The Argotist Online

About        Articles       Interviews        Features       Ebooks       Submissions      Links




Bruce Andrews Interview



Bruce Andrews is an American poet and political scientist. Andrews co-edited L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine with Charles Bernstein from 1978-1981, and has published over forty books of poetry, either on his own or in collaboration with other writers and artists, as well as a number of books of essays. 


Dan Thomas-Glass is a poet and teacher. He edits With + Stand, and has recent work out or forthcoming in Versal, A Journal of Forms, Deep Oakland, Jacket and On: Contemporary Practice.



DTG: As I was walking from the [Holloway] reading with Stephanie Young last night we were talking about how we wished the question and answer could have gone on longer because it seemed like people were bringing up really interesting ideas, and circling around some significant ideas in your work in particular. So I thought we could recreate some of those questions. So, to begin, what do you see as the relationship between chance and intentionality in your work? 

BA: The tricky thing is just to talk about intentionality. Chance is largely talked about in literature because of Dada, and it comes up in the Cage heritage, which comes to us as contemporary writers pretty much with the great example of Mac Low. Whereas intentionality, in literary studies, mostly seems to refer to the author position and it ends up having to do with a prior destination for the meaning of a work, a paragraph, a sentence, a word, where the author is in charge, the author is authoritative, the author is trying to nail down the meaning of the work ahead of time. 

So, chance seems to be referring to a method of composition, while intentionality seems to be referring to predetermination, predestination, closure, the closure of meaning ahead of time, which then of course opens up the possibility of a certainty-based hermeneutics, which in the classroom becomes official close reading, where the professor gets up and explains authoritatively what the text means and gestures toward what the author meant to say. I think intentionality is too often loaded up with that notion. So I think I got caught up in talking about this last night, as if intentionality is a question of method, like chance. So then I was just making the case that I am carefully choosing through my editing how things will come across, but that is focused on the reader. My whole obsession of late is with the reader and the experience of the reader. So I was making the case that thereís intentionality in the way I choose material with an eye toward enlivening and capacitating the reader, but thatís not the same thing as having intentionality ahead of time about what the work means. So in other words the level of openness to the reader has to be the level of reduction of closure of the text. The closed text is the one that is all caught up with author intentionality, in its traditional usage. 

Since Iím interested in the experience of the reader, I havenít been interested in chance. Chance might seem to open the possibilities for the reader to the widest level, but often it doesnít get the reader anywhere, itís so open that nothing counts, nothing has any significance, none of the connections are designed to have any effect on the reader, and therefore it often seems like it ignores the reader, just as much as any type of closed textual work. So in a weird way chance and the old notion of intentionality end up having the same relationship to the reader, in both cases the reader is ignored. Either you donít care what the reader makes of something because thereís not much to make of it, or you ignore the reader because youíve already figured out what everything means, maybe theyíll get it maybe they wonít, but you donít care either way because your job is to create this edifice, this autotelic text, as if it means by itself and doesnít require the reader to get on board, and if the reader does have some interest in getting on board then they have to pay tuition to take the class to be told what things actually meant as if the lecturer is ventriloquizing the author. You know, if you read old lit crit, itís often outrageous, the presumptiveness of it. I mean, ďthis means this, and I know because this is what the author meant.Ē I mean, who the fuck knows what the author meant? Thatís always irritating to me, because it closes things down. But in a weird way, totally randomizing product does too. 

An interesting thing about Mac Lowís workóhe would often append elaborate notes to his work, detailing the process by which the works were generated, so that the reader would be brought into the process but not the realm of the significance or the value of what they were actually reading. It was as if the part of the readerís experience that Mac Low wanted highlighted was the readerís experience of being intrigued or impressed by the process by which the work was generated, regardless of what it meant. I remember in 1973, I edited a special issue of the journal Toothpick, Lisbon, and the Orcas Islands, which was edited by Michael Wiater up in SeattleóI was 25, in grad school. I had never met poets. All my contacts with poets and artists were in the mail. I wrote to people asking for work. Jackson had just hooked up with somebody to develop a computer program to generate text. And if you remember back then, Jackson was just so elaborately prolific. I remember talking to some people and commenting my god, Mac Low with a computer program to generate random text, holy shit, now weíre going to have millions of pages! So of course he sent me hundreds of pages of work, of which I picked several out. 

But in that sense, itís another way of uninvolving the reader, to just generate so much work that no one is ever going to read the work. Many of his big books were classically books that everyone was thrilled to have on their shelfólike Stanzas for Iris Leak, I donít know that anybody ever read the book. 

