Nationality: American. Born: Robert Perelman, Youngstown, Ohio, 2 December 1947. Education: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, B.A. 1969 (Phi Beta Kappa), M.A. in classics 1970; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. in poetry 1971; University of California, Berkeley (Chancellor's Dissertation Year fellowship), Ph.D. in English 1990. Family: Married Francie Shaw in 1975; two sons. Career: Cambridge Adult Education, Massachusetts, 1973–74; lecturer, Hobart College, Geneva, New York, 1974–75, Northeastern University, Boston, 1975–76, California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, California, 1978, Sonoma State University, California, 1979–81, University of San Francisco, 1982–84, San Francisco State University, 1987. Assistant professor of English, 1990–95, and since 1995 associate professor of English and chair, creative writing program, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Visiting poet, University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, Iowa City, 1996; visiting professor, King's College, London, 1997–98. Editor, Hills magazine, Berkeley, California, 1973–80. Awards: Pew Disciplinary award, 1993; University of Pennsylvania Research Foundation award, 1993. Address: Department of English, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, U.S.A.
Braille. Ithaca, New York, Ithaca House Press, 1975.
Seven Works. Berkeley, California, Figures, 1978.
a.k.a. Berkeley, California, Tuumba Press, 1979; enlarged edition, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Figures, 1984.
Primer. San Francisco, This Press, 1981.
To the Reader. Berkeley, California, Tuumba Press, 1984.
The First World. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Figures, 1986.
Face Value. New York, Roof, 1988.
Captive Audience. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Figures, 1988.
Virtual Reality. New York, Roof Press, 1993.
The Future of Memory. New York, Roof Press, 1998.
Ten to One: Selected Poems. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1999.
The Alps (produced San Francisco, 1980). Published in Hills (Berkeley, California), 9, 1980.
The Trouble with Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994.
Editor, