Nagy Rashwan: How were you introduced to Language
Writing, and in what sense did it coincide with your aesthetic preferences?
Bob Perelman: It was more happenstance than any proto-aesthetic
inclination. I certainly didn't start with a clear sense of what I
liked. After high school poetry enthusiasmsWhitman and Eliot,
a usefully disparate pairI somehow got hold of Pound's ABC
of Reading, which inculcated me with the "learn everything"
bug, to which I responded by studying Classics at the University of
Michigan. There I met Donald Hall, who was very helpful in getting
me seriously involved with poetry. He's now often associated with
the conservative side of the battle of the anthologies (New Poets
of England and America  vs. Donald Allen's The New American
Poetry: 1954-1960 ), but at Michigan in the late 60s he
was writing surrealist-inflected work. "My left hand leaks on
the carpet" is how my memory calls it upThe Alligator
Bride was the book. He brought in experimental poets like Ted
Berrigan, Ron Padgett and Tom Clark. I can't remember what they read,
but I was impressed with how ambitious and new it sounded. I also
remember skipping the evening they devoted to Frank O'Hara, who had
just died. I thought he was John O'Hara, and didn't want to hear any
short stories. Too bad.
Hall was very useful to me. I was being recruited to go to graduate
school by the Texas Classics Department, who, as I remember, were
involved with lively new translations of Greek tragedy. The Iowa Writers
Workshop certainly wasn't recruiting me, but Hall helped me get in.
At the time, it was the epicenter of the workshop poem and the guardian
of the poetic voice, but for me going there meant taking the path
of poetry seriously. Anselm Hollo was teaching there then and he made
me aware there was such a thing as European poetry. Barrett Watten
and Michael Waltuch were fellow students and through them I met Robert
Grenier and Kit Robinson. Michael and I started Hills magazine
(named after Hills, Iowa, a pig stop outside of Iowa City where
Francie Shaw and I lived for a year). Through these initial contacts
I ended up meeting a number of people who became the nexus of the
If you just know Hall from the anthology battle, you are actually
missing him as a supporter of innovative writing. He got Southern
Illinois University Press to publish Charles Bernstein's and Bruce
Andrews' The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (1984),
Watten's Total Syntax, (1985) and my Writing / Talks (1985).
By the way, when I visited him in the 90s, he was quite matter of
fact about admitting that he was wrong about the anthology wars.
In 1976, Francie and I moved to San Francisco. No one was ever remotely
interested in creating a literary label, but there was a conscious
sense of a coalescing poetic scene. In the foreground it was personal:
energy, emulation, enthusiasm, mutual education, new projects and
information. We were young, not over-employed, most of us didn't have
kids, and economically things were not as harsh as they are now. So
we started a reading series, Poets Theater; I started the Talk Series;
there were discussion groups, etc. The sense of what it was possible
to do was very strong. On the large horizon there was Vietnam and
the enraging stupidity of our war there; the utopian tremors of the
60s were still reverberating, dystopia was also coming more sharply
into focus; and there was literary history, as well. Somehow, in ways
that felt obvious but infinitely complicated, all this was connected:
new writing could help bring a new world into being.
At the same time I was getting this active poetic education some
the major innovative writing of 20th Century was coming back into
wider circulation. For example, Williams Carlos Williams, who obviously
had been there in continuous fashion for many peoplebut for
a young college-educated person like me he was never foregrounded.
Imaginationsit contained Kora in Hell; Spring
and All; The Descent of Winter; The Great American Novelhad
a profound impact on me. Williams was more than just an interesting
writer, for me, he was a liberating combination between the democratic
openness Whitman and the innovative shock waves of Pound. My first
book Braille (1975) was a direct imitation of Kora (minus
Kora's fake explicationstoo bad): an improvisation a day for
a year. Kora was originally published in 1920, but for me,
it was published in 1970.
