Bruce Andrews and Sally Silvers in Perdu, february 2005


In february 2005, american experimental poet Bruce Andrews was a guest at Perdu in Amsterdam, as part of the Writing on the Edge festival. He gave a performance with dancer/choreographer Sally Silvers and trombonist Jim Fulkerson. Afterwards, I talked to Bruce and to Sally. This is a transcript of a large part of the interview.


SV: I introduced you just now as a Language Poet, and I was wondering, do you actually relate to the term, do you think it is a good term to use?

BA: Yes. When the term got popular, a little bit after Charles Bernstein and I in the beginning of 1978 edited the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, we edited that for four years, as a critical journal of poetics, we didn’t publish poetry, we were publishing discussions and essays about writing, at a time when we were trying to seize control of the apparatus from academics and critics in a sense, and talk about the poetry we were doing ourselves rather than have to rely on the commentary of others. I’m flashing the beam right now on the embarrassment of last night, in Writing on the Edge, the interview by this pompous asshole -

SV: For everybody here who wasn’t present the Writing on the Edge festival is the festival for which we got Bruce Andrews over here, and this is Michael Zeeman he’s talking about. [laughter]

BA: So that’s the kind of situation that poets are typically in, they’re cannon fodder for envious critics or dumb-head critics. So, we did this journal, and we tried to bring together a variety of people who were working in a more experimental vein in the poetry world of the United States and in other countries that we were in contact with in the late 1970s. And we were promoting a kind of extremism in literature at the time, and the term Language Writing, or so-called Language-centered writing, we thought of in contrast to writing centered around themes or writing about the expressivity of the subjective self, and to put the attention on Language, and how the systems of language or the possibilities of Language created meaning, created value, and people that got identified with that term and ended up getting called by critics and other outside the community the Language Poets.

SV: Was there someone who thought up the term? That you know?

BA: Well the term Language-centered writing goes back to 1971 and it came up in correspondence between myself and Ron Silliman so I’m to blame in a significant way for the term. A lot of other people were a little squeamish about it because, well, people generally don’t like to be positioned or situated in a certain way. But no, I think if the term means that you’re interested in how language works, instead of other more traditional ways of doing literature, then I’m fine with that.


BA: And it developed in the 1970s, in the US and in the English speaking world. So we were essentially, in around 1970, most of the people that are talked about now, that get anthologized and that you might get to hear about as so-called language writers, there were maybe 20, 30, 40 people in the US, many of them in New York, many of them in California, but scattered around, who were engaged in this project, we were in touch with each other, we were reading each other’s work, we were a kind of community of poets.

SV: You were conscious of this community?

BA: We were absolutely conscious of the community from the beginning. Because the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine developed out of correspondence that we were all engaged in, so when we started L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, Charles and I, we were corresponding with maybe a hundred people, and we found ourselves saying things that were essay-like, or you know, little paragraphs of comments about books that we were reading, or enthusiasm about writers we were reading, and we realized we were repeating the same things and we were xeroxing things that we had said to somebody else, so we decided to take the correspondence, and just put it into print, and ask people to, instead of writing a comment in a letter, to write a 200-word essay or write a 500-word essay, very short pieces that were trying to comment on what the most experimental writing of the time was doing. So in a way it was the community engaged with itself, just putting that at a level that it was more public, and then at that point people got to hear about it and we were then exposed to the public realm and all the vagaries of that. The magazine stopped in 1981/1982, so that’s over 20 years ago now. That’s before the poets started to migrate into academic life, and many of them became English professors, and things of that kind, at the time we were all struggling, none of us were professors of English or professors of literature, we were on the outside at that point.

SV: And how did you find the writers? How did you find each other?

BA: We found each other mostly through literary magazines. We were fanatics at the time, we were just desperate to find connections with people who were doing something that we thought was progressive or avant-garde or experimental or radical. And literally, you know, I would write a letter and say stuff like Did you see this little poem by so-and-so in this magazine in 1974 or 1975, we should get in touch with this person and let’s find out where they’re coming from, and so in a sense we assembled a community almost all in the mail, because this really happened in the early 1970s when nobody was even in a city, none of us were giving poetry readings, none of us were in vital metropolitan areas. We were scattered, I was in grad school, people were just, you know out of nowhere.

SV: It sounds like a different history than how many other avant-garde circles come together. Like when I read about the poets from the New York School, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, I imagine them first of all all meeting in class and then meeting in the pub and stuff like that, but for you there’s a literary background to the group formation itself.

