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Bob Perelman in conversation with
New York, September 10, 2009
BP: 9/11 is tomorrow.
BA: Pre-9/11: September 10th. Bob, I wanted to talk about your thoughts mostly on the topic of reception: reading the work that you do; the reading of the work of previous authors, and how that affects your enthusiasm… how you read your peers; and finally what issues there then would be in reading younger writers, or people coming after what you’re up to as it affects your thoughts about the poetics of a text, maybe how it influences what you do in the classroom, but more centrally what it means about how you think about your own practice.
And to pepper this with some quotes to get you to riff off, that come from The Grand Piano series, of which I found things to ask you about in 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. I couldn’t find my volume 1 [laughter], so that’s where these will come from. Anyway, for me, thinking about poetics, this has been a recent emphasis: to think about what texts imply for the reader instead of thinking of them either as, first, autonomous formal constellations that somehow mean things on their own…
BP: Or do things on their own.
BA: without anybody on the receiving end. Or to think about the kind of writing that you do, in terms of the author position. Those are, in a sense, the heritages this emphasis on reading contests. It contests a more formalist sense of the text and it contests a sense of the text that’s based on the expressivity of the author. For instance, in #7, Grand Piano #7, you’re talking about one thing that is an “icon for the avant-garde”: “(iconoclastic Form made by breaking apart the banalities of the age).”
BP: By the way, I wrote that?
BA: Yeah. I’m wondering whether form can ever be iconoclastic? Breaking apart those banalities by itself.
BP: First let me say that I think I am in agreement with your wanting to shift the emphasis away from the act of writing as autonomous where the form of the writing constitutes a viable political act in and of itself. I would agree that nothing really happens until the work is read, received, picked up, distorted, argued with. It’s a cue, a starting place, a location for a social agreement, argument, reconstitution of things. So how can form be iconoclastic without such interactions?
I’m feeling more and more, the writer’s material is the current state of vocabulary, the various currencies of art practice in — not an amorphous set of readers, but a very complex, striated set of readers. For instance, take the sonnet. Some people, if you quote a line from Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, would know instantly, “Ah, yes, that’s Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets.” And that would evoke, stimulate a sense of Berrigan’s take on the sonnet, which is already complicated — iconoclastic form. The Sonnets are also non-sonnets, or anti-sonnets, or iconoclastic sonnets. I can imagine somebody could take … a corpus of the lines of Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets and do a Ted Berrigan to Ted Berrigan’s sonnets. That would be an example: if people recognized, “Ah yes, Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets : what I am now reading is being iconoclastic towards Ted Berrigan’s iconoclasm and doing a Ted Berrigan to Ted Berrigan being iconoclastic.” So if form is being recognized by the reader, you can also signal that you’re evoking it and breaking it, changing it, messing with it.
BA: Okay. It’s the “if” clause that intrigues. If it’s recognized. And then I’m asking: if it’s recognized that you’re challenging some convention of form, so what? What’s the value, what’s the point, when it comes to the reader? And here we’re talking about a certain category of reader who’s able to have the background or the knowledge to be able to recognize that gesture. That’s one reason I’m curious about these things. Here’s another example —
BP: Let me just say that there’s a very deep chasm of angst around that issue: on the one hand, it’s a pleasant idea to think of turning Ted Berrigan’s sonnets into the classic sonnets and then doing a Ted Berrigan to Ted Berrigan, etc. On the other hand, you’re right, that’s already a very specialized audience, specialized art gesture.
So, two things. One is that it could be an act of affirmation in avant-garde literacy. That Ted Berrigan has had a big influence, that there’s an increasing number of readers that know Ted Berrigan’s work, and would respond to that: and you are giving a sign of solidarity with that group of readers and tweaking and challenging that consensus, energizing it. That’s a positive — the glass half-full — way to think of it. The other way is: compared to the big, wide world, it’s a small niche of Ted Berrigan literates that you are consigning your work to.
BA: I’m curious about this emphasis on reception and readership partly in how it would affect your own experience of texts. When you would start out, or continue now to look at previous generations of poets, and you see certain dazzling gestures being articulated at the level of form, what does that do? Does that make you impressed? Does it make you want to do the same kind of thing? Give you some pleasure that’s unrelated to being impressed? Does it enter into your evaluation of your own work, other’s work? When you’re teaching the classics, or the modernist classics even?
BP: Oh, teaching: the second half of the conversation we can talk about teaching…
BA: We don’t have to talk about teaching at all. It’s just another version of introducing this dynamic of reading: if you’re teaching these texts, it’s not as though you’re saying, “Take my word for it, these people are great.” If they say, “why are they great?” and you talk about what the texts are doing in some autonomous, formalist way, the assumption is: that’s supposed to be the source of the greatness, whether you notice it or whether you read it or not, whether you even open the book.
BP: Thinking about teaching, what levels of literacy you can count on — you have to constantly provide quickly encapsulized emblems of literacy. To teach Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, you have to sketch in what a sonnet is, its history of devaluation with Williams, and then you have to contextualize Berrigan’s iconoclastic gesture. You’re telling these stories — you have to tell them quickly, but they have to grab hold. And somebody has to understand what a sonnet is, the courtly tradition, the male objectification of woman, all that, and then you can start to trouble what you’ve just laid down for these students. The classroom is full of these ultra-bare beginnings.
The library, the history that informs our work, is so layered and complicated that a lot of time is spent just building frameworks where you finally can get to tell the witty-iconoclastic-avant-garde-revolutionary gestures that excited you and that you want to excite the kids.
BA: It’s that “excited by something” quality in your own experience… — as if you’re talking about imparting the raw materials and the background and the layering, the library that you had when those things got you excited: that you’re having to impart enough of that to hopefully inspire the same kind of excitement on the part of somebody else.
BP: There’s a line in the piece “Iflife” in the book Iflife, near the beginning. It’s a quote from my journal. And by the way, including bits from journals, to me that’s an iconoclastic gesture, since, you know, the author has been long dead and killed off, etc. So, to include bits of your own journal — you know, Bob Perelman: “How was your day, Bob?” “Well… ” etc. — and write this down, and then use a little bit of that, not a lot of it but a little bit. It’s like contraband in an avant-garde context.
