Writing Must Explore Its Relation To Power
Robert Glück on the Beginnings of New Narrative
To talk about the beginnings of New Narrative, I have to talk about my friendship with Bruce Boone. We met in the early 1970s through the San Francisco Art Institute’s bulletin board: Ed and I wanted to move and Bruce and Burton wanted to move—would we all be happy living together? For some reason both couples dropped the idea and we remained in our respective flats for many years. But Bruce and I were poets and our obsession with Frank O’Hara forged a bond. I was 23 or 24. Bruce was seven years older. He was a wonderful teacher. He read to transform himself and to attain a correct understanding. Such understanding was urgently political.
Bruce had his eye on the future, a catastrophic upheaval he predicted with a certain grandeur, but it was my own present he helped me find. I read and wrote to invoke what seemed impossible—relation itself—in order to take part in a world that ceaselessly makes itself up, to “wake up” to the world, to recognize the world, to be convinced that the world exists, to take revenge on the world for not existing.
To talk about New Narrative, I must also talk about Language poetry, which was in its heroic period in the 70s. I treat diverse poets as one unit, a sort of flying wedge, because that’s how we experienced them. It would be hard to overestimate the drama they brought to a Bay Area scene that limped through the 70s—with the powerful exception of feminist poets like Judy Grahn, and the excitement of poetry generated by new movements. Language poetry’s Puritan rigor, delight in technical vocabularies, and professionalism were new to a generation of Bay Area poets whose influences included the Beats, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, the New York School (Bolinas was its western outpost), surrealism and psychedelic surrealism.
Suddenly people took sides, though at times these confrontations resembled a pastiche of the embattled positions of earlier avant-gardes. Language poetry seemed very “straight male”—though what didn’t? Barrett Watten’s Total Syntax, for example, brilliantly established (as it dispatched) a lineage of fathers: Olson, Zukofsky, Pound, etc.
If I could have become a Language poet I would have; I craved the formalist fireworks, a purity that invented its own tenets. On the snowy mountaintop of progressive formalism, from the highest high road of modernist achievement, plenty of contempt seemed to be heaped on less rigorous endeavor. I had come to a dead end in the mid-70s like the poetry scene itself. The problem was not theoretical—or it was: I could not go on until I figured out some way to understand where I was. I also craved the community the Language poets made for themselves.I had come to a dead end in the mid-70s like the poetry scene itself. The problem was not theoretical—or it was: I could not go on until I figured out some way to understand where I was.
The questions vexing Bruce and me and the kind of rigor we needed were only partly addressed by Language poetry, which, in the most general sense, we saw as an aesthetics built on an examination (by subtraction: of voice, of continuity) of the ways language generates meaning. The same could be said of other experimental work, especially the minimalisms, but Language poetry was our proximate example.
Warring camps drew battle lines between representation and nonrepresentation—retrospection makes the argument seem as arbitrary as Fancy vs. Imagination. But certainly the “logic of history” at that moment supported this division, along with the struggle to find a third position that would encompass the whole argument.
I experienced the poetry of disjunction as a luxurious idealism in which the speaking subject rejects the confines of representation and disappears in the largest freedom, that of language itself. My attraction to this freedom, and to the professionalism that purveyed it, made for a kind of class struggle within myself. Whole areas of my experience, especially gay experience, were not admitted to this utopia. The mainstream reflected a resoundingly coherent image of myself back to me—an image so unjust that it amounted to a tyranny that I could not turn my back on. We had been disastrously described by the mainstream—a naming whose most extreme (though not uncommon) expression was physical violence. Combating this injustice required at least a provisionally stable identity.
Meanwhile, gay identity was also in its heroic period—it had not yet settled into just another nationalism and it was new enough to know its own constructedness. In the urban mix, some great experiment was actually taking place, a genuine community where strangers and different classes and ethnicities rubbed more than shoulders. This community was not destroyed by commodity culture, which was destroying so many other communities; instead, it was founded in commodity culture. We had to talk about it. Bruce and I turned to each other to see if we could come up with a better representation—not in order to satisfy movement pieties or to be political, but in order to be. We (eventually we were gay, lesbian, and working-class writers) could not let narration go.