DTG: Kind of like the Kenny Goldsmith approach.

BA: Precisely, you create this edifice, this monument, and the length is part of it. I mean, Iím open to somewhat parallel criticisms, for just generating very long texts and people say while I canít possibly read this, but Iím hoping the reason they canít read it is just because itís too long and not because it doesnít propose that it be read. Itís not just about the process. 

DTG: Thatís an interesting connection to all this talk lately about conceptualism or conceptual poetics, which does propose that the product is irrelevant, and the process or idea is paramount. 

BA: And the experience of reading is more like the old form of author intentionality, that thatís what youíre supposed to get, youíre supposed to get what the author put into it, whether it was an image or a narrative or in this new case an idea. Itís funny, to talk about these in terms of ideas or concepts, but still, letís say a notion, a notion that the author hadóyou know, hereís a yearís worth of traffic reports, or sports broadcasts, or the New York Times, things of that sortóI donít know if thatís an idea, but itís something. And itís something that the author had ahead of time, and it precedes the reading experience, and to some extent that de-valorizes the reading experience. 

DTG: Those are obviously methods in some ways, whether itís chance or conceptualism, methods that are trying to get away from or work away from individual lyric subjectivity, to get to something other.

BA: All of this conceptual writing, or the Google-search based stuff, whether itís part of the Flarf official collective or somebody else outside of it that doesnít get to call it Flarf and has to call it something else, itís all part of that rejection of the lyric subjectivity. And these days, unlike when we, the so-called language writers, the baby boomers, were starting out in the 70s, now what you have to contend with is the new valorizing of the workshop poem. There were workshops and workshop poems back when I was starting to write back in 1969 or 1970 but it wasnít a big social phenomenon. Now it is, and you really get the sense that people are reacting directly against that, and wanting to come up with something different. 

We were accused of that. In the 80s, when people looked back they said ďoh, the language poets were reacting against the workshop poem,Ē which is crap, because we werenít. We were trying to extend radical modernist heritages, and werenít really paying attention to the workshop poems, any more than we were paying attention to the confessional poets, or the metaphysical poets, or the mainstream poets from the 40s and 50s. We werenít saying we were opposing Robert Lowell, we perhaps werenít paying much attention to Robert Lowell, any more than we were paying attention to the workshop poems. 

But I think now itís different. I think people feel compelled to deal with writing workshops, in ways that we didnít by and large. Some of my peers went to Iowa, and Grenier was there actually teaching for a bit, but most of the people in the anthologies of the language folks donít have that workshop experience, so we didnít have to react against it. 

DTG: Iíd like to read a quote here, from Jed Rasulaís essay ďInnovation and ĎImprobable EvidenceíĒ: ďThe issues that continue to emanate from language poetry are not formal; formalism is a straw dog. The real dirty word in the American poetry clubhouse is intellectual.Ē 

BA: It sounds to me what Jed is talking about is the workshop poets. Thatís where he would think that the anti-intellectualism is based in its response to the language writers, and I think part of it is not the poetry so much as the theorizing. If we had just shut up, and written works that were as obscure as Clark Coolidgeís, or Mac Lowís, or the few other extreme experimentalists of the previous age cohort, I think we would have just been ignored, we wouldnít have been a provocation, we wouldnít have been attacked. Youíre attacked for providing the interpretation, for bringing it with you, youíre attacked for making people feel like itís not just enough to experience the poem, that somehow youíre also supposed to have read some non-fiction books, that are about theory or poetics or whatever. Thatís why we got so much flak for doing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazineóitís not so much that we were fronting radical poetry so much as that we were talking about it as if we didnít need the professors at a time when none of us were English professors. We were DIY theorists, and that was somehow not right. 

And then workshop people would say well, also your work is esoteric. Because itís radical it canít appeal to the average person, the way traditional political poetry did, the way poetry that came out of many of the social movements of the 60s could, the way street poetry, beat poetry, slam poetry, spoken word, all of thatóthe popularity of all of that could be used against us, to say this is the model for how you reach out to people, and youíre not doing that, therefore youíre elitist, youíre too intellectual, youíre not part of the people, youíre arrogant, etc. So those were common charges, and I feel like thatís what Jed is gesturing toward. 