I hadn't read most of what now seems basic to me. I can't reconstruct
who had read what back then with any accuracy, but certain names go
together in my memory. Watten had a continuing enthusiasm for Zukofsky,
Grenier for Stein, Ron Silliman for Jack Spicer. I started the Talk
Series to learn more: for example, Barry's first talk, "Louis
Zukofsky and the Present"which I kept interrupting enthusiastically
(and rather compulsively) for clarification. I eventually wrote a
chapter about Zukofsky in The Trouble with Genius (1984). There
are many other short and long moments of cross-influence that after
the fact would be labeled from the outside as the Language group.
It's a complicated issue, especially now that "Language Writing"
has such wide circulation, mostly as shorthand for some abstract notion
of "innovation." It's something of a badge of honor, booby
prize, impossible object of envy, scorn, etc. I don't want to seem
too too naive, as in "We were just writing, when *they* came
in and named us." You could find "Language centered"
used early on, by Silliman and Steve McCaffery among others. Throughout
all the personal actsthe keystrokes, collating, stapling, talking
and listeningthere was a widespread sense that this all mattered.
On the other hand, I can say quite emphatically that no one had any
desire to form an exclusive club. The name, names, "Language
Writing," "Language Poetry," came from the outside,
mostly in attacks for being elitist, intellectual destroyers of poetry,
etc. There was some Red baiting, more or less rhyming with the beginning
of theory-bashing in the academy.
The sense of a writing community came before that of a group with
contested borders. The borders were never clear. A number of poets
who would never have wanted the labelMichael Palmer, Leslie
Scalapino, Susan Howe for instancehave now been called Language
For me, it seems to make sensethough it's slightly hopeless
to speak of making sense of such mattersto use the label to
denote specific times, places, and an assortment of activities. From
the early 70s to the later 80s, roughly, in San Francisco, New York,
Washington, and elsewhere by mail, there was something like a self-managed
literary nexus: reading series, publication events, magazines, poets'
theater, talks, and small presses.
But this all took place in a wider context where things were always
immediately mixed. So any attempt at an exact definition of "Language
Writing," "so-called Language Writing," etc. isn't
going to get anywhere interesting. Some Language Writing is quite
textual, some is performance-based; some is typographic, etc. I try
to do some justice to this in The Marginalization of Poetry.
NR: So, in your view, do any of these terms come close to
a description of this kind of writing?
BP: The terms reflect the amount of circulation various specific
acts achieved. There were two major groupings with friendships and
correspondence in between: the Bay Area scene on the West Coast and
the New York scene on the East Coast. The Bay Area scene included
Silliman, Watten, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Steve Benson, Rae
Armantrout, Kit Robinson, Tom Mandel, Alan Bernheimer, Grenier and
myself. Silliman and Watten met in the 1960s, but most of us met in
the 1970s. Grenier and Watten started the magazine this in 1971. A
while later, the New York scene coalesced around Bruce Andrews, Charles
Bernstein, Ray DiPalma, Alan Davies, and Steve McCaffery (in Toronto).
Andrews and Bernstein started L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine in
1978; quite a bit later than Watten's and Grenier's this. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E
magazine had relatively good circulationthe result of good
networking; from the beginning it was dedicated to intellectual outreach,
inviting people from neighboring disciplines. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E turned
out to be the most circulated magazine, which I think is why its name
was used for a wider label for some time.
However, there's been a continual disavowal of labels: "so-called
Language Writing." Some poets and critics used the name with
the equal signs, and some didn't. Finally, it doesn't matter to me
which radio station started broadcasting first. It's more a case of
activity starting more activity, series, magazines, publications which
all added to one another's credibility and effectiveness, rather than
a seamless body of work that magically emerged.
NZ: I wonder if you think it was more a West Coast development,
and whether you felt you were a totally different group to the New
York post-Cage avant-garde usually associated with high-tech experimentation?
In other words, your emphasis on Stein, Pound and Zukofsky seems to
suggest that you were not just surfing the high-tech avant-garde wave,
but also looking backward as well. Did you find that you wanted to
be closer to Pound, for example, than to the high tech movements avant-gardes,
or to Fluxus?
