Charles Bernstein interviewed by Yubraj Aryal
(May 2007)
The Humanities at Work: International Exchange of Ideas in Aesthetics, Philosophy and Literature
Editor: Yubraj Aryal
Publisher:  Sunlight Publication, Kathmandu, Nepal (2008) 

PEPC edition:
Introduction and table of contents
Main body of text

Since you are one of the founder members of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and the movement related to it, let me ask you how the movement marks a new shift in American poetry? And how the movement goes against the mainstream tradition in the American poetry? I would be happy if you begin from a brief introduction of language poetry movement for our readers.

Language Poetry is a term that has come to stand for a rather raucous period in American poetry, from the mid-70s onward, in which a group of writers, mostly in New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., engaged in a large-scale collective effort to champion poetic invention both in our own work and the work of other English language poets of the 20th century. Because most of the established magazines, presses, and poetry organizations favored a different approach to poetry, we relied on our own resources, as far as publishing and presenting our work in performance. This was collective action without dogma, perhaps brought together as much by we didn’t like as what we shared stylistically. And while from time to time someone would try to impose order or a neat history on our unruly and diffident practice, many of us took those interventions as an opportunity to define ourselves against just such labeling and schooling. There is no one history here and no one poetics.
            In 1978, Bruce Andrews and I started L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, a forum for poetics and discussion, something we felt was crucial and also lacking, both in the mainstream and in the alternative poetry scenes, in which there was an antipathy to critical thinking bordering on anti-intellectualism. The poets of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and there were dozens of us, were interested in both an historical and an ideological approach to poetics and aesthetics and also a stand of dissent, both to prevailing poetry norms but also to U.S. government policies. We questioned all the “given” features of poetry, from voice and expression to clarity and exposition; and in the process, came up with many different, indeed contradictory, approaches to poetry and poetics. Our desire to link our poetry and poetics with the contemporary critical, philosophical, speculative, and political thinking – with a visceral connection to the civil rights movement, feminism, and the antiwar movement – has become a significant mark of our work, and one that has perhaps given rise to our various collective names, which have been both praised and condemned.

You have been neglected and unrecognized long by the mainstream tradition. But your language poetry movement has earned sporadic popularity. What discontent do you share with the traditionalists ?

I shared with my most immediate poetry comrades – Bruce Andrews, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Susan Howe, Nick Piombino among others – a dissatisfaction with the Official Verse Culture of the 1970s and early 1980s, with its blandness and conformity, and with its high-handed rejection of the historical and contemporary particulars in poetry that most motivated us to write, collectively explored alternatives, going back to radical modernist innovations while at the same time championing the work we found most interesting in the immediately prior generation. We actively exchanged ideas about ideology, arts, politics, aesthetics, and philosophy, expressing our engagements through intensive small press publishing of books and magazines. Deep friendships developed in the course of these exchanges, and lots of disagreements, collective engagements, and concerted actions.
            I am not sure what to say about what it “shared” with the traditionalist except perhaps to say that I am as much engaged with some threads of the poetry tradition as anyone else. Too often those who claim to speak for “traditional values” forget that radical innovation in form and content is a fundamental part of the literary tradition of the West, from Blake to Baudelaire, Swinburne to Mallarmé, Poe to Dickinson and Melville.

I really appreciate generative novelty of your poetry – in a way Marjorie Perloff does – but find no strong reason to counter marxist and cultural critics who attribute the kind of your avant- garde as regressive and retrogarde. How do you defend [yourself against] their objections?

I am in the enviable position being attacked for being too leftist by some and not leftist enough by others. Poetry is not a form of political action and by itself won’t change the world. But leftist politics that doesn’t engage with the way language works to shape our perceptions of the world and our responses to it will be hoisted on its own positivist petards. Language is shot through with ideology; poetry can provide a means for that ideology come out of the closet.
            The problem for politics, as much as for poetry, is how you define the real, how you describe the state of things. We see reality through metaphors and respond to those metaphors. No writing is innocent. Poetry marks the end of innocence for writing and the beginning of the imaginary.

