Interview with Bob Grumman by Geof Huth
BG: At first I was surprised by your suggestion that “the sources of [my] inspiration seem remarkably different from those of most visual poets.” From what I’ve read about other visual poets who became known as such to the few interested in visual poetry in the seventies or eighties, in this country and Canada, there’s not much difference in our backgrounds. Most of us were influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by Cummings and then the Williams and Solt anthologies (as well as the little-mentioned Anthology of Concretism that Eugene Wildman edited in the late sixties—and I bought at my college bookstore with prize money I’d won as a solitextual (i.e., solely textual) poet from the college literary magazine). Most of us, too, had a similar background in the traditional poetry of Shakespeare, Pound, Stevens, etc.—although the mix was different for each of us.
I was perhaps slightly different in that I did not break with Keats, Wordsworth, Stevens, Roethke and the many other solitextual poets whose work I admired, but pretty much repeated their kind of poetry, but with visio-poetic devices added (and rhyme and formal meter dropped). The haiku was an important influence on me, as well. My first book, as you know, was a collection of visual haiku. Most of them were close to seventeen syllables, very verbal, but with visio-poetic trickery added. I tend to think that, like many visual poets, I’m at least as much a minimalist poet as I am a visual poet.
While mentioning that first book, poemns, I feel obligated to say that while it was (self-) published almost forty years ago, I’ve only technically been a published visual poet for forty years since no other visual poems of mine were published until the mid-eighties. I feel I’ve been in the field for just twenty years or so.
Once my visual poems started getting semi-regularly published, I started getting periodicals that carried visual poetry such as Score and Kaldron, and stealing ideas from just about everyone making visual poetry at the time, including you. Then, sometime in the early nineties, I got into mathematical poetry, most of it not visual. My first influence was Zukofsky, who used a bit of math in part of A. My most important influence was Scott Helmes. Later, I got ideas from Karl Kempton’s mathematical poems, as well. Gradually, my mathemaku, as I call them, became more and more visual until now, with a computer program helping considerably, they are more illumages (i.e., visual artworks) than poems. Their graphic elements are strongly influenced by the abstract-expressionists—so far.
I should probably add that I’ve been greatly influenced, too, by Pater and Wilde’s art for art’s sake doctrine. Hence, my fairly consistent avoidance of poems that preach or have any “message.” I’m sure I’ve absorbed a lot from comic strips and comic books, the movies, advertising, etc., but little of that seems to me directly connected to anything I’ve composed, with the possible exception of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, whose typography surely influenced me.
The whole subject of aesthetic influence fascinates me. I love wondering who and what have influenced my own work, and suspect my off-the-cuff answer here is pretty superficial. On the other hand, I continue to believe that I would eventually have composed the kinds of things I have regardless of my influences. Our genes compel us to search for our influences; we don't just luck into them.
GH: You’ve written many types of poetry over the years: visual poems, mathematical poems, haiku, even fairly traditional lineated poems. Do you see a connection between the ways you create poems in these various genres? Do you choose to write one kind of poem for any particular reason on any particular day?
BG: At this stage in my career, I seriously compose only two kinds of poems to any extent, Poem poems and mathemaku. My Poem poems are mostly standard Iowa plaintext lyrics (free-verse lyrics about everyday objects and events, with usually some sort of epiphany at the end) except that their main character, modeled mostly after Ted Hughes’s Crow, is a man/literary-text called “Poem.” I’m not sure when I started making them, but I’ve been doing them for well over a decade. I began doing mathemaku some forty years ago, but only made two of them at that time. The rest started coming to me around 1990. It was at that point that I named them “mathemaku” (for “mathematical haiku) because they were originally haiku, in my view. They’ve sprawled much too complex for haiku now, but still adhere to what I believe to be the main impetus behind haiku: two images that together produce some sense of the Sacredness of Existence (in my case definitely not connected to any formal religion, unless science is one).