BA: Right. So there’s a pre-history that preceded L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine which was more scattered and then there did become these geographical centers that developed in San Francisco and NY City where there was at least six of us. I mean there had to be five or six people with a similar attitude in a city. And that was it. I mean, in NY City in 1975 or 1976, I moved to NY in '75 and I met Charles, and I met Peter Seaton and Nick Piombino and Ray Di Palma and James Sherry, literally just a couple of people, and then, we remember the year that Michael Gottlieb moved to town, when Helen Davis moved to town, so we assembled a group that was maybe ten people then, but literally five people was enough to create a scene, to create a possibility in a town. Same thing in San Francisco. And then we started giving readings together, and then you go to other poetry readings and there’d be ten people reading and one person that you’d never heard of, you’d be excited about what they were doing, you’d realize wow, they’re doing what I’m doing, I have to meet them, I have to get their phone number, call them up, have a drink, let’s talk. So it really started like that, a very small number of people, which could happen here, could happen anywhere I think.


SV: If you compare what you did to what earlier groups had been doing, are there very different concerns, for example comparing to the NY School, or comparing to I don’t know, Ezra Pound, or...

BA: There were very specific things that differentiated us from what had gone on before, things that we were repelled by in previous poetic movements. One example would be a different sense of, that comes from trying to focus on what language is all about, a different sense of referentiality, a different sense of the materiality of writing, a different sense of the role of the subject, of the self, we were by and large not interested in and/or hideously repelled by the romanticism of the poets of the 1950/60s, the so-called New American Poetry, the dominant vanguard - the Don Allen anthology New American Poetry 1945-1960 was the major anthology documenting the quite radical work being done in the 1940/50s and into the 1960s.

SV: That would include Beat poetry, and...

BA: Beat poetry, New York School, San Francisco Renaissance, etc. To us, that work seemed limited by this romantic focus on the author as a personality, expressing her, or, actually at the time mostly or almost only his - the gender bias at that time was obscene, the so-called ‘radical poetry’ in the US during the post-war period was unbelievably dominated by men and women were treated as 2nd-class citizens - that degree of subjective outpouring of personal sensitive feelings, which is typically how poetry is identified by people who are not poets, the sensitive person expressing his or her sensitive thoughts, little epiphanies or revelations about daily life.

SV: Can you say something about the alternatives that you formulated?

BA: Well the alternatives to us seemed to have to do with what language could do. Language didn’t seem to have to be channeled down and filtered down into this little personal channel. We discovered that the way meaning gets created was such a hugely diverse social phenomenon that didn’t rest upon the need for the reader to identify with the author, to identify with the author’s personality.

SV: So it was based on something else.

BA: Right, it was based on how a syllable could resonate, or a word or a phrase, disjunct, juxtaposed with other phrases. The materiality, the look of the poem on the page, the physique of the poem, the acoustics of it. All these things were exciting to us, seemed to open up some possibilities for the reader so that you didn’t just have to identify with the charismatic person who was presenting the material. We thought of the word language-centered as different from the word ego-centered or as different from thematically-centered or narrative-centered. There was absolutely, absolutely a disinterest in narrative as story-telling. Fiction. Which we all just by and large despised at the time.

SV: You told me yesterday you don’t read any fiction at all anymore. When was the last time you read a fiction book?

BA: Well I’m a political scientist. And I teach courses on conspiracy theories and covert activity, that’s my specialty, and I do read novels about presidential assassinations [laughter], so James Ellroy, who writes sleazy crime novels about assassinations of American leaders I’m a huge fan of.

SV: Is this some secret fantasy of yours as well perhaps?

BA: Don’t get me started! Now that I’m here I don’t want my passport revoked. [laughter] Well, er, no the whole tradition of representationalism in writing to me is not interesting. So I don’t engage with that any more than a visual artist would be expected to continue doing realism, or naturalistic depictions of landscapes or portraits or still lifes or whatever. So in that sense what in the visual arts would be considered abstraction is quite parallel to what we tried to do, what we tried to present, something that would be maybe similar to what Gertrude Stein was doing in relation to cubism in the early 20th century. Gertrude Stein was for us, I would say for all of the original language writers, was the greatest writer of the 20th century. That’s how we define our tradition. Our tradition points to Gertrude Stein and develops that path.

SV: And she had one post-war year, so there was one post-war woman writer who…

BA: Well, she largely stopped writing poetry though. I mean, we were thinking of the so-called “poetry” of Gertrude Stein from the 1910s and the 1920s, her radical decades, and that work is just, you know…

SV: Portraits, Stanzas in Meditation…

BA: Yeah, and things that are just now getting published. That’s work we are on our knees for, basically.

SV: And her big novel, The Making of Americans?

