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Between the get-well cards and the pantyhose
Bob Perelman goes shopping

By Toh Hsien Min

Bob Perelman (b. 1947) is one of the leading figures in the controversial L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing movement in the United States of America. He has an M.A. in Classics from the University of Michigan, an M.F.A. from the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, and a Ph.D From the University of California at Berkeley, and is now an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include two books of criticism, The Trouble with Genius (1994) and The Marginalization of Poetry (1996), and ten books of poetry, including Braille (1975), 7 Works (1978), a.k.a. (1984), The First World (1986), Face Value (1988), Captive Audience (1988) and Virtual Reality (1994). Toh Hsien Min interviews him.

THM: Earlier this decade, there was a special issue of Contemporary Literature on ĎThe Two Poetries: The Postwar Lyric in Britain and Americaí, which, rather than pointing to any correspondence between the two, highlighted the divide between the British and American poetries. Aside from the migration of confessional poetry in the 1960s, the British have not been much interested in American poetry, and vice versa. How far do you think this still holds true today?

BP: Well Iíll have to confess that I almost would exemplify the divide youíre talking about in that my knowledge of contemporary British poetry is imperfect, to put it mildly. But I do think thereís a real connection between the innovative scenes in America and the innovative scenes here. There seems to be a real circulation and interchange, between the Cambridge and London innovative scenes and the language writing scene. People do read each otherís work, so poets like Tom Raworth, Jeremy Prynne, Allen Fisher and Denise Riley are known to many poets in the States. On the other hand, there seems to be a profound gulf between what British readers read and what American readers read: Iím teaching British students this year here, and I find out that there are students who literally - I couldnít believe this - but who hadnít heard of Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, Robert FrostÖ you know, that was a very educational moment for me. The residue of the time in the sixties when Ginsberg and Olson, Creeley and Dorn came over here and were fairly widely read still echoes in England, and thereís definitely some interest - at least in innovative circles - in language writing again. But, yeah, there is a real ocean between the two countries that I hadnít quite realised was this wide until I came over here.

THM: Well itís definitely not a pond! Do you think that there is anything in particular that the two poetries can or should learn from each other?

BP: I donít have any profound or certain observations to make in response to such a broad question. Iím very partial to many poets that made and make up my reading and writing mind, and I of course want other people to read them, but other people, Iím sure, feel their own ways as well. So I donít have any ex cathedra pronouncements on this question.

THM: Youíve described language writing memorably as ďa range of writing that was (sometimes) nonreferential, (occasionally) polysyntactic, (at times) programmatic in construction, (often) politically committed, (in places) theoretically inclined, and that enacted a critique of the literary I (in some cases).Ē Do you still see that as a satisfactory definition, and is it not perhaps somewhat tentative?

BP: Itís a question of tone and context. I was writing against a particularly reductive received idea of language writing as a non-referential, sour embodiment of bogey-theory that says that meaning and syntax are no-nos; Iím exaggerating that point of view, but feelings like that have been expressed. So I want to say that there is a wide range of writing that is very difficult to pin down formally. The parentheses in that sentence are meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and thatís really the tone I was aiming for there: a straightforward description with a little bit of irony added. Language writing is something that I very much donít want to reify, and I try in my writing practice, which is the one Iím primarily concerned with, to push out from any kind of constricting definitions; so I donít have any stake at all in a definitive definition. I want to call attention to phenomena which have generated a lot of really interesting writing and opportunities for more writing; but to close it down and get everything in the box neatly, I donít care about, which is why I constructed so many, so to speak, escape hatches in that little sentence.

THM: In The Marginalization of Poetry, you wrote that ďa self-critical poetryÖ might dissolve the antimonies of marginalityĒ, and, in effect, undo the generic boundaries between poetry and criticism. How did you become interested in the use of criticism in the writing of poetry?

BP: Well, criticism is the site of a lot of power over circulation in writing, and it certainly determines what a lot of people read, not in any kind of evil, demonic wayÖ itís simply powerful. Itís essential for creating future readers. Most people donít just read poetry; they are pointed towards certain poets and they learn to read in certain ways, so criticism is a very important area in writing. The generation prior to mine in America was one that really eschewed criticism as a kind of anti-poetic act; Iím interested in not giving up that dimension of the mind for poetry, and I also want criticism that is attuned to its own language and its own production of sentences, to me the most interesting type of criticism. I really dislike boiler-plate from whatever factory itís produced. I think, ultimately, to try to blend the two is probably a quixotic idea that my book itself does not exemplify, and it cannot be lived up to. On the other hand, I think continually aiming the one activity toward the other or at least acknowledging in both activities that they both exist and that they both are writing practices is a healthy thing to do.

THM: So though The Marginalization of Poetry seems to be as much a creative work as a critical one - two of your chapters having been written as poems, for instance - you believe that the synthesis of creative and critical modes canít be accomplished perfectly?

BP: No, I canít imagine that it could, and ďperfectlyĒ is not going to happen, anyway, outside of private micro-moments of opinion. Itís not that I find Horaceís Ars Poetica the most perfect poem that exists, for instance. Thatís not the asymptote I want to aim for at all. I guess I would repeat my earlier answer that the two activities are crucial to each other, and I donít like to see the reified split of creative genius inarticulate except when acting as artist stage-managed more or less by the critic - I donít like those great separations between an art that functions as a wilderness and then is managed by the park bureaucrat the critic. I donít like it when the things are too far apart. As to how close they could be brought together, thatís another question and I donít anticipate them dissolving into a primal or final unity.

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  Related Links

This interview was originally published in the Oxford University Poetry Society.

Bob Perelman's Home Page
External link to the University of Pennsylvania.

UPenn interview with Bob Perelman
External link to the University of Pennsylvania.

Bob Perelman Page
External link to the University of Buffalo.

Virtual Reality
External link to the Segue Foundation.

 

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