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From The Front Table, Seminary Co-op Bookstore
February/March 1999


Interview with Charles Bernstein

Recently poet/critic/professor, Charles Bernstein gave a reading at our store from his newest collection of essays, and poems, My Way. Bernstein's has been a voice in experimental poetry since the 1970's as one of the founders of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and is the author of over twenty books of poetry and criticism.

Seminary Co-op: Watching TV the other night I saw you on a commercial for the Yellow Pages. This did not seem so surprising since in your autobiographical interview with Loss Glazier, you cite the Manhattan Yellow Pages as one of the biggest influences in your early life. What draws you to the Yellow Pages and how has it informed your poetry and thinking about poetry?

Charles Bernstein: In that interview, I was trying, somewhat obliquely, to contrast literary works with various kinds of compendiums, dictionaries, encyclopedias, cookbooks, handbooks, manuals, catalogs, and guides. I am very attracted to the way these books are organized: alphabetically and also by category: lists within lists. Lists, though, doesn't quite get at what's interesting here, better to say arrays or constellations. Such compendiums are marvelous, even magical, sources for nonnarrative and nonexpository ordering. I say magical, thinking of ancient works like The Greek Magical Papyri, which is made up of spells and potions, which themselves can be read as forms of lists. These works are cornucopias of cultural particulars, both utterly referential, in the sense of stranding out into the "real" world, but also creating their own interior imaginative space it's that doubleness I find intensely attractive. You can read the list of restaurants in the Yellow Pages because you plan to go out or you can read it because you plan to stay in.

CO-OP: Speaking of large reference volumes, in My Way you cite some of the failings of the steady, if unspectacular large poetry anthologies (Norton, Heath, etc.) that are read in introductory poetry classes. Where do they go wrong? What should an introductory poetry anthology accomplish for a new reader of poetry?

CB: Marjorie Perloff gave a wonderful talk on anthologies at this year's MLA, just a few weeks ago, in which she argued that as some of the new anthologies are getting bigger, to include everything they feel morally obliged to include, they are getting deadlier and deadlier. Anthologies are, after all, largely about the dead, but the point is to bring the dead to life, not to make them into stiffs. Reading poetry, reading literature, shouldn't be made into an obligation when it can be a pleasure. My goal in teaching is to get students to be maximally engaged with poetry, so that they continue to read after they leave the class; this means I am not focused on testing knowledge of a predetermined set of important facts but rather in opening up a world of verbal sensations. I appreciate that some anthologies are more activist than canonical, but I regret that so much of that activism has a literal agenda that has resulted in the exclusion of most of the formally imaginative work by the generation of poets born during and after the second world war. What's important to me about poetry, I don't claim it as a universal value, is not the message but the style and form and structure. Poetry is not about, or anyway doesn't have to be about, moral uplift or affirmation or positive sentiments about individuals or groups. It isn't about using the language in correct or acceptable ways. So I think too many of the general anthologies are keeping the cap on poetry, hiding what is really dynamic and wild and uncontained about it, despite all that they are adding in. And the sad thing is that they are doing it for what they imagine to be noble reasons. Too much nobility, too little art.

Co-op: You also criticize "official verse culture." What or who exactly do you see as constituting this culture? And how does it violate what you feel poetry should strive for?

CB: When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, just before the reading at 57th Street books, I met with the European and American Avant-Garde Workshop at the University of Chicago, an ongoing seminar of faculty and graduate students. In the course of the afternoon, Robert von Hallberg said that he assumed that when I referred to "official verse culture" I meant works that I didn't consider to be poetry. He was surprised when I said that not only do I consider works of official verse culture to be poetry (which is not, for me, an honorific category), but also that one of the key features of official verse culture was that it could necessarily include some poetry that I liked quite a lot. I think Bob assumed I was invoking the old-time disparaging distinction between verse and poetry, though I actually like any word that has such extensions as perverse, reverse and inverse. The problem with official verse culture, what makes it official, is its unreflected assertion of centrality. Official verse culture's appropriation of an imaginary center operates through its a series of exclusions of the bulk of what is for me the most active and engaging work being done. This ends up giving poetry a bad name, makes it seem a dull art for genteel readers. In my original formulation of "official verse culture," in an essay on William Carlos Williams published in Content's Dream, I list the publishing and reviewing practices of a series of national magazines, newspapers, and poetry organizations. In the twenty years since, I don't think that the disproportion of attention and systematic exclusions that I outlined there has improved. I still think the problem is the tyranny of the taste of a relatively small segment of the poetry community. This doesn't mean there is no value in any of our official modalities of poets (my complaint has less to do with poets than institutions of poetry and even the most accepted poet has her or his work reduced and diminished by the grinding mill of official verse culture). Moreover, it well may come to pass that some of the poetry to which I am most committed takes it place as part of official verse culture. I understand, in making these kind of remarks, that I open myself up to charges of being polemical and partisan, for it a fundamental tactic of official verse culture to pass over in utter silence what it cannot absorb while harshly dismissing structural criticism of the kind I am making as ideological or fringe. Membership has its privileges, including the idea that those who don't fit probably don't belong and those who protest just prove the point.

