James Sherry is publisher of Roof Books and Segue Books, distributed by Small Press Distribution. Roof has published over 100 titles of contemporary poetry and criticism; 70 are still in print. In the late 1970s, he founded the Segue Foundation, began publishing the poetry journal Roof, and distributed the critical journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, two of the early seminal publications of the Language poetry movement. Farnoosh Fathi speaks with Language poet and Roof Books publisher James Sherry.
Farnoosh Fathi (Rail): In regards to the tradition that Language poetry inherited—self-effacement in language, practicing language as a form of resistance, engaging in a delineation of the structures of language embedded in our consciousness—how do these stylistic choices distinguish Language poetry from other modes of political writing, poetry or otherwise?
James Sherry: My formulation would be that Language poetry exists, if you can say such a thing exists, by virtue of two aspects: one, it’s political in the sense that using language is a political activity, on both the rhetorical and lexical level. The second is that poetry works with language as content, and technique as substance, extending the possibility of the uses of language.
Rail: How do you see the material you are publishing now as working against the mainstream? What new directions does your fall season take?
Sherry: There are two directions that I want the press to move in: to continue to push against whatever reality we will confront because that’s the only way you make discoveries. I want to continue to innovate, in some sense pushing against the poetry I have published to the extent that it has already gotten to be known. Surprisingly, however, there really haven’t been many new ideas that have come along to replace what I published. A lot of people who would be poets on the page have undertaken to do Web-related visual/sound work, like the poetry of Brian Kim Stefans. I also want to push against the extent to which Language poetry is co-opted by and absorbed into the mainstream—which is happening a lot, especially in the canon development—I want to push against that. Secondly, I’d like to make sure that new people read this poetry, that we continue to teach and expand the audience, so that people can then, hopefully, not imitate but extend and develop it. We’re putting out a book by Chris Tysh called Cleavage. While Chris was always exploring sexuality issues, she is fundamentally working with her materials as Language poets do, filling, so to speak, the space left by that content. Roof is also publishing a book called The Spectacular Vernacular Review by a collective of Canadian electronic poets called The Prize Budget for Boys. It uses some of the visual aspects of Language poetry (and of Mallarme) but extends beyond what L= poetry could have done in the ’70s or early ’80s, because we didn’t have the technology to do it. Prize Budge for Boys are doing this stuff online, then Roof is bringing it back to the page—and that is a kind of conversation we didn’t really have before.
Rail: And that might retextualize what it means to be on the page or recontextualize the page itself, which is something it seems Language poets would be interested in.… Recently a spike of young poets have become more interested in getting published by Roof Books—why?
Sherry: When I was originally publishing, the people I was publishing (Ron Silliman or Charles Bernstein) were all young—and then there was a period when I published those same writers for a while and they started getting older, and I kept saying, “Where are the younger writers?” and I started finding a few because there actually are people who are doing new stuff who aren’t 40 or 50 years old, who are 20 and 30 years old, and I think that’s great: The Prize Budget For Boys—they’re in their twenties, and we’re doing an experimental book of criticism by the young critic Craig Dworkin in the spring. It’s one of the values that I always like for the press…
Rail: War has the power to unite artists of conflicting aesthetics, abstract ideologies, or politics, returning them to a more basic concept of politics defined by the witness and experience of death and suffering. How is a poet amenable to such a dissolution or awakening? A publisher?
