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Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! You're about to hear an interview with Bruce Andrews, a multimedia artist with a long career as a professor of political science at Fordham University and as a widely published avant-garde poet. He was the co-editor of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Magazine with Charles Bernstein from 1978 to 1981. We're going to talk about different communities of feedback and the challenges of unconventional practice. This is our conversation series about critical evaluation across disciplines, and I hope you enjoy it. Here's Bruce:
Bruce Andrews: The first class I took as an undergraduate in a history/social science setting, I did my first paper, as a freshman, on Gandhi and the Satyagraha Movement and the professor gave me a B+, I think, and he said, "Well," and I turned this into a poem later, "your paper could really be boiled down to the phrase, 'Go Gandhi, Go!'" So I had to learn certain protocols of disinterested distanciation from the material to not just be a raving cheerleader or do polemical things. So you'd get feedback in your work in the few papers that you wrote. Otherwise, not. Otherwise, it was basically self-generated assessment based on a comparison with what other people had done and that's pretty much to me what it means to me to be self-taught.
So as a student, I'm comparing myself to analytic prose written by the people I'm being assigned in school and becoming an avid book collector and researcher and things. Then I went on after having a BA and MA at Johns Hopkins and then I went on to get a PhD at Harvard. There, the tradition at Harvard, which is for instance the opposite of the tradition at other places, most prominently Columbia where the faculty is like "helicopter parents" on graduate students' work. And they are constantly on your case and telling you what to do, directing you and doing this that and the other. At Harvard the tradition was "Okay, you're at Harvard, go off and write your book." That's your dissertation. So I remember working with people that weren't particularly interested in exactly what I was doing so I didn't take the traditional route of doing a small case study of some eminent professor's theoretical perspective and working it out so I would have a little chapter in some anthology that they would publish years later.
You know, I was operating in this territory that was fairly innovative and so I wasn't able to get the standard kind of feedback. Which my sense of feedback is that it is conventional; that it requires a pre-existing set of guidelines and criteria that are consensually agreed upon. And if you are sort of — and this is the same thing that happens to me in poetry, and happened to me in sound design and music, and happened to me with working in the dance world, and anything else I do — if you're sort of out on a limb then there's no way that you can trust any authority. That was the case here, so I am getting a little bit, sometimes, of help from scholars on how to organize things but in some ways the real feedback was more like — and this was also true in the poetry community — it was more like networking. So if I am self-generating the feedback, then I'm engaged with then wanting to link this up with other people's enthusiasms.
So the key to me — and this is what I am always recommending to people in grad school — is for them to network their ass off, to send their work out and get commentary on it from other people and just connect. This is what I did as a grad student, as soon as I wrote anything, like a chapter of a dissertation or pieces that I had spun off from that, I just circulated these. I had a Harvard Department of Government letterhead which was nice, but they didn't know who I was, I was just a student. I would just send them a paper and say, this might seem interesting to you and I am happy to have you look at it. And some of these people who I had never met ended up writing me letters for tenure six, seven years later. That was not so much feedback. That's, you know, self-promotional networking is how academia worked back then.MC: You were proactive in sending the material out.
BA: Even when I was a grad student at Harvard, I got more interesting commentary on things that I was writing from people that I had never met from around the country than I did from my professors. You know, it's not quite feedback. It's responsiveness to what you do. So it is like the strategic choreography of responsiveness in a community, so it's always based on a community situation rather than a mentor-tyro. You know, that was an experience I never really had. I never had that as a poet, I hadn't taken workshops and things like that because I'm an international relations major while I'm starting to write poetry.
And so I never had that experience, I always had authority problems dating back to my relationship with my father but, so I wasn't keen to have that kind of direct feedback and that kind of relationship. Maybe it would've made me a different person but as a result I don't really have that kind of advice. My advice is always create a community or find a community that you can operate in and maneuver in and gain some capacitation from, one of the terms I like now. You know, sort of to be empowered and to be able to get juiced up and motivated to do the more idiosyncratic or adventuresome work that is possible.