BP: Different individuals in the group would narrate these
things differently. Connoisseurs of literary history can distinguish
between early West Coast and East Coast Language Writing I suppose,
with the West Coast more involved with literary Modernism. But the
larger fight was for keeping avant-garde possibilities alive, furthering
Modernist possibilities, rather than keeping the East and West Coast
poetic scenes distinct. As far as high-tech and artBenson's
performance pieces come to mind. Not that they were high tech; but
his immersing himself in tape recordings of his writing and improvising
back at themthose were great pieces. Overall, the shoves and
vistas were complex: literary, political, technological. Personal
computers were being invented; tape recorders were suddenly cheap
and portable. Daily life included all sorts of contradictory tools,
fetishes, blueprints, wrecks, in the midst of which we seriously and
enthusiastically kept improvising new ways to write, producing wide
mixes of very literary and highly politicized writing.
Some poetic/political claims using Frankfurt school/Marxist vocabulary
now sound pretty overheated: "Let us wage war on the bourgeoisie
by not using normative grammar." But there were genuine political
impulses behind this, and deeply committed poetic activism. It's just
the claims of resolution that are premature: I critiqued some of these
in The Marginalization of Poetry (1996). But critique does
not imply disavowal. It does not imply that we should abandon such
attempts. The problems of politics, conventions, groups, grammar and
rhetoric are very long-range: there are no formal or theoretical monkey
wrenches that can reroute the huge social flows of politics as usual.
It's a long contest to attempt to change the political horizon and
hope to develop a genuine poetic project at the same time.
NR: A number of critics and poets such as Jackson Mac Low
have commented on Language Writing's attack on referentiality and
grammar as itself being what Marjorie Perloff quotes as "a kind
of fetishism contributing to alienation." How do you respond
to critical responses over the last two decades to Language Writing's
avoidance of linear grammar and of narrative constructed-ness?
BP: Well, first of all, the description is too absolute. It's
not easy to find much Language Writing that avoids grammar and "narrative
constructed-ness," i.e., sequence. The polemic attacks on self
and narrative came, in my view, from the dominance of the workshop
poem in the 60s and 70s in America. The inertia of such polemics continued,
but they were less salient against the identity poetries of the 80s
and 90s. Before that, though, the dominance of writing workshops in
the States was real: hundreds of workshops, grants, magazines, presses,
awards, mostly all in the service of a tepid poetic formula: informal,
ahistorical, unsocialized, personal immediacy engineered for uncontradictory,
low-stakes emotional payoff. There were variations of style, epiphanies,
memories, landscapes and that kind of thing, but it was as if Modernism
has never occurred and the present wasn't occurring either.
With the rise of identity poetries, things have shifted. There is
quite a straightforward political dimension to most of this work that
is missing in the workshop poem. Attempts at differentiation and coalition
building are trickier.
One of the basic goals of the Language Writers was to bring history
back into poetry and to bring the political time horizon back into
the act of writing. Identity poetries do this too: "I am here
and you have to listen"; "heterosexuality is going to be
named and challenged," etc. But in many cases it remains poetically
conservative, with identity a pre-given fact. Silliman and Scalapino
had an interesting, inconclusive argument about these matters in Poetics
Journal 9 , in which Ron issued one of his typically lightning-rod
statements that is easily attackable. He had edited a small group
of poems for Socialist Review, which included Language and
other writers. In his introduction, he addressed putting Language
Writing and identity poetries on the same map. He labeled Language
Writing as predominantly male, white, heterosexual and middle upper
class phenomenon and said that white male heteros had long been the
subject of history, so progressive poets from this position would
want to critique the mechanisms of power responsible for this, including
narrative. On the other hand, identity writers have been the object
of history and so it wasn't surprising that they would want to get
their stories finally told.
Scalapino answered that Silliman was putting himself ahead of these
groups, saying in effect, "We are fully developed, complex human
beings and you have been toting the sacks; now you too can become
complex." It's a huge issue, which they didn't resolve and which
any single exchange can't resolve. Poets, poems, and readers are in
history, but don't necessarily exist in neatly segmented groupings.