CO-OP: You seem to feel comfortable or at least seek out the challenge of the "semiotic maelstrom," i.e., the confusions and fumblings of language. And at times, you argue that mainstream poetry is unwilling (to its own detriment) to delve into this uncertainty. However, do you feel that many readers of poetry want a sanctuary or escape from confusion, i.e., they want poetry as a transformative or a distilling experience? More precisely, poetry, at least in the popular imagination, is sometimes seen as an expression that is apart from the commotion of everyday life. Is there any way to "reposition" poetry in our culture?

CB: I think you put the question very well. There is a tendency in the American poetry world to divide up along the lines you suggest and there is some "splitting" going on, each side negatively projecting onto the other. In My Way I transform William Wordsworth's famous line "poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity" into "Poetry is tranquillity recollected in emotion, commotion projected in tranquillity, recollection unsettled by turbulence." But it would be foolish to suggest that turbulence or tranquillity were mutually exclusive prerequisites for poetic value, since poetic values are always contestable, and it is the contesting itself that is part of what it is interesting. Still, you're right to suggest I want to "reposition" poetry, partly by noting that the history of poetry is as much on the side of turbulent thought as it is on the side of distillation. There is no doubt that some readers seek out a poetry apart from the commotion of everyday life and are horrified to find poetry indulging in all those things poetry is supposed to rise above. But for many other readers, the image of poetry as a form of refinement has made it seem the least interesting of the contemporary arts and has obscured the most dynamic developments within poetry. Poetry's famous obscurity is not the result of its intrinsic difficulty but rather the result of the fact that what's most interesting about it has been largely hidden from view. The Beats have become the most popular of mid-century American poets and this is, in part, because they are identified with rebellion and nonconformity and turbulence, both in lifestyle and writing. The question for us now is whether that crossover into popular culture is completely dependent on lifestyle or if the poems can take on a life of their own, absent the celebrity of the author. I think without the "oxygen of publicity," to use a phrase of Andrew Ross's, a "textual" poetry will persist only on a small scale. This small scale of poetry, however, is not a limitation in the negative sense, it is a limit that allows the activity to thrive and to attract those readers who desire the verbal intensities it alone can provide.

CO-OP: In a recent book about the New York School of Poets, The Last Avant-Garde, David Lehman suggests that this was the last true avant-garde movement in poetry and the possibility for a new one springing up in today's postmodern world is unlikely (after all, goes the argument, we've seen it all). What do you think of the potential for the creation of a "new" poetry? With the presence and possibilities for experimental poetry on the internet, could cyberspace be the place for the next avant-garde?

CB: I thought this meant the last avant-garde that David Lehman had written a book about, last in the sense of most recent to be noticed by him. The last one until the next one. I supposed there would be a series, just like one year's "best" is replaced the next year's "best" (and perhaps they are not the best at all). The new isn't going anywhere because despite our best efforts to the contrary the ground is constantly shifting under us. I expect poets will respond to changing conditions by writing work that reads differently and that means differently. The new digital writing space can be expected to have a profound effect on writing and on the distribution of writing. Poetry continues to be a crucial site to probe the possibilities of this new medium.

CO-OP: Can poetry on the internet bring new readers into the fold or will it be more important for its ability to bring together people already interested in experimental poetry?

CB: Both. The Internet is already crucial as a means of getting word out about books, magazines, readings, and conferences; as a means to distribute small press publications; and as a place for discussion. At the same time, more of more poetry magazines are originating as web publications, because poetry publications will seek out the cheapest possible means of reproduction and distribution. That was true of mimeo and xerox in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and it is true of the web right now. On this subject, let me also recommend a terrific book that documents the history of small press poetry magazines: Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980: A Sourcebook of Information by Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips. At the present time, there are lots of potential readers cruising the web for "content" who are visiting these poetry sites but who would not read print versions of the same material: so these are the new readers you are asking about. At this point, poetry is one of the leading "contents" on the web; but as the web becomes more and more commercial, poetry's web profile will diminish. The best sense I can give you about poetry on the web is to direct you to the Electronic Poetry Center, which was created by Loss Pequeno Glazier and of which I am a cofounder. We are now getting about one million "hits" (requests for files) each year, which is phenomenal. One key thing we are doing at the EPC is curating the space. As the world wide web gets wider, editing becomes the crucial ingredient. As editors, we stand behind all the material and links we have on the site. Machines don't solve problems, they create new problems. Those familiar with e-mail discussion groups will be aware of how destructive and also pervasive "flaming" can be. The more open the Internet environment, the easier it is to abuse and the harder to maintain forums for dialogue and exchange. Despite the automation provided by computers, it's the labor-intensive work based on aesthetic and social judgments that is making poetry sites on the web indispensable.

CO-OP: And now for a self-interested question: As an employee of an independent bookstore the rise of the superstores and has caused a fair amount of anxiety. Should readers of experimental or contemporary poetry be equally anxious about this? Or does the presence of a (friendly?) behemoth like make available works that for many are very difficult to get?

