bruce andrews We're pretty tight on these mics, so--
cb Yeah, that's the idea. (louder) This is LineBreak. I'm Charles Bernstein. On today's program, 'Poetry as Politics' with Bruce Andrews. Bruce Andrews's books of poetry include Give Em Enough Rope, XYZ, and, from Sun & Moon Press, I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up; (or, Social Romanticism.) Bruce, I know that the first couple of times I tried to recite that title of yours I would add 'Please,' which I think is kind of funny: 'Please Shut Up.' But you don't put 'please' in your writing a whole lot, and in fact that book is fairly confrontational for many people.
ba I think the word 'please' is confrontational. And in fact I do use that word pretty often; it's like promises, exhortations, the kind of omnipresent discourse that we get publicly and privately. So if you think of 'please' as a shy, timid, step-'n-fetchit or whatever approach to people that avoids confrontation, then I don't tend to use it in that way.
cb Right, that's what I was thinking of it as being, especially with 'please shut up.' But then what interests you in a poetry of confrontation, a poetry that sometimes seems to have anger in it, that has some of the violence that is often removed from a more genteel practice of poetry, which talks about love, or quiet lyric feelings? You seem not to have that much of that kind of sentiment in your work.
ba When you talk about poetry as politics, say, in your introductory remarks, and if I think about politics as power, sustaining relations of power, challenging relations of power, then . . . the genteel practices you referred to seem more and more evasive, because they're not really being able to confront the way power operates; so if power operates on us in insidious ways that we're not even aware of, or if power operates in blunt and coercive ways that we ought to be more aware of, then how do you get to that; how do you implicate that, somehow, in writing. And it seems to me, doing things that other people are likely to think of, because it's so contrastive with what we normally think of in our suburbanized mode as poetry--if people think of that as confrontational, then maybe that means some teeny jackpot has been hit.
cb I think that was to some degree a shift in your work; the work that you did in the early seventies, for example, was collected as Love Songs, and it has a very different texture and feeling than the work that you're doing now, although by no means conventional in the way that some of the work you were talking about just now is.
ba Love Songs is one long piece that I did in the second half of 1973 as a Christmas present for my then wife. Actually the other collection of my work from the seventies with the title that would follow your argument here is called Getting Ready to Have Been Frightened. But in that period in the seventies and heading--I guess mostly in the seventies--I was also more interested in isolating syllables, words, and individual sounds, trying to keep things in an atomized and discrete way; and when I started to move in the late seventies and early eighties toward a more phrase-based work that also opened up the possibilities of speech a little differently, longer constructions, other kinds of materials coming in, I had a format in which I could think about social issues and the social content of discourse; and that coincided with the quite horrific changes in the society, and politically, of the Reagan years. So those two things coming into play at the same time, opening up a different kind of format that would make this possible, and getting royally pissed off at this rightwing nightmare which was being--the last rightwing nightmare--which was being perpetrated on our body politic, brought things up, ratcheted them up a little bit, in terms of social temperature.
cb Do you think poetry is a place that can change political values? Is it a medium that can change political values?
ba There's a lot of posturing that goes on around that issue. People making theoreticist claims about writing that nobody reads, as having tremendous revolutionary implications, and then other people scoffing at the very possibility or even the desire to have poetry or writing have any kind of social and political implications. I think it works on the writer, and it works on the reader, probably more as a kind of reinforcement of more fragile beliefs or attitudes that were getting formed, that need more support. So I don't think it's so much a matter of mobilizing large numbers of people; I think the only easy way you can mobilize large numbers of people is by keeping them just the way they are. But if you're trying to reinforce some attempt at change, then it is going to be modest, and it's going to take place in the actual experience of the work, and that's obviously very limited.
cb So do reading values then become important, the way in which you read your own work, the way in which other people can read your work?
ba I guess I think of my own work as a giant reading project, that the writing is a way of recasting and reconsidering what reading could be. And I think that a lot of my feelings about other writing in the past, for instance, come out of thoughts and reactions to its readability, to its accessibility to a different way of configuring it in my own reading. And I think what I've tried to do in my own work, just to keep myself happy and geared up about it, has been to try to embody in it as much as I can the kind of reading possibilities that I want when I look at other people's work. So in that sense, yeah, reading has always been central.