DTG: This brings up pretty powerfully this other piece that I want to get to, your real strong interest in the reader as a figure. A lot of people could easily see some contradiction between this really formally dense workóyouíre known as a difficult poet even in a crowd of incredibly difficult poets. The level of rigor and density of your forms as a poet, at first glance seem in contradiction with your interest in the reader, and thinking about the reader in your composition process in terms of how you think about poetry as a meaningful activity. 

BA: Iíd say thereís a problem there, you know. Iím not going to deny thatís an issue. But it is the case that I want to push things. So Iím very influenced by Brechtís writing, and thinking about defamiliarizing, also from the Russian Formalist heritage, making strange, and I think thatís what is needed as a social and political project, hoping for some transformation. Thereís something in the way. Thereís something in the way. Thereís an obstacle to people being open to social change, and it does have to do with their expectations, things that are cozy and familiar to them, things that theyíre sentimental about, things that are easy for them, things that are pleasing at an immediate and superficial level. And I think that writing, to get any social charge, needs to volatilize, needs to shake things up, needs to stir the beehive. So if you want to have a lullaby like experience, and thatís your measure of pleasure, then the work Iím doing will seem off-puttingly difficult, but it is trying to be provocative and challenging, because thatís a) what I like as a reader and b) what I feel politically is required for readers to be in motion. So my notion of the ideal reader is the reader in motion. 

I always felt like the problem with the curriculum in literary studies is not that it canít accommodate so-called language poetry, as an addendum, as an extra thing; it can, I think. But the problem is that, for us, the other stuff is in the way. Thereís a sense that for us to actually have the kind of presence in literary culture that we would like to have, we need to have our work actively delegitimize other work, to clear a space for it. Pluralism isnít it. There literally has to be a detonating quality, where we put a little bomb under peopleís expectations, so that they say well now that Iím excited about this, this other stuff seems hopelessly boring and Iím no longer interested in it, period. I remember when Dworkin was on the faculty at Princeton he said one of his greatest achievements was to get Robert Frost taken off the required reading list. To me thatís the issue. Itís not so much that if you appreciate everything thatís been done before that we all agree is important, and I donít agree, but if they all agree itís important we can add on this language stuff and say thatís nice too. To me the models are every other art form. When a radical new tendency comes along it does seem to put in the basement some previous types of work. I mean, look at Poundís essay writing and his whole project, to clean out the stables of this sentimental stuff. 

Thatís where I was pitching this in terms of this kind of oppositional quality, that there really is a target, and the target is the status quo. The target is whatís past, the target is the past as already embodied in the typical existing reader. So instead of catering in a way that would make somebody more popular or somehow easier to Ďget,í Iím interested in changing things, and that has to include the reader, that has to include being willing to shake things up.

DTG: Going back to a question from the reading last night, this process of changing things, changing the reader, or changing things along with the reader, partly it takes place through the open field of your poetry, you were talking about an open field as a place that the reader inhabits. The question I asked last night was about how a reader is expected to interact with what you called the ďresonancesĒ within the text that make it hang together for you.

BA: Hereís an example: esoteric vocabulary would be something that would get in the way of this process, to some extent, that would take us back to the author intention, predetermination, Iím using a fancy word, you have to look it up, you donít know what it means. To me, the resonances come out of a more vernacular sense of things, whether itís street or not, that I have to somehow be able to occupy, or the text Iím writing has to occupy that cultural landscape that I can assume is available to a reader. And if I didnít do that then I think it would be easier to accuse the work of being elitist or being too intellectual, and demanding in a way that was demanding privilege, instead of demanding a little flexibility or a leap. Thatís how I would justify it. I donít want poetry to be confirmation. 

I was just looking this morning at Charlie Altieriís book on 20th-century American poetry, and he was making the case that the radical modernists, in the teens and twenties, that they all faced a crisis because the experimentation they were doing couldnít reach out enough to the kinds of populations that were suffering injustices, that they might have wanted to mobilize or they might have wanted to appeal to, and that caused some trouble for them. That would, in a sense, be another version of this criticism that could be leveled against my generation, that somehow we were ignoring the fact that our work was disabled from being able to empower and mobilize. And then we get real quickly back to identity politics. 

My sense is that itís not enough, and it may in fact be a problem or be in the way, to empower people on the basis of their existing identities and their existing constituency investments. Thatís what most people quickly think of as political poetry. It takes people where theyíre at and it puts them in action. And where people are already at is for me the problem. Somehow that needs to be needled a little bit, for there to be foment, for there to be something else possible, including coalitions, including different hybridities, including things that cut across existing formations that open up identity to new possibilities. 