Bob Grumman, "Mathemaku for Karl Young"
I compose Poem poems when I want to say something; I compose mathemaku when I want to make a work of art. But in the Poem poems I try hard to bring off redeeming imagery—or in some way compensate for whatever self-expression I’m indulging in, my ultimate aim with them also being works of art. Some idea or phrase or infraverbal (smaller than words) technique that suddenly seems exploitable is what generally gets me into a Poem poem. Sometimes such a thing occurs to me while I’m riding my bicycle, or taking a walk, or lying in bed at night, or sometimes when I’m at my desk feeling I really ought to be Creative. Its source, I suspect, is the poetry of others as much as anything else: I like what some part of someone else’s poem does and think I see a different way to use it, or I don’t like some part of another’s poem but recognize the potential of something in it.
As I’ve described at my blog, dabbling in Paint Shop inspires most of my current mathemaku—although the dabbling usually begins with some pictorial idea or a word I think can be given visual resonance. My mathemaku, I should point out, are mostly long divisions, so I have a set template for most of my work in this vein. I’m now much involved in a sequence in which I divide various words or phrases into “poetry,” and many of the poems in the series inspire variations. Playing with words versus playing with colors and shapes is one way of differentiating my two poetries from one another. Though the textual ones are partially personal, the mathemaku almost entirely impersonal. Words are important in them, too.
GH: Here’s one of your Poem poems from your chapbook Of Poem (dbqp: Schenectady, N.Y., 1995). It is the pourquoi tale for your character Poem and a reasonable exemplar of this particular mode of your writing:
He was just fragmentary echoings
of Stevens, Roethke, Hughes
some misslept vagrant thought one day set racketing
through Crazy Jane’s untrellised ardors,
shedding feathers and farting
as he faltered into words princed
eventually, with occasional fingers,
genitals, and voice struggling always
to light up
I wonder how many people would consider this a “plaintext” poem of any kind? You intentionally twist syntax where it doesn’t want to go, you create neologisms that almost make sense (“misslept” and “princed”), unite words together in unexpected collocations (“untrellised ardors”), and fill the poem with alliteration and consonance (“feathers and farting/as he faltered into” and “genitals, and voice struggling always/to light up/with silence”). The Poem poems seem to me to concern themselves quite a bit about language and its possibilities, and they are surreal in their tendencies. How do you compare these poems to the realm of today’s poetic practice? And why has the poem above failed to enumerate one of the most important influences on the Poem poems, one whom you might be able to thank for many of the mannerisms of these poems?
BG: Well, I did say, “mostly.” I suspect that your inference is right, that they mostly are not “plaintext”—except compared to my other poems. On the other hand, while such things as surrealistic images are in them, many of the standard “best poems of the year” have touches of those things, too. I consider the Poem poems very similar to the conventional poems of the past fifty or so years in that they generally end with an epiphany or some sort of punchline, are usually mildly ironic, deal with the Inner Soul, and use fairly conventional Bly-level surrealisms and Dylan Thomas “misused words” such as noun as verb (e.g., “princed”). As you’ve pointed out, traditional verbal music—alliteration, consonance, euphony, puns (but not often rhyme)—is important to me in them—as it is in all my poems—but that comes from the entire tradition of poetry.
I’m not sure what other poet influenced them as much as the three named. Cummings? I don’t see it. For one thing, my syntax in these poems is almost always straight-forward. I do use Cummingsfications (poetic devices Cummings invented or pioneered the use of), such as words broken between or in the middle of syllables, indentational unconventionality, etc., but they seem to me mostly secondary where I use them. Or do you mean Yeats? But I consider him as good as named in this particular poem. Ah, Emily, right!? But only in the line about farting.
GH: Not, of course, Yeats, who is clearly referred to in the poem. Cummings is the right answer. Some of the effects I described above are used by some of the poets mentioned in your poem, but I think only Cummings (in his lyrics, not his later verbo-visual works) uses all of these techniques consistently.
BG, interrupting: I think my particular way of using words incorrectly for poetic effect in the Poem poems comes much more from Thomas (and, probably, Hopkins) than from Cummings, and my syntax is much different from his (which I’ve never connected to), so I’m convinced I’m not wrong to refer only to the poets I did in the poem.