But just to bring up the notion of multiplicity doesn't erase social
positioning, or do away with groups and conventions and stereotypes
and binding mechanisms between people.
NZ: Do you mean ideologically, or in terms of following doctrines?
BP: It doesn't have to be only in terms of clearly identified
doctrines. Ideologies are probably as complex as biochemistries. To
imagine a truly liberated reader just making meanings free from inhibitions,
from body histories, from historical narratives, etc.it's too
thin and simple. There were some initial gestures toward this kind
of liberation early on. Ron's early poem "Berkeley," published
in this 5, consisted of about a hundred lines each beginning
with "I," but clearly not about the same person. These "I"s
were meant to undo any unified subject. I discuss this in The Marginalization
of Poetry. There are a number of works aiming for something like
this, wanting to establish a poetics that undoes the all too present
and self-satisfied confessional self. However to just undo this "I"
doesn't finally do much. I don't think I'm just speaking for myself
when I say that destroying the "I" of the personal epiphany
doesn't by itself liberate readerships.
NZ: But you'd still ask your students, for example, to produce
coherent and consistent pieces of academic writing?
BP: Coherence in some large sense, yes; but too much consistency
can lead to insignificance.
Back to the self for a second: I'd say that attacking the self in
poetry is no longer particularly useful battlecry. Language Writing
suggests a multiplicity of view points, a capacious sense of possibilitiessometimes
coalescing and sometimes self-conflicting.
NZ: Perhaps Language Writinglike some of Cage's and
Burroughs' highly distinctive experimentsis not so much abandoning
or "undoing" identification all together, as suspending
the process of identification?
BP: Cage is interesting. On the one hand, he is a very rigorous
auditory-process person, and on the other, Cage's "identity"
is pretty consistent. There's his distinctive genial voice, the way
he strings together his little anecdotes, and there's what he chooses
to use. He's quite cathected to exemplary figures, Duchamp, Joyce,
Thoreau. It's not like there are no identities in Cage's world. In
fact he said that one of the founding moments of his evolution as
a composer was hearing his own pulse and nervous system in an anechoic
chamber and realizing that there was no such a thing as silence. So,
behind the most fragmenting Cage, you can see Cage's very focused,
intentional and attentive body.
NZ: Does that imply that the presence of a "center,"
no matter how deeply imbedded, is always going to be there?
BP: Well, the notion of a single center in the work is problematic.
Better a contest between various centers, rather than one monolithic
core. It seems to me that identity is something you can never overturn
once and for all, any more than you can establish it. It is a continuous
tension that sometimes threatens to close down and harden, but can
sometimes open up.
NR: Walter Kalaidjian has recently suggested that Language
Writing's best frame of consideration is what William Phillips terms
as "the third generation of American avant-gardes." This
is interesting in the context of what you were saying about the center/anti-center
dichotomy and its relationship to the avant-garde. How relevant is
the question of avant-gardism to your work in particular and the to
the way in which you view Language Writing at large?
BP: It's very relevant. I don't agree with Peter Bürger's
argument that avant-garde came only once, etc. That's a little like
Christian eschatology: Christ only comes once and you can only imitate
him but never be him until the end of history. Paul Man in Theory-Death
of the Avant-Garde (1991) points out that the dynamite and tools
with which Tristan Tzara attempted to blow up the art universe sixty
years ago eventually get auctioned to the highest bidder, and that
the recuperation of the avant-garde always happens. So, yes, the avant-garde
is a contingent and troubled category.
To use the most conventional example of the avant-garde, the Italian
Futurists seem to me to have a vexed relationship with the future.
After astounding the present with their velocity and machine-like
brutality towards sentimental values, what happens next? How does
another generation come into being?
In my poem, "The Marginalization of Poetry," I mention Khlebnikov
who was apparently tried to read The Temptation of Saint Anthony
in the dark by burning one page for light to read the next. As a wide-scale
procedure this has drawbacks I suppose! But it's a wonderful image
of the problems time and reception pose to art production and consumption.
What are you left with after you finish reading a la Khlebnikov? Ashes.
