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by Enrique Mallen
This interview was conducted in April, 2007, at “The Poetry of the Americas” conference, Texas A&M University.
What is your opinion of contemporary “experimental” poetry?

To begin with, I don’t especially care for the word “experimental,” which implies that the poetry in question is just an experiment, that it may well fail. Imagine Baudelaire being called an “experimental” poet.  Or Rimbaud.   I prefer the adjective “radical” or “oppositional” or even the familiar epithet “avant-garde.”  

But you did suggest that contemporary poetry should be “an experimental constructivist poetry” that criticizes cultural linguistic practices through a Wittgensteinian “distrust of grammar,” “a poetics that directs its inquiry to textuality”. Can you elaborate on this?

Yes. I really do think that today it would be impossible to write poetry in the straightforward, consecutive sentences of the contemporary print world. We have so much language all around us—indeed, we’re bombarded by it–so that I think the role of poetry is to deconstruct dominant language practices, to call it into question, to provide cultural critique. On the other hand, the mere fact of disjunction or asyntacticality doesn’t mean much. It was the great critic Hugh Kenner who quipped that the avant-garde could be just as boring as anything else. That’s always a good thing to remember.  There are poets today who think all you have to do is leave out grammatical connectives and fragment words and then you’ve got interesting poetry.   And conversely, one thing that Wittgenstein certainly taught me is that the seemingly simplest phrase or sentence, one that does seem grammatical, can be incredibly interesting, depending on the context. One of my idols is certainly Samuel Beckett, and you have, say, in Beckett’s Watt, sentences as simple as: “Mr. Knott dropped his arms.”  But what does that mean, to drop your arms?  How do we talk about it? 

One must pay attention to a particular expression? 

Well, primarily it’s a question of context. I think context is the crucial thing. How do we contextualize something? What does a term mean in one context and what would it mean in another?  In one context it might make perfectly good sense, but in another, not.  Wittgenstein gives wonderful examples of the pain calculus.  He suggests that when I say “I have a pain,” how can you tell what I really mean?  Could I be faking pain? There’s no way you can fully know how severe my pain is, or indeed whether I am just pretending to have pain.   The word “read” is similar. If I say,  “I’m going to read you this story,” perhaps I have simply memorized it and am reciting it. What does “reading” really mean? So the simplest words and sentences can be the most complicated.  

One of the things that I have found fascinating in Eduardo Espina’s poetry is its apparent ungrammaticality. When reading it at first one gets a sense of something that somehow broke the rules of grammar, but then what I discovered when I started analyzing it is that there was no ungrammaticality whatsoever. It was simply a question of de-contextualizing words. 

Yes, that was my point. 

Another question I have concerns Gertrude Stein, and what you refer to as “grammatical movement.”   You have stated that Stein’s innovation in Tender Buttons was “to foreground in words the compositional arrangement of things seen”.  Has any other poet followed these steps?

Certainly. One finds Steinian agrammaticality in George Oppen or Louis Zukofsky or Charles Bernstein.  But Stein is sui generis.  You know, she has one “Tender Button” called “Roast Potatoes” that has just three words:  “Roast potatoes for.”  For what or whom?  Roast potatoes for dinner? Roast potatoes for me? Roast potatoes for, as a pun on four, meaning “oven” in French, so pommes du four: roast potatoes?  There are amazing verbal constructions in Stein.  But again, they’re not all ungrammatical. There’s Gertrude Stein’s famous enigmatic phrase, “A white hunter is nearly crazy”.  And nobody knows what that means.  Readers originally thought; ‘Is she talking about Hemingway?  Or whom? Well just the other day my 16-year old granddaughter was telling me about her trip to Oaxaca with her father and her aunt, and she said: “Daddy’s driving me crazy. He wears this huge hat and it’s not the right thing to wear when you go to the ruins.” She’s at the age where [she has] a love/hate relationship with her father. And she said, “He’s driving me crazy.” And I wrote back to her, “You know, your sentence finally explains to me Gertrude Stein’s ‘A white hunter is nearly crazy.’ That’s what your father is looking like right now.”  Stein’s are just very suggestive sentences; their enigmas haunt us. 

We could also talk about the whole issue of precision, of accuracy in Poundian terms.  You’re a linguist so this must interest you a lot, namely Ezra Pound’s idea that even in the most ungrammatical and disjunctive poetry, there has to be such a thing as precision, and by that I mean le mot juste.  If you use a word, there has to be a reason for using it. You don’t just use any old word.   I recently read a poem in American Poetry Review about the sorrows of old age, the difficulties of turning seventy.  The poet wrote, ‘And, you know, your memory goes,’ and so on. And she added, ‘But after all, the sun disappears everyday and comes up the next day.’  But the sun doesn’t in fact disappear: it just isn’t seen any more by the observer in a particular place.   “Disappear” is not the mot juste here. 