Anyway, the line I quote starts out with Mina Loy, and the line is, “taught moderately good desire.” I’m teaching “Songs to Joannes” of Loy and trying to provide a sense of how provocative and courageous she is when she writes, “Pig Cupid, his rosy snout rooting erotic garbage” in 1917, as a mother of two, having had affairs with her Futurists and having left her husband, etc.
What I finally want to teach… in a way, the whole innovative, avant-garde, or let’s just say poetic, enterprise that we are engaged in — the fuel of it is a kind of desire — excitement, revolutionary desire, political desire, intellectual desire, linguistic desire, aesthetic desire, wanting to move and reshape the material into something that — like Olson talking about energy — something that is both pleasing and troubling in a way that makes whoever reads it want to do something else with it…
Zukofsky, who’s always a troubling, beloved figure for me — I’m always finding him exactly wrong in a way that feels very intimate — when he talks about “rested totality,” that’s exactly what I don’t want in writing: rested totality. It makes me think of Wordsworth’s essay on epitaphs. It’s a grave marker. I think of “Anno 1922” engraved, chiseled into the cornerstone of the city bank. It doesn’t move.
BA: The notion of rested totality, and your disinterest in it — or your uncomfortableness with it, your irritation —
BP: It’s a foundational irritation.
BA: That fits perfectly with an emphasis on the reader, because rested totality is a comment on the reader’s experience. It’s not a comment on some autonomous formal quality of the text. What’s at rest is the reader’s experience. It comes to some kind of equilibrium, or, more caustically, it comes to some inert, slag-like phase.
BP: It’s moribund.
BA: Yeah, moribund. It’s death. But at least that phrase does capture some of this reading dynamic. You wouldn’t say, “Oh, that’s impressive.” You’d say, “Oh, that’s worrisome,” precisely because of what it implies about the reader, and the reader’s judgment claims.
BP: It’s funny. I’m stuck on the word “impressive.” For me, being impressed by something — this goes back to your and my childhood. The beginning of Dragnet — which I’m sure you saw, a Mark 7 production I think it was, where you had that metal hammer hammering in, being impressed. And didn’t it have a 7 in Roman numerals impressed onto the granite with a klang? To be impressed is… to be incised, to receive the scar of permanent — it’s not literacy, it’s a permanent — … acceptance of that word, of those letters.
If you take rested totality as… if you take Zukofsky as some people do, or maybe I’m slandering people; maybe there’s no such reader, maybe it’s just a projection of myself — I’m always against anybody who takes modernist doxa as truth. I feel like they’re impressed, they’ve been incised with those words…
BA: Let me insert the phrase “auratic indexicality.”
BP: Ah, yes, okay.
BA: Directly related to this, in Grand Piano #4, you talked about Language Writing, or, as I call it, so-called Language Writing-
BP: [laughs] That’s the correct term, right.
BA: That’s my term. I don’t know who else’s term you’d want to use, but you talked about . . .
BP: Was that the one where I quoted you? #4?
BA: I don’t remember. But you asked if Language Writing is just a “brand name” or a “fact of history”… Now, to me, Language Writing wouldn’t be a fact of history if it’s about reading.
BP: Explain what you mean there.
BA: The reading of this body of texts isn’t historical if it has continuing purchase and leverage on the present. The thing that would make it a history, and the way it would be talked about easily as a history, would be as a history of author achievements. Then we get to the brand name.
BP: I have many thoughts on this. One is, I guess I would dissent from the binary between brand name and history. Especially since capitalism has gotten the momentum that it’s had for a long time, and still has — how can you tell history and brand names apart? I was trying to say something like: history implies a longer shelf-life, whereas brand names would have a more ephemeral cultural provenance. But ephemerality does often get recorded.
Somebody like Vachel Lindsay was very fashionable in 1916 — “General William Booth Enters Heaven.” Then it is swept away, because it’s not very good, and the modernists are better. But it still exists, you can go back and read Lindsay. From a cultural point of view, Lindsay has some importance. “The Congo” is actually an important, very bad, poem… certainly part of history. History is something that keeps getting re-accessed, reactivated, reinterpreted. It’s something that’s not forgotten because there’re continuing arguments about what it actually is.
BA: Then, a fact of history would be unlike a brand name; it would have some continuity. It would go forward.
BP: It could be a very discontinuous continuity.
BA: But it wouldn’t be the fashionable flash-in-the-pan.
BP: It could be. I mean, Warhol was a fashionable flash-in-the-pan, and now he’s very much a part of history. He’s going to be argued about for a long time, as a highly formal artist — people are going to talk about… his diagonals and design sense, and some people are going to talk about Campbell’s Soup. His work will outlast Campbell’s Soup.
BA: Well, I was interested in your talking this way about so-called Language Writing, because the issue keeps popping up among our peers and younger writers: whether the stylistic or methodological protocols of this type of writing are of continuing relevance or whether they were some kind of period fact, that’s now gone. And if we’re in a new period, then those protocols aren’t relevant for people writing today.
One backdrop to this, when I’m talking about poets’ experience of reading outside the classroom, I have to admit that the charge that people get from reading these kinds of texts is usually channeled into motivation for writing. So that when we were younger and reading the late modernists or the early postmodernists, we weren’t just reading them in class and thinking…
BP: In fact, we were absolutely not reading them in class. It was not presented to us.
BA: Which is what is so weird these days about what goes on in the university system, but leave that aside for the moment. For many of us, our excitement about reading certain texts had a prescriptive dimension. We could tease out the implications of what we were reading for the things we wanted then to write.
And so, to talk about so-called Language Writing as something that was passé would suggest that even if you could get psyched reading these things in context, looking back at the historical context and being, again, impressed by the achievements of these writers, you might still say, “But now none of that matters because we’re in a whole different sociocultural world, and those former contextual factors don’t apply, and I can’t really take my excitement about reading these things as a directive for what to write.”
Which is why we’d be talking about something that can be domesticated in the classroom, because there’s no danger that anybody’s going to think they should actually write like this. They can just think, “Oh, well, here were these geezers from the Baby Boom era, and they wrote this way in the 1970s and 80s, and isn’t that contextually and historically quaint and interesting, but it doesn’t have anything to do with our world now, where we need to write workshop poems.”
