To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Cream City Interview, Part Two: Academic Poetry, Language Poetry, & Related Matters

Chad Faries and Brent Gohde, interviewers

BG: The Academy of American Poets recently added nine new chancellors which included Robert Creeley, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, Adrienne Rich. … I thought of this in relation to the “Anthology Wars” of the fifties between Hall and Allen. Do you think the division between the Avant-Garde on one side, and a more traditional narrative poetry on the other is somewhat symbolically rectified now with the addition of these new members?

JR: No, I don’t think a peace pact has been signed yet [laughs] if that’s the question. You referred to the Donald Allen New American Poetry anthology of 1960 and to the Hall/Pack/Simpson one of a few years before (assuming anyone remembers the latter), but I don’t think that those two any longer represent contemporary divisions. The Hall/Pack/Simpson one (New Poets of England and America) was full of examples of what at a later point came to be known as neoformalism. There was some modest free-verse as well, but very little if memory serves me. So at that point, we could make a distinction – and I was incidentally a participant in neither book – between what was in the Allen anthology and struck us as relatively avant-garde or experimental and what was in the Hall/Pack/Simpson, which was ... well, the usual term back then was “academic,” because it seemed to be connected to the university and (still more to the point) to older, more conventional ideas of verse. Of course, that was forty years ago or more, and things have changed since then. The formalism or conventionalism almost disappeared for a while – even for those who practiced it in the late fifties. Take Hall and Simpson themselves as examples. Both of them went through a rebirth in the 1960s, opened up their writing, so to speak, though I don’t know how they’ve fared among the current neo-formalists. I don’t even know if the neo-formalists are still current, and I don’t know to what degree the neo-formalists or the blander free-versers are represented in the Academy of American Poets now. You know, if all of my guys are ending up in the Academy of American Poets, and all of us are now scattered in academies throughout the country, I’m a little fearful [laughs] that the academic label could get thrown back at us, for all that it matters. I mean, one already hears that kind of thing thrown at the Language Poets, say, by people a lot less adventurous than they are. But that’s especially so if you take a very limited, very literal definition of academic or of non-academic – university position rather than what Olson called stance-toward-reality or Tzara called state-of-mind (esprit).

CF: Well that’s what happened to the language poets, definitely.

JR: Yeah, now, I knew the … [takes on deep, wizened tone] “I remember the language poets” when they weren’t yet the Language Poets, and early along in the career of language poetry – even though they were already accused of being, if not academic, then university poets – yet most of them were not at universities. So thinking back to maybe 1975 or 1976, Dennis Tedlock and I were running Alcheringa magazine, and for one of the issues, I got Ron Silliman, because he had been “good-mouthing” some of the things we were doing there with ethnopoetics, to do a mini-anthology of a kind of poetry (not all that strange to me) that he was still looking to give a name to. Ultimately, and shortly thereafter, it would be called “l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poetry” (with or without the equal signs). He named the anthology The Dwelling Place and spoke of the writing as “language centered,” “non-referential,” “structuralist” (maybe), and so on. (There were a lot of choices there.) Shortly after, I met Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews and put them in touch with Silliman and maybe with each other. Andrews may have already been in the university but as a political scientist and not a poet, Bernstein had no connection, and Silliman for that matter still has no connection. But now move ahead a quarter of a century, and most of the ones I knew then with the exception of Silliman are strongly university connected. But university connection is hardly the point – neither for them nor for me, I would hope – but more a question of being open to change and transformation, or not. For many of those I would consider as anti-academic, the university patronage finally opened up, and now, it would seem, the Academy connection as well. And an immediate result is that Jackson Mac Low, a life-long innovator who is neither academic nor university connected, is suddenly the recipient of a major award from the Academy of American Poets [the Tanning Prize in 1999]. As Bob Creeley points out, this would never have happened without a shift in the makeup of their board – the very shift you mention. So if that’s happened, it would be foolish not to welcome it, but beyond that we should wait to see how all of it plays out.

BG: You’ve already spoken of language poets coming into the academy, are there any poets who bridge that gap between the avant-garde and the academy?

JR: Coming into the universities, that is, and a mere handful so far coming into what actually calls itself the Academy. (I also probably have a more restricted sense of what are called Language Poets as an aspect of the much broader range of radical or non-academic poets.) But anything that one would identify as the academy is susceptible to invasion, and at various time in my memory the door has been left open to some experimental, innovative, avant-garde poetry and poets, though for the most part the door has been kept closed. Many of us are suspicious too that if we come into any kind of academic recognition, we are doing something wrong – more specifically, that we may be sacrificing principles for career. I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I suspect that it’s self-defeating or a trap set up by others. I think Jackson, for example, since we mentioned him before, has led a very honorable life as a poet, and that when some good fortune comes to him at the age of seventy-five, [laughs] and some hundred-thousand dollar award is dropped on him … well!

I think, in the matter of liaison figures, of someone like Charles Bernstein, because a major part of his activism is his willingness and ability to go out and use the academic connections he’s been given, to use them for the promotion of the range of poetry in which he’s interested. And Charles is really interested in something much broader than language poetry in the narrow sense – not in the boring poets, though, the neo-formalists and such, as far as I can tell, but in connecting with other kinds of innovators and with people who have an interest in all that but who write, say, from an MLA or academic perspective. He’s willing to serve on those committees of the Modern Language Association and to set up events and do the kind of thing that most of us avoid. And he was crucial also in creation of the Electronic Poetry Center out of SUNY-Buffalo, an academic institution, and in using that institution [and others] toward furthering the interests of not only language poetry but of other underrepresented poetries. He has a sense of how to use such institutions. Others have taken a crack at this, myself included, but Charles is very good at it, and very generous.

[Originally published in The Cream City Review, volume 25, numbers 1 & 2, Milwaukee, Summer 2001. Other installments turn up elsewhere in Poems & Poetics.]


Stephen Morrissey said...

Enjoyed reading this interview, and your blog, very much. Of course, I read Technicians of the Sacred and other anthologies edited by you years ago when they were published, so very pleased to read and become more familiar with your work today. Many thanks!

Stephen Morrissey

Art Durkee said...

This was a very good summation of the avant-garde, and helped clarify a few things about LangPo that have always bugged me. Thanks for that.

I assume you're familiar with Octavio Paz' comments about avantgardism:

"Many have commented on the disappearance of a true avant-garde and its replacement by avant-gardism... I see this as a prolongation of experimentation usually leading further on from collage and montage into ever-increasing fragmentation and eventually into a degenerative disease which, adapting an already common usage, I call 'disjunctivitis.' The argument, used by some producers who, correctly locating the seats of available power in the academy, have ensconced themselves therein every bit as much as the establishment 'mainstream,' to the effect that the disruption of the common linguistic coin is part of a war against 'late-capitalist' discourse is singularly inept. I do not see oppressed workers of any kind devouring the products of avant-gardism. The death-of-the-author thematics, as commonly adapted, are another inanity: when society does its very best to homogenize us, what is wrong with a strong, knowledgeable, and responsible ego crying in the darkening wilderness?" —Octavio Paz