Bradford Senning

Charles Bernstein

A portion of this interview was published in Catalyst (vol. 1 #10), March 25, 1999, the magazine of the Arizona Daily Wildcat (U of Arizona, Tucson, student paper).

Bradford Senning: I would like to start with language poetry itself. Part of the myth of language poetry is that it is fundamentally nonrepresentational. There are connections drawn between abstract expressionism in painting and language poetry, both of which many have thought are the baring of these art forms to their basic units. Line and word. However, as recent criticism has attempted to prove that New York painters Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko had actual subject matter in mind as they painted, will we find the same to be true in language poetry?

Charles Bernstein: From my very first essays in the 1970s (collected in Content’s Dream) I have argued against the idea that the sort of poetry we explored, for example in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, was nonreferential. Words are almost always referential, but what many of us were interested in exploring were nonconventional forms, allowing the expressive (and nonexpressive) features of language to roam in different territory than possible with tamer verse forms. So what you get might better be called polyreferential in that the poems do not necessarily mean one fixed, definable, paraphrasable thing. Visual representation typically concerns whether or not a painting ‘‘looks like’’ something identifiable—a landscape, a person, a bowl of Rice Krispies. But what if what is being represented is not a bowl of soup but the soup bowl inside your mind. Then again, what happens if that obscure object of representation is not being represented but created in the process, so it is not a report of some thing seen or known outside the poem but an act of making.

BS: First, please give our readers a basic definition of language poetry, then tell us if your vision of it is, as one critic noted, representational.

CB: While this term has come in to wide use, I prefer to talk about the specific feature of my own work or other works I respond to, rather than take on the task of making generalizations. How many generalizations can dance on the head of pin and can you increase the number if it is a digital pin?

I go into my sense of this a bit in My Way: Speeches and Poems, my new book from the University of Chicago Press. Indeed, the term you ask about refers to an extremely diverse and even conflicting series of works that depart from conventional poetic practices. There isn't one kind of form, one kind of style, or one kind of approach that interested us in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine Bruce Andrews and I edited from 1978 to 1981. Just as now there is not a single form, style, or approach that can characterize the related tendencies in contemporary North American poetry that are sometimes labeled in this way. As Bruce and I wrote in our introduction to The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, we were interested in poetry that did not assume a syntax, a subject matter, a vocabulary, a structure, a form, or a style but where all these were at issue, all these were explored in the writing of the poem. In the 70s, much of the then conventional poetry relied on the use of a consistent ‘‘voice’’, but if such-voice-centered poetry was rejected it wasn’t to deny voices or voicing or even speech but to allow them to be newly discovered in the poem. The assumption that a poem must always have the concept of a speaking voice narrating its feeling … well that seemed and still seems an awfully narrow mandate for verbal art. I think we wanted to put the art part back in poetry, which means considering many different ways that one word can follow another, one phrase can collide or merge with the next. And many different types of language. Indeed, to compose poems with widely variant forms of language—to make a rhythm from the variations in the types of language used.

BS: You’ve written somewhere about poetry as dissent, both against the formal norms of poetry and social norms, yet your poetry uses the language of technology and pop culture. How does your poetry reconcile this simultaneous dissent and acceptance?

CB: You are raising a familiar philosophical problem of how you can critique that which you are inside of and I feel myself very much inside the culture that I still want to question. One thing is to realize that dissent is a process and not a final and objective state, some dictate of truth from on high. I want to engage the materials of the culture, derange them as they have deranged me, sound them out, as they sound me out.

There is another way to approach your question and that is simply to note the degree that we live in a culture in which the terms and forms of discussion are determined for us (all Monica all the time). The range of cultural and historical reference and information in the mass and popular media is remarkably limited. Issues and idea as presented on TV and in the newspapers are stripped of complexity and ambiguity. And we are now in the frightening Orwellian situation where complexity and the aesthetic is identified as ‘‘elitist’’. This is for me tantamount to saying that ethics is elitist and only consumerism is democratic.

Dissent is a form of saying no, to echo Dickinson’s remark in a letter, ‘‘Don’t you know that ‘no’ is the wildest word we consign to language.’’ Too much of the ‘‘popular’’ poetry of the time is affirmative but I want an ‘‘unpopular’’ poetry of ‘‘anaffirmation’’ that expresses confusion, anger, ambiguity, distress, fumbling, awkwardness. Oddly, it is a form of dissent these days to hold out that art that doesn’t get the market share can actually be as valuable as the art that does, that ideas that are hard to understand may have something to say that ideas you can understand can’t begin to get at. I'm for the ketchup that loses the race.

And then there is finally dissent toward the values of the economic system we live in: to the systematic maldistrbution of wealth, to the countenancing of poverty as an acceptable price we pay for the benefits of our economic success, to the fact that we seem to spend more money to lock up people than to educate them. We are all prisoners of the system we live in, but I would argue that the effects of this imprisoning pervade our language, the grammar of our everyday lives, and the metaphors we use to respond to the problem. Poetry may not be able to redistribute the wealth, but it can open up a way of—again to say—representing the issues that can change how we respond, indeed keep us responding. For the political question is never just what is to be done but also the formulating and reformulating of the issues: for the ‘‘same’’ problem represented in one way becomes a different problem when represented another way. I am for permuting these modes of representation, for running them by in serial fashion, one following another, until we get something closer to a holograph than the cartoon of the world that presently dominates our living room entertainment centers.

