, and I know it was just by osmosis that I absorbed them. This was just the language that was spoken around the house, and at the schools I went to. I don’t know if it’s WASPish, or just sort of upper-middle class New York slang. That was the language, part of the language, as well as the slang of my school years, that I had to put into those early poems. Yes, it was just that — as if I had to get those words out of me and onto the page. Sometimes in the way of an exorcism, sometimes in the way of its being just what’s here.
Devaney: That’s strikingly similar to what A. J. Liebling describes in Back Where I Came From, which is a kind of humorous title since he’s from New York City, a place where people from other places come to, rather than are from.
Berkson: I was still trying to find my place in the world, through many, many, many years, probably well into my twenties. In the process I had the advantage, so to speak, of going to these schools where one was at least exposed to a quasi-classical education. And what did I do in school? I was trying to be everything that was more or less required — good at sports, get the girls, and be some kind of character, whatever character seemed attractive to inhabit at the time. I was making the movie, improvising really, with no director on the set. Meanwhile there were classes, and I would do whatever kind of homework I was supposed to, sometimes. They made me memorize Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness,” and Shakespeare sonnets, and we studied a different Shakespeare play every fall and spring. And that stuff kind of stuck, thank God. It was a chore at the time. I think I enjoyed it, but still it was on assignment, not by choice.
Devaney: I’ve started to have my students memorize poems. Of course they groan at first, but then I’ve found that they’re glad, and even grateful, to have done it. So there’s school, and there is after school!
Berkson: Yes, that’s very important, the other function of the extracurricular curriculum, what you begin to find for yourself. Like finding music. Finding rhythm and blues haphazardly on the radio — and the secret sharings: one friend is into jazz, so we begin to listen together to jazz, no one else knows these sounds — that kind of thing. Well, the books get passed around, but the more mysterious thing is going alone to a bookstore — by the time I was at Lawrenceville, junior year, there was one very good bookstore in Princeton — and just sort of glomming onto things. Why? Why Williams — William Carlos Williams — at a certain point? Why D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen or The Book of Tea or R. H. Blythe? These things are in the air — I’m picking up on them, interestingly, by myself. I had no idea that Ron Padgett was in Tulsa or Larry Fagin in Germany getting the same books, you know? Nobody at Lawrenceville that I know of was reading them then, and I didn’t mention that I was. These schools that I went to — oh, Lawrenceville’s motto is “The Pursuit of Excellence.” Trinity was maybe more geared to inspiring writers, and a breadth of people with more diverse ways of life. But really, they were schools meant to train CEOs and government officials. And spies — like the plutocrats who invented CIA.
Devaney: Are spies born or bred?
Berkson: Yeah, exactly. I remember Ted Berrigan saying, “Where I come from, I have no business being a poet. I’m just a guy from near the Cranston Line,” meaning working-class Providence, Rhode Island. Well where do poets come from, you know?
Devaney: It’s question that could be posed in Plato’s Symposium.
Berkson: Maybe they’re supposed to come from the art classes or something — you know, the professional classes, or artisans. You know, doctors’ sons, and professors’ sons, or poets’ sons, ceramicists.
Devaney: The examples and counterexamples are endless.
Berkson: Yeah. It seems to me that they don’t come from those places, unless they toe the line in some way. For example, the acceptable Lawrenceville poet par excellence is James Merrill. He’s their prize alumnus poet. And I think he’s a very good writer, you know. But they will never claim me, really. I got pissed off about this recently and wrote to an old classmate, “I’m not giving them any more money or showing up for this alumni thing, our fiftieth reunion, class of ’57 indeed!” This old school friend’s a very bright guy, a classicist who reads — he’s a fan of Jeremy Prynne, and so forth. He writes back, “You don’t understand. You chose to write the way you do.” The implication being, why expect that a place like Lawrenceville would welcome such excess? It’s saying the same thing, but he’s sort of ranking me out like Gertrude Stein, like that I’ve chosen this obdurate path and I shouldn’t expect the world to come around to it — or not that world, anyway, not in this lifetime.
Devaney: When it comes to demanding poetry you can hit a wall very quickly.
Berkson: But meanwhile, I have all the advantage of this terrific — very nice teachers, very nice — in a way, a sort of contemplative atmosphere in these schools that allows a lot of high-minded stuff to come my way. By the time I got to Brown, I realized that a combination of Trinity and Lawrenceville was like college already. Brown’s advantage was John Hawkes was there, and S. Foster Damon — people who were serious about writing, who actually did it. Richard Foreman was an undergraduate there at the time and a very interesting guy named Ken Snyder who was kind of the campus, student poet. To whom I’d show my neo-beatnik poems, complaints mostly about America. One day looking at my poems, he said, “Don’t blame everything on America.” That saved me probably six months. Maybe a lot more.
Devaney: Rant poems. Well everyone’s allowed, or should have, one or two rant poems.
Berkson: Yeah, rant poems. And so it was really good to be in these places, but the thing that was happening, the remarkable thing — and now you realize, being a teacher, that yeah yeah yeah, you can give students whatever you have in the classroom and you can be really hip, too, hipper than most of the students, in your own terms — but those students really need to go to the secret bookstores, and the secret concerts, and find what’s going to be theirs, their own discoveries. Apparently that is what we all did, without knowing that “we all” were doing it.
Devaney: Another chapter in your education is working at ARTnews.
Berkson: Yes, at ARTnews listening to Tom Hess over the partition. After I dropped out of Columbia, somehow or other Alfred Frankfurter thought that I was this bright young thing and invited me to come work at ARTnews. I was his designated protégé.
Devaney: Well, you were in, you were there.
Berkson: So yes, there I was working at ARTnews in this cubicle. And over here was Tom Hess, on the other side of the partition, at his long desk, near the entrance to the offices, and people like Harold Rosenberg, Elaine de Kooning — all kinds of artists and critics — would come and sit and talk to Tom, and I would overhear their conversation. Plus, I got to know people on the staff like Irving Sandler, Mark Roskill, Betsy Baker, T-Grace Sharpless, Edith Schloss, who was married to Rudy Burckhardt, and Jack Kroll — all of them reviewers for ARTNews. I now think of that as graduate school. The end of my undergraduate education was night school at the Cedar Bar.
Devaney: There is certain kind of intelligence that happens during a great conversation. It’s like poetry.
Berkson: Well, it’s great to hear that, it’s a term that comes up for me too … I just got a transcription of a journal that John Wieners kept. The original physical book itself was a rather ornate Italian notebook that I gave him that Wieners’s friend Charlie Shively found among Wieners’s effects. The contents will be published soon by Bootstrap Press. Jim Dunn in Cambridge sent me the typescript. There’s a poem about me in it. I gave John the book on the occasion of taking him out for a day from West Islip mental hospital on Long Island. We spent the day together and at some point, though I don’t really remember it, I apparently handed him this book. Toward the beginning he wrote a poem characterizing me, and the poem is titled, “Intellect.”
Devaney: Does it say it’s written for you, or do you just know?
Berkson: No, no, it’s about me. I don’t think it names me, but it’s about that day, and he describes me in a way that’s recognizable.
Devaney: What a compliment.
Berkson: I think so. And then of course it’s John, whose writing I admire, who I admire to no end, writing with me in mind. “Intellect.” Intelligence is — you know, almost automatically, given the correct background and schooling, you’re supposed to be smart. An odd sort of genetics, really. “You’ve gone to the finest school, Miss Lucy, but you know you only used to get juiced in it?” A lot of people walk around and get by as intellects with that kind of veneer. Most of the so-called pundits you find in print media — William Buckley is a good example, as are most high-born conservatives — inherited an intellectual style that, if you take a pin to it, just goes poof — a very deflatable intellect. It took me a long time to wake up to my ... you could almost say, blessed stupidity.
Devaney: Then there are those rare and graceful souls who seamlessly seem to blend their intelligence and comfort all together.
Berkson: It has to be real. Joe Brainard was really inspiring in this way.
Devaney: Yes, Joe Brainard.
Berkson: How smart Joe was hadn’t quite dawned on me. I mean I knew he was smart, but I also thought he was being smart about that, letting his simplemindedness show — although actually it is difficult to clear away enough clutter to be that simple. A lot of Shining Leaves was written with that aspect of Joe in mind. Then finally one hears the Buddhist message of intellect as the sword or thunderbolt that cuts through ignorance. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about accumulated information.
Devaney: Well, we’re in the information age, so that’s worth saying.
Berkson: Right, worth saying. It’s intellect that leads you — or me, anyway, I’ve found — like a kind of gumshoe, a detective, to follow one lead to the next, connecting the dots as you go. It’s so interesting how things add up and connect, and also that there are topics in the air that many people, poets, are on top of all at once, so that one day you meet and you’ve been dealing with the same set. Discovering the detective in myself — the good student, too, at last! — was very helpful in art writing. Now it has become a habit. At least I’ve got the dots, but I don’t know if I’ve quite connected them.
Devaney: There’s a pragmatic modesty in what you’re saying.
Berkson: Some things people say to you sort of stick. When I was at Lawrenceville, one of the teachers accosted me in the library and said, “Why are you so erratic?” And I am. I just am. And so, you know, it’s like I have certain very good pitches, but I can’t count on always getting them over the plate. I don’t have a terrifically controlled mind, but I have some control. I’ve never gone crazy, off the rails. I liken my good fortune to those mysterious instances of being at the wheel of a car and it’s time to swerve out of whatever danger has presented itself — I could really total the car, and me, but a flick of the wrist makes the difference. No time to think. Where did that come from? The reflex that straightens it out, that keeps me out of trouble.
Devaney: It’s not simply an analogy.
Berkson: No, or I don’t go into the ditch. I can watch my better-controlled friends watching me go scatterbrained, scattertalk, as some of this surely is. And I think, well, OK, no control freak for you.
Devaney: Your book with Bernadette Mayer What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? [Tuumba, 2006] has this kind of wide-open energy and certainly allows room to let loose. You go with it.
Berkson: I think she does, too. She had a very tidy Catholic education, which really does introduce you to logic, syllogism, linear thinking big-time. She was a much better student, which means she was more willing to be indoctrinated and then rebel against the conventions of the Sisters. And that’s a very strong thing to rebel against. I think she’s more controlled than I am and has to will herself to be as loose as she is. After all, her writing is as limber as it gets, and very surefooted, too. Whereas …
Devaney: I love these distinctions you're making, and the connections.
Berkson: Well. One friend once pointed to what he called my Roman coin personality and messy mind. Where does the personality leave off and the mind begin? Is there surface and not surface? I think that, yes, both are operating at the same time, all the time.
Close Listening with Marjorie Perloff
Editorial note: Marjorie Perloff is the author of Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, The Vienna Paradox: A Cultural Memoir, and Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy, among numerous other books, essays, and reviews. She is professor emerita of English at Stanford University and Florence Scott Professor of English Emerita at the University of Southern California. The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded on November 11, 2009, at Clocktower Studio in New York. The audio program is available on Perloff’s PennSound page, along with many other readings, talks, and interviews. Charles Bernstein hosted and produced the show; the interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone. — Gordon Faylor
Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening, Art International Radio’s program of readings and conversations with scholars, critics, poets, and artists, presented in collaboration with PennSound. My guest today for the third of three shows is Marjorie Perloff. Marjorie Perloff is one of America’s foremost scholars of modern, modernist, and contemporary poetry and poetics. Her books include Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats (1970), Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (1977), The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (1985), The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre and the Language of Rupture (1986), Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (1996), and new, just out from the University of Chicago Press, a book of essays that she coedited with Craig Dworkin, The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound (2009). She lives in Los Angeles, California. My name is Charles Bernstein. Marjorie, welcome back one more time to Close Listening.
Marjorie Perloff: Thank you, Charles.
Bernstein: Literary or poetry history of the past one hundred years is often thought to be divided into sides or warring camps. Over the course of your books, you have written about poets and poetry that would seem to be deeply at odds: Yeats versus the Futurists, or Robert Lowell versus Frank O’Hara. In one of your most influential essays you ask the questions yourself: “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” I’d even throw in Stein/Pound, along with Stevens/Pound, in terms of the way in which we tend to pit one approach or one constellation of poetry against another. What do you think?
Perloff: Well, surprisingly, I just gave in Hartford, Connecticut, the annual Wallace Stevens Birthday Address, sponsored by a group called Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens, but of course none of the members are really enemies. I think the name was designed to bring in as many Hartford citizens as possible. At any rate in my lecture I’m not totally favorable to Stevens. I argue that his aphorisms, brilliant as they are, are also a limitation and that the best Stevens embeds aphorisms in a larger structure. And I suppose, much as I admire Stevens, I still hold to the view of “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” that Pound is the more interesting of the two. My reservation has always had to do with the fact that there are no people in Wallace Stevens. As he says, “life for me is a matter of places, not of people, and that is the difficulty.” And I think it is a difficulty. Pound, in contrast, is always alive to human interaction, which makes for a very exciting poetry, however nefarious many of Pound’s ideas. So, I haven’t really changed my mind much.
Bernstein: How about, let me shift it to Stein/Pound, who are so different, and yet you’ve obviously written a lot about and are a champion of both …
Perloff: Well, of course they are very different, but in the end, they share an emphasis on language — on le mot juste — that makes them complementary. They are more like one another than, say, either is like Marianne Moore. There is a self-consciousness in Moore I find in neither Pound nor Stein, and in her lesser work, a certain cuteness and straining for effect. I know it’s heresy today to say that and one is supposed to like every poet equally, but —
Bernstein: Was there some time in your life where you did feel like you had to like everybody? I can’t imagine that.
Perloff: Well, yes. Yes, certainly I did when I was a student. You had to write about whatever you were assigned to write about.
Bernstein: Sure, but like everybody?
Perloff: Not like everybody so much, but one had to acknowledge them. In my own case, though the question of Pound versus Stevens or Pound versus Stein is not nearly as interesting as that of all of the above in comparison to Baudelaire, who is for me the great modernist poet, with Rimbaud a very close second and of course Mallarmé as well.
Bernstein: Are you saying the Americans are not so good as the Europeans, Marjorie?
Perloff: Not as a generalization at all; in the second half of the twentieth century, the Americans predominate. But Baudelaire has a range and depth you don’t find in his British or American successors. Still, I don’t want to get caught up in rankings. Once I accepted the assignment to write on Wallace Stevens, I was happy to do so. I did my best to read the new Stevens scholarship. I am a scholar and my habit is to go back and read what everybody else says, and then come to my own conclusions. What do you think?
Bernstein: Unlike in our typical conversations, I’m not going to give my point of view on this, because I want to hear what you —
Perloff: Oh, I wish you would.
Bernstein: After we go off the air, but for now I want to ask you about Stein. Stein remains a vexed figure, even now in the twenty-first century. I have an understanding of why that is, to some degree. Still, it’s still a little bit surprising that she could be controversial now.
Perloff: I think she’s at least as controversial as she was fifty years ago and will become more so. Stein is such a special case; she is so uncompromising and she will never be widely popular. I have to be honest and say there are moods where I myself don’t feel like reading Gertrude Stein. Her prose makes enormous demands on the reader and so, although I love to write about Gertrude Stein, I don’t always like to read her. When Benjamin Friedlander recently said on his blog that Stein is excessively abstract, I saw what he meant.
On the other hand, I’ve always adored teaching Gertrude Stein because the students come up with such wonderful readings. Teaching Tender Buttons or “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” or, for that matter, the plays, is a wonderful experience. I did a whole seminar on Gertrude Stein for sophomores at Stanford, and the more we read Stein, the more intriguing she became, the more interesting. But the rigor of the long prose works of the 1920s like A Long Gay Book can be off-putting. One isn’t always in the mood for that particular kind of rigor. And so, I do think that, as the late great Guy Davenport said in a review of Ulla Dydo’s Stein Reader, she will always be considered marginal. Did you read Elaine Showalter’s recent dismissal of Stein?
Perloff: It was in the Chronicle for Higher Education. Elaine Showalter has written a new literary history of American women writers. And she covers the most minor of writers. But when she is asked whether there is any writer covered that she doesn’t herself like, she responds, “Yes, Gertrude Stein.” Stein, Showalter suggests, is the most overrated of writers. She is boring!
Bernstein: That’s what I mean by her continued controversy, because around visual artists and other radical artists of that time, a hundred years ago, you just sort of accept, they’re accepted just as being what they are. They don’t remain controversial. You might not like them. You might not go back to them. But they don’t quite have the volatility that Stein has.
