LINEbreak: Bruce Andrews, New York City 1995

Bruce Andrews on April 12, 2008. Photo by Charles Bernstein.

Editorial note: Bruce Andrews (b. 1948) is the author of more than thirty books of poetry including Edge (1973), I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism) (1992), Lip Service (2001), and Swoon Noir (2007). He is also the author of numerous essays on poetry and coeditor of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Andrews teaches political science at Fordham University. The following has been adapted from a LINEbreak conversation recorded in Andrews’s New York apartment in 1995 and transcribed by Michael Nardone. LINEbreak is produced and directed by Martin Spinelli for the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo. The program is available at PennSound. — Katie L. Price


Charles Bernstein: This is LINEbreak. I’m Charles Bernstein. On today’s program: poetry as politics with Bruce Andrews. Bruce Andrews’ books of poetry include Give Em Enough Rope, Ex Why Zee, and from Sun and Moon Press, I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism)

Bruce, I know the first couple of times I tried to recite that title of yours I would add “please,” which I think is kind of funny: please shut up. But you don’t put please in your writing a whole lot. In fact, that book is fairly confrontational for many people.

Bruce Andrews: I think the word please is confrontational, and, in fact, I do use that word pretty often. It’s like promises, exhortations, seductions — a kind of omnipresent discourse that we get publicly and privately. If you think of please as a shy, timid, step-and-fetch-it approach to people that avoids confrontation, then I don’t tend to use it in that way. 

Bernstein: Right, that’s what I was thinking of it as being, especially with the “please shut up.” But then what interests you in a poetry of confrontation? A poetry that sometimes seems to have anger in it, a poetry that has some of the violence that is often removed from a more genteel practice of poetry which talks about love or quiet, lyric feelings? You don’t seem to have much of that kind of sentiment in your work. 

Andrews: When you talk about poetry as politics, as in your introductory remarks, I think about politics as power — as sustaining relations of power, challenging relations of power. Then the genteel practices that you referred to seem more and more evasive, because they’re not really able to confront the way power operates. If power operates on us in insidious ways that we’re not even aware of, or if power operates in blunt, coercive ways that we ought to be more aware of, then how do you get to that? How do you implicate that in writing? Doing things other people are likely to think of because it’s so contrastive with what we normally think of in our suburbanized mode as poetry, when people think of that as confrontational, then maybe that means some teeny jackpot has been hit. 

Bernstein: That was, to some degree, a shift in your work. The work that you did in the early seventies, for example, was collected as Love Songs. It has a very different texture and feeling than the work that you are doing now, although it is by no means conventional in the way that some of the work you were talking about just now —

Andrews: Well, Love Songs was one long piece that I did in the second half of 1973 as a Christmas present for my then wife. Actually, the other collection of my work from the seventies with a title that would follow your argument here is called Getting Ready to Have Been Frightened. But, in that period, mostly in the seventies, I was also more interested in isolating syllables, words, individual sounds, in an atomized and discreet way. When I started to move in the late seventies/early eighties to a more phrase-based work, that opened up the possibilities of speech a little differently — longer constructions, other kinds of materials coming in. Then I had a format in which I could think about social issues and the social content of discourse. That coincided with the quite horrific changes in this society and the politics of the Reagan years. So, those two things coming into play at the same time and opening up a different kind of format made this possible. And getting royally pissed off at this right-wing nightmare, which was the last right-wing nightmare that was perpetrated on our body politic, brought things up, ratcheted them up a little bit in terms of social temperature.

Bernstein: One way that your work overall, but especially the work since the Reagan years, defies normal generic categorizations as poetry is the range of kinds of language and sources that you use. Not that no other writing has ever used that, not even that no other poetry has used some of it, but still, the almost encyclopedic scope of the social reference in your work seems to break down conceptions of poems. Not just the lyric poem, but other types of poetry.