GH: All of which brings us to your work as an editor. Your interest in the canonical poets of the American tradition is clear, but the work you have published via The Runaway Spoon Press tends to be extremely avant-garde. You publish plenty of visual poetry titles along with textual poetry that pushes the definition of “poetry.” What is your mission with this press?
BG: I’m afraid my mission with my press now is simply to publish my own work and the work of my friends—and to keep the damned thing alive. I founded it in 1987—after an inheritance allowed me to buy a Xerox machine—to publish my children’s book for adults, A StrayngeBook. Encouraged by the relative ease of the Xerox publishing process, I volunteered to publish a book of Karl Kempton’s. Shortly after that, I started fairly regularly publishing others’ work. I intended to limit what I published to infraverbal and visual poetry, and to no more than four small (5.5" by 4.25") books a year, but too much good stuff was sent to me to do that. Until I finally was years behind in my promises and had to cut down. The over-riding mission from the beginning was to publish the work of good poets that might otherwise not be published, or—as I said—infraverbal and visual poetry. I still daydream of someday having enough money to publish a book a month, as I did in the press’s prime—in advertised editions with superior production values. I much want to republish all the books I’ve done in better editions, too. I doubt it’ll ever come to pass.
GH: Runaway Spoon has primarily focused on publishing small booklets, but it has also published a few sizeable and important collections of visual poetry, such as Irving Weiss’ Visual Voices and your own Doing Long Division in Color. Size itself is not a marker of important works, so what do you see as the press’ most important contributions to visual and experimental literature and why? How do you judge the value of what you publish?
BG: I feel a lot of the accomplishments of my press are important. It’d be hard for me to rank them. Among the books I've published that I consider major, besides Irving’s are Stephen-Paul Martin’s ridiculously unnoticed The Flood, for instance. Part of Jake Berry’s Brambu Drezi is another. I count your Ghostlight as another, too. As I consider the question more closely, it seems to me that my press, and a handful of others including your dbqp, jwcurry’s curvd h&z, Liz Was and mIEKAL aND’s Xerox Sutra/Xexoxial Editions, Karl Young's Light & Dust (and other presses he's run), and Crag Hill’s Score Publications, have been pretty much equally effective at putting books of superior contemporary North American visual and infraverbal poetry out, which is highly important because the mainstream book publishers pretty much ignore such poetry.
But I’m most proud of my press’s one exclusive major distinction, its championing of mathematical poetry. So far, it’s published my own Doing Long Division in Color, Karl Kempton’s 3 Cubed, and Scott Helmes’s Non-Additive Postulations, the only reasonably large one-poet collections of mathematical poems I know of. The Runaway Spoon Press is also responsible for such collections of poems in which numbers are important as Jake Berry’s Equations, Irving Weiss’s Number Poems and Richard Kostelanetz’s Exhaustive Combinations, II (under the pseudonym he uses for such poems, Jean-Jacques Cory). I’ve been trying for years to get LeRoy Gorman to send me all his mathematical poems, and I hope to do an anthology of mathematical poems.
I’m proud, too, of publishing poets barely otherwise published, who are first-rate but not visual or infraverbal poets such as Arnold Falleder and Harry D. Eshleman. (And your wife Nancy!)
How do I judge the value of what I publish? Well, not to get into an involved and lengthy expedition into Mine Aesthetics, I’ll just say that exploration of the relatively new in poetry is important to me. There are other equal values in poetry, but the mainstreamers take care of them moderately well. But I also tend to prefer (or consider more valuable) poems that are lyrical; that is, the values I respond to in poetry are poetic values, little else. Among the explorative poetries I tend rarely to publish, I should add, is language poetry. That’s mostly accidental—due to my happening to do visual and infraverbal poetry myself, and thus making my best friends in poetry of others doing the same sort of thing. There’s also the problem of the competition between the university-certified language poetry and our still uncertified kind of poetries, and the apparent reluctance of language poets and langpo critics to do anything for us. But I believe language poetry is important, and would not have minded having published more of it if I’d had a chance to.