Perloff: You mean that she would make people that mad.
Perloff: As she made Elaine Showalter.
Bernstein: A hundred years after she did some of her most important work.
Perloff: Well, I’m not sure critical views progress that way. Ironically, Stein was appreciated early on by writers like Edmund Wilson, and she did have many other early admirers. But don’t forget that most critics, early and late, focus on thematic issues in literature. They are concerned with meaning, plot, character. In this respect, Stein can be very frustrating. She is a poet’s poet. There was a pro-Stein blip on the radar screen in the ’80s, thanks to the Language poets, but then criticism soon turned to Stein’s role as lesbian, expatriate, feminist, Jew, and so on, rather than concentrating on her actual writing. Once this “outsider” interest wanes, she will be neglected again. And then there’s also her politics, which is quite problematic. What I am trying to say is that the larger public, even for, say, Kafka or Joyce, is not going to appreciate the radical innovations of Stein.
Bernstein: So, a hundred years ago, give or take a few years, there began to emerge the range of works that you write about in The Futurist Moment, including Marinetti’s publication The Futurist Manifesto in 1909. Can you talk a bit about the relevance of the Futurist moment? First of all, what do you see as its significance? And do you think Stein could be seen as more a part of that, a context that would therefore make her seem a little bit less extreme?
Bernstein: As opposed to the context of Robert Frost.
Perloff: I say in the lecture, which I am giving at Yale this week, which is called “The Two Futurisms,” that it is still the Futurist moment, not the Futurist movement, that interests me most. Concern for the Italian Futurist movement leads to studies that follow the artists and poets right into the 1930s and beyond, whereas for me the great innovations were all over by the end of World War I. The only one who survived the war was Marinetti himself. The others either died — the two great artists, Boccioni and Sant’Elia, were killed in the war in 1916 before Fascism came into being, and these artists were socialists really or anarchists — or they left the movement because they really disliked its coming association with fascism. And the notable survivor was Marinetti, who did become a fascist. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. And he also became much less interesting. Remember that Marinetti was never an especially notable poet or fiction writer. He was a great polemicist, a great manifesto writer, but his poetry and his fiction were not that good.
Bernstein: Although the visual work —
Perloff: The visual work is wonderful. The parole in libertà certainly. But the great futurism, for me, is the Russian “cubo-futurist” variant , which we are just beginning to study now. And, to me, the Russian avant-garde is the great one, more important than Dada, certainly, and more important than surrealism. But Russian Futurism was also short-lived.
Bernstein: Well, it was wiped out.
Perloff: It was wiped out and what’s so poignant is that they were all revolutionaries. They really were revolutionaries, and I mean they believed in the political revolution, too. They were all for it, even after it occurred, but they were soon to be destroyed. It was a great moment in literary history, and, in an odd way, it includes Gertrude Stein, to come back to her. Stein was already creating incredible work by 1910, 1912, 1914 — for example, the portraits like “Marry Nettie,” which I’ve written about in relation to Marinetti. So, although Stein disliked the Futurists and thought Marinetti was a windbag, she belongs with Khlebnikov in the Futurist moment, when you think about it.
Bernstein: And I do.
Bernstein: And I do think of Khlebnikov and Gertrude Stein.
Perloff: They have a lot in common in their awareness in the smallest particles of language, and that it makes a difference whether you use a present tense or a past tense, and that the way words relate really matters.
Bernstein: I think of Khlebnikov’s “The Word as Such” in relationship to Stein’s “Composition as Explanation.”
Perloff: Absolutely, “Composition as Explanation.” And How to Write, one of my favorite Stein books. How to Write, which contains the piece “Arthur a Grammar.” All these things are directly related to the whole concern with language that you have in Russian Futurism, and, to some extent in Marinetti too. There are writings by Marinetti that aren’t as well known that are absolutely brilliant, prescient in foreseeing the digital world. He has a long amazing piece reprinted in Lawrence Rainey’s Futurist anthology called “The Electrical War,” in which he says, among other things, that soon we’ll have chairs that are lightweight, made out of metal and that we can carry around. And lo and behold, we do!
Bernstein: How about the relation of the poets to the visual artists in that period that you write about in your book? What made that possible and have we ever had such an intense interconnection between those often very different kinds of work?
Perloff: It’s a good question of how it was possible. I think the revolution first occurred in the visual arts, where antirepresentational work was considered more acceptable than it is in poetry. And in the 1910s, thanks to the rapidity of industrialization and cultural change, theater, film, all the different forms are revolutionized, and it’s a truly interdisciplinary period. We certainly don’t have anything like it today. You have a curious separation between the arts today, and people in one area not knowing the other. People in the visual arts, great critics of the visual arts, knowing nothing about poetry, and vice versa … So, I guess there was the feeling that anything could be done. I really like the utopianism of these prewar years.
Bernstein: Of immediately before the First World War …
Perloff: That’s right. Utopianism is inspiring, even though it was defeated by the events of the time. Utopianism is a healthy thing. For artists must believe that things could change, and that art can change, that literature could change, that it is possible to do something new. And in the early 1910s, you had all these people converging on Paris, like Picasso from Spain, Blaise Cendrars from Switzerland, Apollinaire from Italy: the avant-garde, let’s remember, largely came from marginalized cultures. I mean, Italy was certainly a marginalized country at the time. Just go back and read in, let’s say, Howard’s End, or other novels by E. M. Forster how the Italians at the time were regarded by the Brits as just rather dirty little people.
Bernstein: And the Russians, of course, as well.
Perloff: And the Russians were considered wild people. Tourists certainly didn’t go to Russia, where the people were held to be “wild,” somehow inferior. To understand futurism you must understand that the Italians were considered quite inferior to the English and French and Germans. They were regarded as oversexed “primitive” people who weren’t quite civilized.
Bernstein: So, how about Yeats in respect to that period? That also seems like such a different world, right, and yet, obviously I don’t think it needs to be explained why one would like different things, but nonetheless —
Perloff: But you’re right that it’s a very strange thing. Obviously part of it is just autobiographical: when I was going to graduate school, Yeats was the great poet.
Bernstein: And you still think Yeats is a great poet.
Perloff: I still think he is a great poet, but I was certainly influenced by the culture of my university years. In the ’60s, Yeats was a hot dissertation topic. Gayatri Spivak, for example, wrote her dissertation on Yeats. All kinds of people who you wouldn’t expect worked on Yeats because there was so much to do. On Blake as well. You could explicate Blake’s late prophetic books like Jerusalem. The same thing was true of Yeats and it just seemed very exciting. But don’t forget that I wrote my dissertation on rhyme: it was the formal aspect of Yeats’s poetry that interested me, and with respect to sound. I still think Yeats is an absolutely extraordinary poet, however different he may be from, say, Gertrude Stein. Yeats’s work is so rich and complex. I’m directing a dissertation on Yeats at USC right now by a wonderful student who is interested in Yeats’s philosophy and theosophy, and he’s working on Yeats and Wittgenstein. There’s one for you.
Bernstein: Your most recent edited collection, The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, continues your emphasis on sound patterning, to use the most generalized term for it. And you continue to write about sound, even in work that often isn’t viewed from the point of view of its sound patterning. So, over the course of your work, you move from a metrical, perhaps, to a postmetrical or nonmetrical environment for rhythm and sound. But remain focused on poetry’s sound.
Perloff: I do, I do.
Bernstein: So, let me ask you another question, autobiographical in part, but also going back those binary divisions within the poetry of the Cold War period: Robert Lowell, Frank O’Hara. In many ways, they come to stand for such a different … almost like in the Frost sense, “Two roads diverged … and I / I took the one less traveled …” O’Hara’s and Lowell’s are often viewed as being two roads that have diverged within American poetry. That divergence structures a lot of our thinking about postwar poetry, not because people don’t like one or the other, but just the way in which we associate poetic practices around those two proper names.
Perloff: Yes, but again you have to historicize this a little bit. I don’t read much Lowell anymore, and of all my books the one I probably like least is The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (1973). On the other hand, I do remember how thrilling those lines from Life Studies seemed back then: “Tamed by Miltown we lie on mother’s bed; the rising sun in war paint dyes us red” (Lowell, “Man and Wife,” stanza 1). The famous poet of that moment was Richard Wilbur. And compared to Richard Wilbur, Lowell was direct, immediate, and the choice of words seemed powerful in that particular book. But by the time Lowell published Notebook and History, I wasn’t nearly as interested. I still love Sylvia Plath, by the way, even though her poetry is so different from most of the work I have championed. “Viciousness in the kitchen: the potatoes hiss.” A great opening (“Lesbos”).
But here let me go back to Yeats a minute and explain something. What Yeats and Stein and Pound have in common is that all three believe, as Yeats puts it, that “Our words must seem to be inevitable.” That to me is the key to poetry. Our words must seem inevitable, as he wrote to Dorothy Wellesley in that wonderful correspondence, which every student of poetry should read, The Letters of Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley. Never use a different word when the same word will do again. His example is “harlot”; if you mean “harlot,” he tells Wellesley, then repeat that word. And the idea of the inevitability of language, even more than just the sound, was central to Yeats. He revised endlessly in order to get words absolutely right. Take the poem I mention in my preface to The Sound of Poetry, which begins, “Others, because you did not keep / That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine.” Language is used very brilliantly as it is by Stein, as it is by Pound, and what I have a real resistance to, especially in much poetry written today, which seems to me in the vein of 1909 before Eliot and Pound came on the scene, is that it’s just slack. There are too many words used. There are endless extra prepositions and verb forms that you don’t need, and it just goes along like prose. That really bothers me. Now, to return to Lowell. At his best, even though he was a Boston Brahmin, seemingly the opposite of Frank O’Hara, he broke down the wall that existed at the time — the wall of poetic diction, à la Allen Tate. In the poetry of the time, there was much gratuitous figuration, elaborate metaphor, circumlocution. Lowell’s poetry had a new immediacy and intimacy. But even in that book, by the way, in the chapter on the Imitations, I say how problematic his translations are and I criticize the later work. So, my book was by no means all praise of Lowell even back then.
Bernstein: But don’t you think that Lowell’s poetry diverges from the Don Allen New American Poetry context, that most basic “raw and cooked” binary?
Perloff: Yes and no, but don’t forget that I don’t like all the work in the Don Allen book either. I’ve never been an Olsonite. I’ve never had the taste for Robert Duncan. The latter is my dirty little secret: Steve Fredman once said to me, “Your weakness, Marjorie, is that you don’t appreciate Robert Duncan.” My friends Al Gelpi and Peter Quartermain have said this to me too. But my problem, as I was saying of others before, is that Robert Duncan’s poetry strikes me as often quite slack, so far as sound goes, and the references are often quite vague. For me, language has to resonate. The words have to, so to speak, explode in your face.
Bernstein: And yet you’re interested in contemporary poetry, some of which is not about sound resonating, if it’s found —
Perloff: Well, if not the sound resonating, than a resonant, complex meaning.
Bernstein: But the meaning resonating … Even within a conceptual context meaning can resonate, from your point of view?
Perloff: Absolutely, so that you have to reread it. Presumably the language was “found” for a reason, so you have to look at it closely. But so far as the big debate prompted by the Allen anthology goes — the debate between the raw and the cooked — let me say that if I had to choose between Robert Lowell and Denise Levertov, I’d pick Robert Lowell. And although Don Allen was a good friend of mine and I admire his book enormously, I think there are plenty of poets in that anthology that aren’t very good. Just because they had the right poetics, you see, doesn’t make them good; , that issue has always been a problem for me. I can’t admire poets just because they have the right poetics.
Bernstein: And do you see that as a problem as well in 2009?
Bernstein: How do you compare that to the era of Eliot? I know that you’re about to give a talk on, is it, Eliot and the poetry of today.
Perloff: No, but I’ve been invited to the Eliot summer school in London. But I have written on Eliot and the earlier avant-garde.
Bernstein: Is there an avant-garde today? Can there be innovation after the radical innovations of the modernist period? That’s the generic version of my next question for you.
Perloff: Sure. I think there will always be an avant-garde. You’re certainly avant-garde!
Bernstein: But many people would dispute that, as you know so very well. But whatever anyone wants to call it. Innovation. Certainly that’s my view: there has to be invention just to stay current.
Perloff: There has to be. There always is.
Bernstein: But a lot of people don’t think that. So, I’m putting my question from that point of view.
Perloff: I don’t think today’s avant-garde is as dramatic as that of the early century. I do think the real revolution occurred, as I said, before World War I. It was all over after the war. I mean, revolution of the sense that one could do something entirely new and different. When I was recently working on the Russian avant-garde, I went on YouTube — this is an interesting exercise — I wanted to know what Moscow or Petersburg really looked like in 1910. There was no transportation yet except horses and sleds.
Bernstein: That’s why they were so thrilled by the motorcar.
Perloff: Not in Russia, they were not so thrilled about the motorcar —
Bernstein: I’m thinking of Marinetti —
Perloff: But I’m thinking of the airplane. The airplane. Malevich never went in an airplane. He loved the idea of flying. He loved defying gravity. It’s all very mystical, but he never went in any plane at all. And yet he could envision the “fourth dimension.”
I do feel, always feel, that poetry has to be very much of its time and the kinds of innovations and things we have today. Of course it has to be innovative, but it is also true, as Hugh Kenner said, that the avant-garde can be just as boring as anything else. Avant-garde allegiance alone, in other words, isn’t enough. And much work today has become very predictable.
Bernstein: When people first come to radical modernist and contemporary poetry, European or American, they sometimes rub up against what they feel is its elitism. I’ve written about this in terms of “the difficult poem.” In the few moments I have left, I thought I would ask you how you respond as a teacher. It must come up all the time, because it does for me — that this poetry is elitist. It’s a very American question.
Perloff: I think poetry is by its very definition elitist. I think that that whole discussion of elitism is so silly. I just heard, the other night at a discussion in New Haven, someone say, “then isn’t Bob Dylan really then the best poet because he’s not elitist.” Everybody loves Bob Dylan and knows those lyrics. And so he’s the great poet of the period. But the truth is that, so far as the “public” is concerned, the real action is not in a Bob Dylan song but the ballgame. The public doesn’t like Billy Collins any more than they like Charles Bernstein or Susan Howe. Most of the people I know in my day-to-day life never read any poetry. They might read some novels. By literature, they mean novels. And they might read novels, new novels, or even classical novels, but they don’t read poetry. So, poetry has always been elitist and, after all, if you think of the metaphysical poets living in a manuscript culture, or you think of even Wordsworth or the romantic poets, it was always elitist. I think it’s fine that it’s elitist because the audience is, in fact, very big. The criticism in England is that in the United States poetry only has a university audience. Well, let’s remember that the university audience is huge, as you well know. There are lots of people at universities all over the United States. This very evening there will be poetry readings in every city throughout the country. You know, there will be readings and there is interest, and that’s enough for me. I agree with Frank O’Hara: if they don’t like poetry, bully for them. The movies are good too. And the ballgame is good too, I guess, although I must confess I never go to one!
Bernstein: You’ve been listening to Marjorie Perloff hitting home runs here on Close Listening. … I’m Charles Bernstein, close listening even when it hurts.
Bruce Andrews with Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich
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.
So the literary activity became more ensconced or territorialized as poetry, and then beyond that I got more involved in the downtown art scene, partly through collaborations in the dance world with Sally Silvers, who became my romantic partner in the late 1970s and who I started to compose music for. I became involved in the ‘free improv’ music world and the experimental theatre world to some extent — Sally and I, with Tom Cora, started a performance group called BARKING in the very early 1980s and we did small-scale and a few very large-scale multi-media performance pieces on political topics. So, in a sense, right around the time that ‘Language Writing’ became an item in the literary world, I started to extend my own text-based efforts out into these other fields. So my involvement with the downtown arts scene, in a weird way, occurs right as the Language Writing community solidifies itself and becomes more and more intensively literary. And then I start to move out a little bit and continue my involvement with those communities — excitedly, because I’m in New York City. I mean, this wouldn’t have been possible if I had gotten a job at, say, the University of Oklahoma, or if I had gone out in the Midwest somewhere. There were really only a few places that had lively enough scenes in these other fields that could have sustained that kind of activity, and not just have it be ‘in the mail.’ The thing about the in the mail, correspondence-based quality of the Language Writing in the ’70s was that you could then do it anywhere. You could be involved with these other poets without having to be in a town or a city in which there were lots of other lively things going on. I mean, the two major places where the so-called Language Poets collected were in NYC and the Bay Area in California. I think the thing that was striking about NYC was that it really was the only place that I would venture to say in the US, at the time, where all of the art forms that were operating were at a cutting edge, and had a national scope of interest.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Would you say that your, then, dislike for the P-word as opposed to the L-word stems from your sense of poetry as an institution and the fact that there had been a disconnect from these other fields of art?
