Convolution Journal for Critical Experiment

including my 2007 interview with Nie Zhenzhao (excerpted here)

With its disarming in medias res layout Convolution is tyring to reinvent the print periodical. First issue includes Giorgio Agamben and Alessandro Petti, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Bruce Andrews, Alexander Barnett, Bob Brown, Tony Chakar, Sarah Crowner, Drew Daniel, Jeff Dolven, Melissa Dunn,  Craig Dworkin, Jesko Fezer, Michael Golston, Robert Hardwick Weston, Christian Hawkey, Athena Kirk, Gareth Long, Rosalind Morris,  Andrew Schelling, Eliza Slavet, Nancy Tewksbury, and editors Paul Stephens &  Jenelle Troxell.

A 2007 interview I did with Nie Zhenzhao and published in Chinese translation in Foreign Literature Studies (Vol. 29, No. 2 April 2007) is also included. Here is an excerpt, mostly focussing on Parsing (1976, Eclipse digital edition, 2006), but also on some of the poems in Controlling Interests (1980).

NIE: Generally speaking, the poetry you focused on in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E puts more emphasis on written (visual) dimension of poetry than on the spoken (oral) dimension. Maybe this partly accounts for why you have collaborated with visual artists. However, in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, which you edited, you emphasize the sound of poetry. Does this reflect a shift in your own approach?

BERNSTEIN: I think as I began to perform my work more and more, and also as I organized more and more readings and poetry events, I began to feel that I had not sufficiently addressed the performative and sound dimensions of the poetry with which I was most engaged. Also I became interested in sound not as a natural extension of the written word but as a discrepant element, another layer of the complex that is the poetics work. And my major project of the last two years, working with Al Filreis, has been to develop a large archive of digital recordings of poetry readings, available for free at PennSound (

Then how do you think of the relationship between poetry and other forms of art?

I remain a die-hard formalist. I think there are things specific to poetry that can only be done in poetry.

In your “30-second lecture” called “What Makes a Poem a Poem?” you reply to the question in your title by saying: “It’s not rhyming words at the end of a line. It’s not form. It’s not structure. It’s not loneliness. It’s not location. It’s not the sky. It’s not love. It’s not the color. It’s not the feeling. It’s not the meter. It’s not the place. It’s not the intention. It’s not the desire. It’s not the weather. It’s not the hope. It’s not the subject matter. It’s not the death. It’s not the birth. It’s not the trees. It’s not the words. It’s not the things between the words”

The piece ends, at precisely 30 seconds, with the punch line, “It’s the timing!,” which is also the punch line of a famous remark about comedy: it’s not the joke it’s the timing. …

But what is, really, a poem? Would you mind giving a definition to poetry?

Verbal art?
          David Antin has a marvelous answer to your question, relying on the American adolescent sexual metaphor of going to first base, second base, and so on. He says, poetry is kind of writing that goes all the way.
          I would say what makes a poem a poem is the context; that we choose, or are cued, to read or hear a work a verbal construct as poem. It’s not a honorific term that distinguishes verbal art from something lesser. Bad and boring poems are still poems; song lyrics, great or terrible, meant to be heard as part of a song, are not.

 In “Sentences,” the first section of Parsing, your 1975 book that is collected in Republics of Reality 1975-1995, you start each line of each poem with “they,” “I,” “you,” “it,” or “was.” Why do you deliberately choose the same word to start a line and to adopt such grammatical structure? In the conventional structure of the poetic line, poets try to avoid recurrence of a same word in the beginning of all lines in a stanza for the esthetic variance of reading. So why do you intentionally use the same word to start a line, or to compose a stanza, for example, the stanza consisting of “contextual disruption,” which could be, to me, a feature of your poems?       

 Parsing is one of my earliest works. The title refers to breaking sentences or phrases into their syntactic parts, itself a form of contextual disruption. In Parsing all the words begin with a pronoun, some of which can operate as “shifters,” that is they take on different references depending on the context. There are two sources for “Sentences,” both oral histories: Working by Studs Terkel and Yessir, I’ve Been Here a Long Time: Faces and Words of Americans by George Mitchell. I lifted and arranged lots of those “I” and “You” sentences from these vernacular speech transcriptions, and placed them amidst mostly sentences I generated myself. The final poem, numbered 1 & 2 is all first lines of Emily Dickinson’s poems.
            In this work I was interested in repetition as a form of reiteration, insistence in Gertrude Stein’s sense. There is also a relation to the minimalist music of Steve Reich and also his own interest in repetitive and highly rhythmical chanting. One of Ron Silliman’s most influential early essays, “The New Sentence” discusses the non-syllogistic logic of this kind of sentence organization. In “Sentences” I was interested in getting to a basic unit of speech and then using that to make rhythmic compositions. Much of the content of the sentences is plaintive, so that is part of the pull for me. A kind of collective plaint of despair or melancholy or disappointment or separation, which is something that threads through my work and connects it, perhaps unexpectedly, to fado, blues, mourning prayers, or other forms of lament that also use repetition.