Then what? Throw them away? Sell them to the museum? The very act
of annihilation, disavowal of belief in a continuum, itself now has
a history and a continuum. Burger is somewhat right on the level of
marketing: repeating a gesture works less and less well. Kalaidjian's
point, which I agree with, is that there is an avant-garde tradition.
The phrase is an oxymoron, and the situation is complex, contradictory,
etc. But the range of activities are continuing.
This doesn't mean the problems have been solved. Far from it. In
"The Womb of the Avant-Garde Reason" (The Future of Memory
), I make the womb avant-garde, as opposed to the womb-phobia
of the Futurists. But, to state the obvious, the womb is also emblematic
of reproduction and domesticitynotions the avant-garde historically
had problems with. So that's a long way of saying: yes, I identify
myself as being part of the innovative tradition.
NZ: Are there any avant-garde art manifestations that particularly
interest you? Richard Foreman remarks how L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E reprinted
one of his early theoretical texts. Could one think of his use of
multidimensional narratives as a sort of "language" theater?
BP: Performance has preoccupied a number of Language Writers.
A number of us have written plays and there was a Poet's Theater for
a while. Hills 9 has some of the plays. Harryman and Benson
has been very involved with performance, of a particularly poetic
kind, like Cris Cheek in Britain.
NR: To what extent do you think Language aesthetic strategies
derive from Pound's formal innovations?
BP: Like I said, Pound was crucial to me back when I was sixteen
and seventeen. I couldn't make head or tails of The Cantos
(1970), but ABC of Reading (1934) made the project of becoming
a poet really exciting. For other Language Writers? Pound is immensely
influential in many indirect ways for all subsequent innovative poets.
It's not exactly his formal innovations (which are actually very hard
to "formalize," to abstract, or to specify). It's more his
speed, the capaciousness of his references, his insistence on politics
and history, his ambition for what poetry could and should do.
Once you see his specific politics they're impossible to ignore:
his anti-Semitism and his general masculinist hysteria. There's an
increasing amount of paranoia in his work that should be described
for what it is.
I should say, by the way, in The Trouble With Genius (1994)
I'm not classifying Pound as a genius. In literature, which is a very
social activity, I think this category remains empty. The Poundian
notion of genius involves breaking through darkness, achieving unchangeable
ethical light. It's Manichean absolutism: divine light of Mediterranean
culture vs. dark Jewish contamination. When I began writing on Pound,
there was still quite a bit of hagiographic insistence on the truth
of his religious vision. However, I still think he is crucial as a
poetic figure, and I honor him as an artist, but I am not interested
in hagiography. You can still find The Cantos one of the key
poems of the 20th Century and also find it anti-Semitic and authoritarian.
However, this doesn't mean that Pound's poetics are pure error. I
mean I wouldn't want to write like Larkin just to become dissimilar
NR: I wonder if your rejection to Pound's politics and your
recognition of his poetics' experimental impact on the aesthetic strategies
of the Language group, reflects a sort of love-hate relationship,
rather than a simple yes and no approach?
BP: To answer your question, I will simply ask another: "What
is in Language Writing that you just cannot get from Pound?"
Well, to start with, Language Writing has a constant sense of relinquishing
authority, a sense of giving up the stance of mastery and ethical
immediacy to which Pound aspires. This is blatant in someone like
Bernstein, who often presents a kind of comedy of errors as a way
of opening language up to social context. But the appeal to the readers'
ethical judgments is just as strong in work that avoids any slapstick,
like that of Silliman, Hejinian, or Watten.
NZ: How broadly would you say that humor and an opening of
the text to democratic interaction with readers have developed in
BP: Humor is the slipperiest of philosophical eels. Lots of
jokes spark off from social constraints that are hard to acknowledge
straightforwardly. At its most complex and intense, humor, or something
better, less stable, less shtick-y than the category "humor,"
can show how social frames and narratives can break open.