Andrews: Well, I don’t know whether it being an institution was as much the problem as the second thing you mention — the disconnection with other fields. It was more that it was isolationist than it was institutionalized. And not only that it was isolated from other art forms, but that it was the most reactionary, perhaps, of them all. Most people wouldn’t even have considered it an art form in the same way they would these others. But it was maybe the only art form where you could continue to be acclaimed for doing work that could easily have been done 50 years before. That would have been unheard of in theatre, in music, in dance, or in the visual arts, for sure. So it was a uniquely conservative or reactionary field, I would say. And that was the problem for some of us.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In 2006, you made an appearance on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor, under the rubric “Outrage of the Week,” and Bill O’Reilly basically charged you with indoctrination of undergraduates at Fordham University. Now, was that your first appearance as a “far left guy” in the US corporate media? And, given the fact that you were not invited as a poet, would you say that there is a connection, still, between what you do as a political scientist — teaching “International Politics” at Fordham — and your critical poetics?
Andrews: Okay. In late 2006 when I was asked on this right-wing talk show, The O’Reilly Factor, yes, that was the first time I’ve been on national television, in fact. I was being baited as a critic of American foreign policy, I think, partly because I am teaching at a Jesuit University and the show’s host, Bill O’Reilly, is a right-wing Catholic, so he takes particular responsibility almost for what goes on in the Catholic college system. In other words, if I had been teaching at Columbia, the New School, or NYU, I don’t think … it would have been more predictable for him and he wouldn’t have been surprised that some secular progressive was out there teaching works critical of American imperialism, and it was partly [because] I assigned the book The Five Biggest Lies that George W. Bush Told Us About Iraq in my classes and that it was required reading. And he was also trying to get me to, in a sense, come out on national television as a far-left person, which I declined to do. And his staff hadn’t informed him that I was also much better known as a poet, even though apparently one of my former students was an intern, I think, at Fox News and basically turned me in, hoping to get on the show and attack me for being a horrible, as you say, “indoctrinator” of innocent youth. But the book that I assigned, as I explained on the show – oh, by the way the show, as a video, is up on YouTube, and I transcribed the interview for a transcription journal that a couple of young poet-scholars were putting out, and that transcript is up online also.
Anyway, the book that I was using I used to try to investigate the rhetoric and, as I put it on the show, the justificatory efforts of government at trying to sell its policies and inspire what I’ve later come to call national security judgment on the part of the public. So I wasn’t assigning the book as a way to help the students explain why the policy was the way it was. It wasn’t a normative issue for me. I wasn’t trying to convince people that the war was bad and that therefore they should have a different view about the war. I was trying to get them to understand the way the government explained itself. Now, the connection between that, the specifics of that, and what you’re asking about as my critical poetics, is a little complicated. My efforts in school, and as a scholar, from the early 1970s on, when I started graduate school, were focused on the explanation of aggressive foreign policy by the United States. So I did my doctoral dissertation on alternative explanations of the US escalation of the war in Vietnam and its refusal to withdraw in the 1960s. Most of my scholarly work was on why the government did what it did; it was about the explanation of policy. That later shifted, especially in the classroom, to getting more and more interested in the role of the public and the role of public opinion as an enabling factor. So there was a slight shift from explanation to issues about preconditions, because I’m interested in what would need to be changed before the policy could change. Before, I thought of that mostly in terms of structural change at the level of the political economy. But then, as I got more interested in the facilitating role of both the media and the public, I started to focus on the government’s rhetoric and not so much on what was actually driving it, or motivating it.
So, the parallel with my thinking about poetics, I think, is also oddly apparent, which is a shift from thinking about issues of production, which are closer to questions about explanation, in let’s say so-called Language Writing. So, the texts in my first big collection of essays, Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis, mostly deal with matters of production — to try to differentiate or discuss what’s distinctive about this experimental or radical poetry. But mostly, when I’m saying production, I mean from the point of view of the author in a sense — what is driving and motivating it, and that’s a little bit closer to talking about, with regard to government, what would explain government policy. So when I shift in talking about foreign policy more toward public opinion, I shift also in my thinking about poetics toward thinking more about the reader – and the whole notion of reception. If I have a prescription, then, for the writing, it would be a prescription that points to a different possible role for the reader — and that is what has been occupying my thinking in the last couple of years. So there is this odd parallel, I think, between those two things. It has always been there, but now it’s a little more pointed.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You mentioned your collection of essays, Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis, so … you conceive of your poetry as “praxis,” right? In the particular Marxian sense of practical-critical “human sensuous activity” that is in one way or another directed towards “revolutionary change”? Can you tell us how much your notion of praxis differs from what is frequently called a “vulgar Marxist” position? And how significant is the role played by neo-Marxist theorists like Adorno and Debord, and post/structuralist thinkers such as (the late) Barthes, or Baudrillard, for instance, to the development of your notion of “poetry as praxis”?
Andrews: Well, if I think of the creation of this writing as sensuous, that’s hard to avoid. If you think of it as practical in terms of being based on action, then, that’s hard to avoid. If you think of “critical” as theoretically securely grounded, then, that’s probably going too far. If you think of critical as self-reflective, skeptical, suspicious, operating on some meta-level, then, yeah, I think of it as critical in that sense. But then, most poetry writing might be. So if I’m trying to think of what poetry, or what literature, wouldn’t be a praxis, then: it’s not things that wouldn’t be critical-practical and sensuous, it would be things that wouldn’t be directed toward revolutionary change. I think that, in some people’s eyes, the relationship to theory and the relationship to hopes of revolutionary change would differentiate what some of us were trying to do. But I don’t know if they’re right! Because to say that we are, or that I am, dedicated in my writing to push things toward revolutionary change … it’s pretty difficult in my lifetime to even imagine what revolutionary change would look like in an advanced capitalist society. So if any of us, or me, said that that’s what we are driving toward, I think people would just laugh, you know, they would say: “Who are you kidding? What possible way could your work create revolutionary change?” So that ends up being, I think, complicated.
The other part, the theory part … now maybe this has some interest. One of the ways that the so-called Language Writers were condemned by people who weren’t interested in our work was by them using the claim that our work was simply derived from our theories, that we came into the literary realm with a set of literary, or worse, political theories about how things should be and that we just did the work that followed directly from those theories. I don’t remember anybody who that would be a decent description of. Some of us, especially during the mid-70s onward, were involved in essay writing and giving talks and presentations that involved fairly hifalutin theoretical investments. But the poetry writing came first, and came earlier. In a sense, the theorizing was a way for us to understand what we were doing and what we all were involved with, and how it fit into existing frameworks of thought. But it wasn’t as though the frameworks of thought came first, and then we squeezed the poetry out of that.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You differentiate between the thematic and formal politics of writing, calling for a poetry not about, but as politics. And you have repeatedly described your work, to the surprise of some, as coming out of a Brechtian tradition of “targeting the audience” and adapting Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt to avant-garde writing — which at times you underline by such self-referential comments on method as: “Stake thru heart kills most vampirish tendencies of audience.” Do you still assert that the politics of a poem, or literary text, hinge on how it positions its readers vis-à-vis the writer, the social, and language itself?
Andrews: Yes [laughs], I would assert that. A couple of interesting questions here. When you talk about the difference between thematic and formal politics of writing, “calling for a poetry not about, but as politics” — these days I am rethinking all of that in terms of the relationship of the text to the reader. So, a thematic emphasis in the writing: I’m going to then wonder, “Well, what does that do for the reader?” And the same thing when you are talking about form: the formal aspects of a work — if we think of “formal” in a broader sense to involve process and the operations of it — then I think that’s even easier to immediately see it in relationship to the reader. The reader is, in other words, almost automatically enmeshed in the operations of the writing, whereas the reader’s relationship to the thematics of the writing is not automatic in that sense. It was always possible for writers to claim that their work was political because it touched on political themes. But it was never clear to me that those political themes had any relevant impact on the reader. And, if you think of form, of the formal work of the text, then you have the same problem. I think people will often be inordinately proud of, for instance, the formal innovations of their textual work. It’s not clear to me that … well, what is clear to me is that some formally innovative aspects of the writing would directly implicate the reader, others would not. That is why I think we need to think about not so much an opposition between thematic and formal as an opposition between thematic and almost relational, or operational, application-oriented qualities of the process that goes into the text.
Büscher-Ulbrich: So when you are writing or composing do you use yourself as a “surrogate” for the reader?
Andrews: I have to, in a sense. I mean, as I have said before in interviews, I am the first reader of my texts and I think of writing significantly in terms of editing rather than transcribing my emotional epiphanies of vision, of spirit, or whatever. If I think of them as editing, then I need criteria to decide when something is right or not, when it is working or not, what it needs extra [of] or what it needs less of, when I’m doing that and I’m editing as a reader. It’s not as though I’m saying, “Oh I appreciate this phrase but I am going to imagine myself as someone else and try to decide what that someone else would appreciate.” It’s very tough to do that. And it may be that my unwillingness to do that means that I’m still much more locked into authorial expressivity than I usually think I am. So, yeah, I do start out as the surrogate, or as a version of ‘an’ ideal reader, or the reader that I’m able to imagine.
The other thing in your question — the “Brechtian tradition of targeting the audience” — you know, “targeting” is a troubling word. And I’m wondering if it is a synonym for a broader range of words or in what kind of way you mean targeting […]. Like “targeting” instead of what?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, instead of … offering a narrative discourse, a narrative proposition, probably?
Andrews: Right, now, I am agreeing with this general line here. It is just that I was worrying over these terms —
Büscher-Ulbrich: targeting —
Andrews: Yes, targeting. Again, it is a little bit like “avant-garde,” you know, it has this military connotation —
Büscher-Ulbrich: Metaphors of war —
Andrews: Yes. And the same thing with even “how the language positions its reader” … I think we are talking about an invitation here, rather than an assault! I think that is the case. There is a specific invitation to the reader that is wrapped up with more than just the thematics, and more than just the reference system of the poem that is wrapped up with how the work actually functions when it is being read. So that, I would agree, it has this politics embedded in it.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I like the notion of invitation. As a reader, I feel very much “invited,” although sometimes I have to decline the offer, obviously, due to lack of time or capacity … but I am picking the texts up again and again, and return.
Andrews: But I think you’re right, even the notion of invitation would have to be made very much more specific. Because anybody, any writer could say that. But, I think, it’s the specifics of the invitation. What kind of a party are we getting invited to?
Büscher-Ulbrich: In a highly influential essay of yours [“Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis”], you talk about a “V-effect, to combat the obvious” — oh, metaphors of war, again — and how this “points to a look at language as medium.” Can you talk a bit about the process and potential difficulties of adapting Brechtian poetics from theatre to avant-garde writing?
Andrews: Again, a very big set of issues there. The question about language as medium I am curious about. Because I don’t think language is “a medium.” But what better term for it –
Büscher-Ulbrich: Practical consciousness? —
Andrews: — we could come up with, I’m not really sure. In other words, it seems too osmotically infiltrating to have the quality of a medium: something that is separate from us, that operates like some kind of filtering system, some mediating device. We are much more embedded in it, on the one hand. And to me that brings up these issues about the reader. You cannot create some structural wonder, some innovative structure out of language, and then simply expect that to be enough. If you think of it not as a medium but as a landscape or plane on which the reader and the writer are both interacting — more like city planning, or architecture — then you are re-envisioning something that includes both parts of the equation, of reader and writer. So it is the obvious elements of the interaction that would have to be exposed and combated, not so much just having the writer off on her own, tinkering with the language, and then presenting that to a reader as a transformation of the medium that is somehow supposed to … where the text is doing all the work. I think that the work is done in this interrelationship between the reader and the writer. That is where the work is happening. And the text is basically setting the stage for that. The writing is a kind of mise-en-scène for this drama to unfold, when the drama is taking place between the stage and the audience, not just up on stage.
What I think about Brecht? If you go back and look at his essays on the theater from the ’20s and ’30s — and by the way, I use Brecht on Theatre in class, I have used it for decades now in courses on Politics and Communication, the John Willett edition of Brecht’s essays — now, my suspicion is that there is a ton of other essay material by Brecht that’s never been translated and that we do not really have access to here in the US. I think this is a pretty good selection of Brecht’s major works in the essay/talk format, but I’m not even sure of that. So I do not want to make any huge pronouncements about Brecht — plus, for instance, I don’t have any German. Or, as perhaps it should be put: “I don’t have any German so I gotta shut up” and not make any big pronouncements about Brecht beyond what is in that one fairly decent sized collection of essays. When I use that book in class, one thing that I do notice, or my students notice, too, is how much Brecht has bought into this now largely discredited, or considered old-fashioned view about science, and about manipulative control, and about mechanism. And some of that, I think, is closer to a more narrow formalist view of the text. As if the writer is a kind of scientific engineer, able to create these structures, and to control everything that happens as a result — as if in some kind of controlled experiment. That image of science, partly because of what happens in World War II, gets discredited. And then gender politics plays into this, too. So Brecht has this macho, scientific, Leninist view about politics and … some of that bleeds into his theories about the theatre, which, I think — probably before I started to so strenuously, or so ostentatiously, foreground the position of the reader — I probably would have been more accepting of than I am now. The same thing that I mentioned in your notion about “targeting” — there’s an element of that in Brecht.
Büscher-Ulbrich: So, the Lehrstücke, for instance, probably for you would go too far, be too didactic, leave a limited space for the reader?
Andrews: Well, didactics is an interesting issue, I think.
Büscher-Ulbrich: What type of didactics, or didacticism?
Andrews: There is some spectrum between “didactic” and “preaching to the converted,” both of which I find unsatisfying because they are dealing with fairly fixed entities that they somehow think they can control, where the issue then becomes control. When I think about control, in the Brechtian sense, the other theorist that quickly comes to mind would be Foucault in Discipline and Punish, and, I think, the game that we are in now is much closer to the invitation to discipline and self-discipline than it is to the early part of Discipline and Punish, which I just assigned to my classes this week and which starts out with this image of a person being executed and having their limbs torn off them. So, if that’s the issue, if that’s the paradigm for the reader, then I’m really nervous, right?! To me, that’s real “targeting,” you know, where you tear the limbs off and kill them and then burn them up, etc.
Büscher-Ulbrich: That’s targeting?
Andrews: [Laughs.] That would be the bad kind of targeting!
Büscher-Ulbrich: Bruce, you have a reputation for being “difficult” — a writer who produces “difficult” texts. Thinking of your writing from the early ’70s, I see a textual politics at work in the writing that aspires — correct me if I’m wrong — to re-aestheticize the word by suspending or frustrating reference and opening up the text for alternative ways of creating meaning. To me as a reader, those texts are very challenging, but at the same time they offer great pleasure. As a theorist who is sympathetic towards a certain aesthetic-political paradigm from the start, I end up writing things like “Andrews’s is a genuinely materialistic and performative poetics that uses intransitivity as a means to direct our attention to the body as the site of language production, use, and reception. Such awareness might very well be the precondition for any critical re-meaning, i.e. an alternative semanticizing critically aware of and resisting the dominant modes of reality formatting in and through language. Or rather, by means of a specific use of language that, like capital, actively erases all traces of its material production and pretends to exist independently of and unaffected by human bodies.” I know this is a bold claim, of course. What do you think?
