Corey Zeller: You were an important member of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets of the West Coast and New York City. I wonder what your associations were like with other members of the group. Did you all hang out together and show each other work? Did you compete and fight with each other? Was there a major distinction between the poets writing out of New York City than those in California? Furthermore, many writers often like to disassociate themselves from categories or groups. Are you resistant to the label or do you embrace it? Finally, how do you think the work produced from those poets has held up?
Rae Armantrout: I’m not the best historian of Language Poetry (or anything else). Those who want a more detailed or precise account can consult The Grand Piano series of books in which ten of the participants give their accounts of the group’s formation. What became the west coast “Language” group coalesced gradually over the course of the 1970s. I moved to San Francisco in 1972 to study creative writing at San Francisco State. My friend from undergraduate days, Ron Silliman, was already living there so we reconnected. I believe Barrett Watten arrived from grad work at Iowa in 1973. He had started This Magazine in Iowa, co-editing it with Robert Grenier. He got it going again (without Grenier) in SF. Grenier showed up in the Bay Area too though pretty soon. I think Kit Robinson came next. Bob Perelman arrived (probably) in 1975. In the next couple of years, Tom Mandel, Steve Benson, Alan Bernheimer, and Carla Harryman appeared. Lyn Hejinian was living in Willits, north of the city, but started coming down for events in 1976. The “language poetry” group wasn’t really complete until she moved to Berkeley in ’77. And then I moved back to San Diego in late 1978. For me this was a brief but intense period. (Of course, it didn’t seem brief at the time because I was young – in my twenties – so 6 and a half years was an eternity.) I don’t think the group acquired the name, “The Language Poets,” until after I left. It came from a hostile review in Poetry Flash magazine actually. Of course, it refers to our connection with L=A=N=G=G=A=G=E Magazine, edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews in NYC, to which we all contributed essays.
We hung out together and socialized, yes. There were parties and drinks and whatever else you might imagine – but our socializing always involved a lot of intense, serious conversation about poetry, theory, and politics. People in the cohort competed, of course, but not for outward marks of distinction like prominent publications or prizes, etc. Those things weren’t in our purview. The competition was more about who would seem to be right in the moment. People pushed and challenged one another intellectually and ideologically within the context of friendship. I think this was a model based on the experience some of us had with political activism in an anti-war context. It wasn’t always pleasant, to me at least, but I learned more from trying to hold my own in this group than I ever did in school. I was initially more naive than many, if not all, of the rest. I was less well educated, even though I had graduated from Berkeley. I grew up in quiescent San Diego in a working class suburb where all that was expected of anyone was that they stay out of trouble. (I wasn’t very good at that.) People there expected the worst, basically, and seemed to take everything, including themselves, with the proverbial grain of salt. I started school at San Diego Stage College where I was involved in some anti-Vietnam activism. I was a member (but not a leader) of a tiny chapter of SDS. I drove the getaway car in a flag burning episode. It all seemed kind of futile and silly to me even at the time. I transferred to Berkeley in 1969 and graduated in 1970. The whole atmosphere at Cal was, of course, quite different. People there expected to be able to change the world, to create revolution. I found that exciting but the San Diego girl in me was always a bit skeptical about it. I guess it was the same when I moved to San Francisco in the 70s after returning to SD for a couple of years. Now we were going to change the world with poetry (or at least change the poetry world). I definitely wanted to be involved in that because it was stimulating and intense, but I never quite believed it would work. In that I was both right and wrong. Revolution was not at hand and neither did poetic form per so have any appreciable effect on political reality. (So, in some ways, maybe I was less naive than the others.) On the other hand, in terms of changing the poetry world, we turned out to be more successful than I could have imagined. I take no personal credit for this. Things changed partly because the world was changing around us and partly through the theoretical writings of the most assertive and theory oriented members of the group.
Until the late 70s, at least, the Language cohort was really pretty open. We were fellow travelers with the second generation New York School poets and with various other types of experimentalists. Minimalist poets like Aram Saroyam and post Beat poets like Joanne Kyger appeared in This magazine and read at The Grand Piano. I don’t remember there being anything but friendly interest between us and the east coast language poets, including Bernstein and Andrews, but also Hannah Weiner, James Sherry, Alan Davies, Michael Gottlieb, Ray DiPalma, Diane Ward, etc. Later things somehow became more territorial and divisive – but that was after I had moved away.
