Nagy Rashwan & Nicholas Zurbrugg

Ten to Ten: Bob Perelman Interviewed by Nagy Rashwan and Nicholas Zurbrugg

Introduction by Nagy Rashwan

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 enthusiasms—Whitman and Eliot, a usefully disparate pair—I 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 [1962] vs. Donald Allen's The New American Poetry: 1954-1960 [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 up—The 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 Language group.

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 people—but for a young college-educated person like me he was never foregrounded. Imaginations—it contained Kora in Hell; Spring and All; The Descent of Winter; The Great American Novel—had 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 explications—too 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 acts—the keystrokes, collating, stapling, talking and listening—there 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 label—Michael Palmer, Leslie Scalapino, Susan Howe for instance—have now been called Language Writers.

For me, it seems to make sense—though it's slightly hopeless to speak of making sense of such matters—to 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 circulation—the 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 art—Benson'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 them—those 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 [1991], 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 possibilities—sometimes coalescing and sometimes self-conflicting.

NZ: Perhaps Language Writing—like some of Cage's and Burroughs' highly distinctive experiments—is 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 [1998]), 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 domesticity—notions 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 to Pound.

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 Language Writing?

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 events?

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 utopia—Nowheresville. 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 boundaries.

NZ: Won't this viewpoint eventually lead to another form of essentialism?

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 accessibility.

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, political—poetic 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 poetic practice?

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 Torres—those 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 large—and your work in particular—has 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 identification—or 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, etc.

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 text—in what you call textuality—is 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.

Poems by Bob Perelman:

EPR #4:
Djuna Moon

EPR #1:
Fake Dream B

Fake Dream C (by Bob Perelman and Lyn Hejinian)

About EPR | Current Issue | Previous Issues


© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review