You have identified the literary lineage of language poets in post-structuralist theory (Derrida, Lyotard, and Deleuze), the writers Stein, Williams, Zukofsky, and the avant-garde traditions of Futurism and Dada. All of these writers examined dominant as well as marginalized language practices. Is this also a characteristic feature of poetry nowadays?

To examine marginalized language practices?  Yes, I think so.  We are now studying the languages of post-colonial cultures and ethnic groups much more closely.

You have also mentioned that a common practice of the New Poetics is the appropriation of words and sentences from other sources.  Is this important?

Oh yes.  Take Charles Bernstein’s libretto, Shadowtime, which is the libretto for an opera that he wrote last year with Brian Ferneyhough. But the libretto can be read independently and it’s about the life and work—beginning with the last days—of Walter Benjamin. But in no way is it an “historical drama” in the traditional sense.   What Charles does here is to use Benjamin’s actual words and insert them into his text.   So for instance, there’s a little section that cites Benjamin’s famous essay “Hashisch in Marseilles”; Charles takes about ten sentences out of the essay and modulates them, rephrasing them with a lot of onomatopoeia so as to create what sounds  like a drug fantasy.   Writing today is heavily citational
and intertextual.

In this context what comes to mind are the frequent accusations against Picasso of plagiarism, of taking ideas from other painters. But isn’t it the case – and this is true certainly of painting – that when you take elements from numerous artists and recombine them in a creative manner, this constitutes a new creation.

That’s very interesting. Actually I think it’s gone even much further. I mean, you can argue that poets and painters always cited other works and recreated them in new ways, but today you have works in which the whole composition is a found text, or at least an appropriated text framed in a new way. Well, it’s what Borges did, you know, so it’s nothing so new.  Of course many readers disapprove of such texts. I’ve heard people say; “Well, X doesn’t use any original words,” but it’s not so easy to replicate a source text. One of the revelations for me was hearing John Cage perform his various “writings through,” for example, Roaratorio, which is a “writing through” Finnegans Wake, or Empty Words (Thoreau).  Cage used elaborate rules to “write through” his parent texts and they emerge as very different poems.  I am writing a book on this process to be called Unoriginal Genius.

To return to Stein: it used to be assumed that Gertrude Stein was influenced by Picasso, that she took some of the ideas from cubism and applied them to literature. but now it has been argued that maybe that was not going in one direction only. she might have equally influenced Picasso, even though he could not read English.

Exactly, and she certainly had a lot of influence, say on Duchamp. Actually, in my Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981), I wrote about Stein’s “cubism” à la Picasso, but I am no longer so sure the term is apt for her work.  Picasso was obviously Stein’s idol, there’s no question about that, but his example was less important than that of Marcel Duchamp.   Duchamp actually read—and appreciated—some of her work, whereas Picasso paid no attention to it at all.  He thought of her as a great patroness; he loved her salon and she bought his paintings.  But Duchamp understood because his own aesthetic was so similar.  Like the Stein of
Tender Buttons, he took totally ordinary objects, like a bottle rack or a clothes hanger, out of their contexts.  And that was indeed an aesthetic revolution.

You have often referred to “the really great sixties aesthetic”, that of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Morton Feldman, Jackson Mac Low, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery. What do you think makes this group genuinely avant-garde?

Well, the dominant poets in the 60’s were, on the one hand, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and their circle, and, on the other, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats.  I am very fond of Ginsberg but one can’t quite call him avant-garde, since his concept of the lyric and of poetic language were not especially innovative.   And I’m not even sure one could call O’Hara avant-garde if by that term we mean some sort of major breakthrough and reconception of what poetry is.

Is that because O’Hara does not pay particular attention to language?

No, no.  O’Hara’s language is brilliant. But his conception of the lyric is quite traditional.   In many ways, O’Hara is an American Romantic in the tradition of Whitman and Hart Crane.   His very open treatment of gay culture is certainly new as is his wonderful campy humor, but formally he is writing odes, elegies, autobiographical poems. It was Cage who introduced both O’Hara and Ashbery to new “abstract” possibilities.  Just think of Cage’s deployment of the tape recorder. And it was Cage who understood —Steve McCaffery has a very good essay on this subject in Dee Morris’s collection Sound States—that what the tape-recorder allowed poets to do is to splice voices and superimpose one voice on top of another so that you get not just collage but a new kind of layering, quite unlike anything Lowell or Ginsberg had done.  Ginsberg’s poetry is still linear: from “I saw the best minds of my generation” to “Moloch!” and beyond.