As for whether I embrace the label – I certainly embrace the history of the movement and my part in it. I tend to be a bit contrarian and I do resist being labeled. My work looks different from much of what has come to be called Language Poetry, but, beneath the surface, it has some real roots there. One thing Language Poetry did was to make the linguistic-cultural environment the subject of poetry, turn the camera, as it were, back on the medium – not in a navel-gazing way, but as a way of considering the linguistic landscape in which we all operate. My work still does that. Another aspect of Language Poetry is its tendency to give the sub-units of a text, whether that means sentences, lines, or stanzas, a level of autonomy. I think my poems, which are often divided into quasi independent sections, do that too. However, I don’t think these characteristics are limited to poems by the 15-20 original “Language Poets.”
Do I think the work still stands up? There were some really classic works produced by very young poets in that group back then – Ron Silliman’s Ketjak, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, for instance. Some of the group have continued writing and publishing while others have more or less fallen away. Certainly a lot of lively interesting work came out of that context. I can’t parse it any more finely than that.
CZ: You studied at the University of California, Berkeley. There seems to be a sort of mythical quality about the place at the time. What was it like there? Was it really as amazing as it sounded? Is there a particular memory you have about Berkeley that really sums up the atmosphere then?
RA: I talked a bit about the Berkeley experience in my answer to the first question. My first memory of Berkeley is an impression of Telegraph Avenue, the commercial street that runs directly into the campus. It was full then (as now, really) of street venders, drug dealers, and beggars, all colorfully dressed. It looked like my idea of a street in, say, Marrakesh. And, of course, they spoke to me. In my youth in San Diego, strangers never spoke to me. So that was different. Of course, soon enough it became a nuisance, but, at first and for awhile, it was exotic in a good way.
Then I talked my way into a class offered by Denise Levertov, one of the poets I knew of and admired. Because the students were on strike protesting the bombing of Cambodia, she held the class at her apartment. I remember wearing a black velvet cloak to one class. A few years later I saw Robert Duncan in a similar one. I wasn’t even imitating him; that was just the spirit of the time and place. Denise went to protests with her students. We were in Sproul Plaza together when helicopters flew over and ordered us to disperse. There were national guardsmen with rifles at the exits to the plaza though, so it wasn’t really possible to get out. Then they dropped tear gas. I ran into Wheeler Hall, where the English department is, and hid in the women’s bathroom. My history as a protester isn’t very glorious, but I was there.
CZ: I’m not sure where I read it but I recall you writing very eloquently about white space. I wonder if you might speak a little bit about the space between and around your poems. How you use it and why is that space important? What advice might you have to poets on using it and enjambment to better shape their work?
RA: I think you’re talking about an essay from sometime in the mid to late 80s called “Poetic Silence.” I was comparing the white space around the words to silence. That seems like a romantic notion now. Now what seems to surround words is just more words. But, still, white space can save a place for silence or indicate cessation. My poems are full of stops and starts. These tend to be indicated by gaps marked by an asterisk. Maybe I’m playing with the question of what is or isn’t complete. I’m interested in how pieces fit together or don’t – and in what the mind does in getting from one piece to the next. So there is a kind of enjambment between the sections and the stanzas in my poems. I’m also interested in enjambed lines, of course. I enjoy not being sure what’s coming next in my own poems or in someone else’s.
CZ: It goes without saying you are a celebrated poet of great distinction. You’ve won innumerable awards and your books have been published to great acclaim. If it had gone different, how do you think that would have influenced your work? Do you think you’d still be writing today? Do you think the writing would be as good?
RA: Well, two things. I haven’t received innumerable awards. I can count them on my fingers. Secondly, I didn’t win any awards until I was well into my 50s. All my (conventional) success has come late. I think that if not receiving official recognition was going to stop me, it would have done so long before the first award. I suppose it was a sense of poetic community that kept me going. I had friends who liked and appreciated my work and people (sometimes they were friends too) who would publish it. That made the difference. Writing was (and is) a way of talking to myself, figuring things out for myself, first of all, and then it was a conversation I had, and still have, with a small number of others.