cb And what are the reading possibilities you're interested in, both in your work and other people's work, especially as they may be different from the reading of say the genteel lyric, the bogey poem that I--
ba "Bogey" did you say?
cb Or the dummy poem that I invoked in the beginning of the show . . .
ba I don't know that phrase, "bogey poem," what is that, Charles?
cb (To Martin) Don't--let me go back on this one. . . . Can you talk about the reading values that interest you in your own work and other works especially as they contrast with the sort of genteel poem that we evoked earlier in the discussion?
ba I think a lot of what I experience in this genteel writing that you mentioned earlier is the cage of genre, with its own built-in institutional trappings, and as somebody that comes on to all this writing possibility not as an eager creative-writing workshop graduate, or English major English grad student English professor person, those genre constraints and genre mobilizations never really fascinated me all that much. So I never was really, given the absence of that kind of training, easily able to understand why other people were so fascinated by it, or were so willing to take it as an absolute limit; so things that I read may be more variously, more distractedly-- sometimes as an elaborate interweaving of different things happening at the same time or happening one after the other or in layers, or extended concentric circles of possibility--all that stuff doesn't seem to have much to do with what I think of poetry as a genre, so one thing I've tried to do and one thing I'm interested in doing is opening up the possibilities of writing in language that are disrespectful of genre boundaries and concerns.
cb But do you still think of that activity then as poetry, do you think of yourself as writing poems?
ba That's an interesting question. I do now. I guess when I started, started writing in the 1969, 1970 period, I thought of it as a kind of literary writing, or experimental writing, more than I thought of it as poetry. Poetry I think of now as an institutional designation, and so as soon as I began, as soon as I began publishing, getting in touch with other writers, it was clear that the only future for anything I did or anything they were doing was going to be under the category of poetry, as defined by other people. So over the years I've just accepted that. I remember for instance when the term "language poetry" started getting thrown around, and my initial nervousness about the term stemmed mostly from the P word rather than from the L word--that I thought of it as language writing, a term I wasn't all that displeased with, because it suggested almost a new genre, or a new subgenre possibility that hadn't yet been defined, so that it would be a type of writing that had a certain way of foregrounding the way meaning was produced and operated on in a social world, rather than language poetry which then implies that "language" is the adjective referring to a subcategory of what we already think of as poetry.
cb So you think the shift of categorization from something like "language-centered" or "language-oriented" writing to capital L capital P Language Poetry is a recuperation by "literature," of something that was questioning the poetic status of the work?
ba Yes, but more pointedly was a recuperation or appropriation by institutions, by an already existing institutional network out there in the social world, that organizes the social world that we all have to deal with; there's no point in being rabidly sentimental about all that and try to act as if you could do your own disappearing act, try to act as though none of that mattered, or that you could avoid it all--triumph over it, heroic or whatever--no, it was a revealing change I would say, maybe recuperation is too loaded a word, but it was something that alerted me and a lot of other people I think to the role of institutions in organizing our future.
cb One way that your work overall, but especially your work since the Reagan years, defies normal generic categorizations as poetry is the range or kinds of language and sources that you use, not that no other writing has ever used that, not even that no other poetry has used some of it, but still the scope, almost the encyclopedic scope of the social reference in your work seems to break down perceptions of poems, not even the lyric poem but other types of poetry.
ba But think of how poignant that sounds, even as you read back the transcript. I mean just the idea that somehow having a desire for an encyclopedic range of possibilities and reference and content and social bits of matter in your work would automatically seem odd, that it would be poetry, that somehow what we think of as poetry or literary writing is supposed to accept the fact that it can operate happily with such a shrunken range of reference. Meanwhile everybody in the world is confronted with this increasingly exploding range of reference that they embody in their own personal lives, I mean when you're walking down the street--admittedly I've lived in an urban area for twenty years, but mass culture, television, whatever range of information it is, you're being bombarded with this stuff all the time, and to somehow think that poetry is a place where you can't--unlike all these other areas in your personal life--have this come to life, seems so sad.