Especially, as you were asking about, in this globalized, post-Fordist world where the isolated communities and solid or secure identities of the past are really not available any more. Now some people would say, I think Jameson and others make this argument about Postmodernism, that all youíre really doing is appealing to the new flexible identity structures that capitalism exactly wants. Itís a kind of yuppie position. But my sense is that, no, maybe those are the kind of flexible identities that capitalism right now wants, but theyíre also the kind of identities that any kind of other non-capitalist future would also want. It canít just be about defending turf. I think a lot of people really think about defending turf thatís already there. 

DTG: So what is the proper way to have a political poeticsódo you incite people directly, or is it somehow this more formal process that encourages different ways of thinking or ways of being in the world?

BA: I think you could talk about politics in terms of efficacy, and that often leads either to interventions in some policy arena, or to mobilizing the people. Or you could talk about politics as thematics, topics that you think about and focus on in your work. Or, you could talk about it, the way I might talk about it, as a circling around power and empowerment, and what Iím increasingly calling capacitation, the capacitating of the reader. Itís not just about challenging Ďthe man,í itís about challenging Ďthe maní internalized in you. You canít just stay the way you are and be isolated from that system. So it has to be reconsidered, rethought.

DTG: So then does the poem act as the catalyst for that? Is it the thing that activates that rethinking?

BA: That would be ideal. Itís counter-socialization. 

DTG: In ďReading NotesĒ you ask, ďCanít reading produce a social inter-subjective mirror?Ē This seems to get at some of what youíre talking about here, the encounter that the readers might have with themselves. 

BA: Which is an encounter with their socialized self. Itís not about your personal history. And thatís often the identification process. Author writes about her personal history, reader sees her personal history reflected in their personal history and is enraptured, and blah blah blah. So no, itís about the social context, the social landscape. When I think of explanation, which Iím heavily invested in as a concept and a term, I think about context, contextualizing, rather than narrative. I want people not to find themselves in a story. I want people to find themselves in a meaningful network of possibility, of meaning, of value. 

DTG: Is that particular social network that youíre trying to weave also inflected by the social experience you have had? You were talking last night about the significance of your move to New YorkÖ

BA: If I say ďsocial experience that Iíve had,Ē itís more experiences that have been meaningful to me in allowing me to see experiences other people have had. So itís this landscape notion. When I moved to New York, Iím seeing a landscape thatís undergoing drastic transformation, the city is near bankrupt. I get to the Bronx the same year hip-hop started, 1975, Kool Herc is setting up his equipment for parties just ten blocks from where Iím working. I didnít know about it at the time, it took a couple years for it to filter into my circles. But Iím seeing what the architecture of the society is, and thatís what interests me. Itís not so much my own experience, I donít think of it as exemplary or emblematic. To me that just sets up this identification structure. 

DTG: Within this social landscape youíre experiencingóI want to move us a little bit in the direction of method, with the paper cutter and the boxes. A) How did that come about? And B) Did it have some relationship to your experience of that social landscape, that urban landscape? Was it particular to New York?

BA: No, I donít think so. I think thatís the media landscape, the mediated landscape. It may be a little bit particular to the city, but I think when people have MTV, when people have videogames, or when people have fast-cut advertisementóyou know, things are much more modular by the 70s in all parts of popular culture. I think thatís the way the world was coming at all of us, in a more disjunct way, in a faster way, it was this machine for making connections, and the people who were going to survive were the people who could deal with it. 

I did have a longer walk to work than when I was a grad student, and I was on the subway, which I never had been before, so Iím out and about, and I started taking pieces of paper with me, and I just started writing things down. I wasnít appropriating things very much, my work seems like itís based on appropriation, but itís more that Iíll see or hear a word or phrase and then think of another word or phrase, then write down the phrase I thought of. It wasnít a headline, but it couldíve been, or it couldíve been a jingle or an advertisement or whatever. So instead of writing poems I had all this raw material, and it was modular, so I realized I can edit this, and it will be a new type of writing for me. The paper cutter just made it so I didnít have to sit in the movies and tear paper. I realized that the material was modular, it allowed it to be more flexibly arranged, and it was distant from any personal attachment, so the whole lyric thing of memory, some experience, a moment, my voice, got erased, and it did make it a little more like the social material I was experiencing. Iím always surprised that more poets donít do this, that they still go sit and write in their notebooks, but I donít know anyone else whoís doing this. I donít know anyone else who bought a paper cutter, you know? I do recommend it. 


copyright © Bruce Andrews & Dan Thomas-Glass