And I don't find that to be typical of mentor-like relations. To me they are always too close to what I was calling the Columbia model. You know, where you're just being carefully guided and you're getting feedback but it's always enchaining feedback, it's always something that will tie you to some pre-existing specific thing and it is often very psychologized in a personal way which gets to be pretty horrific in academia. You get this almost psychiatric relationships with people. "Oh, I'm looking for a son," or worse, "I'm looking for a sexual partner." That whole nexus of the bad side of mentoring I find really prevalent in academia and it's really prevalent in the poetry world. You know, these people that come out of the workshop world and they develop these relationships with their professors, either avuncular or familial or erotically charged or just weird in some way, but also it's always based on the compensatory nature of the relationship because of the insecurity of the mentor. The mentor didn't get what she wanted out of life or she's stuck in some corner somewhere and she's going to project her needs on to her student or onto the person in the workshop that she or he's working with and then you don't know that.
You're the young person and you're flattered or you're kind of wowed by the person that's your mentor that's guiding you, or your teacher and you don't really realize it's like transference and counter-transference in a therapy relationship. You don't realize you're in that relationship, you don't think about counter-transference and transference but I think it's there, very typically, and then it gets all congealed with authority relations, you know, where you're in some kind of weird master-slave thing without even knowing it. And that's partly because you're not encouraged as, let's say, this poet in a workshop or a choreographer in a workshop, you don't realize that the person that's giving you feedback and advising you, you don't realize where they are in the community.
You don't realize what kind of career situation they're in. You don't realize what they might need or whether they're out of it or if they're operating in some totally idiosyncratic way that isn't going to help you become part of a community or relate to other people and what they're doing because you don't really know where they're at. So to me, if you can understand more about the network, to belabor that term a bit, if you can find out what that network is and where these people fit into it then you have a much better way of gauging what these people are telling you.
MC: And it sounds like you were doing that somewhat intuitively in seeking out people. I'm wondering, why do you think they responded to you?
BA: Well, sometimes I'm citing their work and I'm doing something that I know that they are interested in, and generally these things are particularized enough so there aren't that many people out there in these fields that are engaged in these kinds of things. They may not have students of their own that are really targeting precisely what they're up to. So if I'm doing something that they can relate to then yes, I just found it tremendously generous. That's the un-psychologized generosity of academia and it exists totally in the poetry world too, but among poets not teachers. So my whole experience, similarly, as a self-taught poet was to engage poets that were doing something vaguely similar to what I wanted to do, and got tremendously generous responses from them. That was true in poetry and that was always true, maybe a little so, in academia. I just found that people were perfectly willing and had the time and energy to comment.
MC: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to the poetry community at that time?
BA: This was most distinctively the era of letter writing and communication through the mail. So I started writing poetry in 1969, just before I got married, just before I became a lifelong socialist, and when I was finishing my first leg of my master's degree in Washington. And I had never met a poet and had no relationship to the workshop world or other poets, this was before I had gone to public readings, so what I had been invested in as a college student, other than being an international relations major and trying to succeed with that, at that time I was going to go to law school. I was going to get a master's degree and go on to law school.
I was just a junkie about avant-garde art so I was just a fan, fanboy in the late sixties of all this fabulous work that was going on in film, in music, in various genres of dance even, of theater, and classical avant-garde modernist literature. And I started writing poetry. Partly not so much modeled on what I was seeing in the poetry world, because it took me a while to actually find out what was related to what I really wanted to do and what I started to do myself, but modeled mostly on the aesthetic of this other contemporary avant-garde activity in other fields. So I was essentially translating this ferment of what was happening in the late sixties in other fields, I thought, directly in the text. And I had never been trained to notice that was not to be done. I had no socialization as a poet.