cb Well, the counter-examples, especially before the Second World War, that one might think of, are epic poems, culminating in perhaps The Waste Land, or Pound's Cantos, or perhaps as something of an anti-epic Zukofsky's "A" or Olson's Maximus. How does your work relate to those kinds of epic rather than lyric projects?
ba Well if you think of epic with those as the major examples then it's closer to it, it's also closer to the epic in the way that Brecht talks about it in his theatrical work, as a kind of getting at this social gestus, this social embodiment that's going on; so those are examples of things that got me excited about the possibility of getting more of life into the work, instead of just having it be this tiny monument of personal expressivity.
cb Can you read a section from Shut Up?
ba Sure. Would you want me to just read a couple of things and then you could cut 'em in?
cb No, no, no I want to keep them in context.
ba This is a piece from I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up; (or, Social Romanticism). It's called "Gestalt Me Out!"
Gestalt me out! Slang to the point of meat-eating, imperative ornament, dislike occurs. I refer to the Felony Augmentation Program; the tendency in art towards party. Your wig is wacked. Diversion of entire Midwest into giant Moonies camp; you are cute, compared to hamsters. So cash, no gash, so defeat the British Empire instead. Riot Act is new name for cops. At last! -- chewing gum for the rich. Birth control for lizard-like reptiles, fears of normal or full length; I don't know psychosexual glassblowing techniques. Writer's weapon join jewels in clam. Stores make us safe. Swell vamp not quite at home captures body pretty red couple tape knots fear is a hobby. Taxes self-destruct -- no one says that human beings are inedible, squeeze the testicle into two column inches. Men think of women, women think of spiders, face like a bipartisan tuna. We like to sit around our California townhouses & criticize Black street culture from a literary point of view. Caution whoops rose madder porn prior brave. Brain works reward: thugs nab ex-wife, penicillin is a great aphrodisiac. What do female midgets look like? Whites give me hives. Wet wires, Pope's poop happen- stance grows in the past; let me solder your good up. There is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. We go to foreign countries in order to hear Muzak. Poison gap pheno- menon or phenomena, the hen, type one up, ranchero losers. She pulled my zipper down with her chopsticks. Suspicious of crowds, the pathetic individual hangs on. It's true I am more thoughtful so that puts a damper on spontaneity, grassroots Lacanianism, watch them work the fortune-cookie up into my nostril. Let me scour your bowl. Couples in triple time soot stipend hormonal ransom. Friends & shopping are two different things, I preach to millions more than X did in his entire lifetime. Stop thinking & start acting. Members annoy U.N. dope mob porn -- kidnapped girl shoots xerox to leave clue -- you can really become yourself with money. I was attracted to he poverty and he pinhole tart, but the mind operates like an interest group hidden hazards of air stands on your head to get tired. I'm going. Make antiques at home, assassinate the waterproof fool's gold installation. Sorry, we do not accept fun guides. He axed me I how tall be I photos of sing-along house-husband in butcher block limbo. Toy town fear 3 demolished cars can fit in one phone booth. That's the way you spell it dear, it's the way you look it up, arouse the beat, saccharine zip-a-tone . . . wake the knees of the normals! Sometimes you just get tired of sucking the same dick all the time. I'd never break a mirror. Religion = chucksteak; ego quits its sap. All elderly feel parental. When depressed, retreat into conventional middle class lifestyles. Cheap squirt. Carry whip in traffic. He has arrogance of ignorance, not so great -- metal servile: they develop snack habits. Experience counts for a lot when it comes to growing up; reorder your home life to resemble North Korea. Seen anything of Pa's cows? Juice the worm, drip my Roentgen for the woman who does not decide. The social is really clumsy in interaction procedures -- and we punish repercus- sions. That's where we're interning our next ethnic scapegoats. I'm starting to think that just having a bed is Oedipal. S/he'll be naked & I'll be big guns, we have these crude little summa- tions, commerce cleanses. School for Movement Rehash, kill killers, drones bleed us dry. Stalk my balk!cb Bruce Andrews, reading from I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up; (or, Social Romanticism). Bruce, can you say something about how you compose, your method of composing a work like that, or that work in particular?