BA: Well, that’s the hinge work preceding that era and I’m interested in some things in that work. Actually, just an anecdote, every year for a number of years in NYC there would be a group reading that would go on for four, five days in an art gallery of people getting together, two people reading for one hour, that whole book, an 800 page book, extremely dense, and Sally and I used to participate in these readings and we always held the record for the most pages we read in the hour. So we would just read this stuff extremely fast and get through it really good. I do like that book although I’ve not read it, I mean I’ve read it in public but I’ve not read the whole book. But it’s the later work of Stein that we worship. That’s the great precursor.


SV: Now this dissatisfaction with referentiality and with ego, you were mentioning you are a political scientist and you were politically interested, so is there a political dimension to that for you?

BA: Yes. Because we, well the majority of language writers are on the left, life-long commitments to the left as a political project. And we come out of a heritage that would be Brechtian, that would be involved in trying to de-familiarize normality, to try to see behind what everybody else takes for granted and ask how it gets produced. I mean, the whole notion of language-centeredness is about wanting to investigate and expose and bring out how meaning gets produced. And quickly you realize that meaning is a social construct, that meaning is a social vehicle and a mechanism and if you can expose the way meaning gets produced even at this microscopic level that has a resonance with exposing how ideology gets produced, how the State works to deceive and to create delusion, create deception, create fraudulent commitments on people’s parts, and get people to identify with things that are, evil pops in mind, anyway, things that are bad, let’s say. The language writers, by and large, were all baby-boomers, mostly born in the late 1940s, early 50s, and we were sometimes referred to by critics as the Vietnam generation. We were all in college right at that time, during the Vietnam war, and the hideous false front of lies and deceptions put forward by the government of the US - we had a sense that the covering-up of the mechanisms by which meaning is produced was a political problem. And anything we could do just to get people more aware of how that worked, even in our modest little marginalized world of poetry - maybe it wasn’t going to have a big effect, but at least it was resonating with a political project that we all were hopeful about: that we could expose, that we could make people more aware, that we could make things seem, make things that would normally seem obvious and taken for granted, that we could expose that and make it seem strange, make it seem unfamiliar, make it seem a problem. In other words, it’s a politics of method, it’s a politics of form, rather than of content, of making statements, of making politically correct statements to people who’d already agree with you. We really tried to shake things up, to fuck with people’s brains a little bit.

SV: And do you think this happened? Did people’s brains get fucked up?

BA: Well, ours did. [laughter] For a long while, we were the ones reading each other, so we were all part of this mutual messing-up.

SV: There's this little sentence on the back of “Shut Up” which I love, we got a lot of mileage out of it, “It is also a writing so raw and powerful that it will infuriate some of its audience.” So did you get any angry reactions?

BA: If we had a chance to present the work to people who weren’t seeking it out on certain occasions, then we would get that kind of reaction. I facetiously made this comment, last night at the Writing on the Edge festival at the end of this very decorous and genteel presentation last night at De Balie, where I said I wish I could just get up and give a poetry reading to that well-dressed bourgeois crowd. Just to expose them to something that they would never otherwise, you know, get hit with. Just to confront them, just do that. But that’s the situation you weren’t gonna get. But I think that’s an interesting question because myself and other so-called language writers, I mean we’re positioned in the poetry world as a sub-division of the literary world as a sub-division of the cultural world and all those worlds are generally treated as irrelevant to normal people’s everyday middle-class life, so we don’t get opportunities to irritate people that much. In a literary context, it can have that effect, but to travel beyond that into the world is something more complicated.

SV: So we need to cook up some strategies for that.

BA: Well...

Audience: We’ll get you interviewed by Michael Zeeman next time.

BA: Yeah! I’d like that.

SV: You can tell him in person...

BA: Turkey! You know that slang word?


SV: So, about your writing itself, how do you do it?

BA: Well, I’ll say one thing. I don’t sit down and write poems. The major technical innovation in my writing occurred about 25 years ago when I bought a paper cutter. And for the last 25 years all of my writing is done on small pieces of paper that are cut-up on this paper cutter. I take a pile of sheets and cut them into six, so that’s two by three inch cards. I generate what I call raw material, just all the time, as a constant part of my everyday life. So pretty much wherever I am I have a little pile of my cards and I’ll write on those pieces of paper a single word, a phrase that I think of, a couple of words of a little cluster of words and I’ll take those cards and put them in boxes, mostly wine-boxes and I’ll fill a box every six months or year with tens of thousands of these cards. When I want to write a piece on a certain subject matter or with certain tonal quality I’ll go through them and I’ll find things that relate to that project and I’ll pull them out, and then I’ll sit on my sofa with a pile of cards and I’ll literally edit that project out of this collection. And I’ll do that years after I wrote the material. So when I’ll be editing that poem, I’ll have no memory of having written the words, so I’ll have no attachment to the material. I’ll look at the material just as I would as a reader looking at somebody else’s work.