 In “Space and Poetry” in Parsing, and in many other poems, we can conclude that you fracture discursive language by rearranging phrases into lines that together produce non-grammatical sentences. It seems that you divide a sentence in parts and then reconfigure these parts. Here is a sentence in “Space and Poetry” as example, “space, and poetry dying and transforming words, before arbitrary, period locked with meaning and which preposterousness” which you divide it into 5 lines. I wonder how to understand their special poetic quality of this fractured sentence. Could you give me some hints?

 This is phase two of Parsing, after “Sentences.” You could see it as a kind of analytic cubism. Apparently prior sentences (no original set of sentences is provided) are divided (cut-up) into component parts and these are opened up into a field layout (not flush left, spread over the whole page). The lines form a kind of music of changing or shifting parts that cannot be parsed on a linear level. This opens the page out to something that is not a two-dimensional Euclidean space but a curved space, a space with n-dimensionality. Let me now reinsert the space you deliberately subtracted for your question, so you can feel the torque:

                                                space, and poetry

                                    dying and transforming words, before

                                                                                    arbitrary, period locked

                                                with meaning” and which

                        preposterousness. Still

In some poems such as “Roseland”(Parsing), “Of course ….” and “St. McC.” (Shade),“Some nights” and “Type” (Stimga), you intentionally omit  punctuation marks just like James Joyce did in Ulysses to express for expression of stream-of-consciousness. Of course, there are many poems composed by other poets without punctuation marks, but their grammatical structure is clear for us to read and interpret. Compared with them, it seems that you fracture the regular grammatical structure to compose lines to create new meaning, which could be difficult for readers to get. What is your aesthetic purpose to use this technique to compose poems? How can we get your exact meaning of a poem without punctuation marks?

There is no exact meaning, no prior meaning which I transform into verse, no single or paraphrasable meaning for the reader to grasp. A structure, or perhaps better to say an environment is created for the reader to respond, to interenact.  This is frustrating if you are reading to try to extract a meaning, pleasurable if you are comfortable trolling within meanings.
            By the way, “Roseland” has as its source some phrases from David Antin’s “the sociology of art” from talking at the boundaries, so it’s cut-up from Antin’s transcription of his original “spoken” talk. That’s a very specific example of the kind of speech/writing tension or disjunction I was interested in for Parsing.

From some of your poems I realize that you admire irregular arrangement of lines or like to fracture sentences to form stanzas and poems. For example, you break the sentences in the poems such as “The Hand Gets Scald but the Heart Grows Colder” in Controlling Interests and “The Puritan Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalization” in Rough Trades into many parts and then organize them into a new poetic form. Do you have rules when you fracture a sentence and rearrange the fractured sentence? What kind of poetic art do you strive for?

Mostly I work intuitively, arranging the words on the page so as to maximize the ping and pong of word against word, phrase against phrase, to intensify the visceral verbal sensation, to find sense, indeed make sense with what is at hand. Many of the poems that may seem to be rearrangements of prior texts – cut-ups –are actually freely composed, though sometimes they have gone through a series of erasures and rewritings and rearrangements of my own original seed text. The formal prototype for the poems you mention is “Asylums” (Islets/Irritations), which is one of my first poems, from 1974. In that poem I cut out  snippets from a source text, Erving Goffman’s Asylum, mostly focusing on the words just before and after the period, in other words the interstitial dynamics of the text, the literal place of transition from one sentence to the next. Another way to look at it would be to say I took a prior text and erased most of it, or that the only parts “left” are the nodal points around the sentences. So then the process resembles sculpting from a slab of stone, creating the work by means of chiseling away at the surface of the rock. These poems, then, appear to have gone through a process of textual erosion. “The Puritan Ethic and the Spirit of Capitlalization” is the most eroded of these works. The title comes from Max Weber’s turn-of-the-20th century sociological study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which emphasized the connection between accumulation, capitalism, and the Protestant ethic. The poem enacts an erosion of accumulated meanings or perhaps simply a turn away from a semiotics of accumulated meaning. “The Hand Gets Scald but the Heart Grows Colder” is somewhat more typical of my work from Controlling Interests and the period immediately following, which has a mix of eroded (or erased) textual fragments, aphorism, lists, metacommentaries, lyric strains, instructions, found language, commands, &c; in other words a collage of various elements, which are fused together through thematic, rhythmic, associational, and structural dynamics, most of which are come upon – that is, just made up – in the process of writing the poem.