Special to The News

Buffalo News
(Copyright 2003)

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the first issue of "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E," the groundbreaking magazine published by then New York City-based experimental poets Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. In its 13 issues and three supplements published from 1978 to 1981, the magazine -- which was produced as coverless photocopied and stapled booklets -- had an influence on contemporary writing and poetry that far outstripped its modest origins, ultimately lending its name to a constellation of writing and thinking about writing that came to be known as "Language Poetry."

In a 1986 interview, Bernstein recalled the motivation to publish the magazine arose from correspondences he was having with Andrews and San Francisco-based poet Ron Silliman about reconceptualizing the role of poetry: "The impulse for the magazine was to make that kind of exchange -- more public, to share the thinking and conceptualizing with as large a group as we could interest." Implicit in the exchange was a critique of mainstream literary culture in the United States (which Bernstein dubbed our "official verse culture") for its willfully naive assumptions about the transparency of language, coherence of a narrative "self," and self- limiting assumptions about gender and social class.

A quarter of a century later, Bernstein -- who will read from his work at 2 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College -- is recognized as perhaps our leading advocate and most articulate spokesperson for critical reading strategies, innovative poetries, and writing as the exploratory trace of human consciousness in American literary culture. He is the author of more than 20 books of poems, essays, speeches and other hybrid forms including such recent titles as "My Way: Speeches and Poems" (1999), "Republics of Reality: 1975-1995" (2000) and "With Strings" (2001).

For the past 14 years, he has held the Gray Chair in Poetry and Letters at the University at Buffalo and directed the UB Poetics Program, where his accomplishments include co-founding the Electronic Poetry Center (widely regarded as best free online resource center on contemporary American poetry) and curating the extraordinary Wednesdays at 4 Plus Series of poetry readings, lectures, discussions and performances at UB. I caught up with Bernstein between classes last week at UB, and we began this discussion, which continued on in the form of e-mail over the course of several days.

Q: A quarter-century after the first issue of "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E," do you think any of the central tenets of "Language Poetry" have been assimilated by what you once referred to as our "official verse culture"? What do you think the legacy of the magazine and the "movement" it lent its name to will be?

A: There has been a shift in poetry culture, for sure: a greater openness on the part of a large number of poets and committed readers to engage with many more stylistic and formal and conceptual approaches to poetry. And there has come with that a more profound acknowledgment of the legacy of radical modernist American poetry. At the same time, the national media -- what I like to call the "mediocracy" -- has, if anything, gotten worse, with newspapers like the New York Times doing an embarrassingly incompetent job in their coverage of contemporary poetry, in comparison for example to their coverage of the other arts. But there is an interesting paradox in your question, or anyway in my sense of the issue: The poetry I have been professing all these years wants to be assimilated (or accepted), but on its own terms, including its resistance to assimilation. But then you don't go to poetry for consistency, or at least I don't. I like the lumps and so I guess I have to take them, too. I appreciate your question (about the legacy of the magazine), but for me the fact that this remains unknown is a reason to continue on since the value is, as Gertrude Stein once wrote, not in what is won but in what is done.

Q: Under your leadership over the past 14 years, UB's Poetics Program (which offers a doctorate rather than an MA or MFA as most graduate writing programs do) has become increasingly prominent on the national scene as a result of its advocacy of innovative and experimental poetries and the fact that it has graduated a number of talented younger poet/critics who have been hired at schools like Temple, Harvard, U/Mass and Wesleyan. How does the program reflect your ideas on how contemporary poetry/poetics should be taught?

A: A key feature of the graduate Poetics Program is that we are not a creative writing program but a creative reading program. Graduate students come to Buffalo to research poetry and also to create it, to write critical essays and also edit literary magazines, to teach and also to give (and curate) poetry readings. The formal, academic part of the program -- the seminars and the dissertations -- concentrate on poetics and critical thinking. So it isn't just a matter of "what" or "who" we teach, but also how we teach and the collective energies that emerge out of that work. So, yes, it has certainly brought to UB a stellar set of poets and scholars, many of whom have gone on to get good jobs and produce terrific and influential work. But while most of the attention to Poetics is, appropriately, focused on the graduate program and the Electronic Poetry Center (which was founded by Loss Glazier in the mid-1990's), for me one of the most satisfying and successful parts of my work at UB has been developing an undergraduate Poetics program. Here undegraduates get a chance to talk to visiting poets and writers almost every week and also get a chance to have an intimate engagement with modern and contemporary poetry through interactive reading workshops. For many students, it's their most intense encounter with contemporary art.

Caption: Charles Bernstein co-founded the Electronic Poetry Center.