Andrews: Think of how poignant that sounds, even as you read back the transcript. Just the idea that somehow having a desire for an encyclopedic range of possibility and reference and content and social bits of matter in your work — it would automatically seem odd that it would be poetry. Somehow, what we think of as poetry or literary writing is supposed to accept the fact that it can operate happily with such a shrunken range of reference. Meanwhile, everybody in the world is confronted with this increasingly exploding range of reference that they embody in their own personal lives. I mean, if you are walking down the street — admittedly, I’ve lived in an urban area for twenty years — mass-culture, television, whatever your range of information is: you’re being bombarded with this stuff all the time. And to somehow think that poetry is a place where you can’t, unlike all these other areas in your personal life, have this come to life, seems so sad.

Bernstein: Can you read a section from Shut Up?

Andrews: Sure. This is a piece from I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up, or Social Romanticism. It’s called “Gestalt Me Out.”

[Andrews reads selection.]

Bernstein: Bruce, can you say something about how you compose? Your method of composing a work like that or that work in particular?

Andrews: Well, my methods have changed over the years, and this work was written in the mid-1980s. By that point I had pretty much adopted the method that I’ve been working with since, which is to generate large amounts of material on very small pieces of paper — one two, three, four, five words at a time in clusters, short fragments of phrases or prephrases — and then compose the work sometimes much later, after I had written the raw material into works based on a whole series of other decisions I’d make later. It’s more like editing film footage; the editing process becomes the composing process. Or that’s what gets focused on, more than some kind of point-of-inspiration moment that I actually wrote the words in.

Bernstein: Do you think poetry is a place that can change political values? A medium that can change political values?

Andrews: There is a lot of posturing that goes on around that issue. People making theoretical claims about writing that nobody reads as having tremendous revolutionary implications, and then other people scoffing at the very possibility or even the desire to have poetry or writing have any kind of social and political implications. I think it works on the writer, and it works on the reader, probably more as a kind of reinforcement of more fragile beliefs or attitudes that were getting formed — that need more support. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of mobilizing large numbers of people. The only easy way you can mobilize large numbers of people is by keeping them just the way they are. But if you are trying to reinforce some attempt at change, then it is going to be modest, and it’s going to take place in the actual experience of the work, and that’s obviously very limited.

Bernstein: Do reading values then become important? The way in which you read your own work? The way in which other people can read your work?

Andrews: I think of my own work as a giant reading project. The writing is a way of recasting and reconsidering what reading could be. And I think that a lot of my feelings about other writing in the past, for instance, comes out of thoughts and reactions to its readability, to its accessibility to a different way of configuring it in my own reading. What I’ve tried to do in my own work, to keep myself happy and geared up about it, has been to try to embody in it as much as I can the kind of reading possibilities that I want when I look at other people’s work. In that sense, reading has always been central.

Bernstein: And what are the kind of reading possibilities that you are interested in, both in your own work and other people’s work, especially as they may be different from the reading of, say, the genteel lyric, the bogie poem that I invoked —

Andrews: Bogie did you say?

Bernstein: Or the dummy poem that I invoked at the beginning of the show?

Andrews: I think a lot of what I experience in this genteel writing that you mentioned earlier is the cage of genre with its own built-in institutional trappings. As somebody that comes to all of this writing possibility not as an eager creative writing workshop graduate, English major, English grad student, or English professor person, those genre constraints and genre mobilizations never really fascinated me all that much. Given the absence of that kind of training, I never was really easily able to understand why other people were so fascinated by it or were so willing to take it as an absolute limit. Things that I read, sometimes maybe more varied, sometimes maybe more distractedly, sometimes as an elaborate interweaving of different things happening at the same time, or happening one after the other, or in layers or extended concentric circles of possibility, all that stuff doesn’t seem to have much to do with what I think of poetry as a genre. One thing I’ve tried to do, and one thing I’m interested in doing, is opening up the possibilities of writing in language that are disrespectful of genre boundaries and constraints.

Bernstein: Do you think of that activity, then, as poetry? Do you think of yourself as writing poems?

