Five Questions: An Interview With Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout, who is from California and a current poetry professor at UC San Diego, is a prolific member of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, a group that arose in the late 1960s and emphasized a poem’s use of language, often employing stylistic techniques not seen in mainstream poetry to do so. She has received significant recognition for her work, including a Pulitzer Prize for her book of poems Versed, and has appeared in several editions of Best American Poetry. After reading “Almost” in the 2004 edition of Best American Poetry, Olivia Lew and I were interested in further understanding both the poem and the school of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and we were lucky enough to be able to conduct the following interview with her.

Komal Dhull and Olivia Lew: Our “Issues in Contemporary Poetry” class is trying to understand the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and their rise to the mainstream. Can you tell us a bit about how you got involved with the movement, your artistic goals, or what it is like to write L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry?

Rae Armantrout: I became involved in what became Language Poetry before there was such a thing. As a young person in my late teens and very early twenties I discovered that I loved the modernist poet William Carlos Williams. I was also very fond of haiku poets such as Basho. What you might infer from this was that my poetry was developing a sort of minimalist aesthetic. I valued the succinct and the subtle. In the poems I responded to you had to think through the implications of what was said. I had begun writing poems which showed these influences. In my junior year of college I transferred from San Diego State University to UC Berkeley. There I took a class with the poet Denise Levertov. She exposed me to Black Mountain or “New American” poets such as Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. I also met Ron Silliman, a young poet who, like me, would later be one of the “language poets.” Ron was interested in the same poets who interested me and, at that time, he was writing some quite minimalist poems influenced by Robert Grenier who was also teaching a class at Berkeley then. The following year Grenier published the first issue of This magazine co-edited by his former graduate student at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Barrett Watten. I think my first publication was in their second issue. Pretty soon we were all living in San Francisco where we were joined by other members of what would be the group. The focus became less minimalist and, by the time I left San Francisco at the end of the 70s most of the others were writing long prose poems. I think what has remained constant is an attraction to what Barret Watten has called the “radical particular.” William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal (as sculpture) could both be seen as instances of this radical particular. As Watten says, “In Language Poetry, radical particularity takes form a a series of material signifiers in a range of nonnarrative verse and prose forms.” The Language Poets were given their name by others outside the group, probably around 1980. The name was no doubt inspired by Bernstein and Andrew’s critical journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E to which we all contributed at one time or another.

KD and OL: We’ve noticed that the stylistic make-up of the 2004 volume of Best American Poetry is different from most other volumes in its tendency towards more abstract works. Did Lyn Hejinian receive any criticism for her choices?

RA: Lyn has never told me what sort of response she received to her choices in that volume. Poets give each other grief about all sorts of things. She was probably more bothered by being asked why she agreed to edit such a mainstream publication. The truth is, though, that I don’t know how different her edition is from some more recent editions. What was once thought of as “experimental poetry” has been increasingly accepted in recent years.

KD and OL: As a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, what is it like to have won the Pulitzer Prize? Would you consider it a sign of the incorporation of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry into the “mainstream” of contemporary poetry?

RA: It turns out that my winning the Pulitzer, which was a total shock to me, is still somewhat anomalous. The only other winners associated with avant-garde poetry were John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and George Oppen – and they won quite a long time ago. It hasn’t become a trend in the awarding of that particular prize. I guess I got lucky.

KD and OL: One idea that  L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets tend to share is that language dictates meaning rather than the other way around– a point you seem to make in “Almost”, with the discussion of syntactical arrangements that “suppress context”.  How does this idea impact the decisions you make while writing?  Are there ways that we can implement this style in our own writing?

RA: The attitude in “Almost” is not a simple celebration of the Language Poetry house style. For one thing, in the poem I say we are “suppressing context” “in advance of time’s rub-out.” So it seems as if the writers who are doing this (in the poem) are doing it as a way to anticipate and accept death. There’s some dark humor there maybe. It’s important to recognize that a poem is not an essay and this poem is not an essay about language poetry. Sometimes, in a poem, I like to see what will happen if I take an abstraction literally or take a reasonable seeming premise to its extreme conclusion. Both of those things are happening here.

As for the decisions I make while writing, I am not programmatic. I’m not trying to write like a “language poet,” but it’s just a fact that I get bored with giving a lot of narrative back story in poems so I don’t. I enjoy poems that move at the speed of thought.

KD and OL: Both “Scumble” and “Almost” seem to be making statements regarding the nature of language– the former focusing on word choice, while the latter discusses the meaning of language that is beyond syntactic elements. How would you summarize your beliefs regarding the nature of language and its use in poetry?
RA: I take a lot of pleasure in language – in words. They interest me. I think that a good poet listens to the words as she’s writing. You may start with one idea but then the first words that occur to you may suggest other directions with their sounds or their connotations. I think you need to be flexible, be willing to veer, at least some degree, and go where the words suggest. The words and your thoughts are not really entirely separate entities after all. I think that a good poet is able to surprise him/herse

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