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James Sherry reviews
The Grand Piano Project
Part 4
San Francisco, 1975–80

by Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Ted Pearson.

Paperback, 2007, Mode A, Detroit, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-9790198-3-8. Available via Small Press Distribution at

This review is about 4 printed pages long. You can read James Sherry’s review of the Grand Piano project Part 1 and Part 2 in Jacket 32, and Part 3 in Jacket 34.

Language Poetry by the Bay


Volume 4 of the collective autobiography of ten writers associated with emerging tendencies in poetry focused on the Bay Area in the late 1970s explores the situation of “everyday life”. The collaborators’ desire to dig deeper into the quotidian reaches its peak in this volume. And the façade of personal interaction finally begins to break down giving a peek at some of the important developments in writing that were occurring at that time.


In one sense the slow leakage of literary material into their biographies represents the shape of “everyday life” that the writers now feel more accurately represents their condition of existence at the time more than the ideological writings of the 70s. And realism was a topic explored by Hejinian and Mandel in the late 80s.


In another sense the intense avoidance of the core literary ideas of that period and limiting the vistas of what prompted people to write through four volumes and 600 pages of Grand Piano misrepresents the environment of the times. If a thorough understanding of the literary environment is a goal of these books, limiting them to a set of themes and everyday life is certainly no more accurate than a purely idea-centered writing would have been. Readers needed to put the poetry and criticism of the 70s together with these memoirs to get a complete picture. Until now.

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While most of the writers support the rubric of “everyday life”, Rae Armantrout writes “now in and from an odd moment, one which has bracketed ‘everyday life,’ setting it at a distance. I have been diagnosed with adrenocortical cancer, a very rare and often fatal disease.” Rae is thrust out of the everyday and into a special situation. Rae, being Rae, is just telling exactly what is happening, but her talent for accuracy has always had additional resonance. For me describing this special situation has more than a tinge of artistry in it, from an “odd moment”, which is akin to writing.


Bob Perelman goes further by looking at “utopia in response to the pieces on everyday life that the other pianists had been writing, “utopia” being in an easy sense the opposite of “everyday life.”“ For Bob, and I think for the others, the Bay Area was utopia. “Suddenly the structural containment of this project, the Bay Area, the 70s, the 10 x 10 grid, triggers my unease. Utopia. / The trench”


Then suddenly the dateline on the page reads May 2007, New York, and Bob is talking to Bruce Andrews after a panel at the Bowery Poetry Club on “Language Writing and the Body”. Finally I’m getting what I wanted all along, a view of poetry and poetics juxtaposed to the excursions into the past at a distance where memory for all but the most assiduous diarist (Bob mentioned Alan Bernheimer as such a journalist at the 2008 New Year’s Party at Abigail Child’s in New York) would have faded.


I say this of all the sections in this volume, but Ron Silliman’s (and maybe others I don’t know about, but Bob admits that 30 years is a long time). Ron has retained a specific sense and well-delineated picture of the past in his mind. I have mentioned already that Ron has a unique property of specificity about his writing both in these memoirs and in his main work of poetry and prose.


And Ron like Bob in his section on everyday life addresses the value of the Talks that “were the great generator & differentiator. Nothing we did more thoroughly separated us from our immediate peers or set off more fear & loathing. We were vilified because we talked. But we were admired also — some of the largest audiences I have ever had were for talks, some of the most diverse too. Talking opened doors that might never have opened.”


Ron talks about “poets thinking on their feet, making it up as they went along. This was the closest to the embodiment of thinking (as distinct from thought) of any activity I’ve ever seen.” Obviously this tendency to improvisation and public speech that was so important in the 70s now reaches us today and Bob’s piece goes into some detail about the present and how it reflects the past.


“I was struck by the difference from the Talks, where — in my memory, at least — collective conversation was primary. Cheap tape recorder..., no cover charge..., an open loft space where Francie and I were often quite happy, though I also remember being rather scared of it at the times.”


Bob raises the gender question in much the same way as it was raised back then and quotes Ron’s line, “The behavior of alpha males at a talk.” What’s interesting is that in the 2007 talk half the panelists are women. Progress if not Utopia.


In his conversation with Bruce Andrews after the BPC panel, Bob reaches important conclusions about how Language writing can be viewed and defined. Through his conversation with Bruce, “Language writing, if there was going to be such a thing, would be defined by specific formal features: no narrative, no representational description....” They decide that their interest lies in “Language writing, not Language writers.”


Bruce associates his definition of Language writing with his own work, but sees it as a tendency in many other writers that “weren’t confined to certain places or generations.” And Ron or Lyn would define Language writing to include aspects of their own work even as they might question its existence. And Steve would say it’s just what he does.


Questioning the usefulness of the term Language writing is a species of individuation among Language writers. We all do it sometime when we want to be ourselves as Language writing exists at some times in some parts of some writing of some writers. The autobiographical form raises additional questions about commitment to any theory in the overall practice of writing over time. But an instance of form does not purge the theory, although it hinders it and limns its limitations.


Volume 4, through a reaction against the topic of everyday life, gives rise to a definition of Language writing in Bob’s memoir as a tendency in the writing of many people to forefront non-lexical, non-narrative tactics. And to avoid collision with other writing that also highlights language use, he adds the all important political dimension (Utopia) as a second and necessary component to the work. That rings pretty true to me, since we were all there.


The complication is that every one of the participants want their formulation of the definition to gain ascendancy or deny its existence. The competitive landscape, typical of the artists and academicians alike, while it may not be well-remembered in these memoirs that seek to idealize the personal interactions, was also a key countercurrent to the memories of idyllic association that I have read to date in these pages.

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