Sherry: On a general basis a political event like 9/11 is much more important than any poem that you’re thinking about—and it kind of draws you into that frame. I wrote a book in 1991 called Our Nuclear Heritage, which was predictive of a lot of this stuff, before the ’93 bombing, and I have been aware for 30 years of the rise of Islam (and if I was older, since WWI) and the importance of fundamentalist religion, which in the U.S. is Christianity. So to me 9/11 is an example of something that we’ve known about for a long time but the mainstream culture chose to ignore. There was a huge amount of writing done about 9/11; I certainly wrote a fair amount. So it kind of starts to inform the work, in a way that consumer culture informed our work in the ’70s, or antagonism to conservatism informed our work in the ’80s. It’s a magnet, but you look at the response that the country had—3,000 people were killed by some fundamentals, Islamic radicals; now our country has killed 20,000 innocent Iraqi citizens. Is that a good balance? I believe we need to ask different people for different points of view. How do you represent that as an artist—it’s a difficult problem—without being totally politicized? From a personal perspective, working two blocks away from the Trade Center on 9/11, my son was going to school four blocks away from the Trade Center, so I had a really direct experience, and I’m very surprised when I see that the people who are the furthest away from the events being the most angry and the most anxious to hurt somebody else in response. John Reed’s book Snowball’s Chance, a novel we published on the subject, has a marvelous narrative that exposes the pathetic response of people to want to kill when they see killing. Where’s our ability to draw back, push against reality, and say, “We don’t want to do what we see in front of us, we won’t be drawn in by Bin Laden’s violence, we want to do something else”? It’s a strategy of Language poetry too—to push away from what’s represented, what’s automatic, what’s perceived, and try to look at things independently. I think that’s a good example of how you need to look independently—to not respond to killing with killing. It goes on forever. What a boring response…
Rail: It’s abruptly become a commonplace that the Internet is a forum with unlimited potential for artistic interactivity, for political organization—whether it be toward media reform or the election of a new president. What are implications for the arts, and how would you like to see poetry harness these forces in the future?
Sherry: I already mentioned Prize Budget for Boys and Brian Kim Stefans as people who are taking the words and giving them motion on a kind of page that readily accepts motion; whether that is a new idea for writing or whether it’s simply realizing something that Language poetry already implied on the two-dimensional page is debatable. Technologies like hypertext are difficult to preserve in print, but you could say that what Yunte Huang does with his translations of Chinese classics, in his Roof book SHI, creates a “hypertext” book. First the poem is translated, then the characters are translated literally, then the radicals within the characters are translated, then he shows what’s in the English and not in the Chinese and vice versa—so you get a multidimensional translation. That’s a very Internet kind of thought. It’s not clear to me that people have come up with ideas that are more complex or interesting; hypertext seems to me to be very straightforward, something that we accomplished very effectively earlier without the technology. What’s cool about the Internet, to me, is time—it works at such a speed and with motion—that you can go deep into a book, deep into a subject, and create big groupings of material very rapidly that are sorted and selected. And of course the other art that comes easily to the Internet is rapid communication and communalization like The Well or the Roof Book Poetics@, edited by Joel Kuszai, a collection of postings from the SUNY Buffalo listserv on poetics subjects.
Rail: When you mentioned aspects of Internet poetry that would be difficult to preserve, I was reminded of the commitment you have had to archiving all the work that you’ve published and disseminated—how does your archiving call into question these and future technologies?
Sherry: This is again an issue of time: The tradition of the book, going back to Guttenberg, is really about preservation and awareness of history. The computer, by virtue of the fragility of its text, is more about immediacy and being in the moment. Time gets collapsed when you do a Google search and get 857 million answers to your question in three seconds—well, this is not possible anywhere else and is scary for people, as well as an exciting opportunity to drive through huge volumes of time. Yet there is a risk of losing history, because no one has been very successful at making computer memory permanent—the only thing you can do is distribute it, and the resources required to sustain it are immense compared to storing books. And this is a problem for the individual artist, but it is the same value that is in moveable type and the ability to reproduce. The fact that so many more people are now writers and publishers as opposed to a few dozen in ancient Egypt, or a few thousand in the print-media world—how do we value all of that material that is simultaneously created? How do we look at it? Does it change what we think of as good and bad in writing? Does it personalize it? Does it tend to create groupings? Is there a taxonomy of writing that is going to emerge from computers? And that kind of biomorphic aspect of computers is going to be, I think, one of the main aspects of the future of writing in this medium, an environmental art.
Farnoosh Fathi is the author of Great Guns (Canarium, 2013), editor of Joan Murray: Drafts, Fragments, and Poems (NYRB Poets, 2018) and founder of the Young Artists Language and Devotion Alliance (YALDA).