Andrews: Having a “reputation for being difficult” … well, one thing I should mention: I have over the years, especially in the ’70s and ’80s, also acquired a reputation for being difficult as a person — pissing people off, generally being intransigent, hard-ass, and troublesome, and, you know, in some way insensitive to various underlying social texts, etc. —
Andrews: — yeah. Maybe I’ve mellowed a little bit over the years. Anyway, what about “producing difficult texts?” That interests me, the notion of difficult, because I think a lot of what seems difficult to people in so-called poetry are texts that divert drastically from the familiar literary traditions. I always notice that if I’m giving readings, let’s say, in a school or college, or high school or graduate school, that the more training people have in the poetry tradition, and the normative mainstream heritage of poetry, the more difficult they find the work that I do. The less so, the less: if there’s an audience of people who haven’t already been trained and socialized to think about poetry in a certain way, who will be able to see that the language I’m using, the vocabulary I’m using, the lexicons I’m working with, and the methods of putting words together, the syntactical relationships, the lack of identifiable narrative, or the lack of identifiable author position that’s stable — all of that they are completely familiar with from the street, from the cultural landscape that they’re all involved in now, in a postmodern world. The difficulty appears differently from different institutional vantage points for people when they’re coming at this as a reader. Again, for me to then make big, universal, sweeping generalizations about the reader is clearly stupid because it ignores the need to do that finely grained contextualizing, which, in some ways, I haven’t gotten around to yet, in my theorizing. And this goes back again to what I was saying about so-called Language Writing, and about genre. Difficulty is often defined in relationship to an existing genre — like that artwork is difficult because it doesn’t fit the traditions of easel painting, let’s say, or some piece of installation art does not fit the traditions of sculpture as we are used to it, etc. So that those things then don’t fit.
When you talk about “re-aestheticizing the word” … again, that’s an interesting phrase, because it really is about, to me, opening up the capacity of the reader. That is one of my pet terms these days — capacitation for the reader. That is something I’m interested in and that often involves re-aesthetizing, so that “re-aestheticizing the word” means taking it out of its familiar institutional contexts, not letting it be sublated in that way — the term you were using before.
Büscher-Ulbrich: So that it becomes more than just a trigger, or signal — like, look at the feel and smell, almost, of it?
Andrews: Yes. It is a way of upholding the particularity, of the word, of language, and that is a kind of aestheticizing in the classical sense. Instead of letting it be imprinted or interpellated by literary institutions. I think of Althusser, who was interesting to me in my political science theorizing, as theorizing about what’s in the way of social change — his whole notion of structural … mobile, flexible structuring of capital. But here, if I’m talking about trying to protect the particularities of language and not let them be simply steamrollered by the institutional framework, that steamrollering is close to what Althusser is talking about as interpellation. The hailing process, you know — the example I always use in class is: you’re walking down the street, you hear from behind you somebody say “Hey, fuckhead! Yo! Fuckhead!” … and you turn around. And it’s the moment of turning around where you are being interpellated. That, I think, is what “re-aestheticizing” works against. And, again, my emphasis on the reader, and on capacitating the reader, is also absolutely related to a notion of pleasure. The capacitation of the reader creates pleasure, pleasure comes through that increasing capacity. That’s one thing Brecht talks about, you know, that what creates pleasure is the experience of the work being made, is the making of the work — it’s the learning that’s pleasurable, not so much the piling up of thematic information. So, all those things you’re saying make sense to me.
When you are talking about a materialistic and performative poetics … well, the performative part would come directly out of this emphasis on the role, or the position, of the reader. The materialistic part would come from my emphasis, in thinking about time and space, on matter, on noise, on what’s in the way of ... for instance, how the atomized, or the atomic level, the micro-scale level of language, is what’s in the way — acting as a kind of material noise or obstruction to normative grammar. I think about, let’s say, the sound and visual appearance of text — the so-called material signifier — as being the matter that is in the way of transparent reference. So if it is materialistic as different from transparently referential, normatively grammatical work, then yeah, I think that’s actually what is going on. Poetry always prides itself in general on its attention to less rigidly normative grammatical phraseology and its attention to the sound and the look of the text. But I think the kind of poetry that I’ve been involved with goes even further in trying to push that pretty far out — but not all the way. And this is another distinction I’ve made before: You could completely ignore any syntax whatsoever, and you could completely ignore any reference at all. But then, I think, you are not really able to engage in a certain kind of negotiating process for the reader. In other words, if the reader doesn’t even have a chance to deal with the semantic level, or doesn’t really have a chance to deal with anything that coordinates and organizes time through connections between words in a temporal horizon, or temporal spectrum, then you’re missing opportunities for re-capacitating the reader. So I am interested in those things. When you’re talking about intransitivity, there I’m not sure what you mean.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Craig Dworkin was using the term in his encyclopedia article. And I think it comes straight from Barthes, who in “To Write: An Intransitive Verb” (1966) conceives of writing as an intransitive act, a condition in which the writing subject disperses into an irretrievable contemporaneity with their practice and the work of signification is refigured as a kind of spasm that convulses the surface of language and affects the reader in turn, rather than asking to be decoded and thus reinstate the “transitive” dimension of the message. In other words: a kind of writing that needs no object and would thus aid this process of re-aestheticizing language.
Andrews: That phrase might be interesting to work on seriously, as a way to think through some of these things, because it might mean … you are creating attention to the text; you talk about creating attention to the body as the site of language production. Do you mean the body of the reader, or the body of the text?
Büscher-Ulbrich: I was thinking of the body of the reader.
Andrews: Well, as long as “intransitivity” doesn’t imply the text closed off on its own. That somehow would not allow for this operation in the reader, then I’m interested in it, then it’s closer to something that creates what Kant talks about as ‘lingering,’ this lingering possibility. But it’s a lingering possibility for the reader. That it’s there to work your way through, which then makes the attention to the body go both ways — it’s the body of the text as well as the body of the reader. And “body” as in the fully flowering capacities of the reader, the possibilities for the reader.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I was also thinking about the simple fact that without human bodies there is no language.
Andrews: Right. On the big scale that would be true. So you were talking about an “alternative semanticizing” … that seems straight ahead, a pretty accurate comment. “Resisting the dominant modes of reality formatting in and through language” … yeah, I can see myself interested in those things in terms of the reader’s capacity. One thing you cut from your earlier question, which I didn’t understand at first, but then I could see a way of … where you said “by means of a specific use of language that, like Capital, actively erases all traces of its material production and pretends to exist independently of and unaffected by human bodies” … it seems to me that that specific use of language is the dominant mode of reality!
Andrews: Yeah, and I think that really captures the precise opposite of what I’m interested in doing. If I’m interested in un-erasing the traces of material production then I’m interested in undercutting any pretension to be able to exist independently of and unaffected by human readers. So I think that part of your question you could have left in. Bring it back in.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I will! I was just afraid of the question getting too long, of me talking too much.
Andrews: Look, I mean, the larger backdrop of some of your questions is what “capital with a capital C” is doing. I mean, I have been, as a scholar, interested in and influenced by the so-called “capital-logic” school coming out of Germany — German scholars that had been interested in trying to trace out the broad reproduction requirements of capital accumulation on a world scale, you know, and trying to figure out “what would the logic of Capital normally point to?” And if I think about it in terms of a kind of allegory of the reader then, yeah, what you’re saying makes perfect sense. Those are quite helpful comments.
Büscher-Ulbrich: It is often said that the central idea of a language-centered poetics has been to foreground the production of meaning by means of experimental writing that stresses the “materiality of the signifier” and explores the “politics of the referent.” Now, to alter consciousness by disrupting language has always been the dream of a politicized avant-garde. So maybe you can go a bit into how your approach differs from avant-garde precursors such as surrealism, or Russian Futurism and Constructivism? I am thinking, in particular, of the “concentric circles” model you put forth in “Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis” of confronting language both in terms of a system of signs and as discourse/ideology in your writing.
Andrews: It’s probably unfair to say the phrase “the central idea of a language-centered poetics.” I don’t think you would get an agreement on what the central idea is. But anyway, part of the project was, as we said, to foreground the production of meaning. As I just said before, I’m more thinking of the production of meaning as a team effort that involves the reader, and also involves the unproduction, in a sense, or the challenging of certain types of meanings and then foregrounding other types of meanings which might be left once those other meanings are cancelled, or attacked, or targeted, as you put it before. So that means the production of meaning becomes more complicated. There’s no longer the relay model — author knows what she means and is transmitting that to the reader. It’s clear that the text is actually producing the meaning, the meaning wasn’t there beforehand. But it is also true that it’s not just the text that’s producing it, it’s also the reader’s involvement, too. So, if I always stress the materiality of the signifier, or the politics of the referent, as you’re putting it, then now I would think of that as related to opening up some negotiating possibilities for the reader. That’s what’s interesting about the materiality of the signifier. Not just the fact that you have opaque texts, or beautiful, or fascinating looking texts, or fascinating sounding texts. It’s having some relationship to the experience of the reader. And the same with, if you think about the politics of the referent, if you think about the referent being politicizable, that would suggest, again, showing how it’s constructed, showing what’s missing, showing what’s excluded, showing how the references of language are distributed, you know, in Rancièrean terms, etc. So all that, I think, makes sense.
When you say “to alter consciousness by disrupting language” — yeah! But whose consciousness? For me, it’s the writer/reader combine. You know, it’s not just, “I’m gonna alter my own consciousness” by disrupting language — there are probably easier pharmaceutical methods for that, or, since we were both at the Merzbow concert last night, you know, some kind of sound amplification might be easier than having a language at all! Talking about avant-garde precursors — I think it’s interesting in regard to the so-called Language Writers and not just me. Because one of the things we did take credit for, and got credit for, was introducing various avant-garde traditions of literature into the contemporary poetry scene, where some of those, especially European traditions of the most radical sort, Dada and the Russians in particular, really had been neglected. They were just historical museum pieces, really, that weren’t part of what people thought poetics might do. Same thing with our interest in sound poetry, our interest in visual poetry, concrete poetry, all that was, in a way, part of what was available to us coming of age in the early 1970s. And all that stuff was now much more widely available than it had been even ten years before. There were tremendous advantages that people in my age bracket had when we started writing. So the people that are now, say, ten years older than us, that are now in their early seventies, let’s say, or their mid-seventies, they didn’t have that when they were in their twenties, trying to gather together their possibilities. So, we had that available to us and because most of us weren’t coming out of creative writing programs, or graduate literary programs, we didn’t have any reason to reject those as lively possibilities to put in the mix.
Specifically about the Russian Futurists and Constructivists, I mean, the Russian Futurists — Khlebnikov and a few others who we were able to read in translation at that point — I think had influenced mostly — and I’d say this later about Cage and his circle as well — mostly had an influence on us, I’d say, or maybe just for myself, because of the results. I don’t think many of us, maybe Barry Watten might be an exception, but I don’t think many of us had a full grounding in the theoretical basis for what the early twentieth-century Russian writers were doing, but the concrete results of it were striking and easily attractive to us. The surrealists are a slightly different issue here. I’m very interested and invested in thinking about time and space as spectra — as spectra of openness and closure. So I’m interested in how, for instance, grammatical normative syntax will perform a closure on time, in the same way that narrative does, so that you could even think of a narrative as a giant grammar of temporal closure. Neither of those were things that I wanted to sign on to, sign up with — the commitments to normative grammar, or the commitments to narrative on the time spectrum. On the spatial spectrum, then, we’re talking about referentiality, at the micro-level, and on the expressivity of the author, and the representational pull away from the text, the focus on things that aren’t present — as with the creation of illusion or fiction — as closure on the vertical or spatial spectrum at a macro level. If I look at the surrealists, there is a rejection of spatial closure because of their commitment to drastic juxtapositions of representational materials. But it’s still fairly mechanical, in some respects. And on the time line, the time spectrum, it’s much more conservative. They’re using traditional grammatical structures to give you some disruption of the spatial plane … but even that gets mechanical. So that never really went as far as a number of us wanted it to go. Well, there were a couple of people in the Language group that had some prior background in being influenced by the surrealists, but I wasn’t one of them.
Now, on the concentric circle model you mention … what I just was saying about time and space … my current way of sizing this up is to think about it in micro and macro terms. If I think of, let’s say, grammar being the micro/horizontal part, I think of narrative, maybe, or anything that would create a single point — simultaneity, I think, narrative is a curious approximation of — would be the macro version of temporal closure. On the spatial plane, micro closure would have to do with transparent referentiality. On the larger plane it would have to do with, as I was saying before, the representation pulling the reader out to a clearly deposited representational schema, or to pull it out into the illusionistic space of the author. That’s how I lately have been thinking about this … where the micro dimensions are the raw materials of the text, and the macro dimensions have to do with the product, have to do in particular with the product as it affects the reader, as it affects subjectivity, the creation of a subject position, or the reinforcement of a subject position. So, now when I look back at these concentric circles, the models from that piece, which is from a long time ago — I was thinking of the inner circle as being the sign system, and the outer circle as being discourse and ideology that has some affinity to this micro/macro distinction. So the sign system might be related to the micro dimension, and discourse and ideology, as they affect the reader or the creation of the subject, would have to do with this macro dimension. If I get around to getting these current ideas a little bit more laid out that’ll probably be clearer … then you can see how this micro/macro distinction is what I had previously talked about as a series of concentric circles.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In the 1980s the units of composition in your poems began to include larger, more syntactically coherent phrases as well as the kind of confrontational samples of social discourse that would characterize Give Em Enough Rope and I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up, where the disjunctive and irreconcilable contexts of the phrases — that we are all somehow familiar with — very much “underscore,” as Dworkin writes, “the forms of psychosocial constructions that language enables and enacts.” Would you say that you are working to increase the performativity of the text and to project social antagonisms into the reading experience?
Andrews: Yes. I’d say that. But let me go back to a few things that you’ve said … The units of composition of my poems beginning to get larger, more syntactically coherent, and to incorporate these samplings from social discourse — that begins in the late 1970s. And it’s pretty coincident with me coming to NYC, becoming part of a poetry community, and starting to give readings in public, which I had not done before. And that started to influence what I chose to first select to read at these readings, and then, second, that began to influence what I wrote. So some of that is a situationally based thing, and maybe it also had to do with changes in the culture. Plenty of things were happening in the late ’70s here in NYC that would have pointed me in that direction anyways if I wanted to engage social materials. So it started a little bit earlier than the 1980s even though the work may have been published in the 80s mostly; I mean, Give Em Enough Rope is from ’78 to ’82, I think. I Don’t Have Any Paper was written in ’83 and edited in the beginning of ’84, even though it didn’t come out in book form until many years later. The phrase “more syntactically coherent” … I might say “syntactically imaginable.” Because I think many people would doubt how syntactically coherent these things are. One thing I got interested in was to create a phrase-like or sentence-like linkage of words that wouldn’t have any familiar syntax to it, but partly because of the voice trajectory of it, especially when spoken, it would carry that charge — that would seem as though you could put it into some imaginable grammar or syntax but it wasn’t copying or relying on one that preexisted it. Second, this notion about incorporating confrontational and controversial “samples” of social discourse: the sampling issue is interesting. Sampling, for instance, in the music world, in the hip-hop scene, for instance, was also beginning to be a major issue right around that time. And a lot of my work from that period looks much more, sounds much more, like it is involved with sampling, and appropriation, whereas in fact a lot of it isn’t. There is a quality of appropriated language that I liked and was drawn toward, and I often wanted to replicate it without actually sampling anything. So rather than what, say, the Flarf collective does with doing Google appropriations and samplings from Google searches and things, it was more as if I was seeing things that deserved to have that treatment and then came up with my own slightly different versions most of the time. There’s a few things which clearly are just, you know, beyond the level of vocabulary, to come directly out of something I might have heard and I just wrote down — like the title of my new book You Can’t Have Everything … Where Would You Put It!. That’s a classic bumper sticker/t-shirt phrase; it’s not one that I came up with myself. But a lot of the earlier work had that quality to it. So the impression may be “this is sampling,” “this is transcription,” “this is …” — and it may not be.
Now, this last thing you’re asking about — “disjunctive and irreconcilable contexts” — that interests me as a way of wording it because I feel like when it comes to the context of phrases, or even the contexts of vocabulary choices, that that’s often ignored, or presupposed, or involved with some hegemonic determination, or delimitation, of what the appropriate context is. So, I wanna challenge that ignoring of context, I wanna challenge that presupposing of context, and I wanna challenge that hegemonic control over context. And one way I found that can happen is through challenging those norms. If I’m putting things together that are irreconcilable and disjunctive, it will make it harder to ignore, harder to presuppose, harder just to embrace the hegemonic form of contextualization. So I think that was an interesting way you put that, or Craig put it. And that would then … if you’re making people, writer and reader, more aware of the actual, no longer ignored, no longer presupposed, no longer complicit contexts … you actually get to the real contexts of this language — it is contested, and it does embody social antagonism, so that you would be able to project social antagonisms in the text work precisely by playing with the way that the language is contextualized.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Dworkin also notes that your “turn from the micro-text level of the sign towards the macro-text level of discourse” was accompanied by significant changes in your compositional method as well. Can you give us a broad idea of how you actually compose, or edit, texts today?