Andrews: That’s an interesting question. I do now. I guess when I started, I started writing in the 1969-1970 period, I thought of it as a kind of literary writing or experimental work in writing, more than I thought of it as poetry. Now I think of poetry as an institutional designation, so as soon as I began publishing and getting in touch with other writers, it was clear that any future for anything I did or anything they were doing was going to be under the category of poetry as defined by other people. Over the years, I’ve just accepted that.

I remember, for instance, when the term language poetry started getting thrown around. My original nervousness about the term stemmed mostly from the “p” word rather than the “I” word. You know that I thought of it as language writing, a term that I wasn’t all that displeased with, because it suggested almost a new genre or a new subgenre possibility that hadn’t yet been defined. It would be a type of writing that had a certain way of foregrounding the way meaning was produced and operated on in a social world, rather than language poetry, which then implies that language is the adjective referring to a subcategory of what we already think of as poetry.

Bernstein: So, you think the shift of categorization from something like language-centered or language-oriented writing to capital L, capital P, Language Poetry is a recuperation by literature of something that was questioning the poetic status of the work?

Andrews: Yes, but more pointedly, it was a recuperation or an appropriation by institutions, by an already-existing institutional network out there in the social world that organizes the social world that we all have to deal with. There’s no point in being rabidly sentimental about all that and trying to act as if you could do your own disappearing act, trying to act as though none of that mattered, or that you could avoid it all, triumph over it heroically or whatever. No, it was a revealing change, I would say. Maybe recuperation might be too loaded a word. It was something that alerted me and a lot of other people, I think, to the role of institutions in organizing our future.

Bernstein: A lot of poetry nowadays is looked at both by readers and by poets themselves in terms of group identification, or gender identification. Is that something that is significant for you as a writer?

Andrews: It is, mostly in ways that I am not conscious of since I do fall demographically in all the oppressor groups as a college-educated, middleclass, white, heterosexual male from the USA. So the emphasis of identity politics in empowering pre-existing notions of who a person is or how they are supposed to operate socially have always been troubling to me since my demographic slot, or niche, has never been one that I thought was worth celebrating. It seems largely to be an obstacle to the kinds of social change that I would be happy about. So, I’m not prominent in the men’s movement. I’m not prominent in the straight movement. I’m not prominent in the elite —

Bernstein: The white movement.

Andrews: Right, the white movement: another group I have failed to pay my dues to for a while. It’s more that I now notice with some … sadness is maybe not quite the right word, it’s a little strong … but with some little fret that people are willing to gravitate towards things that give them back what they already are in a compensatory way, and I’ve always been more trying to figure out how I get out of whatever box I’m in rather than to better decorate it.

Bernstein: One thing you’ve certainly been interested in as a writer is thinking about writing, thinking about the relation of writing to ideology, writing to politics, writing to social formation, social structure. And a project that we did together called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine in the late seventies consisted of poets, mostly poets, writing essays, but often in a nonconventional form. But you, in particular, in the many essays you’ve written, have resisted writing explanatory, expository prose. Why is that?

Andrews: Partly because I was excited and attracted by something else, another way of trying to figure out how to deal with the essay form or with discursive possibility, and maybe also because I never had the institutional nudge to move me in that direction since I wasn’t operating out of the protocols present in journalism or classroom discourse or in scholarly discourse in English departments.

Bernstein: But certainly the protocols present within the poetry communities of poets writing reviews and so on were equally generic and specific toward narrative and description, and you resisted those as well.

Andrews: Well, remember back then there was also a lot of activity going on, and conversation in a more constructivist vein, to try and come up with new ways of writing about work. And also in correspondence where people would try ideas out or would collage materials in different ways or would try to take different kinds of risks in those forms without even knowing they were doing it — but just because they were working in a realm where those genre-constraints of essay writing weren’t present. I guess there was a certain innocence attached to the project at the beginning where you thought, “Gee, maybe we could come up with a whole range of new ways to think about work or to get it into their awareness.”

Bernstein: I thought we did.

Andrews: Oh, I’m sorry?! …

[Andrews reads “Devo Habit.”]

Bernstein: Bruce Andrews reading “Devo Habit.” A collection of Bruce Andrews’s essays has just been published as Paradise and Method: Poetry and Praxis.