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  • Poetry, Community, Movement: A Conversation*
  • Charles Bernstein (bio), Ann Lauterbach (bio), Jonathan Monroe (bio), and Bob Perelman (bio)


JM: What remains at stake in the long-standing and still tenacious distinction in Western culture between making arguments and making metaphors, between “poetry” and “philosophy”? What is the investment in holding onto this dichotomy?

AL: There’s a familiar split in the notion of what a creative act is. That split, in our culture, involves an idea of creativity as being natural and expressive: a poet has no need to have thought about anything in order to make a poem; the enemy is the analytical. This is a long-standing divisive space, certainly within the academy but also in the culture at large.

JM: Over the past thirty years or so that space became institutionalized to greater and lesser degrees within the academy in the United States in the familiar tensions that came to exist in many universities between Creative Writing programs and programs in literary theory. Although both kinds of programs acquired substantial institutional power at a roughly similar pace, they’ve often seemed to move along parallel tracks that communicated with each other poorly or at cross-purposes. How do you see their prospects developing midway through the nineties?

CB: Let me come at this in a different way. I think there’s enormous value in poets teaching literature in graduate as well as undergraduate programs. We need to have many different perspectives and methodologies in the classroom. For example, it can be a value that we have diametrically opposite perspectives on many of these questions. What particularly interests me as a model for teaching is having the active involvement of contemporary poets in both undergraduate and graduate classes teaching literature in what I would prefer to call “Creative Reading” rather than “Creative Writing” classes.

JM: When you say, “We tend to view things from diametrically opposed perspectives,” who is the “we” you’re referring to?

CB: Well, the category of “poets” in and of itself is too broad. There is no single perspective of poetry any more than there is a perspective of philosophy or theory. Poets themselves often have diametrically opposed perspectives on these very issues we’re talking about. So there isn’t a perspective of poetry. Poets as a group don’t bring any one thing. As a class in and of itself, it’s just too general. [End Page 196]

BP: It seems as though such distinctions are actually playing to an external audience like in the film Dead Poets’ Society, where the artist is this glamorous figure, an outsider.

AL: Somewhere in this complicated, or not so complicated, or simplistic view, there may be a reading of reading. Poets who read theory, for example, might be said to read it differently than theorists read poetry, in other words for different ends.

BP: That’s true.

AL: It is true. And that in itself is interesting. I read a lot of theory but not to theoretical ends.

JM: What does that mean, “not to theoretical ends”?

AL: I read theory not in order to produce theory. I read theory to produce a way of thinking about poetry, if you see what I mean. So far anyway, I’m not interested in becoming a theoretician of poetry, but I’m very interested in what theory has to say, what it gives me.

JM: What kinds of communities are being drawn together or held apart under the words “philosophy” and “poetry”? When you write, Bob, in “The Marginalization of Poetry,” about what you call “overgenred” writing, what happens to the “poetic”?

BP: At the end of the poem, quoting from Glas, I wrote, and I still feel this is true, that Derrida is very responsive to philosophic decorum and that my use of his words are in the service of something very different. When I use the word “poetic” there, I’m using it not as a noun but as an adjective. If something is “poetic,” in that sense, I’d worry that it’s trying to be beautiful in old-fashioned ways, not responsive to theory, that it wants to be self-expressive and...