(I wonder if other readers register the extent to which the body of Language poetry is collage, pastiche, and the poetry of the “already said.” A phrase can be, in the first place, an example of itself, of phrases generally, and that doubleness creates in this reader an ongoing sensation of déjà vu. Phrases, sentences, ring with a feeling of déjà vu, like the sentences of Raymond Roussel. That is my deepest relation to Language poetry, a poetry that deepens the sense of the arbitrary because it hollows out language through a multiplication of contexts. I am made aware, almost intolerably, of the infinite valences.)
I’m confined to hindsight, so I write as though Bruce and I were following a plan instead of stumbling and groping toward a writing that could join other literatures of the present. We could have found narrative models in, say, Clark Coolidge’s prose, so perhaps narrative practice relates outward to the actual community whose story is being told. We could have located self-reference and awareness of artifice in, say, the novels of Ronald Firbank. So again, our quest for a language that knows itself relates outward to a community speaking to itself dissonantly.
We were fellow travelers of Language poetry and the innovative feminist poetry of that time: our lives and reading led us toward a hybrid aesthetic, something impure. We (say, Bruce Boone, Camille Roy, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Mike Amnasan, Francesca Rosa, myself, and to include the dead, Steve Abbott and Sam D’Allesandro) are still fellow travelers of the poetries that evolved since the late 70s, when writers talked about “nonnarrative.” One could untangle that knot forever, or build an aesthetic on the ways language conveys silence, chaos, undifferentiated existence, and erects countless horizons of meaning.
How to be a theory-based writer?—one question. How to represent my experience as a gay man?—another question, just as pressing. These questions led to readers and communities almost completely ignorant of each other. Too fragmented for a gay audience? Too much sex and “voice” for a literary audience? (One gay editor of an experimental press observed in his rejection that for me homosexuality is an idée fixe—I wonder what heterosexuality is to heterosexuals?) I embodied these incommensurates so I had to ask this question: How can I convey urgent social meanings while opening or subverting the possibilities of meaning itself? That question has deviled and vexed Bay Area writing for 25 years. What kind of representation least deforms its subject? Can language be aware of itself (as object, as system, as commodity, as abstraction) yet take part in the forces that generate the present? Where in writing does engagement become authentic? One response, the politics of form, apparently does not answer the question completely.
One afternoon in 1976, Bruce remarked on the questions to the reader I’d been throwing into poems and stories. They were theatrical and they seemed to him to pressure and even sometimes to reverse the positions of reader and writer. Reader-writer dynamics seemed like a way into the problems that preoccupied us, a toe in the water.
From our poems and stories, Bruce abstracted “text-meta-text”: a story keeps a running commentary on itself from the present. The commentary, taking the form of a meditation or a second story, supplies a succession of frames. That is, the more you fragment a story, the more it becomes an example of narration itself—narration displaying its devices—while at the same time (as I wrote in 1981) the metatext “asks questions, asks for critical response, makes claims on the reader, elicits comments. In any case, text-metatext takes its form from the dialectical cleft between real life and life as it wants to be.”
We did not want to break the back of representation or to “punish” it for lying, but to elaborate narration on as many different planes as we could, which seemed consistent with the lives we led. Writing can’t will away power relations and commodity life; instead, writing must explore its relation to power and recognize that group practice resides inside the commodity. Bruce wrote, “When evaluating image in American culture, isn’t it a commodity whether anyone likes it or not? You make your additions and subtractions from that point on.”
In 1978, Bruce and I launched the Black Star Series and published my Family Poems and his My Walk with Bob, a lovely book. In “Remarks on Narrative”—the afterword to Family Poems—Bruce wrote, “As has now been apparent for some time, the poetry of the 70s seems generally to have reached a point of stagnation, increasing a kind of refinement of technique and available forms, without yet being able to profit greatly from the vigor, energy and accessibility that mark so much of the new Movement writing of gays, women and Third World writers, among others. Ultimately this impasse of poetry reflects conditions in society itself.”