SV: So you’re trying to objectify the language.

BA: Yeah. The language becomes more external, or social, it’s this raw material that then can be juxtaposed and combined in a much wider variety of ways. I mean most poets write in their note-books, they write a draft of that poem and they’ll go back to that single page where they wrote the draft and they’ll make some changes in it. But they can’t as easily, I think, as somebody working in a more modular way, integrate work from a variety of sources or variety of eras or periods in their lives. And that has had an effect on me in terms of the kind of material that I use and how disparate it is, maybe how strange some of the connections are.

SV: Still the words do come from your brain. Or do you use extraneous material as well?

BA: I don’t do a lot of direct appropriation.

SV: Except for Dante…

BA: Well no, there’s almost nothing in "Lip Service" from Dante, except for the structure. Every tercet is a paragraph, the punctuation is all straight out of Dante, but that was a project of me taking a couple of years of material of a certain subject matter and making this poem to fit Dante’s form.

SV: Now what I’m curious about is that, since you write this way, I read your work and I see that it suggests this infinity of voices, some are hideous and some are funny and some are left-wing, some are right-wing, some are apolitical, all sorts of sexual orientations, etc.

BA: Well that’s language-centered. You see language is that collective voice, it is that multiplicity of voices and not just me, the sensitive person.

SV: But how do you make sure you get this richness? Do you have a way of getting to that? When writing do you say, oh now I’ll write a fascist sentence and now I’ll write a…

BA: Well the writing is very wild. I don’t know if something is gonna be of use. So if I think of a three-word phrase or a ten-word phrase or a word, I don’t know if I’m ever gonna use this. So it’s not like sitting down to write a poem where everything has to fit the project at the moment and if it doesn’t it doesn’t ever get written down. So I don’t censor that much.

SV: Now in reading your books I noticed that a couple of words come up a lot of the time. You seem to be very interested in enemas and in tourniquets for example. There are a couple of other words.

BA: I’m sure that a personal psycho-pathology of me [laughter] as a personality is revealed in what I’m interested in and what I chose to not let in.

SV: This is the ego bit that you really can’t get around.

BA: Well yeah, because I’m the reader editing the work, so I notice – there’s lot’s of things that I don’t allow into my work, and usually those are things that I think of as corny, dippy, sentimental, reading verse types of words that just don’t appear in my work and other words may be personal obsessions or not, I don’t know, it’s hard to... somebody actually wrote me and wondered why there were so many phrases referring in my work to the torture of pets. And I don’t know. So really it’s just what you’re interested in or what you think has some social provocativeness or social presence to some extent. But there is a lot of avoidance. A lot of the editing process is just: I’m not gonna say that, that’s dull, that’s too familiar, that’s something that’s in everybody else’s work, so you cut that out. A lot of the editing process is just eliminating things that don’t seem charged enough with possibility.

SV: And enemas happen to be very charged.

BA: Enemas… enemas, I don’t know. That’s a new one for me, no-one has mentioned that to me. So I’ll think about that one again.


SV: Okay – I’m interested to talk a little bit about tonight’s performance, [to Sally Silvers] so perhaps you would like to join us? You have been working together for some twenty years, right?

BA: That’s true, we have been a couple now for a little over 25 years. And we’ve been doing work for about 20 years, collaborating in different ways, artistically.

SV: It took five years to get the genres together?

SS: Well, when I met Bruce I wasn’t a choreographer, I was a dancer. And making that transition happened as I was working with Bruce and discovering the kind of writing that he was interested in, as well as film-making scenes and improvised music so I think that the introduction to those possibilities really converted me from that line between being a dancer and being a choreographer, which is a complicated one. Finding the place where that happens is a difficult place to discover.

SV: Is dance like language?

SS: For me, it often comes out that way. I tend to think of dance or moving in more discrete units in the same way that a word often works in a context, I think that somehow you can make movements have the same definitional possibility even though you can’t look them up in a dictionary.

SV: Or put them in boxes.

SS: But they can function as meaning in a unitized way in the same way that a word works, as well as rhythmically and using the aspect of phrase in English.

