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
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
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
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.
LANGUAGE WRITING AND OTHER WRITING
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
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.
POLITICS OF FORM
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.
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?
METHODS OF WRITING
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
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
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.
LANGUAGE AND DANCE
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
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
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
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
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.