BP: Mmm, that’s a grim scenario.
BA: I’m wondering if Language writing so-called, either as a brand name or as a fact of history, ends up for most people being anything more than a history of the achievements of certain authors, or it gets talked about like that.
BP: It often gets talked about like that. In Grand Piano #9, I’ve written a piece about Bromige’s piece “My Poetry” in his book My Poetry. In one place I say that the materiality of language, the dissolution of the author into cultural contexts and cultural currents… the various doxa that have emerged about what Language Writing was or what a virtuous stance toward reading and writing is … all that can get very routinized. This is one of the great continuing scandals: that some writing is more exciting than other writing.
That excitement runs athwart various larger categories of author-centered or not or narrative-centered or not or syntactically coherent or not, etc. You know, Reznikoff often is more exciting than somebody who is writing the most up-to-date, advanced disjunctive work. Sometimes. Let’s try to say it in a more punchy, portable way. I don’t think there’s a narrative of formal advance, and nor does the historical scenario of Language Writing show a single set of formal advances.
Take Steve Benson and Carla Harryman, yourself, Rae Armantrout, you could go on and list them — those are very different formal dispositions of writing. There isn’t a single line that you could say, “Oh, there’s an advance. And everybody who doesn’t want to be unadvanced needs to incorporate it.”
BA: A focus on reception and reading in some ways helps solve that problem. Because it’s not about whether there’s a coherent set of formal dispositions among these writers, but whether there might be some strong parallelisms in the results, once read in a certain era. In other words, that the projects might look morphologically distinctive, but there might be some interesting similarities that would be the thing to focus on in how readers come away from those texts.
BP: What would we agree on as those similarities? That the writing at the level of syllable/word/local phrasing/rhythmic impact calls on the reader’s attention in a very full way, grabs the reader’s attention, so that you really have to pay attention?
BA: I don’t think we can get to the point of figuring out what the commonalities are in the reader’s experience or the reader’s judgment calls about this messy body of so-called Language Writing texts — but to me that would be the way to go… To try to see what’s distinctive about that work from the point of view of the reader or a reader or us as a reader or us as readers of our peers and of our own work. Because if you have a community or some groupuscule-like phenomena of writers who are A) friends and B) bonding together around some writing projects, and the writing projects are quite distinctive, are quite distinct from each other formally, what is it that makes them think of their peers as being part of the same project? Is it just that X was sleeping with Y? [laughs]
Or that in spite of surface formalist differences, something that each of them gets out of reading each other’s works has the same kind of pull, the same kind of electrical charge.
BP: Celebration of invention, a dissatisfaction with any kind of status quo that represents high literary achievement…
BA: Those things would be a problem for the continuing heritage of this kind of writing. Because, as younger, grumpier writers now say, this body of work is the status quo, is the historical edifice. And therefore, for them, it can’t have any of that quality of the new or the inventive or the challenging to the hegemonic status quo because it’s been canonized and set up in a different way historically. Even though the texts as just bare things to read might still have a thrill.
BP: And they may be doing different things than their categorization, canonization — Although, some days, I could say, “What canonization?” On the other hand, canonization certainly happens, but I would like that process to be a little more flexible and aerated and less doxological.
BA: If I kept pushing this desire to reformulate things in terms of readers and readers’ judgments, we might notice that the texts or the authors’ works that were the easiest to canonize by a conservative literary establishment would be precisely the ones that fit into preexisting methods of reading. And others that didn’t fit into those already-established methods of reading in the academy, for instance, might be a little tougher to assimilate.
BP: I hear what you’re saying. But I don’t think I agree. The actual cases of … in our set… — you know, not everyone wants to be called a Language Writer in this set — but people who have achieved wider circulation are not necessarily the quote-unquote “easiest” or the most conventional or the closest to an old-fashioned set of habits that can be received with less strain. In fact, we could name various people who are, you have to say, pretty radical and challenging to older habits of reading, whose work has quite wide circulation. No, I think it’s more the result of networking, critical output, in some cases just the luck of the draw. Or there were active critics who wanted to find something like X, and found X, and celebrated X.
BA: Again, I would be happiest if this canonizing process was more self-consciously and conscientiously based on a conception of what it means to read these works, and not on all the other social factors that you hinted at. Let me go to another related comment you made…
In Grand Piano#2, you were talking about the present in ways that focused around the project of writing, and the achievements and the anxieties of writing, that I would be happy to try to reformulate in terms of the reader and the judgments of the reader. Because you contrasted it with the kind of judgments that the writers in the San Francisco Bay area were making. You pointed out that there was a certain kind of freedom — that there weren’t colonizing giants “looming behind” all of you and your achievements as writing. You were contrasting a situation where there was a certain kind of freedom —
BP: Oedipal vacuum.
BA: Okay, Oedipal vacuum, that allowed for perhaps this strident focus on writing as the project instead of producing things to read as the project. But you contrasted that with the kind of reading that was going on in the scene, where people were making what you call ferocious, instant judgments and often this was built around the violence of expulsion. So you had this weird conjunction of a self-congratulatory success story that you were all writing about yourselves as writers in this Oedipal vacuum at the same time as you were armoring yourself and protecting that kind of, what I would call…
BA: Complacency or narcissism, yeah, by virtue of the violence of the expulsive judgments you were making in reading other people.
BP: A complicated set of things going on there. One: it’s a weird kind of Rube Goldberg perspective now looking back at myself having written a piece in Grand Piano #2 which looks back at myself as a fairly naïve young writer in San Francisco — so there are different landings and levels and staircases, etc. And even though there’s a statement in the Grand Piano claiming that it’s a collective autobiography, I can’t help being skeptical. For me, it’s a collective writing project. I don’t feel that everything in there speaks for my experience. I don’t feel like I speak for other people’s experience, etc. At any rate, some people — for instance, I suppose, Barry and Ron come to mind instantly — were much more attuned to the larger historical landscape.
Back then, when we were in our twenties, they were more literate, aware, ambitious. They were already in a literary scene, whereas I feel like I was much more ingenuous, perhaps narcissistic, unsophisticated. I hardly knew who Robert Duncan was. I had just heard of Creeley. Oppen, I didn’t really know who Oppen was.