BS: Does your aesthetic jibe with what Oscar Wilde said about reality being shaped by art? By creating an artform that introduces complexity into the very language we use do you hope to raise our awareness, convolute our sense of reality when we are presented with other language- or image-based transmissions of information? Say, commercials or newspaper articles?

CB: In Wilde’s marvelous dialog ‘‘The Critic as Artist’’ one of the characters says it is not art that copies nature but the other way around. That’s always been my motto. And if not Art, then Ted or Francine, though personally I think Larry has an in for me. Language shapes the way we perceive the world, that’s for sure or if not for sure then for certain and if not those than which? One of the pleasures of poetry is inhabiting that world-creating space. I’m not saying there is no real world (but when is the last time you heard anything real?) or that the world is simply a product of our language (please pass the margarine) but rather that the world is colored by our words, shaped by our grammar, valued by our metaphors. But poetry is not an illustration of philosophy and while such ideas as these are relevant (who are you calling an idea?), what’s necessary about poems is the way they make their own logic, quite different than the logic of philosophical ideas about imitation or representation. What is it they say in elementary school about showing not telling, or is that acting school, I get easily confused?

I have a poem in My Way: Speeches and Poems that touches on this:


My cup is my cap
& my cap is my cup
When the coffee is hot
It ruins my hat
We clap and we slap
Have sup with our pap
But won’t someone please
Get me a drink


Republics of Reality: Poems 1975-1995 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, in press, 1999): incorporates:
The Absent Father in Dumbo (Canary Islands: Zasterle, 1990)
Resistance (Windsor, VT: Awede Press, 1983)
Stigma (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1981)
The Occurrence of Tune (New York: Segue Books, 1981)
Senses of Responsibility (Berkeley: Tuumba Press, 1979; rpt. Providence: Paradigm Press, 1989)
Poetic Justice (Baltimore: Pod Books, 1979)
Shade (College Park, MD: Sun & Moon Press, 1978)
Parsing (New York: Asylum's Press, 1976)
& and new sequence: Residual Rubbernecking

* * *

* = in print

*Log Rhythms, with Susan Bee (New York: Granary Books, in press 1998)
Reading Red, with Richard Tuttle (Köln: Walther Konig, 1998)
*Little Orphan Anagram, with Susan Bee (New York: Granary Books, 1997)
*The Subject (Buffalo: Meow Press, 1995)
Dark City (Los Angles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994)
*Rough Trades (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991)
Fool's Gold, with Susan Bee (Tucson: Chax Press, 1991)
*The Nude Formalism (Los Angeles: 20 Pages [Sun & Moon], 1989)
*The Sophist (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1987)
*Veil (Madison, WI: Xexoxial Editions, 1987)
*Islets/Irritations (New York: Jordan Davies, 1983; rpt. New York: Roof Books, 1992)
*Disfrutes (Boston: Potes and Poets Press, 1981)
Controlling Interests (New York: Roof Books, 1980)
Legend, with Andrews, McCaffery, Silliman, DiPalma (New York: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/Segue, 1980)
Asylums (New York: Asylum's Press, 1975)


*My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)
*A Poetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992)
Content's Dream: Essays 19751984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986; rpt Sun & Moon Classics, 1994)


*Red, Green, and Black by Olivier Cadiot (Hartford: Potes & Poets, 1990)
The Maternal Drape by Claude RoyetJournoud (Windsor, VT: Awede Press, 1984)


*99 Poets/1999: An International Poetics Symposium
(Special issue of boundary 2 26:1, 1999)
Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)
*Live at the Ear (Pittsburgh: Elemenope / Oracular Lab Recordings, 1994): CD anthology of Ear Inn readings
"13 North American Poets", with Susan Howe, in TXT #31 (Le Mans, France and Brussels: 1993)
*The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy
(NY: Roof, 1990)
Patterns/Contexts/Time: A Forum
: 1989, with Phillip Foss in Tyuonyi (Sante Fe, 1990)
"L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Lines" in The Line in Postmodern Poetry, ed. Frank/Sayre (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1988)
"43 Poets (1984)" in Boundary 2 (Binghamton, NY: 1987)
*The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book
, with Bruce Andrews (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1984)
"Language Sampler" in Paris Review, No. 86 (New York: 1982)
, with Bruce Andrews (New York: 19781981); Vol. 4 copublished as Open Letter 5:1 (Toronto: 1982)


, poetry interviews, host/co-producer. Twenty-six 30-minute programs, dist. Public Radio Satellite Program and on the internet at the EPC (1995-96)


Executive Editor, & co-founder, Electronic Poetry Center (1995- )
Listowner/founder, Poetics listserve (1993-1998)


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Shadowtime, libretto for Brian Ferneyhough (in progress, 1999)


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