Now, you have also said that some of the most interesting poetry being written today is conceptual: you mentioned Craig Dworkin, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Caroline Bergvall and other poets. Can you explain?

Let’s begin with Robert Smithson who has used specific sites to rethink some problem completely.  What is a monument?  A lagoon?  How can changing the earth itself change our perceptions?  Another important conceptual artist in the Wittgenstein tradition was Joseph Kosuth, whom I talk about in Wittgenstein’s Ladder.  But again, the first great conceptual artist was surely Duchamp.  Conceptual poetry is harder to define because, whereas visual conceptual artists shift to language, poets are already using language, by definition. But in his new book The Weather, Kenneth Goldsmith recycles a year’s worth of actual radio weather reports.  It may seem to be mere copying but the seasonal narrative is very interesting.  When you come to the spring, the mood and set of referents shifts because the Iraqi war has begun: suddenly all the weather reports are coming in from Iraq, and so we read, “120 degrees today in the desert,” and so on.  What makes it poetry rather than just a replica of the news is its defamiliarization of words we hear every day.  In leaving out holidays and certain other days, the daily bulletin loses its continuity, emphasizing how inaccurate weather reports actually are. That is, we read, ‘Snow this afternoon, starting early and then becoming thick by nightfall’ but then it doesn’t snow, perhaps because the book skips a day or because it didn’t snow after all! It’s very tantalizing.  Another very interesting conceptual poet I just wrote about for the journal Parkett—an earlier figure-was Vito Acconci, who then became an artist but started out as a poet at the University of Iowa and created a strange mix of “reality” effects. A third would be David Antin, whose “talk pieces,” framed as “lectures,” are really conceptual artworks, dependent on metonymic structuring. 

What is your opinion of “slam poetry”? Do you not think that this presents an interesting “aural poetry” that is lost on the page?

Sometimes, yes.  Two things have happened lately.  At the MLA convention*, my Presidential Forum and related workshops had as their theme, Sound in Poetry; I felt this to be important since sound is currently the neglected element in discussions of poetry.  Our own North American poetry has become so prosaic that it doesn’t look or sound like poetry at all. It’s just a sort of chopped up prose.  In foregrounding sound, we are coming back to the spoken voice, but I would want to distinguish between the typical poetry reading and performative poetry. Most poetry readings don’t come alive; they are not really performances.  On the other hand, the late Jackson Mac Low, a difficult poet who was never very popular on the page, can now be heard on CD and is beginning to be understood as a major figure.  Caroline Bergvall is a great performance artist.  I’ve just been listening in my car to some of her CD’s and they are quite amazing. She has also made superb videos like “Ambient Fish.”

Now, you may have already hinted at this already, but isn’t there a certain danger that in concentrating on the sound might detract from the textual nature of the poem?

No, I think hearing poetry is a necessary corrective to its classroom presentation as silent text. There are now wonderful sites online like PennSound where you can hear the leading poets read their work.  Of course you want to look closely at poems as well, but the two go hand in hand.

Is the poet the best performer of his or her work?

Not necessarily.  But it’s always interesting to know how X or Y conceive of their poems. Charles Bernstein has made this case convincingly.  For example, John Ashbery is not a very “good” reader. He has a particular Rochester, New York twang that sounds purposely flat and neutral, and sometimes I think I would prefer to hear someone else read his poetry, but then again, his self-interpretation really matters.  I don’t think Frank O’Hara was an especially good reader; his New England accent was nasal and sometimes monotonous.  Was Gertrude Stein such a good reader of her work? No, not especially. Eliot read in a pompous voice, in carefully assumed King’s English, and that can be irritating.  On the other hand; do we want actors to read poetry? You know, we have recordings of great actresses reading Yeats, or reading Beckett, and they usually overdo it.   Billie Whitelaw has given marvelous renditions of Beckett; even so, I’d rather hear Beckett read his own work! 

I do have problems, though, with the poetry reading as a genre.  I can’t stand those group poetry readings (at MLA and elsewhere), where each poet gets five or ten minutes.  After a while, everyone sounds the same.   And even when someone stands out, it’s difficult to absorb any sort of difficult poetry at a reading.  Do you agree?

I share the same opinion. I think the same can be said of painting: the manner in which people visit museums. One gets overwhelmed after a while and does not pay attention to the work in front of their eyes.

Yes, but at least in the museum you can go at your own pace. At a poetry reading you can’t.  I suppose readings have become primarily social events and that has some value, but….