Andrews: At some point in the late ’70s — as I’ve said to many people and on interviews before — I bought a paper cutter, which was the major technological shift in my work, much more significant than word processors, for instance. All my work since … yeah, basically in the last 30 years now, has been composed on small pieces of paper — 8.5/11" sheets of paper cut into 6. Everything I write pretty much — essays, shopping lists, phone numbers, things I need to do, as well as poetry that I collect and create — is all done on that size. Which in terms of Craig’s point, I think, has some interest. When he’s talking about the shift from this more atomized, microscopically investigative, small bits of material to working with phrases, working with longer units … it has some resonance with this partly because the thing that I was working with was small pieces of paper, and doing all my composing on this, and then storing them, basically, and then pulling boxes out — these are all stored in wine case boxes here in the house — which I fill up maybe one a year with, you know, thousands of these cards … as I’ve also said in interviews before, this separates the reading and the writing, or the writing and the editing of this work, sometimes by years. I’ll often be editing words that I composed, or a couple of words, on thousands of little pieces of paper — years before. So I don’t have any relationship with my prior state of mind, when I wrote these things, and I don’t remember the epiphany that led to some vision or something, like poets often feel, and I can be much more mobile and flexible in editing.
I’ve talked about all these things before but now what I notice, in relation to the question the way Craig quoted it: there’s something about operating at the micro-text level of the sign that is something you could produce at the moment, there’s something that lends itself to sitting down and generating things at this micro level, and having all the possibilities more readily available to you. And I don’t think that’s true with discourse. I don’t think discursive materials of the variety, of the complexity, of the vividness that you want to end up with, are all generateable in the moment. But, what I discovered was that they’re collectable. So the difference to me … the micro materials, these raw materials, are things that you could produce on the spot without any fear that you’re being way too limited, you know, that you could imagine all the possibilities of the alphabet, and the combinations of the letters and sounds, and things and you could work through those. With discourse you can’t — but it lends itself to a kind of gradual accumulation in the same way that collecting does. And I’m also kind of an obsessive collector of books, of print material, of music records, and things like that, you know, Mexican and Puerto Rican graphs and masks, and a whole bunch of other things that you see around the house here. And that becomes my relationship to discursive materials — not that I’m expected to sit down at the typewriter and come up with my personalized version of discursive materials, which is what then becomes a poem, but that I can work with editing a vast body of material that I accumulate and collect over time that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. Just as a thought, based on that helpful question and based on Craig’s astute observation.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I am fascinated by the fact that your compositional method enables you to improvise texts in real-time. You frequently perform this specific type of editing “live” in the context of collective multi-media performances, working alongside improvising musicians and dancers, highlighting and exploring the interrelationship between the textual and the performative, writing and sound, semiotics and aesthetics. Can you talk a bit about your experience as a performance artist? How that experience impacts your writing and what it feels like to actually share the performance space with an audience — the corporeality of it all?
Andrews: Okay. This relates a little bit to the previous question about methodology because when I started collaborating with people in the free improvisation music community, which is very elaborately developed here in NYC, and also with movement artists and dancers — in particular Sally Silvers, the choreographer, during this period of the early 1980s — I was not only starting to make music but to do collage live-mixing of tape materials that I would come up with to perform with other musicians and with dancers. In other words, I became a musician and a sound designer partly by just transferring the existing aesthetic I had into sound. And so I felt that the way I had already begun to work with text materials in the late ’70s — somewhat inspired by film maker friend Henry Hills, who was working with film stock in that same way, and also with people in the Chadbourne, Zorn, Cora, etc. free improv community who were working with sound in a somewhat similar way. I started wanting to play some role in these now multimedia performance possibilities. I started to make sound and make music, but, after that I realized that what I was doing with sound I could also do back again with text in performance by doing the editing that I normally do at home on stage — live. The way I wrote got translated into the way I could make music, and then the way I made music could translate back into the way I would be able to edit live in performance — just from the experiences I had as a musician then, performing with other musicians and dancers. In other words, I was able to see by noticing what kind of sound materials worked best to allow free improvisation between musicians and dancers, I could then see, “Oh, okay. There’s a possibility for text here which nobody else is doing, or, nobody else is really fully exploring here!” And that’s what I started to do. Since I had already developed this way of editing in a highly modular form — where I’d sit on my sofa, and I’d have piles of cards, and I’d create phrases and little word clusters and then collage those together and make things that had some stability or shape to them, time-wise — then I could do that same thing live and be influenced in my choices not only by what the words were, in a sense, telling me was possible, but by making my editing choices bounce off of what the other musicians and dancers were doing. That’s basically what I started to do. I would sit and perform with dancers and musicians who had to be improvising.
In other words, this wasn’t something that you could do with composed music, and it wasn’t something that you could do with fully choreographed dance, which already had a kind of fixed quality to it. And you couldn’t do it with already fixed texts – you couldn’t just go in and try to read a short story in the midst of a performance — although people do that, and it’s hideous, it’s deadly — or read their poems as accompaniment to a dance. No, all of that seemed disastrous to me. But this seemed possible: that you could weave your way through textual raw materials and make something in direct reverberating relationship to music and dance. All that, again, was made possible by the highly modular quality of the materials I was generating and also by the freely improvised nature of what these musicians and dancers were doing, again, pretty uniquely in New York. There were other places where free improv music and dance were happening but there really were communities of people here that were doing that. And that really lent itself terrifically to me getting a chance to try these things out.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In an essay called “Praxis: A Political Economy of Noise and Informalism” you firmly suggest to synthesize an Adornian “informalism” with a decidedly constructivist, Brechtian or Benjaminian, production aesthetic. Not in order to resolve tensions, but “to make progressively more appropriate the subjectively recharged material: by contextualizing it. To heal this polar opposition of material and subject in apraxis [sic] of sound: by a constructivist resocializing and ‘opening out’ of the material, and a constructivist contextualizing of the subject. Such informalist noise refuses any projective resolution of social contradiction. It performs this failure, eliciting a contrast with social openness. Indexed by internal contradictoriness, it offers a social model of surprise and the unforseen, of unconstrained freedom and self-reflexivity and conceivable coherence. In sound — among other arenas — equipped with an unrepressive intersubjectivity, to bring the tensions to a head.” What kind of artistic practice are you thinking of? Could you give us some examples? I mean, you gave us some already, but …
Andrews: The things that I was interested in, in Adorno, at this point, was not what Adorno’s most known for — it wasn’t his Aesthetic Theory, it wasn’t his Negative Dialectics, it wasn’t his view about art praxis needing to be distanced and Olympian in its positioning — it was his work trying to confront avant-garde classical music in the 1950s and 1960s, which he talks about in his essay “Towards an Informal Music,” and he had in mind people like Stockhausen, or Luigi Nono, in particular. Now, Luigi Nono was somebody that both Sally Silvers and I did a very large project on. We did a new version of Nono’s opera about revolution, and that was one of the things that interested me about Adorno in thinking about/in relationship to a poetic process. So he’s talking about informalism as — there’s also some links to some visual art that was happening at that point that I’m not as familiar with as I should be — so, I was trying to think about this as something that didn’t put forward or project a prior forming, a prior form, so that you wouldn’t, as a listener — or, in my thinking, a reader — you wouldn’t be presented with the finished form. You would be presented with something closer to these raw materials — that you would be presented with a kind of non grid-like landscape of possible links and connections, almost like things that we’re more familiar with now in the digital domain, where you’re online and you could see what, in a cornball kind of way, hypertext was involved with.
So there’s something about that notion of links, of moving outward in a centrifugal direction — forms, or potential forms, or virtual forms would be made possible but wouldn’t be fixed ahead of time. That wouldn’t be the thing you were supposed to be decoding, or getting a grip on, as a reader, but that you would be involved with in a constructivist exercise yourself. So, in this quote, which I haven’t seen for a while, and I’m always curious to figure out what I might have meant … if I use the phrase “to make progressively more appropriate” the material “by contextualizing it” — the word “appropriate” would be a way of talking about what the relationship of an item is to its context. Even in my work as a political scientist, my whole position was always to try to see how, let’s say, a foreign policy seemed to be following the social rules emanating out of a particular context. If it followed those rules, rule-following then would be a way of talking about appropriate action in relationship to a context — so that you’d be trying to see how it got regularized, how it got normalized, how it got to ward off possibilities of dysfunction, how it got to ward off, or eliminate, the inappropriate. By “appropriate” I want to think about the modes of appropriateness of some material in relationship to various contexts. What I’m talking about in this second phrase here, “to heal this […] opposition of material and subject,” this goes back to what I was saying a minute ago about the micro and macro levels. The micro level would be the raw material; the macro level would be the subject that “gets produced.” And I’m interested, in both cases, in recontextualizing the material— what I called “constructivist resocializing of the material” — to see where else it could lead to beyond what it normally does. And the same, then, with the subject, you know, whether you’d see normally where the subject would get policed, and you could then see how a different reading of its context could open up new possibilities for putting the reader in motion, for putting the subject in motion, which is how I tend to think about this now.
Now, the thing I wasn’t sure about even in this phrase of mine when I talk about “perform[ing] this failure, eliciting a contrast with social openness” … if I’m saying that “informalist noise refuses any projective resolution of social contradiction” — that’s the “failure.” You’re showing how this doesn’t “add up” in some finished, formalist, closed-off, or centripetal text. And that will then elicit a contrast with what could otherwise be possible. So, that’s what I’m trying to get at as “social openness,” which does have to do with newer types of coherence that are conceivable that we haven’t gotten to yet.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Which strikes a familiar chord with, or reminds me, at least a little bit, of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics and also his Aesthetic Theory in terms of … well, that artworks —
Andrews: — Negative Dialectics, that’s a book of Adorno’s I haven’t even read. I’m not a scholar of any of these people, really, for whatever my enthusiasms might be.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Alright, well, what I was reminded of was the idea that artworks must not resolve tensions but, basically, testify to them … to social antagonisms, bearing witness to suffering, etc. Now, you’re not so interested in, I think, art “testifying” to anything, but rather opting for a constructivist approach. Therefore, I was interested in how much of Adorno would be important for your artistic practice.
Andrews: Well, like I said, Adorno in these late essays on music really does go beyond what he had been saying before about early Schoenberg, or Schoenberg and Berg, who he was a student of. Sally [Silvers] and I also did a giant recasting of Berg’s Lulu, you know, those are the two big opera-type pieces that we did as giant spectacles, with dozens and dozens of performers ... and Adorno talking about pre-twelve-tone, the atonal period of Schoenberg and early Berg —
Büscher-Ulbrich: — before it gets mechanized.
Andrews: Yes, before it gets mechanized — as close to what he later gets interested in, and still skeptical, still a little nervous about, in people like Stockhausen and in Cage, even, and Nono, and Bouleze, and three or four other people, in the ’60s. It’s that late rethinking of Adorno that I saw, when it comes to music, at least, and sound, and the sound dimension of literature, that I was most interested in, rather than the more mandarin moves of his Aesthetic Theory.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Some of your performance texts have been published in a book called Ex Why Zee: Performance Texts, Collaborations, Word Maps, Bricolage and Improvisations (1995). You obviously embrace free ensemble improvisation, real-time editing of raw material, radical parataxis and collage aesthetics, while being critical of artworks solely derived from chance operations — what you have called [in “Praxis, A Political Economy of Noise and Informalism”] “procedural (even aleatory) fetishism”. What makes this distinction an important one?
Andrews: I’ve talked about this in other places and maybe I don’t need to say much more now, but just a couple of little things. One: The notion of “free” improvisation I’d like to stress. The thing that made it different from other activities, for instance, in the music world, where the term gets defined by Derek Bailey in his book on improvisation [Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music], was that by “free” improvisation he means non-idiomatic, or non-genre-based, improvisation. Jazz musicians improvise, for instance, but when jazz musicians improvise it’s still hearable as jazz, it seems to be located within that genre. The free improvisation movement, which pretty much begins in England in the early to mid-60s with people like Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, and some others — and also pretty much around the same time in Germany with the people that were doing FMP records, etc. — those people were influenced by free jazz but they were also influenced by contemporary classical music, and to some degree tried to put those two things together, so that you had a level of extremity in the playing, in the organization of the sound, that was maybe reminiscent of either avant-garde classical music or free jazz but didn’t sound recognizable as either one. It then opened up any kind of possibilities for sound making without having it fit into any prior box.
And — going back to what I was saying about “Language Poetry” — that was a huge issue for me, that was what was attractive about free improvisation: the critique of genre. When it came to writing that was involved with ensemble-like playing with others then the question was, “what kind of writing works best in that situation?” Whether it was edited in real-time, or whether it was assembled out of prior editing of very disjunct, modular material. That’s what seemed to work best in that situation. Radical parataxis, or collage-aesthetic-based work seemed to work best in a free improv situation, whereas if I’d been just playing, for instance, with folk musicians, or rock musicians, or classical musicians, or jazz musicians, then something less drastic in its parataxis, something less free from thematic centeredness, would have probably worked better. So that the more extreme versions of collage, and parataxis, and “getting away from genre,” really fit the kind of collaborative context that I was very interested, or invested, in.
Now, the final thing, about the “aleatory thing.” Again, that goes back to my, I think, always present but more recently intensively thought through emphasis on the reader. What I’ve said before was that, for some of us, looking at these chance-generated works in the ’60s — Dick Higgins’s work, or the things that Cage was doing himself, or some other people around the Cage circle in New York, like Jackson Mac Low, in particular, the major poet of that tendency — that we were just fascinated, blown away, by the results of those procedures but didn’t really care that much about the procedure itself. There wasn’t anything specific about that procedure that attracted us. In fact, it seemed to close itself off a little bit from the possibility of exploring the semantic trajectory, or horizon, of the material, which they weren’t as interested in. And I think of procedural fetishism as a sub-category of fetishizing the production, of the writer, rather than doing anything directly relevant to the reader’s experience. So it was always trying to shake things up in light of the reader’s experience that led me onto the path that I’m on, and made me both attracted to the results, and unattracted to the emphasis on the procedure in that work.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Unlike many political artists and writers today, you have a radical aversion to identity politics. And a piece which very much exemplifies this is “Mistaken Identity,” which you edited live in performance with Vernon Reid in the late 1990s. Like many of your texts, that piece is a tour de force through the obscene underside of American consumerism, liberal pluralism, and multinational capitalism and a sarcastic account of how ideology subjects us. What’s the problem with identity in your opinion? And what’s it all got to do with a critical poetics?
Andrews: Okay, another huge question. Identity politics as a political phenomenon I’m not gonna jump right in to. I was just reading [Hans-Georg] Gadamer today. He’s quoting some early hermeneutic philosophers who talked about identifying — “to identify” was defined as “producing sameness,” which, I think, is similar to the way Adorno talks about identification. Well, that’s pretty much the heart of my radical aversion to identity politics as it seems to be about “you’re committed to that, you’re committed to identity, you’re committed to identification, you’re committed to reproduction of some kind of sameness, even if it’s the sameness of a niche, the sameness of a faction, the sameness of an ethnic group, or a racial group, the sameness of a territorial group, etc.” That’s a closure that I am unhappy with. Identity operates as a filter, it operates to make less flexible the experience of some potential reader. So, there I’m more interested in the flexibility, or the hybridity, of a reader — their ability to operate with a broader toolkit, you know, with more irons in the fire, in a sense, their ability to shift around, their ability to be the opposite of the same, their ability to not have all their experience filtered through somebody else’s identity.
