THM: The writers associated with language writing have tended to assert, as have you, that there has never been any self-consciously organised group. On the one hand, some of you have come together to issue the statement on ‘Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry’, and you have yourself collaborated with, among others, Kit Robinson and Steve Benson; on the other hand, you’ve admitted that language writing may have become a catch-all for writers who are aligned against the establishment. Is the insistence on the absence of a group ironic, or even - dare I say it - disingenuous?
BP: No, one point I would make without any of my characteristic tentativeness and qualification is that the group formation - the writing projects that were conscious of parallel writing projects, the collaborations, the changing between reader and writer and the inhabiting of all the different positions - was really important to develop a variety of writing practices; which is very different from a group style. It’s my opinion that you could take a selection of language writing, and it would be more various than an anthology of ‘individualist’ work.
THM: What has most struck me about language writing is that its theoretical base has appeared to be surprisingly moderate. You’ve placed language writing between “poetry as it is currently instituted” and “theory”, and ‘new sentence’ between “a larger narrative frame” and being “thrown together at random”, elsewhere describing it as simultaneously continuous and discontinuous, and you’ve also referred approvingly to construction that both points at and excludes itself from its constitutive category. Is the middle ground the new extreme?
BP: The moderation comes from a lot of places… and it’s not all that moderate; I mean, a different book than mine would emphasise Steve McCaffery and Alan Davies, P. Inman, Tina Darragh and others who I didn’t mention in the book. My not mentioning them was not so much a choice; it was more the fact that I took on the questions that I felt to be most immediate, and that was what I could do at the time. So there’s quite a bit of writing that’s really far from moderate - and in a way I’m shying away from that word - its synonyms are unintense, etc. But do you mean socially moderate and middle-class, university-educated?
THM: I mean ‘moderate’ in the sense that your criticism tends to try to put itself in a middle ground between established practices.
BP: Oh I see, well that’s in a way my own particular shtick. I want a criticism that is lively and legible, and I’m very much against an avant-gardist, manifesto-like condescension. I’ve had enough of that in reading various people. But other language writing critics could be more polemical; I’m not a particularly polemical writer. Maybe it’s just me and not so much the rest of language writing.
THM: For all your tones of disapproval towards “large networks of legitimation - publishing, awards, reviews, extensive university connections”, you’ve said in an interview at the University of Pennsylvania that universities and foundations are essential for the arts. How do you realign these apparently oppositional attitudes?
BP: I don’t disapprove of networks at all. Now as for “networks of legitimation - publishing, awards, reviews”… well, “awards” is a problematic thing of course. To me, successful writing is writing that really circulates, that people want to read, and they show it to other people because it’s really interesting; you provide pleasure and instruction and enlightenment, a jolt: “Hey, check this out!” To me that’s very successful writing. Awards in the arts are such a kettle of problematic cultural ingredients, because there’s triage - the arts world is a world of scarcity and competition, there’s not enough attention to go around, there’s not enough legitimation to go around, there’s competition at every moment, and all of that is (a) a fact of life and (b) sort of unsavoury. Awards say “this is the great work, this is the natural work, this is the enduring work”, but - especially when you don’t agree with this aesthetic judgement - you could just see it’s a self-perpetuating… hoax is too strong a word perhaps… but it’s a bit of a scam, shall we say? It’s like the Monty Python scripts, I don’t know if you’ve seen those scripts, but they have on one book a little flash across the front that says ‘Winner of the Python Award’ for their own publications. Which is a very good joke.
There’s a mystification in poetry circles, that poetry is on the one hand widespread - quite a lot of people read it - but at the same time it’s not all that prestigious an art; there’s not enough money in it really, not like the visual arts where there are real investments. So publishing, criticism, teaching: all those things are crucial for writing. I mean, I’m in the academy, I went and got a Ph.D. I want to create future readers, and I think that’s really important. It’s obviously important. The university is not the only place to do that, of course, but it is one place. Poets do not just come into the world let alone from Zeus’s head full-blown, and they don’t have a readership attached to them that also exists magically. So creating those readers is something that needs to be done. Meanwhile, yes, I’ve got a gripe against the somewhat stultifying mainstream. What I see when I walk into a bookstore is that a lot of the really good stuff is missing... Now, of course I could be accused of the sourest of sour grapes, you know, you say you can’t find my work in Blackwell’s… So I think networks are important, and I want to change existing networks.
THM: It becomes a survivalistic thing then, you take what you can get?
BP: I suppose… I want to say I have higher aims than that, but in poetry, in fact, survival is what you want.
THM: “Poetry has been moved / to aisle 12, between the get-well / cards and the pantyhose.” Will poetry as a whole be marginalised in the near future?
BP: That’s a funny-serious line from Virtual Reality. There’s a whole lot of Shelley in that particular poem, and the whole issue of the transcendental nature of poetry is one that I just keep coming back to over and over again. On the one hand, I’m very much against the vatic pose, I just find that really boring and cumbersome. Druidic, cape-wielding gestures, I just don’t like. Scholarly cape-wielding as well. So in that line, I’m placing that vatic conception of poetry in the get-well cards and the pantyhose. I’m saying why shouldn’t poetry be involved in sexuality and real life, why can’t poetry have a therapeutic value? On the other hand, I’m teasing the marketers of the mystic aura of the poet. As for poetry being marginalised in the future, I write as though it won’t be, I write to really be read, and not by the happy few, but by the happy… you know, middle range group if not by the many. And hopefully they’ll be happy as they read. I wrote that line both to recognise the actual conditions of where poetry is written, amongst the existing population, and to put another idea in circulation, so there’s a kind of future tense involved in that line as well. The humour comes from an overlay of those two times, but it’s not an impossible, ironic overlay; I do imagine getting to a future in which poetry is a realler social fact than it is now.
QLRS Beta issue