How would you diagnose “the new” poetry that is being written at the present time, when everything seems to have already been done? In what area of poetry can you still search for the “new” or the possibility of “originality”?

Well, the interesting thing is that “everything” has not already been done!  The main point is that poetry has to be of its time even as it has to transcend that time.  There are currently endless nature poems that seem to be built on the assumption that nothing has changed since Wordsworth’s time.  Poetry is poetry.   But if you believe the world changes then the more stringent poetry is going to change too.  Take the Language Poetry theorem, derived from post-Structuralism, that there’s no full presence, nobody has their “own” voice, and there are no truth statements .  Oddly, the events of 9/11 changed all that.  The idea that language is only a trace structure no longer seemed as convincing.  Wittgenstein, incidentally, never questioned meaning-making as Derrida did.  Wittgenstein recognized that if I say to you, a native English speaker, “Pass that bottle of water,” you know exactly what I mean, there’s no difficulty at all.  Derrida, by contrast, would say that even this simple command has a subtext.  So the questions we ask inevitably change.  Christian Bök, who writes sound poetry, is doing things with digital sounds and with experiments in DNA, using a lot of scientific material that wasn’t around ten years ago, and he is creating sound networks out of those or out of video games. I’ve been in the audience when he’s performed this new work for a group of engineers at UCLA, and the audience adored it.   Bök presents them with a heightened image of a world they understand.

Do you think that the gap between “innovation” and poetry readers is wider, or are there new readers who are now open to all kinds of formal experience?

This is a tricky issue!  John Cage once told me,  “I can get a better audience at the University of Kansas or at Knox College in Tennessee than at Harvard where, when I gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures, most of the people walked out.”   What John meant is that the audience at Kansas had fewer preconceptions and could come to the work with a more open mind than is found in the Ivy League.  I’ve always had the same experience.  At Stanford, the earlier literary periods are beautifully taught, but the present is troublesome.  The New is regarded with suspicion.  But it was always thus:  James Laughlin, the great publisher of New Directions, gave many accounts of his Harvard days in the thirties:  he couldn’t convince anyone that Pound might be a great poet.  Or William Carlos Williams.  Susan Howe lives in Guilford, Connecticut; her husband was in the art department at Yale, twenty minutes away, but Susan was ignored there completely until very recently. 

What is the current situation of poetry criticism in the USA?

I think it’s pretty disheartening. I think part of the problem is that, unlike the 50’s and 60’s, when the division was between the “raw” and the “cooked,” between the mainstream and the opposition, today there is no clear distinction and so everyone tries to be “fair” to every kind of poetry, with the result that the discourse is careless and wholly uncritical.

Again, the theorists don’t want to talk about poetry at all, or at least not contemporary poetry.  People are afraid of adjudicating the work of the present.   They are especially afraid—we all are—of criticizing a minority poet. I think this is really a shame, and especially from the point of view of a conference like this one, committed to the idea that great work is being done in Latin America, that we feel we have to think approvingly of all the poetry “made in America” and yet don’t even know the poetry made in the other America, south of our border. 

This connects to my next question. What do you think of cultural studies?

Yeah. I think it has done incredible harm.

Do you think it is on its way out? 

I hope so but it hasn’t happened yet.  And what I really don’t like is what’s now called ‘globalism-transnationalism’. Transnationalism is really Comparative Literature without any foreign languages.  I want to restore the study of  language. And even when, as in my case with Portuguese, one doesn’t know the language in question well, one can try, with bilingual texts, to understand it.  It’s a wonderful feeling when one does!

And we are talking about one of the major languages of the world, Spanish!

And even a lot of the Latino students I teach don’t really know enough Spanish to read poetry.  What’s really needed today to change this situation is much more exchange between North and South America than there is.   US Imperialism dies hard!  But a new interest in Latin American poetry is developing, for instance right here in Texas.

I wrote a few years back a book on Espina called Con/figuración Sintáctica: Poesía de Des/lenguaje, and I wonder if I should have written it in in English because it would have had a wider audience. The same applies to the one which I have just finished called Poesía del Lenguaje: De T.S. Eliot a Eduardo Espina.

This is what we desperately need. You see?   There are language departments in the US where a scholarly book written in the language in question (say, Spanish) doesn’t count for tenure, because external committees can’t read it. I know, for example, of a German department that would not accept a study of Fritz Lang, the great filmmaker, because it was in German!   One solution to our parochialism would be for you, Enrique, to send an article to a mainstream journal like Modernism/Modernity.  After all, such journals are supposed to be devoted to Modernism in general.  At this writing, the ACLA (American Comparative Literature Association) is meeting in Puebla, but the program is entirely in English and it includes little poetry anyway.