We appreciated the comedy of mounting an offensive (“A critique of the new trends toward conceptualization, linguistic abstraction and process poetry”) with those slenderest volumes. My poems and stories were set “in the family,” not so antipsychological as they might have been given that we assumed any blow to interiority was a step forward for mankind. We contended with the Language poets while seeking their attention in the forums they erected for themselves. We published articles in Poetics Journal and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and spoke in talk series and forums—a mere trickle in the torrent of their critical work. If Language Poetry was a dead end, what a fertile one it proved to be!
Bruce’s novel Century of Clouds in 1980 and Donald Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation published my Elements of a Coffee Service in 1982. We were thinking about autobiography. By autobiography, we meant daydreams, nightdreams, the act of writing, the relationship to the reader, the meeting of flesh and culture; the self as collaboration, the self as disintegration, the gaps, inconsistencies, and distortions of the self; the enjambments of power, family, history, and language. Bruce and I brought high and low between the covers of a book, mingling essay, lyric, and story. Our publishing reflected those different modes: stories from Elements appeared in gay anthologies, porn magazines, Social Text, and Soup; Bruce wrote about Georges Bataille for The Advocate.
I wanted to write with a total continuity and total disjunction since I experienced the world (and myself) as continuous and infinity divided. That was my ambition for writing. Why should a work of literature be organized by one pattern of engagement? Why should a “position” be maintained regarding the size of the gaps between units of meaning? To describe how the world is organized may be the same as organizing the world. I wanted the pleasures and politics of the fragment and the pleasures and politics of story, gossip, fable, and case history; the randomness of chance and a sense of inevitability; sincerity while using appropriation and pastiche. When Barrett Watten said about Jack the Modernist, “You have your cake and eat it too,” I took it as a great compliment, as if my intention spoke through the book.I experienced the world (and myself) as continuous and infinity divided. That was my ambition for writing.
During the 70s, Bruce was working on his PhD at UC Berkeley. His dissertation was a structuralist and gay reading of O’Hara—that is, O’Hara and community—a version of which was published in the first issue of Social Text in 1979. He joined the Marxism and Theory Group at St. Cloud, which gave birth to that journal. Bruce also wrote critical articles, especially tracking the “gay band” of the Berkeley Renaissance. We were aspiring to an ideal of learning derived as much from Spicer and Duncan as from our contemporaries. Bruce introduced me to most of the critics who would make a foundation for New Narrative writing.
Here are a few of them:
In The Theory of the Novel, Georg Lukács maintains that the novel contains—that is, holds together—incommensurates. The epic and novel are the community telling itself its story, a story whose integration becomes increasingly hard to achieve. Theory of the Novel leads to ideas of collaboration and community that are not naïve—that is, to narrative that questions itself. It redistributes relations of power and springs the writer from the box of psychology, since he becomes that part of a community that tells itself its story. I wrote “Caricature,” a talk given at 80 Langton in 1983, mostly using Lukács’s book, locating instances of conservative and progressive communities speaking to themselves: “If the community is a given, so are its types.”
In his essay, “Ideological State Apparatuses,” Louis Althusser refigures the concept of base/superstructure, breaking down the distinction between public and private, and bringing to light ideological systems that had been invisible by virtue of their pervasiveness. In Structural Anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that myth is “an imaginary resolution of a real contradiction.” In The Political Unconscious, Frederic Jameson transposed Levi-Strauss’s description of myth onto narration. By 1980, literary naturalism was easily deprived of its transparency, but this formula also deprives all fantasy of transparency, including the fantasy of personality. If a personality is not different from a book, in both cases one could favor the “real contradiction” side of the formula. That is, if personality is a fiction (a political fiction!) then it is a story of contradiction in common with other stories—it occurs on the same plane of experience. This “formula” sets a novel and a personality as two equals on the stage of history, and supports a new version of autobiography that rejects the distinction between “fact” and “fiction.”
Althusser comes with a lot of baggage. For example, he divided science from ideology, and ideology from theory. Frankly, Bruce and I pillaged critical theory for concepts that gave us access to our experience. In retrospect, it might be better simply to “go with” cultural studies. To the endless chain of equal cultural manifestations (a song by R.E.M., the Diet of Worms, Rousseau’s Confessions), we add another equals sign, attaching the self as yet another thing the culture “dreamed up.”