BA: Well, you certainly knew more than that about Creeley. Years before that, when we were in Cambridge together, we took a class from Bob.
BP: Although I only went to about two of those classes. In hindsight, would that I had gone to more. And it was interesting to suddenly go from reading For Love and seeing on the back cover this very interesting gentleman posed at a very radically obscure angle, in hindsight, to hide his missing eye. A very odd picture, but it also looked rather deeply serious and unknowable, and then the poems were very striking and hard to parse. Then meeting Creeley through Grenier, and — it’s almost like a dream I remember, walking into that classroom, the one thing I remember is Bob saying, “And Bobbie was having her period… ” And my world was interestingly rearranged at that point. It was not at all transgressive, just part of the world. I didn’t know poets said such things, that that was also a literary fact, a poetic fact. It was an exciting incoherence for me. Also Creeley was so friendly and affable and non-off-putting…
BA: Go back… No colonizing giants looming behind our achievements. That points to some freed-up space, some liberated zone. In other words it facilitated a sense of literary achievement, which may well have been — and I’m looking back now — detrimental to the success of the texts in creating opportunities for reading.
BP: I don’t know, I would read it the other way.
BA: Especially because of this violent, expulsive… that part of it. When you put those two together, it doesn’t orient the community as much around the creation of exciting texts to be read by others, which then could have opened things up, instead of armoring them in a self-defensive crouch.
BP: I suppose I’m narrating my own sense of not having any kind of literary Oedipal parental figure, someone whose work summed up the kind of achievement I wanted to emulate. I didn’t want to please Robert Duncan; I didn’t think — and, too bad — to seek out Oppen and talk to him before he sank into Alzheimer’s, etc. So there is a benefit from that — maybe this sounds grandiose, but it’s good that Whitman didn’t think too highly of Emerson’s poetry, or highly enough to try to imitate it; there’s a benefit to that kind of unformed enthusiasm.
On the other hand, at the same time that this was happening, yes, there were some of the more mature, ambitious, already more highly formed people in the community who would suddenly say “Oh, X, oh, that’s just really terrible.” And again, in my less formed way, I would think, “I don’t know if I believe that.” Suddenly it was very clear to me that I wasn’t living in a happy utopia where everybody was a free, creative individual — you talk about armor, and affective currents, and polemical charges and lines of force —
BA: But what was the strategy, even implicitly, behind that? Was it to make sure that there wasn’t some recrudescence of the looming figures that would somehow drag you back into a derivative pose, and undercut your historic achievements?
BP: I think there were two different psychic literary economies present at all times — a kind of restricted economy and an unrestricted economy simultaneously. There was an Oedipal and, I suppose, a pre-Oedipal economy going on. I did get educated there and I learned about the Oedipal scenarios, the polemic scenarios, and I don’t want to paint myself as anything like a holy fool who only ever experienced the divine in every human being, etc., but I do think poetically, literarily, I hunkered down to my own anti-Oedipal sense. I was very aware of the other scenarios, they were right next to me, and some of my closest friends were staking their careers on them, but I always was glad that a bottom line rule we had was that you could break rules.
BA: But as writers.
BP: As writers.
BA: Apparently less so as enthusiasts/readers. That’s where this violent expulsiveness comes in.
BP: On the other hand, I remember in my residency at Langton Street, one of the talks I gave was on Colette and felt no sense of having transgressed. But the expulsive moments resonated strongly, with me, internally. And I know that in early reception of Language Writing, so-called Language Writers, people would say, “Oh, if you’re a Language Writer, that means you can’t use Keats. If you’re a Language Writer, you can’t use narrative, you can’t use ‘I.’” There were all these reductive reactions…
BA: Again, to me, the ferocious judgments about reading other people, if they had been reframed as, “We don’t want to bother with these types of writing because of the type of experience for the reader that they solicit,” that’s one thing. But if you say, “I want to expel these types of writing because they are competing for my turf” in some scenario based on formal advance, then you not only cause social trouble in the community at large, you also neglect being able to think about what you’re doing as producing material for exciting reading experiences instead of piling up resume items for your big CV in the historical sky.
You’re also undercutting chances for seeing connections between the kind of work you’re doing and the kind of work other people are doing. They may be related at the level of just the micro experience of reading, even if they don’t fit the same historical scenario about author achievement.
BP: I remember saying somewhere in The Grand Piano that the positive, exciting impetuses that I felt there came from gestures that were social, theatrical, emotional in a exploratory way… and yes, there was a residue of something I call the ‘Don’t’ soil of Pound, as in, “Don’t do this,” or you could cite Apollinaire’s “Rose et Merde,”; or Breton’s Don’t read this, read that. I always was repelled by that. Yet Pound was a very exciting, generative presence for me as an adolescent — weirdly, Pound and Whitman, a bizarre combination. I continue to argue with Pound because he’s so deeply problematic and wrong in so many ways, and it’s that expulsive, armored, phobic sense which gives one energy because it’s a paranoid clarity in which the world makes sense, you make connections, etc. etc. But finally it’s non-generative.
Something that pops into my head suddenly: the Rimbaud from Season in Hell where he says he has a taste for naïve painting on the signs in provincial inns. And in fact human signage can be very estranged, marvelous, generative, intimate, malleable. In that attitude toward language, toward writing, toward signage, toward signification, you can develop a kind of intimacy, or display the potential for an intimacy without known teleology — both intimate but unknown simultaneously. And that’s the opposite of expulsion, so that was very much there too.
But the expulsion was very instructive, because saying, “Oh, X is terrible” or “This kind of phrasing is terrible” or “Oh, I hate that picture” or “I hate that line”: it makes you realize that every detail counts; it’s not, “Oh, everything’s great, everything’s good.” So I’m saying two very different things simultaneously. I want this openness and intimacy, but I don’t want a vagueness of “Whatever.”
BA: I’m gesturing toward this distinction between the achievements of the authors, on the one hand, and the creation of opportunities for the reader. Which goes back to another related point. #5: you talk about your dislike for the term ‘the Language School.’ This is a term not widely used among the practitioners of so-called Language Writing, with some — maybe one — notable exception, but I was curious about the very irritating quality of the term for the reader. If you think of so-called Language Writing as a historic achievement in formal or methodological terms, then you might want to think of it as a school, you might want to think of it as an army, you might want to think of it as a government, or as a sovereign state.