NR: I wonder if this has to do with your resistance to what
Lyotard calls "grand-narratives" of legitimation, like tradition
or the conventional concepts of history as essentially connectable
BP: For me and for most of Language Writers, I think, there
is a strongly felt democratic urge. Language Writing has certainly
been accused in the States of being elitist and intellectual. But
throughout the range of forms, tones and genres that Language Writers
have used, or are still using, there is a fairly constant sense of
trying to sniff out transcendental and totalizing poetic approaches,
and to critique them. I don't know if you could actually say that
authoritarianism is totally absent in Language Writing. Who knows,
I mean maybe it is bound up with ego structures that everybody leans
toward to some degree. However, there's a constant attempt to name
it in order to show its reverse.
NR: Language Writing has often been identified with its critique
of what Bernstein terms "the conduit theory of communication"
in which language is seen to function as a sort of innocent transmitter
of pre-existing ideas and meanings rather than as the source of these
meanings and ideas. How do you view this matter; and to what extent
do you think Language Writing has actually succeeded in presenting
a kind of aesthetic that defines language as such?
BP: There's agreement that the use of language as a mere conduit
needs to be critiqued. Watten has a poem and essay specifically about
this. But to critique the conduit metaphor doesn't then mean that
language can only refer to itself. That would be to posit a brittle,
rickety, and finally absurdly unitary, static utopiaNowheresville.
The contexts of writing, time, place, historical dynamics are always
there, whether they're acknowledged or not. Reader and writer share,
to an extent, a language: otherwise, nada. But "sharing a language"
is far from implying anything like transparency. The point is to make
the most of the myriad mediations involved.
NR: Let us move to another controversial area of discussion;
the relationship between poetry and theory in Language Writing. How
much significance do you generally place on the conventional boundaries
between them, and why?
BP: Breaking the boundaries is widespread. Bernstein and I
have written poems/criticism, or poems/theory; there's his "Artifice
of Absorption," and my "Marginalization of Poetry";
there's Silliman "The New Sentence" where he argues that
the sentence replaces the line as the poetic measure, and the sentence,
you could say, is the heart of prose. Hejinian has been intrigued
by philosophic poetry for quite a while. Watten's work has been increasingly
full of cultural studies so that you could use some of his poems as
cultural studies textbooks. Overall, the attempt is to de-essentialize
the notion of a specialized poetic language, separate from other uses.
However, I don't want to essentialize these gestures by simply declaring
victory over the notion of boundaries. Frame-blurring, boundary-crossing
gestures remain in tension with established generic boundaries that
are themselves broad social historical habits. The collective body
of materials past and present within such boundaries, or across them,
will be construed and reconstrued by contemporary and future acts.
I suppose one imagine the world without passports; but all too obviously
the world is full of forces that lead toward fundamentalist categories,
a more proliferating level than is easy to imagine. These are among
the facts and dynamics that such trans-generic gestures, and the ones
of the future, will attempt to counter. Poetry can only be made stronger
and more interesting by looking across its porous non-essentialist
NZ: Won't this viewpoint eventually lead to another form of
BP: The first poem in The Future of Memory, "Confession,"
a title that transgresses against the command to be transgressive,
sets up a fantasy about being abducted by aliens, who have inhabited
my aesthetics for decades, that I used to write as myself but that
now it is difficult and so on. It ends with me unable to remember
if I was abducted or not, and having lost my "avant-garde card"
in the laundry. It's funny, yes, but I'm seriously trying to de-essentialize
the idea of being avant-garde.
NR: This kind of reference to contemporary folkloric or mythological
sensibilities, and into "alien abduction" seems very interesting.
How important is the question of popularity to you as a Language Writer
who is also concerned with demystifying the control mechanisms implicit
in standardized language uses?
BP: Well, I can't imagine that being more widely read would
be a problem. As a poet whose books have been published and sold in
the hundreds and low thousands, I still hate not finding them on bookstore
shelves. In a way I write with some sense of a general reader and
try to avoid over-complicated academic expressions, which I use in
my job. I know the thinking encoded there is powerful, but, for example,
the word "sublation" is utterly self-entangling. But I know
I endlessly quote and misquote other lines of poetry, which doesn't
make for 100% accessibility. I want to interest myself and the most
respected reader I can imagine. That may or may not make for widespread
I often feel these tensions as I write. I would like poetry to be
in the public sphere, but without giving in and scurrying toward a
"poetic" niche, or into any pre-marked place in the public
sphere. I can imagine a poetry that is in the public sphere, that
can be very ambitious and heard at the same time. That is what I am
trying for, not exactly popularity, but audibility. Not entertainment,
but some leverage that is emotional, philosophic, politicalpoetic
in a good sense.