Actually I talked about this in my essay on Michael Lally’s work — about some of the dangers of a narcissism in the writing creating this identification structure in the reader, which is very much a Brechtian theme as well. And you mentioned the “sarcastic account of how ideology subjects us” … again, there, ideology subjects us by creating identifiable subjects. And it’s not just ideology that does that, it’s also the whole material shape of everyday life and of the structures of Capital, and other things … patriarchy, etc., etc. So it’s the subjection process that I’m interested in. And I’m interested in it because I think of it as needing an alternative, needing a chance, needing a prescription, and I think some of the sarcasm in that account is sarcasm about the claim that these things — multinational Capital, liberal pluralism, American consumerism — that they are enough! The claim that they are sufficient, that they are all you need. And I am asking: “Enough for who?” They may be enough for a very rigidly delimited type of identity, certain types of identity. They’re not enough for an open-ended notion of what a person or a subject could be. So that’s why I think of identity politics not as a solution but as part of the problem, in a sense. How the things that I’m unhappy with in the world sustain themselves very nicely.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In an essay called “Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust,” Sianne Ngai engages your writing in Shut Up in terms of a poetics of disgust as opposed to a poetics of “desire production.” Theories, poetics, and hermeneutics of “desire” abound, as she notes, while disgust has no well-known paradigms associated with it and has largely remained outside any theoretical zone, even though in the social and material world of global capitalism potential objects of disgust abound. Is disgust the dialectical other of desire — a negativity that is harder to co-opt? What makes disgust an important force in contemporary experimental writing engaged with ideological concerns?
Andrews: Okay, just a couple of little things. If I hear you talk about desire, I feel as if a lot of the theorizing about desire, again, is focused around the author, or focused around something lacking in the reader, that by identifying with the author position they can somehow fill that lack. And, since I’m more trying to think about this in the reader’s terms, that desire seems misplaced. In other words, to the extent that I focus on the reader, I’m often focused on what’s in the way of a more wide-ranging possibility for the reader. And what’s in the way are things that are troubling, and even likely to occasion disgust. In your original formulation of this, that you sent me, you mentioned “corporate ideology, bigotry, geopolitical wars, forms of institutionalized inequality.” Again, those things are objects of disgust, and it’s not just my disgust. I mean, these are things that are generally lacking, or that need to be overcome, in some way. But it is also my disgust, you know: as an author I am entangled in this. For instance, when I’m giving public readings of Shut Up, which I’ve done a bunch of times over the years, parts of that piece, that material, is very difficult for me to handle, even as a reader. So I think it is a way of talking about things that are not lacking but that are too much, in a sense — things that overwhelm you with excess. In a way, highlighting disgust is a way of challenging pluralism, which is usually seen as the answer to what we don’t have enough of. Whereas if the problem is that we have too much of certain things, then pluralism is not gonna be sufficient.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In the 1970s it was probably you, and other Language Poets, and Amiri Baraka, who most harshly criticized the political naïveté of the New American Poetry, though in differing ways, and the relentlessly politicized poetry in the US at a time of conservative backlash that would hibernate during the Carter years, experience its peak in the Reagan-Bush era, and return forcefully with the Bush II Administration. Now, my impression is that while dissecting what both of you considered the political failure of the New Left in the face of multinational capitalism and geopolitical wars, dominant modes of poetics were brought under similar scrutiny. Would you agree?
Andrews: The issue with the New American Poetry that a number of us felt was most pressing was, again, the ego-centered quality of it, from the author’s valorized standpoint. So, the political naïveté as a sub-category of that — emphasis on the writer, on the ego of the writer — would be that the author can’t really just be celebrating her own politics. In some ways, the political naïveté is related to this excessive valorizing of the central position of the writer. If that’s what’s generally been celebrated, then that automatically looks politically naïve because it looks too isolationist. It doesn’t have this centrifugal push outward, toward others. The issue that we’re operating at this time of conservative backlash … I wanted to just caution people when they try to put someone’s work in a time line … is just to realize that, I mean, for a lot of us starting to do this kind of radical work in the 1970s that would come into print in the mid-70s, late 70s, or 80s … that it doesn’t necessarily represent an immediate response to what was going on right then. There’s this backlog that occurs, where you’re being shaped by prior impulses in the art world, in art communities, in art practice, that might have come out in response to an earlier phase. So that we’re being influenced by radical work from the 60s that’s inspiring us, and we’re continuing to push that work forward during a time when the social and political landscape has changed drastically, where we’re in the Nixon years or we’re in the Carter years, and we’re in a time of conservative backlash, or we’re not. So I just wanted to complicate the time line by reminding us that all our work is, and myself included … in some ways, disabled from being directly responsive to what’s going on because we have some back catalogue, in a sense, we have some backlog, we have some baggage that has already shaped us. That we’re not a blank slate, where we can just respond flexibly to whatever is happening.
And the other thing was … what allows these radical heritages from the 60s, for instance, to continue on influencing work in the 70s, or in the 80s, when things shift way to the Right and become much more conservative, is the existence of a community. And that was one of the accomplishments, I think, of the so-called Language Writers. Not just that, in isolation, they produced a bunch of drastic and crazy texts but that they also created a community, a sense of community, institutions coming out of that community and sense of community, that allowed those earlier impulses and the practice based on them to survive in increasingly uncongenial circumstances.
There’s also one thing you’re asking — maybe you’ve asked Baraka this too — about “the political failure of the New Left.” I mean, I just had to laugh. The idea that the New Left somehow had a sizeable enough constituency at any point in my lifetime to even be accused of political failure, I mean, that is like saying “you failed because your group of three people didn’t become a group of three million people.” Well, I agree, that was a failure there. But, I think, from a European context, you have to realize how pathetically dinky the actual Left has always been in the United States — if it’s not a specific opposition to the degradations of racists against the Civil Rights movement, or the degradations created by imperialist war in relation to the anti-war movement. If you get to the number of people that go beyond the civil rights or an anti-war position into a fully ideologized left-wing view of the world, that’s just a virtual handful of folks, in a certain sense, in the U.S., unlike Europe.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Reading your work vis-à-vis Amiri Baraka’s, I was reminded of some of the conflicting ideas within the tradition of critical theory — especially between so-called “Western” and so-call “Third World” Marxism, but also within the former, e.g. between Lukács and Brecht, Brecht and Adorno, maybe Adorno and Baudrillard. I saw some of those conflicting theoretical positions being reflected in your respective aesthetic-political strategies, and I came to think of that as a contemporary recasting of a dialectical tension at the heart of avant-garde aesthetics: a tension between negation and affirmation, Adornian negativity and Brechtian/Benjaminian constructivist impulses. Although the coordinates of this conflict have certainly been altered by several theoretical paradigm shifts since the 1930s, it still hinges on the complex nexus between forms of aesthetic experience and political subjectivity. How do you approach this problem in your writing as well as in a performance context?
Andrews: As somebody that teaches International Political Economy, one thing that I’m struck by in the discussions about Third World Marxism is how significantly they focus on the role of the state as an authority, and as something that needs strengthening by radical forces. And something that then is involved with mobilizing forces. So it’s something that either mobilizes the existing forces through strengthening the state, or that it somehow projects a certain type of citizen that it then wants to create. And there’s something about that emphasis on the “strong state” — which is, of course, valorized in the whole Leninist tradition, Stalinist tradition, and may be something that Baraka talked about since his past theorizing certainly looked like he was much more sympathetic to that than most people are today, for instance, thinking about the “strong state” tradition. Something about the analogy with the author pops into my head. That there’s something about the willingness to have an authoritarian state, and the willingness to have a very controlling, directive author, a little bit like some of those things I said about Brecht and the scientific control tradition, that might be relevant. And, I think, anybody that wants to really valorize the position of the reader would end up taking a somewhat more libertarian, or –
Büscher-Ulbrich: anarchist? —
Andrews: — democratic, anarchist … Situationist position that would go against some of the things that I associate with the Leninist heritage, which, by the way, among the Language Writers (so-called) never had much play. I think Silliman might have been the closest to that, to flirting with that tradition, closer than the rest of us.
When you mention “Adornian negativity” … there I’m wondering whether the negativity is about, or could be interpreted in the same light as, a kind of libertarian impulse: where you’re keeping your distance from established structures — maybe in a protective, defensive crouch, but at least there’s a distance — and that that does then cut against any way of glamorizing authoritarian control — whether it’s coming from the consumer market place, the power of corporations, or whether it’s coming from a post-revolutionary state. In that way the “Brechtian/Benjaminian constructivist impulse” might still [....] and you can see this in Brecht, certainly, and you could see it at certain periods of Benjamin’s writing too, that little flirtation with authoritarian politics. For me it may have to do with: if I wanna have something be recognizable in the work, it may not be the recognition of any kind of pre-set template that could be provided by an authoritative author, “slash,” state, “slash,” revolutionary party, or elite — but the recognition of a possible future. There’s something about this negativity, this opening up of a space outside of the state’s sphere, which you don’t want to just become free market fetishism, but I also don’t want it to become a closed-off or prescribed future that’s given to me by the text, or by the author, or by the government. So somehow I do negotiate the intricacies of what we used to think of as anarcho-communism that become quite interesting here. Like how much emphasis you want on each side of that?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Oh yes.
Andrews: Which, by the way, I remember having debates about with Jackson Mac Low — somebody with a long commitment, and radical commitment, to anarchism. But the problem, and I think at least people that theorize Third World Marxism were very clear that in the context of neoliberal globalization, that the only hope of survival of a different future for a progressive society in the Third World was to develop a fairly powerful state apparatus. That was the only way to negotiate with globalizing forces, and that meant that you couldn’t go all the way with this complete openness of anarchism, or, the complete openness of aleatory technique, but that you wanna have some guides, some reference point, some willingness to engage the semantic dimension, just like you wanna have some willingness to engage with the state, engage with what the state can do.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Post-Marxist political thinker Jacques Rancière contends that the politics of aesthetics operates in the unresolved tension between two opposed forms of politics, or rather, meta-politics: that of transforming art into forms of collective life, and that of preserving from all forms of militant or commercial compromise the autonomy that makes it a promise of emancipation. For Rancière, this tension sheds some light on the paradoxes of critical art and its dialectical transformations. Let’s assume [Peter] Bürger’s famous diagnosis of the neo-avant-garde’s flawed strategy of repeating, under late-capitalist conditions, the meta-political project of the historical avant-garde (“the sublation of art into the praxis of life”) is prompted by ignoring that constitutive tension — these two rather familiar polar opposites in avant-garde aesthetics: the (neo) Dadaist’s and (neo) Constructivists’ “Art into life!’” versus (qua Adorno) “the necessity of art’s relative autonomy to maintain its emancipatory promise.” Moreover, having rendered visible the effects of a false sublation of autonomy, one might say that the avant-garde, in any case, helped redefine the aesthetic-political project of the avant-garde: to make conceivable new forms of subjectivity through art without sublating the institution of art. Now, as a Marxist political scientist and avant-garde experimental poet, do you think that this is possible without “touching” the material basis? Or, if we think about social reality in terms of its “discursive formation,” who has access to what type of discourse in the first place?
Andrews: When you talk about this distinction of transforming art into forms of collective life, on the one hand, and, on the other, that of preserving a kind of autonomy that offers a promise of emancipation … well, transforming art into a form of life to me sounds too reminiscent of creating a closed-off text, so I would have a problem with that part of the binary. And the idea of trying to preserve autonomy from any kind of “militant or commercial compromise” … that, I think, suggests too much emptying out of the literary work of any kind of content. […] To me, it’s not autonomy that needs to be preserved, but it’s the possibility of an expanding capacity. So that you can[’t] have that expanded capacity without confronting the reader or without inviting the reader into some new possibilities — and those new possibilities might involve things that Adorno, or someone else, would sniff or turn up their nose at and find to be all hideous compromise with mass culture, things like that. To me the issue is not whether some part of the mass culture looks disagreeable or not, or doesn’t look like what you wanna be surrounded by — you’d rather sit around listening to Mozart string quartets or something — but no, it’s whether it’s useful and challenging your existing capacity and opening it up. And I always have felt that it does! So, therefore I don’t see any need to be so protectionist. But I also don’t feel the need just to fold everything into the existing everyday life the way Bürger was talking about what the neo-avant-garde’s doing.
Now, the last thing you were saying is about “making conceivable new forms of subjectivity through art,” which I think is one of the projects that I’m fascinated by and interested in, “without sublating the institution of art.” Now, here, one spectrum that I would end up focusing on would be between aesthetic and anti-aesthetic. I don’t care so much about ‘dissolving’ the institution of art, but I do care about sublating, or dissolving, or transcending, or leaving in the dust, aesthetics. Because, I think, even what Kant and classical aestheticians, aesthetic philosophers, talked about as aesthetics does — in a less formalist way of understanding them, which is what I’m interested in — show the positive possibilities of aesthetic experience. That it isn’t just something we need to leave behind. It is something that opens up the possibility of capacitation for the reader, in certain ways.
The other thing you mention, whether this making conceivable of new forms of subjectivity is possible without “touching” the material base … Well, here, if we think of the material base as processes, then I think it does involve touching the material base. If we think of the material base as thematics, or as economic or corporate structures, then you’re not really gonna be touching upon them, or opening them up, or eliminating them. So, that’s a distinction that I make about the material base — a little bit like the base/superstructure distinction I talked about earlier. And the final thing you asked about — “or: if we think about social realities in terms of their ‘discursive formation’ — who has access to what type of discourse in the first place?” Now, here’s something very challenging, very interesting — I don’t have a good response to it — Rancière, who I‘ve been just now reading (I’m behind in my Rancière-ism), does highlight, and so did Bourdieu, in a different way. So, that question of access I haven’t really come to terms with yet. It may be I’m making too many assumptions about what kind of discourse people need to have defamiliarized, you know. If I’m interested in defamiliarizing social discourse and not just defamiliarizing literary tradition, if I’m interested in what has been called a kind of social modernism, where the defamiliarizing effort points toward the social order and not just toward artistic heritages, then I still have to accept that some kinds of discourse about society will not even be accessible to certain people. And so then you might have to say, “Oh, you’re defamiliarizing something that’s over their heads anyway.” That’s a problem I haven’t really come up with anything about yet.
Büscher-Ulbrich: But you’re also a professor, and a teacher. So that, for me, that goes hand in hand in terms of what kind of audience would be willing to deal with that. So, the question of education, obviously, is crucial, always.
Andrews: Right. And there we could, you know, if I knew more about the implications of Schiller, whom I’m also just now reading, we could probably talk about that too … about aesthetic education. Maybe next year … I’ll be right on that one.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Much of your work, I believe, critiques the hegemony of liberal pluralism as a form of repressive tolerance that shuts radical critique down and requires the exclusion of Marxisms from the political arena to maintain its liberal guise. How important do you think a systematic critique of liberal pluralism is today?
Andrews: Okay. A couple of things … It isn’t just Marxisms that are being excluded from the political arena in order for it to maintain its liberal guise; it’s almost any kind of radical thought, whether it’s coming from the Marxist tradition, the feminist tradition, from queer theory, from postcolonial theorizing, etc., etc. So, I think, the hegemony of liberal pluralism in the political realm is a kind of repressive tolerance that does tend to shut radical critique down. And it’s quite parallel to views that I’ve expressed about pluralism in the poetry community, in the poetry tradition, which is this: that a lot of people have come to appreciate various kinds of experimental writing, and so-called language writing, but have not been willing to give up their attachment to everything that preceded it. So it’s as if we get added on to the smorgasbord or to the buffet at the end, as an extra, like “here’s a little desert” or “here’s something to have with your coffee,” at the end, after you had your beefy meal of narrative fiction, author-centered lyric poetry, etc. My feeling — and I’ve been criticized for this before, for the ‘progressivism’ of it, for the ‘Hegelianism’ of it, you know, for the arrogance of it — that I’ve criticized what I consider more conservative kinds of writing because I really think — and this is partly in terms of the canon, the formation of the canon, in terms of what people read or what’s on required reading lists or what people think they need to know — that it’s the appreciation for past monuments and past forms of excellence that are very often in the way of the kind of writing that I’m interested in having its full effect, which is that of shaking things up. And if it’s gonna do that, one of the things that it might hopefully do is just to make people bored with some of the shit that went down in the past.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Re-reading Benjamin’s “The Artist as Producer” the other day, I was struck by the parallels between his explications of Tretiakov and Brecht as well as the notion of a “mediated solidarity” and your writing practice. I also found the following remark, which reminded me of how frequently I burst into a peculiar kind of laughter while reading your work: “We can remark in passing that there is no better starting point for thought than laughter. In particular, thought usually has a better chance when one is shaken by laughter than when one’s mind is shaken and upset. The only extravagance of the epic theatre is its amount of laughter.” Would you like to comment on the significance of humor for your writing as well as your performances?