BP: What does Kant say about it?
BA: That’ll keep coming in. But if you’re thinking about it from the point of view of the reader, does the reader want to be socialized or interpellated into some convention, which they would do by “going to school”? Or do they want to carve out a greater degree of freedom, which, in our Baby Boomer generation, generally meant real hostility toward school and everything that it represented?
BP: Absolutely. This gets back to the discussion about teaching. I do believe in the usefulness of pedagogy, even though it’s a tragicomic, Sisyphean task: there are so many frames to construct and so many people to construct them for and such finite time in which to do it. You constantly get this sad reductiveness that, to detourne Williams, “cuts off the legs of the crab and puts them in a box,” various boxes that you’re constructing. Hopefully teaching can gesture beyond that. But I agree with what you’re saying.
BA: Are those soft-shell crabs that we could eat the legs of?
BP: I don’t know what you do with the legs that you cut off.
BA: You’re sacrificing the legs because they’re not the soft-shell crabs. They don’t have the armor. The ones you need to cut the legs off of are the armored crabs. The legs are then not worth getting the marrow out of.
BP: Let me just say about school — prerequisites, hierarchy — it also means for us, as writers, if you’re in the Language School, you’re a dead textbook. You can’t write anymore. Or you only have to write the new edition of the textbook. You can’t write something new without somehow stepping outside of school.
BA: Or you stop writing poetry altogether.
BP: Because you have to write tenure letters.
BA: And start just writing textbooks.
BP: But there is a non-problematic use of the word “school.” I mean, the New York School, I use that phrase… Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler, Barbara Guest, etc…
BA: And wasn’t that an ironic creation, historically, if you go back to the ‘50s, when they adopted it?
BP: It was. But now it’s a simple, generic backpack design, where you pick up these objects in this container: end of story — you don’t have to worry about it.
BA: This goes back to my obsessive binary here. If it’s a school and you’re presented with the products of a school, then your posture as a reader is to be impressed, to not think of it as a generative possibility for you as a writer.
BP: To be impressed, to be depressed, to rebel, to drop out, etc.
BA: Whereas, if it’s not a school, it might have a better chance of being a continuing-into-the- future project that other people could pick up on and take as their own instead of just think, “Oh, that’s something that’s delimited in this ten year period, and is over now… ”
BP: Right, “We’re excluded… ”
BA: “We can’t do it; we are violently expelled from the possibility, just like our older sisters or brothers twenty years before. There’s nothing we can do with this stuff now other than study for the test.” Is that what some people wanted, embodied in a term like “the Language School”? They could be historical figures without regard for the experience of the reader.
BP: I find that term antithetical. I want my literary values and my writing to not have prerequisites, to be available, and, dare I say, instructive and exciting, to as wide a range of readers as possible -
BA: No prerequisites would mean that you’re always doing the intro course?
BP: On the other hand, I have to say, I certainly can’t deny my own ambitions. I want my work to be read, I don’t want it to go out of print. To cop to any of those ambitions means that you have to say, “Oh, this is good, important, valuable work.” You can’t escape complicity with hierarchies. If it were a pure democracy…
BA: I’m not talking about pure democracy so much as whether the values are based on something centrifugal, pointing out toward the reader, or whether it’s centripetal, enclosed in this bubble of historical achievement, which doesn’t require any readers for it to be activated, which is why then you could be quarrelsome and expulsive about particular people on the fringes of the community, because who gives a shit about them, that’s not the point of the project. It’s to create this historic achievement as an edifice, and eventually you’d get credit for that advance, even if no one at the moment was paying attention.
BP: That’s the structural contradiction between a multiplicitous literary movement and an innovative avant-garde literary movement. Is Whitman democratic or…
BA: I’m trying to get at whether an innovative avant-garde movement is innovative and avant-garde because of its relation to the reading experience — that that’s why it’s avant-garde or innovative — because of the new possibilities it’s opening up for an open kind of reading. Maybe that would make it more multiplicitous.
BP: For me the desire certainly is… I wrote a book called To the Reader, and I don’t think I meant that title ironically. I’ve said this before, but To the Reader marked, for me, a turn toward language from the media, present-tense language that was completely in bed with Capital. I suddenly was writing — not in a literary time, but in a commercial-cultural present. And it was simultaneous with having kids…
BA: With a transformation of your own reading experience.
BP: Yes, absolutely.
BA: I always remember, in New York City, when graduates of Brown came to town, and shed some of their high-toned literary focus, and opened themselves up to the life of the urban street — a different possibility, a more ‘cultural studies’ world. If your work shifts because of a shift in the experience you have in the world, as a beholder, as a spectator, as an onlooker, as a reader, it makes perfect sense that your own work would try to open up those possibilities…
BP: As a language user. For me, having kids — being intimately, lovingly, passionately involved with beings who were transitioning from the pre-linguistic to the linguistic. When kids learn to talk, and then ask you about the H-bomb, when they’re three, four years old, that pushes all the buttons you possibly could have. It invents new buttons to push that you didn’t even know you had.
BA: Or to rephrase one of my book titles, “I don’t have a tape recorder, so shut up.” In #4, you talked about the body — as “an ungainsayable placeholder for all-purpose social relevance.” There again, I’m interested in the body as the reader, the reader’s body as different from the body as a mark of author branding. If we’re talking about the all-purpose social relevance of a certain type of writing that your peers are involved with: do they get to make claims for the all-purpose social relevance of their work because their work highlights, let’s say, thematics relevant to the body, or some kind of material specificity relevant to the body? Or is that still just territorialized back on the writer?
Is that a pretentious claim the writer makes even though there isn’t any social relevance when it comes to the reader — because the reader is being ignored, or not paid attention to?