But in the case of the spatial world like Nepal which has been still striving to free herself from the grip of feudalism, how your poetry can promise the dream of new social (maybe artistic) humanism?

I often wonder what I have in common with some of my closest poetry friends. Over time, I see how much difference there was in the 1970s between the poetry climates of New York and San Francisco. I have this no doubt perverse interest in accentuating differences as a way to find what might be common. Common ground scares me because it is so often imposed, either by the most control-driven people from within or the most paranoid, or maybe both. Or maybe better to say that we have  in common is a willingness toward conversation with a resistance to conversion. For that reason I certainly can’t say what value this work might have for you, except as a model for a poetry that is not universal, not the truth, not righteous. But open for exchange and for use.

Then, how does language poetry absorb the basic tenets of poststructuralist theoretical orientation?

Please bear with my having to go back to this again: Language Poetry does not exist. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine published  its first issue nearly 30 years ago; it was an interesting project but not one that defines the poetry of the time or that which comes after, including my own work. Our magazine, and some of the other magazines and presses of the time, represent a particular constellation of concerns in a shifting landscape. But one thing I stood against then, as now, was any set of “basic tenets” defining a poetry or poetics.
            As for post-structuralism – that’s a common view based on the fact that many people are more familiar with these cultural developments than they are with what was going on in poetry. In truth, you can say that our work was contemporary with those other developments but not derived from them. Although, in the long view, mutual interactions and cross-connections will be more apparent. The poets of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E often offered a very sharp critique of structuralism, post-structuralism and postmodernism; certainly, that was a significant part of my critical writing of the period. But all of shared much, if contrasted with technorationality, religious fundamentalism, and market suprematism.

Doesn't it become too much theory-laden? Mayn't one blame you a theoretician? Here I want to underscore that I am , however, the advocate of the theory and perfectly hold your claim that "theory is what one does."

The danger is not being theoretical enough, of slipping into the assumptions of the mediocracy: the tried and  true all over again. I often make the point that I prefer the terms philosophy, aesthetics, and poetics to theory. In that sense, I am not so much a theorist as a practitioner who reflects on his practice. Much of my poetics is pragmatic; none of it is systematic. This distinction between poetics and theory, though, would fall on deaf ears to those who are against “thinking” or against critical reflection, favoring instead what they claim to be unmediated personal expression. I won’t get into a chicken-or-egg debate here about which comes first; poetics and poetry are mutually informing. But those who wish to deny the conceptual basis of their writing in favor of unmediated expression risk falling into a dogmatic rigidity about writing. I am especially interested in extreme forms of poetry, odd and eccentric forms, constructed procedures and procedural constructions. I never assume that the words I use represent a given world; I make the work anew with each word. Poetry is as much a product of delusion as illumination, illusion as reality.

There is often misunderstood relation of theory with Avangarde of which you are one of the greatest advocates ? The misunderstanding is: Is Avantgarde work a theoritical (and critical) piece or a literary piece formed by creative imagination? When literature or art heavely become theoretical and complex readers miss the chance of enjoying aestheitc pleasure. What would you say about it all? Should we need theory to express our creative impulse? Should we need theory to appreciate a work of art? My old illiterate grandmother does not know theory but wonderfully appreciates a willow she often hums. Is she a mediocre? Yes, of course, we now live in the postliterary age (except people like my grandmother).

Theory is never more than an extension of practice. That's my motto; I'd have it monogrammed to my napkins, but I use paper. I have always resisted the word theory: I don't have theories, I have aesthetics and ethics. And I'm not interested in explaining anything, just continuing the conversation. I have an  old-time sense that it's ideology we need to talk about not theory. Blake says "A Tear in an  Intellectual thing." In other words, I find a good deal of conventional poetry, with it's commitment to theatricalizing emotion, is far too theoretical for me. I want "actual word stuff" (in Zukofsky's phrase) not representations of feelings; I want aesthesis not ideas; sensation not refried (reified) emotion.
            I can't speak about your grandmother (mine was born in Russia and came to Brooklyn by herself when she was  9), but  mediocrity surrounds us in the palaces of culture and the thrones of mass media; literacy is no protection. Smugness and condescension are the problem and you don't need no theories to smell that.