ba Well, my methods have changed over the years, and this work was written in the mid-1980s and by that point I guess I had pretty much adopted the method that I've been working with since, which is to generate large amounts of material on very small pieces of paper, one two three four five words at a time, in clusters, short fragments of phrases or pre-phrases, and then compose the work, sometimes much later than when I had written the raw material, into works based on a whole series of other decisions that I'll make later; so it's more like editing film footage, so that the editing process becomes the composing process, or that that's what gets focused on more than some kind of point-of-inspiration moment that I actually wrote the words in.
cb A lot of poetry nowadays is looked at both by readers and by the poets themselves in terms of group identification, or gender identification. Is that something that is significant for you as a writer?
ba It is, mostly probably in ways that I'm not conscious of--since I do fall demographically into all the oppressor groups, as a college-educated, middle-class, white, heterosexual male from the USA. So the emphasis of identity politics in empowering pre-existing notions of who a person is, or how they're supposed to operate socially, has always been troubling to me, since my demographic slot or niche has never been one that I thought of as worth celebrating, since it's always been an obstacle to the kinds of social change that I would be happy about. So I'm not prominent in the men's movement, I'm not prominent in the straight movement, I'm not prominent in the elite--
cb Or the white--
ba The white movement, right, another group I have failed to pay my dues in for a while. So it's more that I now notice with some, hm--sadness is maybe not quite the right word, it's a little strong, but with some fret that people are willing to gravitate toward things that give them back what they already are, in a compensatory way. And I've always been more interested in trying to figure out how to get out of whatever box I'm in, rather than to better decorate it.
cb One thing you've certainly been interested in as a writer is thinking about writing, thinking about the relation of writing to ideology, writing to politics, writing to social formation, social structure; and a project that we put together called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine in the late seventies consisted mostly of poets writing essays, but often in nonconventional form. But you in particular in the many essays you've written have resisted writing explanatory, expository prose. Why is that?
ba Partly because I was excited and attracted by something else, another way of trying to figure out how to deal with the essay form, or to deal with discursive possibility, and maybe also partly because I never had the institutional nudge to move me in that direction, since I wasn't operating out of protocols present in either journalism or classroom discourse or scholarly discourse in English departments.
cb Certainly the protocols present within the poetry communities, of poets writing reviews and so on, were equally generic and specific toward narrative and description, and you resisted those as well.
ba Well, remember back then there was also a lot of activity going on in conversation, in more constructive, more constructivist veins, to try to come up with new ways of writing about work, and also in correspondence there were people who would try ideas out or collage materials in different ways, or would try to take different kinds of risks with those forms without even knowing that they were doing it, just because they were working in a realm where those genre constraints in essay writing weren't present. So I guess there was a certain innocence maybe attached to the project at the beginning where you thought, Gee, maybe we could come up with a whole range of new ways to think about work, or to get work out to people, get it into their awareness.
cb I thought we did.
ba Oh--I'm sorry.
cb Can you read something just to give a little feeling of what your essay-like work is, and maybe also mention your forthcoming essay book . . .
ba This is a piece called "Devo Habit."
cb Bruce Andrews reading "Dead Habit."
ba No--"Devo Habit."
cb "Devo Habit," I remember. By the way, which of these outros do you want to--I didn't want to turn my paper round to make the noise, and I was thinking "dead habit" is sort of what you were talking about . . .
ba You're just thinking of the Pope coming to town, Charles, right now.
cb Bruce Andrews reading "Devo Habit." A collection of Bruce Andrews's essays has just been published by Northwestern University Press as Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis.
LineBreak is produced by Martin Spinelli for the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo.
(this transcript originally appeared in Chloroform, ed. Nick Lawrence and Alisa Messer, Buffalo, 1997)