CB: Writers who work with small and independent presses and magazines share a common interest with independent book stores. Such book stores are crucial for our survival and should, in my judgment, be supported in every way possible. At minimum, this means buying books from such stores and not from the large chains. Computer book buying is convenient, but there are a number of independent book stores who sell books over the web or by e-mail. Even if purchasing books from the independents may be slightly less convenient, ensuring that these stores stay in business is worth any effort necessary. Without them, the circulation of independently produced literary work would be seriously hurt, as would the circulation of university press titles and other books that have limited print runs and negligible advertising dollars . . . . a bookstore stocked with hard-to-find and noncommercial books and magazines is as vital a cultural space as any university library or museum. It is the unregulated, or anyway not strictly commercial, nature of the best independent bookstores that makes them crucial sites for reading as an adventure in thought and a place for discovery.

CO-OP: I know you recently attended the MLA meeting in San Francisco. In My Way you devote several articles to the state of American academia and the "frame lock" or rigidness of English professors and departments. After spending a few days surrounded by professors and academicians do feel things are changing? If not what needs to be done?

CB: The biggest problem in the university is the move away from full-time tenured faculty to part-time, adjunct teachers. This represents a historically disturbing shift away from the postwar promise of making a high quality liberal arts college education available to all. There seems no longer the political will to spend the money on faculty and students and facilities to make this democratic ideal a reality. The defunding of the university will have negative consequences not only for the possibilities of a democratic society made up of informed citizens but also for the economic future of the U.S. But the idea that a liberal arts education, and by that I mean to emphasize an education in the arts, has a social or economic value, has been hit very hard over the past two decades and this view needs to be vociferously contested. As to the literary academy, I am not a believer in models of improvement. I think we're lucky just to keep some space open for change. I think it is amazing that in the postmodern university it is possible to teach poetry and poetics at all, much less with the perspective on the subject I bring to it. "Frame Lock" is still very much in place but at least the MLA and other university forums support such critiques as these, even if the academic journals remain committed to a fairly standardized form of professional writing. I do sense a returning interest in the "aesthetic" and in art practices; I hope this is the case. There is a piece I wrote on this subject after the essays collected in My Way. It's called "A Blow Is like an Instrument" (the title is after a line from Lenny Bruce's "Shorty Petterstein Interview") and is was published in a special issue of Deadulus on "The American Academic Profession" (126:4, Fall 1997).

CO-OP: You have achieved prominence as critic, poet, and academic. Do these three roles ever conflict with one another? In what ways do they interrelate?

CB: Conflict is the material I work as a poet, essayist, and teacher. They interrelate, or not, as you make them, as the various pieces of a poem can be made to interrelate. In a sense, the organization of My Way, composed as it is of so many visibly and stylistically different types of writing, is meant to play out an answer to that last question, but of course it doesn't play out an answer, it just hums a bunch of tunes.

CO-OP: You recently edited a collected volume on the poetry readings, performance poetry, and audio-texts (Close Listening). How does this "aural" (and often overlooked) aspect of poetry effect your work? What do you make of the recent resurgence of poetry readings and slams as well as the possibility for spoken-word poetry on the web?

CB: Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word addresses just this problem. Surprisingly, it is the first book to comprehensively address the history and significance of the poetry reading. In my introduction to the collection, I argue that the poem in performance is not secondary to the written text but equally important. There is an online interview I did with Dana Luther on this book, so perhaps I can just direct you there (there are two parts):

CO-OP: You also wrote the introduction to Figuring the Word a new collection of essays and works by Johanna Drucker, a prominent book artist and poet. What is the importance of the visual layout of a poem effects the linguistic meaning of the poem?

CB: This connects up to one of the essays in My Way, which is, in part, a response to Johanna Drucker's work. In that piece "The Response as Such" I wrote: "There are, it seems to me, two domains of poetry that are insufficiently recognized, too little attended to: the sound and the look. This is another way of saying that poetry is too little attended to: sounds too quickly converted to words or images, the material space of the page too quickly supplanted by the ideational space of the text (as if MLA really meant 'muted language association'). Too often, reading habits enforce a kind of blindness to the particular graphic choices of type, leading, page dimension, and paper, under the regime of a lexical transcendentalism that accords no semantic value to the visual representation of language. The poetic response to this derealization of poetry is to insist, against all odds, that a work can be composed whose semantic inhabitations are all visual" or, I should add, all sound (without words). Drucker has done an enormous amount to explore not only the possibilities for making words visible, in her artist's books, but also for investigating the meanings of language visibility, in such books at The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923 and her new book, Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics. I also want to mention a series of collaborations I have done with the artist Susan Bee: The Occurrence of Tune (Segue, 1981); Fool's Gold (Chax Press, 1991, o/p); The Nude Formalism (Sun & Moon, 1989); Little Orphan Anagram, a limited edition, hand painted book (Granary Books, 1987); and most recently, and most easily available, Log Rhythms (Granary Books, 1998).