BP: I think the page that we have to write on is the embodied attention of readers. And that’s complicated. On the one hand, I’ve been reading books about consciousness and evolution, and I’m a great fan of Merlin Donald — A Mind So Rare — where he begins by admitting what he ultimately opposes; but first he admits the evidence from various philosophers and what he calls biological deconstructionists as to the narrowness of human consciousness. There’s about a fifteen second window of present tense retention. From various scientific experiments, it’s clear that you can’t retain present sensory impressions, and cognize them for longer than seven to fifteen seconds. It’s sort of a Jenny Holzer L.E.D., that kind of screen where the letters go across. A moving text message, very short, with say twenty letters total as it moves past. That’s a fact that all writers — all word-composers, poets — deal with, since Homer and prior to that: the present tense impact of word recognition, rhythm recognition, sound recognition, syntax recognition is very finite.
Then there’s long-term memory and intermediate memory, and the interlinkages between those levels are not crisp and automatic. And that is the physical situation that we are addressing our writing, our verbal work, too. So the body: there’s just no way you can expect human beings to hear minutes of fully present-tense syllables. Nobody can hear all of Stein’s “Portrait of Matisse,” “Portrait of Picasso.” You can’t hear those seven minutes of variations and keep them fully in mind.
BA: The body gets valorized in lots of different types of writing — the deployment of the body — but it’s always the writer’s body. If I tell stories, if I express emotional turbulence instead of cool, calculated cognition, if I get all hopped up or heated up as a writer and somehow am X, if I talk about my body, about bodily experience… often that gets credit for really dealing with the body. And the so-called Language Writers are these austere, totally locked into their brain-types, that don’t really deal with the body.
And I would make the claim that this kind of radical writing you’re doing has a tremendous purchase on the body, but it’s the body of the reader, a complicated body of the reader which often involves experiences that you locate back in your past, things like, “It blew my mind. I was reading these people and it blew my mind.” There’s something about that “It blew my mind” quality that I want in writing, yet I don’t get that from a lot of writing which gets applauded for its embodiment, from a writing-centered point of view.
BP: Many things come to mind. One is, quoting your recent work in Sally’s performance [in Yessified, Spring 2009], this new project you’re doing [of ‘White Dialect Poetry’]. One phrase stuck in my long term memory — “getting all exCIted.” On the one hand, there’s the sense of dialect, accent — it’s not as if you, Bruce Andrews, are saying that. It sounds like you’re quoting someone from Tennessee, but you’re also celebrating in a distanced, enthusiastic way — it’s both a critical distance and an intimate participation in that excitement. There’s a line from Jennifer Moxley, and I wonder what I think about this line, where the protagonist, the narrator is talking about putting his or her fingers in somebody’s cunt, and then it says something like, “And you the reader are getting a little bit hard as I say this.” And I think, Oh, that’s a little exciting. Is she… using us, the reader…
BA: What was exciting? That she said that or you were getting a little hard?
BP: In a way it was the expansion of literary territory, not the expansion of the experiential moment of the woman’s cunt. For me as reader it was more like, “Oh, you can say that, like that, okay… ”
BA: Now we’re back to Bobbie Louise.
BP: Yeah, Bobbie Louise’s period. In Marginalization of Poetry, I detourne a quote from Frost, from a poem that sticks in my mind and that I don’t like — speaking of expulsion: that’s a big source of literary energy, poems and lines I don’t like. They resonate and they foreclose, and I want to break apart that foreclosure. It’s the opening poem in Frost’s Collected Poems about “I’m going to clean out the pasture spring.” It’s so hokey, but it ends, “You come too.” You know, the calf is so young it can barely stand on its legs — “You come too.” I quote it in a way that makes an ordinary salacious pun on “come,” — Why do I find it amusing to make Robert Frost erotic? Gestures toward the body… I wonder if writing can do anything… I can be very impatient with all the conversation about the body, because there’s a long history in poetry of poetry’s activity on I guess you would say the limbic system, and Plato’s expulsion of poetry, worrying about the irrationality of poetry, the affect of poetry, the way rhythm can make people all excited and problematic from Plato’s point of view. Those are facts —
BA: All reader-centered.
BP: Very much reader-centered. Or listener-centered, in all sorts of ways, you can re-instantiate that excitement.
BA: That’s what intrigues me. That’s why I’m skeptical about… — whether it’s the PC version, the multi-culti version, the valorized identification-inducing group version of the body — it’s still territorialized on the writer. And part of this larger scenario of setting up the writer as hierarchical figure that we are supposed to be sitting back and impressed — with their achievement, or their fascinating disclosure of their intimate… the courage to acknowledge and talk and thematize their body: I still wonder, what’s the point? How do we value that in relation to the reading process?
Here’s another issue. This goes back to the “Don’t” soil of Pound. In Grand Piano #3 you talked about so-called Language Writing not coming out of the “Don’t” soil of Pound, but instead coming out of spurring one another to find new forms. But I wanted to challenge that. What if the “Don’t” soil reflected new demands based on a conception of reading?
BP: Explain that.
BA: That the reason you embrace the “Don’ts” of a Pound or some other figure wasn’t author-centered so much as a sense of: if you do certain things, you will box in the reader. If you don’t do certain things, you open up opportunities for the reader. The reason you don’t do certain things is not because they’re old-fashioned, or dated, not because they’re not cool and new, but simply because they don’t open up good things for a readership. And secondly, this notion of new forms, spurring one another to find new forms — what if I said that the only justification for new forms would be in relationship to the reader? That new forms per se are nothing to be applauded, unless we could talk about how the new forms open up some new possibilities for the reader?
BP: I think forms have to be perceptible in order to be efficacious. On the one hand, perception — literary perception, sensory perception, cognitive perception — is brutally minimal. And therefore: different vocabulary, tone, rhythm — you have to be inventive on a quick, small scale in order to be perceived. On the other hand, I’m still a fan of large-scale works. I’m a very old-fashioned enthusiast of Ulysses, the Goldberg Variations, long things. How do large-scale things… how are they perceived?
BA: I’m suggesting: if you applaud those long forms, underneath that might be a sense of what those long forms allow or solicit or make possible for you and others as readers. That’s what’s interesting about them, not just “WOW! He wrote a thousand page book” —
BP: It has to be “Wow” in our 15 second window too. In my immediate sensory perception of this building, musical composition, large piece, I can perceive — although I can’t fully and finally perceive — I can perceive the initiation, the initial notion, of something very big, complex, and excitingly organized. Maybe that is the birth of desire to keep perceiving. Maybe that’s what we want — a happy frequency to get involved with.