Bob Grumman, "Mathemaku # 62"
GH: You sometimes refer to this schism between language poets and visual poets, making references to the academic support for language poetry in the course of your comments. But some visual poets are also language poets: Crag Hill and John Byrum come to mind. Do you see any reason why there would naturally have to be a division between these two groups of artists? And if language poetry is more honored by the academy, do you think this is because it is simply better known or because the more purely literary nature of language poetry fits better into the divisions of academia?
BG: It’s difficult for me to discuss “the language poets” because “language poetry” has never, so far as I know, been rigorously defined. I hardly ever use it consistently, myself.
At the moment I’ve commandeered the term for my taxonomy to represent poetry that depends significantly on unconventional language use—mostly “wrong” grammar or spelling. But not the seeming narrative illogic of jump-cut poetry, which is often, but in my view incorrectly, considered a form of language poetry.
Putting aside who the true language poets are, there has long been a more or less official group of language poets consisting of those connected to The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (1984) edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, and—later—to In the American Tree, Ron Silliman’s breakthrough anthology of the school. Lyn Hejinian, Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Andrews, Susan Howe, Robert Grenier, Bob Perelman are among its chief practitioners. It is these people who are are generally meant by “the language poets” and have been what I call “acadominant” for over a decade now—considered by academics at the more sophisticated colleges, that is, to be the cutting edge in Serious Poetry.
Why has this come about? One important reason, I think, is that the language poets have been severely politically-correct—in both their poetry and criticism—from their inception, certainly a plus for getting ahead in academia, especially in most university English departments. Visual poets, in contrast, seem generally apolitical in their poetry and other writings, though most of them seem to me not much different in their political views from the language poets. Another factor in the language poets’ “rise” is that they were able to latch onto Marjorie Perloff, a critic who teaches at Stanford, and thus influential. They also caught onto Robert Creeley’s coattails early on when he was spoken of by many as America’s leading poet. Creeley was in the process of making SUNY Buffalo’s English department, which he headed, the equal in its field of MIT or Cal Berkeley, in science. Bernstein parlayed his close ties to Creeley into a long-term post as Creeley’s very visible successor at SUNY Buffalo. Bernstein and others in the langpo movement are good at PR, too, (and, I believe) have New York connections. In any case, they now seem to me to have much more clout than any other group of current poets except the finally fading Iowa plaintext lyric poets, their predecessors as the school of poetry most esteemed by academics. They even have a representative in the Academy of American Poets, Hejinian.
A third factor is the one you alluded to, the “purely literary nature of language poetry”—except that I’d substitute “verbal” for “literary” since most of the genuinest official language poets (those associated with The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book) oppose that which is “literary.” Their narrow focus on words has made their output much more easy than visual and other forms of pluraesthetic poetry (poetry employing two or more expressive modalities to aesthetically significant effect) for most English department academics to accept.
The schism you ask about between language poets and visual poets reduces, in my view, to the language poets’ rarely having used their influence as much as I and others would have preferred to help our group of visual poets—the group that grew (informally) out of the contributors to such magazines as Kaldron and Score circa 1980, whose main proponents are Karl Kempton, the editor of Kaldron, and Richard Kostelanetz, whose assemblings and critical writings have done much to promote visual poetry. When Perloff, for instance, belatedly got around to proffing a seminar in visual poetry a few years ago, she invited Bernstein, not some prominent long-term visual poet such as Kempton, who doesn’t live all that far from Stanford, to be its first guest poet. In her prospectus for the seminar she wholly ignored all the main American visual poets—until I and others raised a fuss at the Poetics discussion group on the Internet (founded, ironically, by Bernstein). She finally at least updated her list of secondary books, magazines and websites of value to include Karl Young’s Light & Dust website, an essential source for anyone wanting to know about contemporary visual poetry (and highly valuable in other ways, as well).
I tend to think this schism ultimately goes back to the fact that visual poets have visio-verbal minds, language poets verbaI minds, to be simplistic about it; it’s thus no more unnatural for the two to form separate groups indifferent to each other than it is for mathematicians to form a group separate from chemists. In any case, my own experience has been that for the most part visual poets are too visual for poets working with words only, or primarily, to empathize with, and too verbal for painters. Important, too, is the fact that the visual poets and language poets have been competing for recognition, so there would have to be friction between them.