NZ: Are there any other poets that you may think have achieved
this kind of public audibility?
BP: I think Whitman, Williams, O'Hara, Stein, Dickinson are
all publicly audible. The list could go on. "Audibility"
doesn't mean "complete audibility then and there." The best
kind sticks with you and continues to sound, not resolving.
NZ: Can we then consider Language Poetry a truly alive and
spoken activity, as opposed to an only written, sort of page limited
BP: I certainly hope it's not limited to the page. Bernstein
is a great performer; Harryman, Benson. But the new generations of
performance poets like Edwin Torresthose are other, and very
interesting modes. I'm drawn to voices in all sorts of way, and reading
my work is crucial.
NR: How does this relate to Language Writing's critique of
self-expression in poetry, and to what Bernstein calls "the prosthetic
self." Do you think that Language Writing at largeand your
work in particularhas successfully neutralized the presence
of this sort of self in the poem?
BP: I'd prefer to neutralize "the reified self,"
an ahistorical idealized poetic self. But a more general answer: no,
I don't think notions of self can be totally neutralized.
I write about versions of autobiography in The Marginalization
of Poetry. Silliman's work can be read as an on-going large-scale
autobiography, spread out into sequential moments of writing. Then
there's Hejinian's My Life (1980-1987), where the present is
used to formalize the relation between past and present: at 37 she
writes 37 chapters of 37 sentences; at 45, 45 chapters of 45 sentences.
The sentences (New Sentences as Silliman's term has it) mix recollection
with present moments of writing, to offer an externalized conscious
meditation on the bifurcated amalgam of living and writing. I suppose
my A.K.A. (1984) is a less formalized version of that model.
Watten's Bad History (1998) contains quite a bit of autobiographical
information, always embedded a complex mix of cultural reportage.
A "self" certainly wrote Bad History but this "self"
is not projected as a prosthetic version of the poet, an idealized
self held up to the reader as in a mirror.
I don't want to re-establish a binary here, though. Writing focused
on textuality doesn't preclude any sort of readerly identificationor
disidentification. There's always a continuum to reading, from accurate
registration to all kinds of resistance, critique, disobedience. Similarly,
narrative sequence can be registered, reconstructed, taken apart,
NR: Jerome McGann has considered Language Writing in terms
of what he calls "non-, and anti-narrative" variations in
which the surface regularities of the text are broken into forms of
"discontinuities." Ron Silliman describes discursive referentiality
as "the optical illusion of reality" and Bernstein views
the system of grammar as "repressive" because of its discursive
continuity. Do you think that avoiding these forms of discursive continuities
in the textin what you call textualityis actually achievable?
BP: Those kinds of initial statements circulated widely; but
I don't now find them very useful, or very accurate to the work itself.
Recently, there are any number of works by Language Writers that use
varieties of narrative in all sorts of ways. Speaking for myself,
I am certainly interested using narrative gestures without forming
one single narrative in the usual sense. For instance, in "The
Manchurian Candidate" (1998) I recount bits of the plot of the
film of the same name, but what I'm really interested in is how the
affect of film can be used and critiqued. It's a complicated poem
and I won't try to summarize it here. I'll just say that I'm trying
to take on many things at once: the violence and hypnotic power of
movie "shots"; the 50s in many layers: the larger history
of the Cold War; Frank O'Hara; Frank Sinatra; my childhood, etc. I
use all sorts of speech genres, collaging easy-reading framing devices
in anti-ordinary ways to try, I think, to pry loose the hypnosis of
"everyday life," the short-lived hegemonic "American
Century" that surrounded the world where I came to consciousness.