So I was writing and I don't know anybody but I now find out that there are poetry magazines. Everything that I wrote I would send out. So the only way that I got any sense of how I'm doing or who I might connect with was to send the work out because the only people I corresponded with the first two years I was a poet were the magazine editors. This is networking. This is feedback responsiveness through self-generated real ambition. That's the thing that, I think, has to motivate somebody if they're willing to be out on the limb, if they're willing to avoid the more conventional setting with its socializing dangers which I was always very aware of in academia as a leftist.
Typically, I would be, and this was the experience that many of us of the so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets from the early seventies, we would end up being this weird appearance of some odd looking radical piece in generally more conventional magazines. So we were generally doing things that stuck out because there weren't really any truly rad mags at the time, I didn't think. I mean, 0 to 9 was one example that Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer did and that just closed. I got nice letters from Vito, "These were interesting," and he had interesting comments about them but, "We have stopped publishing and this would have been interesting to us." This was in '69, right when I started writing.
So that was how you build a network and then you get correspondences with these other editors, and they would then say, "Well here's a friend that is doing a magazine." I had a correspondence with Jonathan Williams, who was the editor and publisher of Jargon Press, who was a fantastic letter writer. Some of these people, they encouraged me to develop a fun, engaging, colloquial manner of letter writing, which I was also interested in. This was part of feedback gathering, to learn to write letters that people would be interested in reading. And also, I was really interested in handwriting, printing, I had really meticulous handwriting so that was another reason to write these. None of my letters were typed, it was all of this handwritten correspondence in the day. Well crafted, visually appealing stuff and people were, especially some of the elder poets like Dick Higgins or Jonathan Williams or Jerry Rothenberg, who turns out to be one of the crucial figures of the generation before me.
Jerry was born, I think, almost twenty years before me, in the early thirties. He had a magazine devoted to mostly ethnographic translations and things but he said, "There's this young guy in Oakland who's just started a little magazine and I think you guys would be interested in each other," and that was Ron Silliman. So this is in the spring of 1971 and I sent Ron work and it was exactly what he was looking for and we became devoted correspondents beginning in '71. And that was the first correspondence between the people that are later known as the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. And it was all mediated by Jerry Rothenberg, who was not part of this group, he was part of an elder set and had his own acolytes. That's part of the generosity, these are people who had their own fans, had people who were dedicating themselves to being like them, but they were perfectly generous enough to point somebody doing something more radical, more drastic, more crazy, more disjunct, more abstract, more odd, to help them get their scene together.
There was a little scene in San Francisco of a similar nature of the work I was interested in and Ron was interested in, the same thing happened in New York. So all of the sudden — not all the sudden, after a few years — we have these two scenes. So then we have our own scene so we could start publishing in our own magazines and then we started, also through correspondence, this journal of poetics called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine which didn't publish poetry and came out of correspondence. So for a couple of years, Ron and Charles and I, we were corresponding with maybe a hundred people, you know, and commenting on people's books and we were doing things like xeroxing or photocopying paragraphs of a letter that we had written to someone else commenting on a book and then sending it to someone else.
And then we just said, wait this is crazy, we should just take this commentary, which is often in little bit-sized pieces, and we should put it into publication, we should make a magazine, but that comes out of the network. And it's not really feedback, but the feedback was in correspondence. Correspondence is the feedback. Correspondence was the commenting on what you're doing, often excited, like we would find somebody's work in a magazine like, oh Lyn Hejinian we saw in this John Wilson magazine Occurrence, wow, this is somebody doing something up our alley, and so that's how you get in touch with people. You find the work, you're comparing it to the principles that are operating in your work aesthetically and you're engaged, you want to get in touch with the person, you correspond with them. This was very exciting.
The main things were community, ambition, and networking. That's how I would capsulize the specifics of my own experience, but as somebody just from the beginning, self-proclaimedly on the radical fringes of whatever aesthetic I wanted to get involved with. When you feel like that's where you are, then the path I ended up taking was really one of the obvious ways to go. You know, I didn't really have these other choices.
MC: Feedback is a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Scott Eggert and featured music by The Noisettes.
Recorded on February 26, 2016.
Transcription by Stewart Engart