BP: Duration that’s exciting, changeable, flexible.
BA: Okay. An experience for you as a reader that you couldn’t get out of these little epiphany lyric moments.
BP: I don’t mean lyric moments.
BA: Or short little poems that differ from giantly organized things.
BP: The short little thing is a brute fact of our short-term memory.
BA: I’m trying to reconfigure everything in terms of reading, to see what leverage that gets us. If you say, “I didn’t want it to just be the No No No of Pound,” what about saying, “what if the No No No of Pound makes perfect sense in light of what the reader is up to”? I’m wondering about this somewhat more naïve view that, “Oh, we’re not just not doing things, we’re making new things, we’re spurring each other on to make new forms.” A little more skeptically or sardonically, who cares? Who cares whether you’re making new forms? What’s so great about that unless you think of it in terms of the reader? Unless you think that the new forms are actually enabling and empowering a new conception of reader?
BP: Okay, here’s a semantic substitution. Instead of form, which entails, perhaps, superego, scholarship, decoding, long study in order to fully comprehend a certain form — what if, instead of new forms, what if we say new tones?
BA: Tone is tricky because some of the “Don’ts,” the Poundian “Don’ts,” had to do with tone.
BP: Really? I’m thinking of some book, I think it was This is Your Brain on Music, on the perception of music — the same territory you’re talking about in terms of reading. It turns out that people can identify songs: “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Baby” — apparently we can recognize that song in about 1/5 of a second. A tiny clip of the timbre of the voice. The tone is very specific very quickly. And that in poetry is something we all are attuned to. “Oh, that sounds new.” It sounds new — not for any of the more cumbersome reasons of ‘the reader makes the meaning’ or ‘it evokes the body,’ but some new, very intricate social configuration is presented to us quickly and complexly. And we hear it right away.
BA: I’m skeptical about this based on what you’d said earlier about the expulsive reading. I don’t think the rejectionist expulsion had to do with tone. It had to do with form and strategy.
BP: I think it had to do with literary field and turf.
BA: Okay, that’s sad.
BP: I think it’s true.
BA: If it had to do with tone, maybe you wouldn’t have expelled and rejected so many people. People could be coming up with new tones, but if they weren’t being packaged in terms of the currently acceptable new forms, they would be shunted aside. And there goes big swathes of world literature out the window, which were not operating with new forms, but did bring new tones and textures and other related things to the table.
BP: But saying no is important. There are certain lines and poems and tones that I hear and say, “Oh, no, exactly not that. That I can’t bear. That’s exactly what I don’t want to write.” So I’m not trying to say that everything is great and wonderful. I too expel things, and I’m sure you do: certain things you hear, you just think, “That is just not why I’m on earth, to write or hear that.”
BA: Again, if I’m choosing what to write up, based on what I want to read, it’s a comment on it as a piece of potential raw material for a future reading — which means it’s like if I’m taping records or burning CDs from the library. I’ll go through a pop record with 15 tracks and I’ll make decision on which tracks I don’t want to hear again, and those will be the tracks I don’t burn. It’s the same with writing.
BP: One is one’s own social laboratory.
BA: That’s what I’m fascinated by — what you’re calling the social laboratory of somebody as a writer. What game are we in?
BP: And we’re all very finite, twisted, problematic beings, without pure capaciousness… Some things that we might think, “Oh, this is the worst of the worst,” it might turn out that if we pushed through that door, there’d be something very interesting beyond that, and yet we can’t get beyond our muscularly convulsive habits of rejection. We just flinch, clench up, expel, can’t keep on perceiving; so that gets X-ed out.
BA: Right, the obsessive point I’m raising is whether those things get X-ed out because they don’t fit into some historicist narrative about formal triumph or whether they get X-ed out because they don’t have enough juice for a capacious or empowering, activating reading experience.
BP: The word “juice” is a very juicy word.
BA: It’s the reader-body again.
BP: And you and I, as reader-bodies, have to sadly admit that we know — consciously but not maybe biologically — that juice is a finite word, and we’ve had various levels of juice in the past four decades that we’ve been doing this. You look at some of the dear old modernists — again, take Pound, who was exemplary in his openness toward the new in the teens. His antennae were pretty marvelous; he was very athletic in his social networking, and his generosity and capaciousness and positive aggression for making new stuff happen.
By the later twenties and thirties, he missed everything. He was an old crank. Pound in the thirties-forties-fifties-sixties is an idiot. I think for all of us, just in terms of the geometry of the seconds in the day and the demands and the connections that we have — there’s no way that we can continue to respond adequately to all the good new work being done. We have our favorite young writers, we have people we haven’t quite heard of, people who importune us to pay more attention to… But in hindsight, people looking back at us in 2010 will say, “Oh, well, Bob and Bruce didn’t get X or Y “ —
BA: Didn’t embody the new things into our own work?
BP: Didn’t receive it fully and generously and generatively. As one gets older, one’s capaciousness dwindles, and so one gets less social. There are counterexamples that are very inspiring, of older writers who keep on the scene — I mean Jackson Mac Low is a great counterexample of somebody who just stayed open to what was happening in the present that was so many decades beyond his own birth as a writer. It’s exemplary, and that’s a nice goal to aspire to.
BA: #4: This was in our party conversation, where you asked whether Language Writing could “be defined by specific formal features — no narrative, no representational description, etc.” I’m wondering, even if Language Writing of this classical era looks distinctive in those ways, what do those distinctive features mean once we reconfigure them as things to read? Whether the degree of narrative, the degree of syntactical/classical grammatical coherence, the degree of sound continuity, the degree of disjunctiveness, the degree of representation, the degree of transparent referentiality — how that affects that reader.
Some of the prohibitions, which a lot of people got irritated by, might look perfectly reasonable as ways to keep the reading experience from being shut down, and some of them might not. Some might have been historic artifacts of fashion that really didn’t matter to the reader, others may actually directly affect the experience of reading those kinds of texts. And to put the source of value distinctly in the pocket of the reader, I would wonder how the history starts to look.
For instance, in #6, you talked about the initial critical discussions of Language Writing emphasizing things like textuality and analytic procedures. Again, my same questions. What does an emphasis on textuality do for the reader? What does a display of analytic procedures do for the reader, as different from what makes the writer feel like they can pat themselves on the back for being new and bold and historically unprecedented?