But things may change, may already be changing. There are certainly language poets who have visual elements in their poems or actually compose full-scale visual poems: Bernstein himself, for example, and his wife, Susan Bee. Likewise, as you mentioned, more than a few visual poets like Crag Hill and John Byrum seem to be composing as much language poetry as visual poetry. And no language poet is more langpoetically wacked-out than John M. Bennett, who is also a leading visual poet. (I asked John once why he wasn’t considered a language poet, by the way; he told me that question had always stumped him, too. I think he just hung out with the wrong people—and is art- rather than politics-centered in his work.) Younger visual and language poets seem to be interacting without noticeable difficulty, too. So I’m optimistic that relations between the two groups will eventually be much friendlier—as they attack the worthlessness of the hypertextual poets or some other up-and-coming group of poets.
GH: Your interest in precise definitions is just one element in your overall critical and theoretical agenda for poetry and visual poetry. What are the main goals of your criticism and theory?
BG: Ah, an easy question! I want to work out a valid definition for the whole of existence. Given time, like ten or twenty thousand years, I really think I could. Since I don’t have anything like enough time, I have to be content to define as well as I can those parts of existence I feel I know the best, poetry being one of them. Hence, my poetics. My literary taxonomy is only one small aspect of that, but unavoidable, since one can’t build a science, which is what I think I’m trying to do, without one. All my coining of terms and redefinition of old terms is the result of my work in taxonomy. Short overall answer as to the purpose to my poetics: to name a full understanding into place. Because there’s no greater pleasure, for me, than understanding what something is and how it works.
I should add that I unhumbly believe my own poetics necessary for an understanding of poetry because of the extreme vagueness, incompleteness and frequent simple-mindedness of all the extant theories of poetics, and aesthetics I’m familiar with. On the other hand, I’m well aware how good a chance there is that some people will have the same low opinion of my poetics. Maybe even properly.
A sort of subgoal of my poetics is to provide others with an understanding of poetry that I hope may help them appreciate poems they might not otherwise appreciate. Similarly, I hope I’m building a cultural artifact that others will enjoy as a smoothly-functioning mechanism—the way one might enjoy a model airplane.
I haven’t mentioned my criticism, which I consider separate, though obviously related to, my poetics. I’m referring, I would guess, to my practical criticism. My main goals with it are many: (1) to have fun (I like writing criticism of others’ poems as much as making my own poems); (2) to boost the poetry I most like; (3) to give readers glimpses of my poetics and its rationale; (4) to get back at the Philistines by denigrating their holy texts and idols; (5) to exemplify what I believe to be Good Criticism (which I would sum up as criticism that does more than paraphrase and/or generalize, and that includes lots of specimens); and, probably most important of all, (6) provide readers with intelligent pluraphrases of poems, by which I mean description of everything that a poem has and does as well as everything the poem is about, and persuasive evaluations of them.
Oh, I have always seen my criticism as a way of advancing my own career, too. I figured it’d be easier to get heard as a poet if I managed to get a reputation as an astute critic. The way Bernard Shaw used reviewing and criticism to help his playwriting career. It never worked out that way for me. Probably at least in part because the other goals are more important to me and tend to clash with what I’d have to write to make it in the BigWorld.
GH: Speaking of careers, how would you describe a successful career for a poet, visual or otherwise? What is the goal, if any, you have for yours?
BG: To start at the largest appropriate generality, I would say that a career as anything is successful in direct proportion to the amount of pleasure it gives one. And, of course, it ought to give one pleasure. What kind of pleasure? Any kind that one wants. But I should think it would be a kind that one wants as much or more than any other kind of pleasure one could reasonably expect to gain out of life. I personally most want four pleasures from my career as a poet: (1) the direct pleasure it gives me to make things that I think . . . well, Good Things; or get a good score in the game I consider making poems to be (even if I’m the only scorekeeper, and therefore suspect); (2) the direct pleasure the poems give me as poems; (3) the perhaps truly bogus pleasure my feeling that others will enjoy them gives me, which is the same as my pleasure in believing they are a contribution of value to the world; (4) money enough from my poetry to allow me to devote as much time as I’d like to it—something, needless to say, I've never gotten. I guess I've now answered both your questions. I would add that a secondary goal of mine is to win praise from others I consider knowledgeable and able to appreciate the kind of poetry I compose. Much less important to me, but still of some importance, is my hope of winning praise from the general public.