Andrews: Sure. Let me first ask if you could say anything about this notion of “mediated solidarity” because that’s been ages since I’ve read this essay and I don’t remember what that means.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Benjamin notes that solidarity with the proletariat, in terms of the bourgeois intellectual artist, or writer — who might well be sympathetic towards the proletariat and the idea of a socialist revolution — is still mostly lip service as long as he or she doesn’t come up with new forms of art, or new methodologies of writing that seem capable of enacting that solidarity, in a mediated way. That it might be more appropriate for them to get involved in political rallying than using traditional bourgeois cultural formats to express their solidarity with workers and critique the bourgeoisie. That as bourgeois artists their solidarity can only ever be a mediated one, though very effective in just that sense, like in the work of Tretiakov and, of course, Brecht.
Andrews: This seems to echo the distinction between thematic and formal, right? Where the solidarity that might be expressed by, let’s say, someone like myself — a middle-class person, college teacher, privilegedly white, privilegedly male, privilegedly heterosexual, you know — that I could, through the thematics of my work, gesture toward the ideas that were in solidarity with the working class, or with gays, or with women, or with people from other countries, or with people from other ethnic groups, etc. whereas a mediated solidarity, if that means coming up with a method that would resonate with the task that was in front of these oppressed groups, then, that’s closer to my thinking about methodology as the emphasis. I suggested at one point, in an interview, that the “so-called Language Poets” might have been called the “Methodist poets” — which is not just an artifact of my early going to Sunday school in the Evangelical United Brethren Church in Cheverly, Maryland, which was then taken over by the Methodists, or the fact that my father was an experimental psychology professor and scientist whose field was methodology, so, method is something I’m interested in. And I think it is the thing that can activate and capacitate the reader, more than merely invoking certain themes which are already identificatory, in the sense that I mentioned earlier, of producing sameness. That kind of solidarity I don’t think gets you very far.
Now, the other thing, about laughter … here, I think, laughter and humor involved in the reading of the work is something that I probably didn’t think very much about until I came to New York and started giving public readings. That was a huge influence … caused a big change in my thinking about my writing, and it literally was when I started to go to readings that I started to notice what people laughed at, not just in my own work because I was part of a poetry community and we were all going to each other’s readings, and, you know, you could literally tell what was going to get a rise out of the audience, what would be provocative, what would make them go “Ooh, what was that?!”, or, what would upset them or shock them or make them laugh, in particular. So I did start to think about that more intensively when I got away from silent readings, sitting at home — before I might have noticed that something was funny or not, but it wasn’t quite as vivid, in my mind. Now, since then, one of my models lately for thinking about the effect of something like laughter would be thinking about the Sublime — once we reinterpret Kant’s model.
Büscher-Ulbrich: A materialist or social constructivist turn?
Andrews: Right, and there’s actually a good book I’m just reading that lays this out, by a Dutchwoman, Kiene Wurth, a book called Musically Sublime, and she questions the somewhat mechanical version of the response to the sublime in Kant, which takes on these two stages: one where you’re confronted with something, you’re confronted with a presentation which you can’t get your hands around, in a sense, it’s unrepresentable, it’s too big to be grasped. But then there’s a second stage where that gives you a hint of your actual capacity for dealing with that large-scale size, or large-scale forcefulness of some object in nature, or in an artwork.
So, when I’ve lately been thinking about the Sublime, that’s the effect that I see happening in so-called Language Writing: where what’s unrepresentable is the system of language, the systematic networked formation of language as a structure, and also as a process, and also as something that involves embodiment in texts and in readers or speakers or listeners. That if you produce completely drastic, radical texts that they will be able at first to shake people up, and unsettle them, or, in the extreme, blow their mind … as in “how to operate with a blown mind” — and then that will somehow work not just to immobilize them, not just to stun them, or put them into some kind of unconscious swoon, but it will somehow empower them, it will enable them, it will capacitate them, it would give them the confidence that they can, in fact, see that this initially unsettling and strange phenomenon actually points to a complicated bigger landscape or network than they had originally noticed. That they then realize they have the ability to get some leverage on it, get some grasp of it, and that that will be, in Kant’s term, elevating. That they will get this elevated, “ennobling,” or what I’m calling, capacitating and transformative ability.
This book on the musically sublime was questioning the mechanical quality of the stages and suggesting that somehow the unsettling quality never stops, that you’re basically laminating those two things on top of one another, in the experience of these texts. And that is probably the closest to what’s really going on — that you stay fluid, you stay shaken up, you know, it’s like a martini, “shaken but not stirred”: things are in motion, they never reach a fixed, overly confident conclusion. But they do start to get you past your current fixations, your current fetishisms, your current attachments, your current identifications. So, in this quote, very interesting quote, when he says “thought usually has a better chance when one is shaken by laughter …”, now, there I’m completely in agreement. So the “shaken by laughter” to me would be closer to this first stage where something is shaking you up. But then he says, “… than when one’s mind is shaken and upset.” I would almost flip it around — it’s your mind that’s being shaken and upset, and the laughter is the second stage, when you realize that you have some overview, you know, that actually you are not part of some kind of elite — like you get the joke and others don’t — but that you have some distance, you have some contextualizing capacity that you then become aware of.
And I think that’s what, you know, when I hear people laugh, let’s say, if I’m reading from something like I Don’t Have Any Paper, or more recent works, people laugh and it’s unsettling, but they’re laughing because the unsettling quality of it leads somewhere. It doesn’t just stop there but actually gives people the sense that “Oh, I can see that!” But it isn’t just the laughter without being unsettling. So laughter that comes without being unsettled to me is closer to identity politics, you know, that means you feel superior — “Oh, I can laugh at that. I’m not implicated in that, I’m keeping my distance, I’m adopting a protectionist stance, I’m gonna wall myself off” — which might actually have some relationship to Third World Marxism, and Leninist versions of opposing globalization, instead of being implicated by it. So, to me, it’s implicating them and then giving them some distance, instead of the distance coming without the implicatedness, which then to me is a little bit like arrogance. Your mind is not shaken up, you just laugh because you feel superior or you feel distanced and protectionist enough, like, “oh, this isn’t really about me, this is about those other people that I’m gonna laugh at.” So, no, I think there’s this back and forth, this, shall we say, dialectic that can go on where you are in front of some kind of drastic, radical, shake-up style, you know, mind-shaking text, and then the humor comes from the pleasure, the pleasure of actually … you know, if you can enjoy something that’s unsettling it’s because you can enjoy being reconfigured, and reconfiguring yourself, and that’s the pleasure. Not just the sense of distance and superiority, but the sense that you have a capacity of contextual interpreting and relocating, and reformatting that you were unaware of. And that’s the capacity that’s exhibited by the writing, so that you end up — and this is what people have always said about so-called Language Writing, where the reader’s and the writer’s positions are merged, or intertwined, or flip back and forth in some kind of oscillation, that that’s what’s going on — that the capacity that you achieve is the contextualizing capacity of the writing itself.
New York City, September 27, 2010
1. For more information on Andrews’s collaboration with choreographer and dancer Sally Silvers and their collective multimedia performance practice since the 1980s read Erica Kaufman’s 10 Questions for Bruce Andrews and Sally Silvers.
2. I am referring here to Andrews’s “Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis,” Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996), 49-71. The essay is also included in Charles Bernstein’s edition of The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy (New York: Roof, 1990), 23–44.
5. Most recently in a 2010 interview with Dan Thomas-Glass, published in The Argotist Online.
6. This is the concluding paragraph from Andrews’s “Praxis: A Political Economy of Noise and Informalism,” published in Charles Bernstein’s collection of essays on sound in poetry, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford UP, 1998) 73-85.
PoemTalk on Lyn Hejinian's "constant change figures"
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?
Tom Mandel: Oh, just one year.
Filreis: Just one year, that was long enough.
Mandel: It was an action-packed year.
Filreis: Tom’s most recent book To the Cognoscenti was published by Atelos in 2007. He is one of the authors, along with Bob Perelman among others, of The Grand Piano, an experimental autobiography. For the last two decades, Tom has been a technology entrepreneur. Welcome back Bob Perelman and Tom Devaney, and thanks, Tom Mandel, for making your way to Philly from Delaware, via Detroit?
Mandel: And Chicago.
Filreis: And Chicago, and for joining us on PoemTalk for the first time. How was Detroit and Chicago?
Mandel: Well, I went to Detroit for a Grand Piano reading, which was an enormous amount of fun. Seven of us were there and had a fabulous time, gave a really terrific reading, which someday soon, probably within the week, will be available to listen to, and maybe even a video to watch.
Filreis: That’s great, and the subject of our discussion today — Lyn Hejinian — was there?
Mandel: Yes, she was.
Filreis: That’s great. Our poem today is an untitled twenty-seven-line lyric by Lyn Hejinian, the aforementioned, which has been published once in a magazine and, I think, later in an anthology, but has not been collected in a book. That volume, a decade in progress, is to be called The Book of a Thousand Eyes, and will possibly consist of a thousand poems, or maybe three hundred ten, which was how many were complete the last time I checked with Lyn. A handful of pieces from the project appeared in The Little Book of a Thousand Eyes, published by Smokeproof Press, but our poem does not appear there. We’ll call it “constant change figures” from its first line, and our recording comes from a visit Lyn Hejinian made here to the Writers House in February, 2005 when she read this one and twenty others poems in the series. In the first line, the word “figures” is read, by Lyn, as if it’s a noun, but it strikes me as a verb.
Mandel: The first time through I think it’s read as if it is a verb.
Filreis: How does it work, Tom?
Mandel: I think it’s read as if it is a verb the first time through, as if it is a noun the second time, and, in the exact same pronunciation as when it was a noun, as a verb the third time.
Filreis: When it functions as a verb, what does it do, let’s say in the first couple of lines?
Mandel: What does it do semantically?
Mandel: Semantically, it says that change is what decorates, presents, and makes available to us the time we sense.
Filreis: So, it figures time.
Mandel: It figures time.
Filreis: Bob, what do you make of that particular repetition: “constant change figures”?
Bob Perelman: A lot of things. I’m thinking how different it is looking at the poem on the page, hearing the poem, and then remembering the poem. It changes quite dramatically, it seems to me, in those various instantiations. I totally agree with what Tom says about the play between process and product, between fluidity and solidifying into Gestalt, and that’s what she’s doing throughout. I think the poem contains the seeds of its own unfolding, self-undoing and redoing. It is trying to teach us as it goes along how to read, unread, and reread it.
Filreis: Tom Devaney, what is your sense of hearing the poem? Does the sound wash over you? Do you forget the obligation to pull semantic meaning out of it since it’s obviously repeating lines, and one has a feeling that maybe randomly it’s doing so?
Thomas Devaney: No, you feel the repetition — that insistence of new meaning — in each line. Each time she writes “the constant change figures,” she’s enacting that feeling of the Steinian “nothing can be repeated, only said with a different insistence.” So, that’s the feeling I get right away. It gives you that feeling on the page of what the memory process feels like, through word play and repetition.
Filreis: Tom Mandel, you look like you’re about to say something.
Mandel: Just that I see plenty of Gestalt in the poem. The poem is three sets of nine lines. The first set of nine is repeated in the second set and the third set with significant variation. In the second set, the first line appears twice; and the second line, “the time we sense,” does not appear at all. In the third nine-line set — the second repetition in other words — the second line, “the time we sense,” appears twice, whereas the first line, “constant change figures,” doesn’t appear at all.
Filreis: Is there an algorithm?
Mandel: There’s no algorithm. There doesn’t need to be an algorithm, but there is a clear pointing. First of all, if you will, to the leading position of the first two lines — “constant change figures/the time we sense” — as, in a way, the seed out of which the whole poem emerges. And those two lines, “constant change figures” and “the time we sense,” are repeated in a significantly different way from the other lines in the poem.
Perelman: It’s funny, I mean I know Stein is —
Filreis: Back there somewhere.
Perelman: Yes, back there somewhere as crucial to Lyn’s writing. Then there’s Stein’s continuous present, which this poem certainly is an example of, but it’s also, I think, a kind of meta-commentary on the continuous present. There are three different modes of time. There’s sense, there’s experience, and there’s memory. Sense might be the immediate sensory present: hearing each word. The way Lyn reads it at first, she really emphasizes the line breaks.
So, sense would break things down into the present, and would tend to break things into smaller and smaller atoms. Experience is a longer, mid-range present: when you hear the whole sentence, that’s the experience, or the whole poem. Then, there’s the residue. If we all just stop and think “what do we think about this poem, what’s the memory of this poem,” it’s a much different being, certainly, than reading the poem, or rehearing it. I think all of those different instantiations, aspects, states, are what the poem is trying to invoke. And I’m now remembering, actually, one of Lyn’s early talks, “Chronic Ideas.” When I heard her read the first line “constant change figures,” I heard “constant” as echoing “chronic” and “figures” as echoing “ideas”— chronic ideas from thirty years ago.
Perelman: So, on the one hand you have a paean to change and the constant sliding along of the present, but you also have this continuity of the constant change going back thirty years.
Filreis: And I’d also add, thinking back to Language poetry’s manifesto moment, if there was such a thing, where you might say: we call memory nature’s picture, and we’ve got to do something different. Let’s do something different. Memory isn’t so simple. It’s not just Proustian. There’s something else going on.
Tom Devaney, you were going to say something.
Devaney: I was also going to say that it’s not Proustian memory. There’s a distinction being made, and the whole poem is about differences in that sense. I kept thinking about passing on its effect, and Tom’s earlier comment about seeing how the poem was working physically on the page … but the poem, for me, feels like it is passing on its effect. You can feel the effects in the poem enacting, but also literally passing on and over its own sense of enacting as well, and so I really respond to those lines: “passing on its effect,” and “surpassing things we’ve known before.”
Mandel: And yet, that line can also mean passing on its effects.
Perelman: I think I’ll pass on that.
Filreis: That’s fabulous.
Perelman: Many of these lines, words, syntactic recursions are a bit like Freud’s primal words, where they also mean their opposite: passing, surpassing.
Filreis: Experience is constantly qualified in this poem.
Mandel: But it’s the last word in the poem, and the writer knows what she is doing, so that the last question in the last five lines —
Filreis: It is an implied question.
Mandel: “But what of what/in the time we sense/surpassing things we’ve known before/passing on its effect/is experience.” So, you can’t let that go. And I would just say, as far as the Stein goes, as Steve Lacy says, “everything is an influence.” The relationship of a poem to the history of literature is just the price of entrance to thinking about and engaging with the poem. So, even though we are in an academic setting here, I wouldn’t want us to dive too deeply into Lyn and Stein.
Filreis: Okay, so warned. Getting away from Stein, let me try and do something really stupid, except for pedagogical purposes, and try to paraphrase that fabulous question that ends the poem. You tell me if I’ve got it wrong, or if it makes no sense at all: “To what extent is ‘experience,’ what we call ‘experience,’ to what extent is experience the result of our living in time (moment-to-moment duration), which produces senses that are familiar, yet move us forward on to new effects?”
That would be my paraphrase of the question. Or, in other words, to what extent is experience the confluence of the present we know and what of the present is new?
How did I do?
Mandel: You did great, except that the frame of the question is what is experience? “But what, of what dot dot dot is experience?”
Filreis: But see, I think there is a harder critique of experience at the beginning of this poem, and we might agree about this. That is to say, this thing we call experience isn’t much of a guide to what we know of the present, and formulating how we will proceed wholly into the next moment. This thing that we call experience, in the end, I think, is dubbed an ideology. It’s a way of thinking that’s not necessarily what this poem is going to be about. Does that make sense?
Mandel: Sure, yeah.
Filreis: I remember the first sections of My Life, so this is Lyn Hejinian essentially trying to imagine the languaged self as a premature being, I guess you could say. And there, there is all this Freudian identification language: the memory of the pattern of rows on the wall, and all that stuff. There’s something about this that makes me think of it as a kind of mature lyric contemplation version of the kind of gauzy, Proustian baby-language self in those first sections [of My Life]. This makes me think of that. It makes me think of My Life, only it’s a little more theoretical, a little more abstract. The language is less concrete.
Can I throw something out that I think we may want to say for any learners out there — sophomores, as it were symbolically? Something that we may have not stressed enough, which is that this poem is the perfect example of a poem that is semantically about the way it is as a form. Does somebody want to comment on that? It is about how it must change, but it also changes.