BP: I’m agreeing with your skepticism here. Let’s not make the locus of the avant-garde in the writer; but as a counter-experiment, let’s posit a succession of generations, a successive generation of avant-garde readers…
BP: who have different attention spans, different needs, different desires, different cathexes, different excitement zones. It’s not a singular sequence of readers, it’s a massively overlapped, variously educated and literate and socially located contentious set of readers. Time — not necessarily history but the passage of time — is the great ironist. All sorts of new gestures seem dated or less efficacious.
Other gestures, which seemed staid and placid, suddenly look like nothing that’s ever been seen or read before. We only have proximate control over those things, and the proximate control, where our decisions get made, is in these short-term, intermediate-term, long-term levels of memory. In that case, I’ll say Zukofsky’s exactly right in his sense of recurrences — I’m trying to quote the end of “A,” where he says of Celia, the recurrences, she hears, etc… a variety of recurrences: that’s all we get to compose with. To say “A” here and “A” there, you have to have faith that they will be perceived as some version of themselves by whichever reading, whichever generation of avant-garde reader. If we don’t have similarity and recurrence, we don’t have anything.
And that’s why, parenthetically, Stein’s sense of the continuous present, if you push it in a reductive, abstract way, makes no sense at all. Language doesn’t exist in a continuous present, but is in fact a set of neurological patternings. Ye olde neural cuneiform. Every time the word “aardvark” or “crepuscular” is heard, it signals the same thing as the last time you heard “crepuscular,” even though in a new context.
BP: Trilobites! Very good.
BP: Verb and noun.
BA: So, again, it makes me wonder about the historical forward motion of, let’s say, so-called Language Writing. If you talked about it in its initial critical descriptions — emphasizing textuality and analytic procedures and impatience with the literary stagings of the self (the big author) — when wouldn’t those emphasized features still be relevant? Why, at some point, in the 90s or in the first decade of the new century, would an emphasis on textuality, a rejection of narrative, an emphasis on analytic procedure, on undercutting the expressiveness of the author: why wouldn’t all of those continue to open up opportunities for the reader?
Is Language Writing some kind of period phenomenon, where we used to emphasize textuality, we used to reject narrative, we used to reject transparent representation and description of a novelistic sort, and somehow we don’t need to do that anymore — that that’s old hat, and now we need to go beyond disjunction and get back into narrative, and get back into author expressivity [laughs] and that’s what’s relevant for our current era?
Maybe it wasn’t then, but now it is, so the whole project is dated — as has been quoted, “a period style”? Now we’re in the new digital age and everything is all about continuity and conjunction and storytelling…
BP: Networking and coalition building. Is the avant-garde a permanent historical feature of the literary, or is it in fact a dated phenomenon?
BA: How can you tell unless you have the reader as a baseline for evaluating the project? Either you have the reader’s experience or you have some sense of formalist innovation, as what provides value to a project. We have projects that are self-proclaimedly post-Language poetry — in some cases doing something fairly radical that’s the opposite of what we’re up to, and in some cases doing something familiar to all of us from the late sixties or early seventies, that might seem new just because it got surpassed in some formalist way by the things that many of our peers were doing. All of a sudden you could say, this is new because it’s not doing what the Language Writers were doing.
BP: There are two concepts I’m getting from the thrust of your questioning. Can these two concepts exist together: the avant-garde on the one hand, the reader on the other? The reader is someone who has learned to read, who can decode the signs of the letters, the words, the gestures. Can the avant-garde be legible and still be avant-garde, or is legibility the death of the avant-garde? Is the avant-garde by definition illegible?
BA: To quote you in #6, “New sense is not likely to be sensible.”
BP: But it is sensory.
BA: Or even apprehensible.
BP: It is sensory. Again, some of my neurological amateur sleuthing — I did find out that linguistic sound goes to a different part of the brain than non-linguistic sound. We have no choice about that, physiologically. We can never hear English as sound produced by vocal chords of these bipeds: we have to hear it as the semantics. Could you extrapolate from that and say, okay, to be avant-garde has to have some post-linguistic, pre-linguistic, non-linguistic, para-linguistic shock: it goes to a different part of the brain where you say, “Oh, I don’t know what that is.” Can the reader, who to be the reader has to know how to read, ever read the avant-garde message?
BA: Well, the reader evolves historically. There’s a different context for reading in different periods. And if we emphasized the reader, and wanted to talk about the longevity or the purchase into history of the avant-garde, so-called, that’s what we would have to talk about. Whether the avant-garde is relevant to the reading capacities available now, and that we might want to encourage now for the future. We couldn’t just rest on our laurels, of the tremendous formalist adventure and innovation that we wreaked or reaped in previous decades.
BP: Wreaked, as in havoc.
BA: Exactly: wreaked havoc on that literary canon —
BP: Those laurels aren’t very restful.
BA: As if that was some permanent achievement, for which we will now be tenured and get to fly around the country and give readings all over the English Departments of the world. Or, do we also have this obligation to be plugged into the changing global culture so that we can respond to the capacities and the opportunities for readers?
BP: Oh, we have to do that. Otherwise the avant-garde becomes parochial.
BA: It becomes a footnote.
BP: Passé. A niche.
Transcribed by Jonathan Fedors
Bruce Andrews is an American poet who is one of the key figures associated with the Language poets. He was born in Toronto and studied international relations at Johns Hopkins University and political science at Harvard. His first book, Edge, was published in 1973. Together with Charles Bernstein he edited L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Magazine, which ran to 13 issues between 1978 and 1981. In 1984 he and Bernstein published most of the contents of the 13 issues in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Since 1975, Andrews has been a professor of political science at Fordham University. He appeared on the O’Reilly Factor in October 2006 defending his use of texts that contained leftist views. He has published about forty books of poetry, either on his own or in collaboration with other writers, as well as a number of books of essays. His books include I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism) (1992) and Ex Why Zee: Performance Texts, Collaborations with Sally Silvers, Word Maps, Bricolage & Improvisation (1995), Designated Heartbeat (Salt Publishing, 2006) and Swoon Noir (Chax Press, 2007).