BA: Let me say two things. One, when Sally started choreographing, I think the thing that was the equivalent of my buying a paper cutter was her getting a video camera. Because I know that she would improvise in her house or studio, and videotape all of it, and then would go back and look at the videotapes to find short chunks, a phrase, a moment, that she would then write down, that was gonna be useful in some piece. It was very similar to the way I work and it was very similar to our experimental filmmaker friends, they work the same way, they shoot film and then go back and look at it and use maybe 2 percent, maybe 5 percent of it. The other thing that was similar was, I remember that when Sally started choreographing, she thought of herself as a mover/choreographer more than a dancer/choreographer. So in both cases there was this sense that you had this established genre, called poetry or called dance, and both of them were defined by their oppressiveness. Dance was defined by not acknowledging most types of movement as being relevant to dance. The dance had to be a certain limited vocabulary that had been historically validated and everything else was just irrelevant. Same with poetry. Most language possibility was just unavailable to poetry. Certain things were “poetic”. Certain things were “poetry-like” and when the so-called language writers started we thought that what we were doing was unrelated to a genre, it was also similar to what was going on in music, people were saying no, it’s not about musical history and what that represents, it’s about sound, you know, sound-centered, movement-centered, language-centered, it’s not about the genre that is so constraining, so restrictive. We all wanted to just get away from that, to see what the actual material that we were working with could do, what could movement include, what could language include, what could film include.

SS: I also think that – related to what Bruce said about the video – it is hard – I can’t just – I mean I can put my movements in a wine box and look at them a few years later on video tape but it’s still your own body, so it’s a little harder, even though it’s your own mind, it’s still a little harder looking at yourself to get that kind of objectivity – I mean if you feel bad about yourself, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing on tape, you’re still gonna think it’s shit, if you’re having a bad day or something. So it’s hard to have that distance.


SV: But you do have a similar sort of editing process. How does that work in an improvised situation?

SS: That’s more like I’m creating the raw material. Sometimes if the improvisation is recorded, I’ll take the performance tape and go home and edit it into something I would use in a set piece. Of course you’re more energized and you’re more focussed and you’re more alert to the fact that you’re performing in front of people rather than in front of the video camera.

BA: Well like for instance, tonight I read a couple of pieces that I edited live, in concert, the live choreography pieces. Sally was improvising and I was sitting in the back of the room, no –

SS: Actually no I wasn’t improvising. Sometimes I do this thing where I like to pretend that I’m in a rehearsal in front of the audience. This is live choreography. So in a more casual situation I would assemble a bunch of maybe two or three dancers sometimes that haven’t even met before and try to make something, make some choreography on the spot. In the end you perform maybe thirty seconds, you know, you spend fifteen minutes doing that and then you have thirty seconds of material that you can repeat. It’s a little bit fake, because you don’t work exactly that way in your studio on your own, but it’s a little bit like having the audience watch you make something, some material that can be repeated. So you’re making the choreography in front of the audience. And all the comments that you usually have with the dancers, or the dancer has back with you about What did you mean, or Can you repeat that, you know that sort of thing, Bruce would stand in the back and take information from what was said and then use that as the accompaniment.

BA: So I would come in those situations with a pile of cards, that I had written before, and I would write more cards during the piece. But also while she was choreographing I would be editing this stuff live and then when she would present the thirty seconds or the forty-five seconds at the end I would accompany that with the reading of my editing of this little piece, so I read maybe ten of fifteen of them tonight, those were all little 30 second pieces that I read after 15 minutes of live choreography.

NASCHRIFT (in Dutch)

Hier stopt de opname van het interview, waardoor de laatste vraag en de publieksvragen ontbreken.

De laatste vraag ging over hoe latere generaties het werk van de Language-auteurs verwerkten en ontwikkelden. Andrews onderscheidde twee kanten: dichters die computer-gegenereerde en -bewerkte teksten schrijven, waarbij volgens Andrews niet altijd goed over de leesbaarheid is nagedacht; en dichters die een gat ontwaarden tussen radicale Language-modellen en traditionele poezie, en mogelijke tussenposities verkennen - vaak iets te conservatief naar Andrews' zin.

Tijdens de publieksvragen kwam de latere ontwikkeling van de oorspronkelijke Language scene aan de orde: de manier waarop Language Writing, tegen wil en dank, na de jaren '80 door de kritiek ingelijfd werd in het instituut 'poezie' ("We underestimated the power of institutions"), terwijl tegelijkertijd veel van de schrijvers er achter kwamen dat de enige manier waarop ze hun brood konden verdienen was om PhD's te halen en literatuurdocent te worden.

De opmerkingen in het interview over Michael Zeeman sloegen op het forumgesprek de dag tevoren in De Balie met Sandro Veronesi, Hanif Kureishi en Dubravka Ugresic, dat Zeeman geleid had.