Georges Bataille was central to our project. He finds a counter-economy of rupture and excess that includes art, sex, war, religious sacrifice, sports events, ruptured subjectivity, the dissolution of bodily integuments—“expenditure” of all kinds. Bataille showed us how a gay bathhouse and a church could fulfill the same function in their respective communities.
In writing about sex, desire, and the body, New Narrative approached performance art, where self is put at risk by naming names, becoming naked, making the irreversible happen—the book becomes social practice that is lived. The theme of obsessive romance did double duty, destabling the self and asserting gay experience. Steve Abbott wrote, “Gay writers Bruce Boone and Robert Glück (like Acker, Dennis Cooper or the subway graffitists again) up the ante on this factuality by weaving their own names, and those of friends and lovers, into their work. The writer/artist becomes exposed and vulnerable: you risk being foolish, mean-spirited, wrong. But if the writer’s life is more open to judgment and speculation, so is the reader’s.”
Did we believe in the truth and freedom of sex? Certainly we were attracted to scandal and shame, where there is so much information. Shame is a kind of fear, and fears are what organize us from above, so displaying them is political. I wanted to write close to the body—the place language goes reluctantly. We used porn, where information saturates narrative, to expose and manipulate genre’s formulas and dramatis personae, to arrive at ecstasy and loss of narration as the self sheds its social identities. We wanted to speak about subject/master and object/slave. Bataille showed us that loss of self and attainment of nothingness is a group activity. He supplied the essential negative, a zero planted in the midst of community.
Now, I’d add that transgressive writing is not necessarily about sex or the body—or about anything one can predict. There’s no manual; transgressive writing shocks by articulating the present, the one thing impossible to put into words because a language does not yet exist to describe the present. Bruce translated Bataille’s Guilty for Lapis Press when I worked as an editor there. We hammered out the manuscript together, absorbing Bataille gesturally.
Five more critics:
· Walter Benjamin: for lyrical melancholy (which reads as autobiography) and for permission to mix high and low.
· V. N. Voloshinov: for discovering that meaning resides within its social situation, and that contending powers struggle within language itself.
· Roland Barthes: for a style that goes back to autobiography, for the fragment, and for displaying the constructed nature of story—“baring the device.”
· Michel Foucault: for the constructed nature of sexuality, the self as collaboration, and the not-to-be-underestimated example of an out gay critic. (Once at 18th and Castro, Michel pierced Bruce with his eagle gaze and Bruce was overcome!—he says.)
· Julia Kristeva: for elaborating the meaning of abjection in Powers of Horror.
Our interest in Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker produced allegiances and friendships with those writers. Kathy moved to San Francisco in the fall of 1981; while getting settled she stayed with Denise Kastan, who lived downstairs from me. Denise and I codirected Small Press Traffic. Kathy was at work on Great Expectations. In fact, Denise and I appear in it; we are the whores Danella and Barbarella. Kathy’s writing gave Bruce, Steve Abbott, and myself a model, evolved far beyond our own efforts, for the interrogation of autobiography as text perpetually subverted by another text. Appropriation puts in question the place of the writer—in fact, it turns the writer into a reader.
Meanwhile, Bruce and I were thinking about the painters who were rediscovering the figure, like Eric Fischl and Julian Schnabel. They found a figuration that had passed through the flame of abstract expressionism and the subsequent isms, operating through them. It made us feel we were part of a cross-cultural impulse rather than a local subset. Bruce wrote,
With much gay writing and some punk notoriously (Acker the big example), the sexual roots of aggression come into question. There’s a scream of connection, the figure that emerges ghostly: life attributed to those who have gone beyond. So in Dennis Cooper’s Safe there’s a feeling-tone like a Schnabel painting: the ground’s these fragments of some past, the stag, the Roman column, whatever—on them a figure that doesn’t quite exist but would maybe like to. The person/persona/thing the writer’s trying to construct from images.