I’ve been speaking of personal success. There’s also public success—which I consider very much less important. My view of that is very standard: one is a public success as a poet to the degree that a consensus of poetry-lovers holds you in continuing high regard.
I don’t consider poetry my main career, by the way. In fact, I consider myself to have been a dilettante until I was in my thirties, and even then only as a semi-serious hobbyist. I only pushed my poetry a bit because I (correctly) thought it’d be easier to get my poems published than the plays, which were my main output, performed. At the same time, I had hoped my poems would eventually get me enough of a reputation for someone to put on one of my plays—which hasn’t happened. So I’ve had, and still have, a careerist goal as a poet besides the goals so far mentioned. I wrote criticism for a similar reason—to advance my career as a poet—although, as I’ve said, I enjoy writing it. Then there is my career as a theoretical psychologist. For that, too, I needed a reputation from somewhere to put my theories before any public, since I’m not part of any psychology establishment.
I have other goals as a poet. One is to get ways of doing poetry available to others that I may not have employed as well as they may be able to. This is a larger goal, as you would guess, of my criticism. In both my poetry and criticism, too, I try (when I can) to provide linkages from accepted poetry, like some of Cummings's (which I am currently writing an essay on for the Cummings Society newsletter, Spring), to our not-yet-accepted brands. I think it important to note that I very much think of myself as poet and critic to be enlarging the field, not replacing something outmoded.
GH: Despite your wide interests, visual poetry remains one of your great interests. If you take a look at the world of poetry and visual art today, what do you see as the future of visual poetry?
BG: The computer is the future of visual poetry. Right now animation, holographic imagery, recorded sound effects, and the like are beginning to be properly explored, but I believe it won’t be too long before virtual realities via computers will be taken for granted. Then engagents* of visual poetry will be able to go into worlds in which gorgeous one-of-a-kind-in-the-original books of visual poems can be handled and viewed and read, along with sculptured poems, and animated poems, and all kinds of painted poems. All kinds of appropriate scents could be made available, as well—and sounds, etc. Visual poetry worlds—some, no doubt, like computer games. The huge advantage will be the ability to replicate original one-of-a-kinds. The snobs will shell out millions for original visual poems, but people like me will get sufficient satisfaction from computer-generated visual reality replicas of them—the way, frankly, I feel I get sufficient satisfaction from reproductions of many high-art paintings in books of reproductions. (I once got to see a bunch of Klees in a museum, and didn’t like them as much as I like the same works in books I had of Klee’s paintings—though, yes, I was aware of extra values.) I’m an elitist but extremely believe in equal opportunity, in this case, equal opportunity to enjoy art. So I love the possibility of the mass reproduction of visual poetry.
Two other expectations I have for visual poetry are its full-scale merger with conventional poetry and an increase in its ambitions. Visio-poetic (and mathe-poetic, etc.) devices should be as automatic for all poets as alliteration and such traditional verbal devices are. I can’t see how they won’t be. Visual poetry will also become more ambitious—by including more devices from other poetries, and arts, and even sciences, and by growing in size—on the page, and in number of pages, or the equivalent. My own last big hope as a pluraesthetic poet is to compose a 200-page epic using all I know of visual, mathematical, solitextual and other poetries and of illumagery (my word for visual art, in case I haven’t earlier used it). It will be a treated text, but with a narrative. Four or five main, continuing layers, explicit layers. I’m not sure how I’m going to incorporate solitextual poetry, aside from floating haiku and the like, but will try to. I’ve jotted down a few ideas for this, and a rough master plan, but little else. I don’t expect to have time to do anything significant toward realizing it for a couple of years. Unless I get a patron.
Hmmm, that seems like a good place to end this interview, Geof. So, let me thank you for conducting it, and repeat “Unless I get a patron.”
*People who read, view, hear or otherwise are engaged with a work of art—or science.