Devaney: Well, even the line that Tom and I had two different readings of: that’s an example of the interruption being built within the poem. It still gives me the effect, whether it’s an interruption or not, of how something is feeling. She’s enacting this kind of experience in the language, through the insistence — talking about experience, but creating a new experience in the poem itself, and not going outside of that.
Perelman: It’s funny, though. I’m saying this while I’m looking down at the page, which, again, is cheating from the listener’s point of view, but, nevertheless, here are the first four lines:
constant change figures
the time we sense
passing on its effect
surpassing things we’ve known before.
In the fourth line, that “before” gestures to before the poem started. It actually gestures outside of the poem itself.
Filreis: Speaking now more generally about poetry, what is the virtue of a variations poem like this, a poem that reuses its lines and, I suppose, in an aural sense mesmerizes us?
Mandel: So, probably in some ways in our time, John Coltrane is the great artist of this kind of repetition. One of the things it does is it keeps more of the work in the present. It keeps more of the work in the mind of the listener/reader at any single time.
Filreis: It keeps us going.
Mandel: It definitely keeps us going.
Perelman: It can also, it seems to me, emphasize that edge of novelty: What is just a little bit different about this? You just heard this, but you didn’t hear it just this way.
Filreis: Make it new in a different mode, surpassing the things we knew before. Well, I can’t resist, though Stein has been jokingly banned.
Mandel: No, not banned — banished.
Filreis: Lyn Hejinian, in one of her two talks on Stein, which she has reprinted in her wonderful book of essays The Language of Inquiry: Essays and Poems, quotes Stein in “Composition as Explanation” as follows:
It was all so nearly alike it must be different and it is different, it is natural that if everything is used and there is a continuous present and a beginning again and again if it is all so alike it must be simply different and everything simply different was the natural way of creating it then.
Anybody want to comment on the relevance of that? Or not relevance?
Perelman: Yeah, Stein. It’s funny how the first time you hear that — or when, in my case for instance, you first taught it — you emphasize its break with the long syntactic periods of, say, Henry James or William James. It’s the continuous present —
Filreis: That William James talked about, but didn’t write like.
Perelman: Yes. But, in fact, Stein is not all that un-Jamesian. She puts big demands on medium-term memory and comparison. The continuous present is a little like the rabbit that the greyhounds chase. Meanwhile the bettors are keeping track of the number of laps that the greyhounds are running, to fill out this metaphor. The mid-range attention is very important — let’s go back to Lyn — it’s very important in this poem. Try and read this poem as one complete thought, as one complete sentence, holding the whole thing in that mid-range of your attention. It’s kind of a staggering load, but I think it’s just barely doable. It’s a very different kind of experience than, say, memory or than sense.
Mandel: And one thing I might add is that this work, and much of Lyn’s work, owes William James a great debt, if that’s the right word for it, as it does to Stein.
Filreis: Or through Stein to William James.
Mandel: Well, through Stein to William James, but directly also.
Filreis: And I think it must be said, although this is a little hard bibliographically, that The Book of a Thousand Eyes — which might be three hundred poems or four hundred poems, but will still be probably called The Book of a Thousand Eyes … Well, I’ve read thirty or forty of these things and listened to some of them, and it strikes me that she is trying to do not this precisely, but this kind of thing in a lot of these poems. I can’t help but think, and it’s very impressionistic, that the book is a kind of cubistic gesture at all the ways, the thousand ways, of looking at a blackbird — this mid-range level of attention you’re talking about tried in many different ways. It’s quite an experiment to do this as a series of short poems rather than as a longer one.
Well, before we get to the Gathering Paradise segment of our show, let me ask each of you to offer a brief final word on this poem, something, maybe, more on what you get from it. So, who wants to start?
Mandel: What stands out for me in the poem — and it’s a fabulous poem, no question — is the structure of the three different sections. To account for that takes us away from the history of literature, or the influence of a particular player in that history, to the work. It puts us where we are alone with those two lines, with the difference that their differing positions makes in repetition, and with our own lives.
Filreis: Well-argued and, in a way, slightly askance, if that’s the word, from Bob’s idea that we have everything we need in the poem, but there’s also a gesture to something that happened before it. It works very well. It’s a great argument for an autotelic experience of a poem. Bob, final word?
Perelman: I want to bring, maybe just being a bad boy, Stein back in one last time.
Filreis: Just after Tom made this great speech about how all that we need is in the poem.
Mandel: I love Stein. I’m not being anti-Stein.
Filreis: No, I know you aren’t.
Perelman: But here’s why: again, just looking down the page at the last five lines — “what of what/in the time we sense/surpassing things we’ve known before/passing on its effect/is experience” — and how I’m actually less certain than ever whether that’s an assertion or a question. I’m now thinking of Stein and her “Poetry in Grammar” and doing away with as many punctuation marks as possible, including, as I remember, the question mark, since you should know if it’s a question or not. But, in fact here, you don’t know if it’s a question. You really could construe it as a statement, or as a question: what is this experience? what is this poem? Okay, now we can take Stein back out of it. The poem itself is asking that question, but Stein is a useful heuristic.
Devaney: Following up on Tom and Bob’s points that there are intentions in the poem, and then there’s language: the lines that just kept coming up — “the time we sense/called nature’s picture” — that line, “nature’s picture,” it keeps sticking out to me as something trucked in there. So, there are intentions, and then there’s language. That language is being used to do something.
Filreis: Thank you, Tom.
We like to end PoemTalk with a minute or two of Gathering Paradise, a chance for several of us to spread wide our narrow hands to gather something really poetically good to hail, commend someone or something going on in the poetry world. Who wants to gather a little paradise?
Perelman: I want to shout out to Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet. It just came out recently, really a major event in American literary history.
Filreis: Published by Alabama?
Perelman: Yes, published by Alabama. Good for many years of reading. And, can I do two? Just because it’s been out for years and years, and I finally picked it up, Keith Waldrop’s Seriamis If I Remember. I finally read it and it is fantastic, so just to shout out to that, too.
Filreis: Thank you, Bob, for those two gatherings of paradise. Tom Devaney?
Devaney: Bobbie Louise Hawkins is one of my new favorite writers. Her book of prose out by United Artists is so beautiful, so unhampered. She’s eighty-one or eighty-two, and I love her.
Filreis: Well, that’s all the octogenarians we have time for on PoemTalk today. PoemTalk at the Writers House is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania and the Poetry Foundation. Thanks to my guests, Bob Perelman, Tom Mandel, Tom Devaney, and to PoemTalk’s director and engineer James La Marre, and our Rotterdam-based editor, the infamous Steve McLaughlin. This is Al Filreis and I hope you’ll join us again soon for another PoemTalk.
The Text Festival in Bury, UK, is an internationally recognized event investigating contemporary language art (poetry, text art, sound and media text, live art). Against the background of global stylistic multiplicity, the use of language spans many artforms and may even be a unifying field of enquiry, a new definition and a new field of international linguistic art practice and dialogue. The Bury Festival is the leading focus of language in the twenty-first century, specializing in experiments, in new experiences, in performances and exhibitions that mix artforms in groundbreaking combinations that challenge traditional language art boundaries and offer artists a forum for dialogue and exchange of ideas. The third biannual Text Festival opened April 29, 2011; derek beaulieu — who was a participant in that year’s festival — had an opportunity to discuss the festival’s impetus and future with curator Tony Trehy.
derek beaulieu: What was your impetus for creating the Text Festival?
Tony Trehy: Having curated various artforms (but mainly in galleries and public art) for about fifteen years in parallel with a separate personal output of writing, I had come to a point where I was trying to fit the two creative practices — curating and poetry — into not enough hours in the day. Then sometime in late 2003, I had been talking to Lawrence Weiner about a commission and had reason to communicate with Ron Silliman. There was a sudden moment when I realized that these split conversations mirrored my own psychological segregation of language into art and poet: I realized that my poetry was part of my curatorial persona. And concurrent with the revelation that I could break down the split in my practice, of course, instantaneously, I had to recognize the split also existed in the wider interaction between conceptual art and poetry; subsequently, I have extended this conception to question the location of language across artforms — sound, multimedia, performance, etc. I have got used to quickly adding in relation to ‘poetry’ that I mean the progressive artform little connected to the dead form that mostly passes for ‘poetry’ in the UK. The moribund state of UK poetry in relation to international developments was definitely one of the aspects that the first Text Festival took on. Although, I still find it personally entertaining to have a go at the state of mainstream poetry on my blog, it is more the pleasure of flogging a dead horse rather than being a real issue that concerns the Festival.
“Wonder Room” at Text Festival, 2011. Photo by derek beaulieu.
beaulieu: What has the response been from the UK poetic community?
Trehy: Pretty much none at all. But that’s really to be expected — British mainstream poetry didn’t get to its current comatose state by engaging with new developments; it’s sort of gratifying that it can’t respond to criticism as it verifies its incapability. But in the end, it’s not so important — the Festival isn’t conceived in relation to the UK or to poetry per se.
beaulieu: If the response from the poetic community has been silence what about the visual art community? What do you believe that the two communities have to learn from each other, as epitomized in the Text Festival?
Trehy: I wouldn’t say that the response of the poetic community in the UK has been silent — that is the default position of the Hegemony of the Banal, but it’s poetry is pretty quiet too — (Ron Silliman’s phrase: the School of Quietude). The response of the poetic community has been more complex related to the local (UK) structures of dialogue and status. The visual art community gives a more relaxed impression of critical engagement with the Festival. I am not sure why that is — maybe it is that the venues of the events are more in their comfort zone, a familiar vocabulary of spaces. I am always careful of this juxtaposition of visual to poetic though, because for me (and them) sound artists, performance artists, media artists — any other language forms — are all part of the mix: I find poets are most keen to treat it as a dialogue between the two “communities,” maybe that is part of their isolation from the practice of the other artforms.
Jaap Blonk and Christian Bök perform an extemporaneous sound poem in the Warth Mill in Bury, England, as part of the Text Festival on May 1, 2011.
beaulieu: In terms of that isolation from other artforms — what do you believe that the poetic community has to learn from the art community?
Trehy: I suppose it could do with not being isolated! It’s generally been my position that significant things happen when artforms are in dialogue. This is one of the things the Text Festival assumes.
beaulieu: Has the mandate of the festival changed since its first incarnation? What to you have been some of the highlights of the festival to date?
Trehy: There is something about the word mandate that suggests that its imperatives came from somewhere else, from outside; I think the reason why it has developed a unique status is that it generates its own context. I suppose no one else can see the festival the way I do because I have seen all three of the festivals, but for me, the Text Festivals are in dialogue with each other. I have found it interesting this time round how a number of poets have written about how it has taken a direction or a position in relation to poetry. The Festival isn’t about poetry; it’s not a poetry festival. The festival is always to do with a question. So with the first exhibition of the first festival (also my first highlight), I asked myself: how to curate a show that juxtaposes contemporary poetry with visual (language) art? By its aesthetic location, the festival often operates in fields in which recipients (to use Lawrence Weiner’s term) may not come equipped with the knowledges and histories of particular artforms. As Art Monthly magazine observed, I have an “intrepid resistance to interpretation,” and in exhibitions of text I don’t see how you can use interpretive texts without clunking over the works. So then I have the question of what curatorial strategy can contextualize the question for a gallery visitor? In the first show, I created therefore a large bookcase that blocked views into the gallery — you had to face it and go round it to get in. I called this “The Canon” and featured all the books you would need to get all the messages in the show — ha! Audiences aren’t asked to work hard enough nowadays. And into the show itself: again, is there curatorial conceit that can represent this coming together of forms? Taking a form from Concrete Poetry, I came up with a display constellation. This was working very nicely but there was still something missing. Although the festival has announced submission deadlines, if the curatorial concept demands it, I will keep accepting proposals and looking for works right up to the last minute. In this case, I didn’t know what was missing, just that it needed something. It came in the form of a performance artist, Hester Reeve (HRH.the) who proposed to spend the nine weeks of the first show sitting in the gallery reading and simultaneously writing Heidegger’s “Being and Time.”
Installation by derek beaulieu at Text Festival, 2011. Photo by derek beaulieu.
In the second Festival, although a lot of people rated the Bury Poems readings with Tony Lopez, Carol Watts, and Phil Davenport, my highpoint was the headline gig with Ron Silliman. For this the question was, if you have Ron doing his first ever reading in the UK, who else do you put on the bill? There couldn’t be another poet, so I programmed Scottish student storytelling artist, Catriona Glover, German turntablist Claus van Bebber, and Hester Reeve. I was very pleased with that balance. It was a great night, but this year surpassed curatorially by the juxtaposition of sound art from Sarah Boothroyd and Bruno Bresani with Holly Pester, Eduard Escoffet, Christian Bök plus the surprise interventions of Geof Huth and you.
A couple of guest curators have produces magical moments to note: Phil Davenport’s Bob Cobbing show in 2005 and this year’s readings of Schwitters’s Ursonate at Warth Mill.
This sounds like a lot of highlights but one element of all the festivals that forms an integral part of the dynamic is the festival party where a lot of the artists meet — that is very important.
beaulieu: So — if each festival is in dialogue with the previous, then what — after the third incarnation — would you still like to address?
Trehy: Ah, the trick question — I wondered how you might approach this. As you know, I announced before this Festival that I wouldn’t be doing another. At various points during the 2011 event I did have ideas of what might be interesting next. But I am still resisting the tyranny of having to do what one is able to do. Through my links with Finland — visual art and poetry — we are talking about doing some sort of Text show/event in Tampere (the Manchester of Finland), so my textual inclinations may still be occupied; but either way, if there was another Text Festival, it couldn’t be until 2014 because I am working on another (non-text) international art project which will keep me occupied until then (starting in September, I’ll be setting it up in China).
But thinking about the question, I have been reflecting on the Festival just ending and have an increasing sense of disappointment with the responses of the poetry community — so I’d probably start thinking about how to address the problems I perceive: namely, it struck me that, despite my aspiration to locate poetry in dialogue with other language-using artforms, writings coming out of the festival poets have tended only to engage with poetry. I found it really telling that no one commented on the location of George Widener and Steve Miller in Wonder Rooms, for instance — both visual artists not visual poets, both using language in gripping ways. I’m not saying that there weren’t great visual poems in the show; I’m saying it seems odd to me that the visual artists’ contribution drew so little attention from the poets. Similarly, the poets have tended to focus on Ron Silliman’s neon text and Tony Lopez’s digital text in the Sentences exhibition; but the poets, don’t seem to have anything to say about the Marcel Broodthaers, for instance. I think I would address this. Maybe there would be fewer poets; maybe supporting a notion of “poetry community” itself is counterproductive in shifting poetry into a more critically rigorous relationship with art.
I think that Ron also asked a question that interests me: he observed that a lot of the work on display can’t be “called new in any way that is meaningful within poetry” (note again that this locates the Festival agenda as poetic). He proceeded to raise the question “Is the work any good?” Some of it is more than good. Some of it isn’t. I have a pretty good idea which is which. But again, I am not sure that I comfortable with the claim for the festival that quality of work is its aim. I set out to investigate the implications of certain actions, certain juxtapositions. It’s my hope that testing ideas is what participating artists will use the festival for — the space to fail, and learn things from that. Some of the criticisms of Ron’s neon are legitimate but much of it misses the point of what that work does in the gallery and how it will function as a piece of site-specific public art. Christian Bök’s Protein 13 is still a work in progress; he would acknowledge that he developed his thinking about how the model and text function as objects on display as the installation progressed; and I think that that is an important contribution to the development of the work.
Satu Kaikkonen and Karri Kokko perform a sound poem in the Bury Parish Church, Bury, UK, as part of the Text Festival on April 30, 2011.
beaulieu: How has the festival affected your own poetic practice?
Trehy: I’d have to say it has stoned it dead! After the first festival, I took a year off to recover during which I wrote 50 Heads. And with a gap of four years between the first festival and the second, I was able to write a body of works including Reykjavik and Space The Soldier Who Died For Perspective plus various text art installations. This time the festival was almost too big for me to handle and in the run up and afterwards, the huge creative demand of it has pretty much drained me. I had a handful of very useful conversations during the festival (not least with you and Christian), which suggested to me where my writing should go (an inkling of reinventing a non-poetic form, taking my interest in language and space in a new direction) but there seems little chance that I will have the energy to address it anytime soon.