In 1976, I started volunteering at the nonprofit bookstore Small Press Traffic and I became its codirector not long after. From 1977 to 1985, I ran a reading series and held free walk-in writing workshops at the store. The workshops became a kind of New Narrative laboratory attended by Mike Amnasan, Steve Abbott, Sam D’Allesandro, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Camille Roy, Francesca Rosa, Gloria Anzaldua, John Norton, Edith Jenkins, Richard Schwarzenberger, Phyllis Taper, and Marsha Campbell; and later Rob Halpern, Robin Tremblay-McGaw, Jocelyn Saidenberg, and others, too many to name, whose works extend my own horizon. Later, guided by Bruce, we started a left reading group at Small Press Traffic, attended by Steve Benson, Ron Silliman, Kathleen Fraser, Denise Kastan, Steve Abbott, Bruce, myself, and others. The personal demolished the political, and after a few months we disbanded. From that era I recall Ron’s epithet (which Bruce and I thought delicious), the “Small Press Traffic School of Dissimulation.”
More successful was the Left/Write Conference we mounted in 1981 at the Noe Valley Ministry. Bruce Boone and Steve Abbott conceived the idea for a conference in the spring of 1978, and sent letters to 30 writers of various ethnicities and aesthetic positions. Steve was a tireless community builder, and Left/Write was an expression of New Narrative’s desire to bring communities together—a desire which informed the reading series at Small Press Traffic, Steve Abbott’s Soup (where the term New Narrative first appeared), Michael Amnasan’s Ottotole, Camille Roy and Nayland Blake’s Dear World, Kevin Killian and Brian Monte’s No Apologies, and later Kevin and Dodie Bellamy’s Mirage. We felt urgent about it, perhaps because we each belonged to such disparate groups. To our astonishment, three hundred people attended Left/Write, so we accomplished on a civic stage what we were attempting in our writing, editing, and curating: to mix groups and modes of discourse. Writers famous inside their own groups but hardly known outside, like Judy Grahn and Erica Hunt, spoke and read together for the first time.
Out of that conference the Left Writers Union emerged; soon it was commandeered by its most unreconstructed faction, which prioritized gay and feminist issues out of existence. At one meeting, we were instructed to hold readings in storefronts on ground level so the “masses of San Francisco” could walk in! Bruce and I staged a walkout, which was perhaps less dramatic than we intended, and the Union continued for many years, based at Marcus Books.
During this decade—1975 to 1985—Bruce and I carried on what amounted to one long, gabby phone conversation. We brought gossip and anecdote to our writing because they contain speaker and audience, establish the parameters of community, and trumpet their “unfair” points of view. I hardly ever “made things up”—a plot still seems exotic—but as a collagist I had an infinite field. I could use the lives we endlessly described to each other as “found material” to complicate storytelling, because this material also exists on the same plane as the reader’s life. Found materials have a kind of radiance, the truth of the already-known.
In 1981 we published La Fontaine as a valentine to our friendship. In one poem, Bruce (and Montaigne!) wrote, “In the friendship whereof I speak . . . our souls mingle and blend in a fusion so complete that the seam that joins them disappears and is found no more. If pressed to say why I loved him I’d reply, because it was him, because it was me.”
In using the tag New Narrative, I concede there is such a thing. In the past I was reluctant to promote a literary school that endured even ten minutes, much less a few years. Bruce and I took the notion of a “school” half seriously, and once New Narrative began to resemble a program, we abandoned it, declining to recognize ourselves in the tyrants and functionaries that make a literary school. Or was it just a failure of nerve? Still, I would observe that my writing continues to develop a New Narrative aesthetic—the problems and contradictions outlined above—and I wonder if that is not true of my New Narrative confederates. Now I am glad to see the term being used by a critical community, younger writers in San Francisco and New York, and writers in other cities, like Gail Scott in Montreal, and critics like Earl Jackson, Jr., Anthony Easthope, Carolyn Dinshaw, and Dianne Chisholm. Bruce and I may have been kidding about founding a school, but we were serious about wanting to bring emotion and subject matter into the field of innovative writing. I hope that these thoughts on our project—call it what you will—are useful to others looking for ways to extend the possibilities of poem and story.
Feature image: ““Mark in Terra Linda” by Mimi Plumb.
From Communal Nude: Collected Essays. Used with permission of Semiotext(e). Copyright © 2016 by Robert Glück.