THM: Youíve quoted Charles Altieri in your account of the history of language writing: ďThe readerís sense of his or her interpretative freedom to produce meanings [was] dangerously close toÖ the idea of the free, pleasure seeking consumer that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writingís doctrines so pompously revile.Ē Itís a strong indictment, but your reply was only ďAre there political implications to the writing techniques of the movement?Ē Quoting Barthes a little later, on ďmak[ing] the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the textĒ is felicitous, but would you give Altieri a stronger reply now? When you have reading and writing ďjammed togetherĒ, what limits on interpretative freedom do you envisage?
BP: Itís a real question and youíre right to point out that I donít give him much of a direct answer in the book, but it does need to be answered. In the chapter on Ron Silliman and the new sentence, I think I show how Silliman sometimes fears that his own extremely paratactic writing is not very far away from the parataxis that you get in the normative American marketplace. But as for the particular remark of Altieriís, I dislike the animus behind his remark, the ďso pompously revileĒ. I would certainly take issue with that. A number of us critiqued the fantasy of unanchored choice in poetry, and in the marketplace. Altieri did that as well. I think he now would also take issue with his own remark. Thereís an underlying ascription of bad faith to language writers, that they are somehow cultural commissars, in a sentence like that. It bothers me because itís a phobic response that would, if it gained currency, shut language writing out of circulation. You wouldnít want to read stuff like that, if thatís what it is. But I think the vulnerability that Altieri is pointing at is a real issue: itís hard, after a certain point, for a highly paratactic literature to perform the function of critique. As I say in the discussion of Jameson and Silliman and the new sentence, symptom versus critique becomes a very hard boundary to adjudicate. I do think that Sillimanís work is a good critique of commodity capitalism, but that position is hard to buy; there is the possibility that his own sentences are in and of themselves aesthetic commodities in that he has to constantly produce them, and display them.
THM: Conventional conceptions of poetry today tend to agree that the device has to be subordinated to the poem, but you seem to be writing from the other way around. What do you hope to achieve by working from device up?
BP: By not paying attention to techniques of writing, one, I feel, tends to - and this kind of generalisation makes me nervous, but, anyway, Iíll say it - one tends to produce a very narrow range of emotion, vocabulary, situation, content. It gets very boring, ultimately. I think by concentrating on all sorts of technical facets of writing that really are there - and thereíre many to be concentrated on - one can find new social areas, new content, new perceptions: itís a revivifying operation. Ultimately, I want my poetry to be vividly perceptible and affective, and however I manage to do that, Iíll do that. What you call device seems like the Shklovskyís old modernist sense of ostranenie, but itís not like Ďmake it strangeí for strangenessí sake, itís Ďmake it strangeí to wake up and to really register the presence without the residues of habit. It reminds me of Ashbery who said something very kind about my work in Virtual Reality, that most poets define poetry by writing it and I write it by defining it. I thought that was very nice.
THM: So the discriminating use of device, in a way, drives the poetry on?
BP: Well, no, it doesnít necessarily. Itís just a good place to start, to open your eyes, thatís all. Certainly, there are examples of language writing that have programmatic decisions made prior to writing; for example, Lyn Hejinianís My Life, where the first edition - when she was thirty-seven - had thirty-seven chapters of thirty-seven sentences each. But when you ask if the device drives the poem, I immediately say no, because Iím just wary - not that youíre doing this - of other uses of phrasing like that, which want to say, ah yes, this poetry has a rhetorical emphasis, it comes out of a bureaucratic, theoretical regime, and itís in lock step to some theoretical commandment. Thatís not the case at all. It goes back to Williamsís sense of the poet thinking with the poem, and writing as the site of active thinking that we all still subscribe to. But looking at the programmes of language and cultural templates is crucial to thinking. It doesnít all have to filter immediately back to the familiar part of a readerís or writerís mind.
THM: There has been a strong emphasis on a political aspect to language writing. Would you say the movement is a Marxist one then, define it as you will?
BP: I donít know, Marxist anything these days smacks of an old religious term. It reminds me of an old religious controversy between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Lately, Iíve been noticing that, post-Berlin wall, people now write ĎMarxianí rather than ĎMarxistí, to be more philosophical and less militant. But some people in the language scenes had read a lot of Marx and Althusser, and there was an early hook-up, especially by people like Silliman, Andrews, McCaffery, between commodity fetishism and referential fetishism. Many books were published with some elements of that thinking prominent; Iím now finding that hook-up less and less convincing, as my work will make clear. Narrative and structures of social identification are really quite crucial political sites, and to throw out narrative as simply fetishistic and all consumers of narrative as somehow blinded automated consumers is not going to get you very far. So, increasingly, work done by people who came out of that language writing formation is going to be as concerned with social practices and gender issues - Iím just thinking of Carla Harrymanís and Lyn Hejinianís recent work for instance - and the large master-narratives of Marxist progress, the quasi-religious teleologies, are becoming more and more mythic as the years unfold.
THM: Carrying on the Marxist thread, youíve written that ďParataxis of a more thorough and disorienting kind than anything the old handbooks could cite is the dominant if seemingly random mode of our time.Ē But along with the linear narrative of our lives, donít we try to impose a depth to it by an organisation of our conceptual lives? If I decide one thing over another, I am simultaneously choosing and refusing, constructing, as it were, a syntax closer to hypotaxis. Nor is it less hypotactic, if I decide that I had to choose as I have done because of a preceding event. Surely the imaginary ways in which people represent to themselves their real relationship to the world reach for order?
BP: Youíre quite right. And to repeat: a purely paratactic poetry paints itself into a very narrow corner. In the chapter on parataxis, I say that the longer Sillimanís work insists on a paratactic embodiment - the more he writes one new sentence after another - the more autobiographical his work gets, and the more a particular person with particular habits and choices and cognitive maps appears. So I think the politics of collage are a very complex business, and thereís no snap of the figures that can provide either writerly virtue or readerly freedom, by simple continuous application of one device.
QLRS Beta issue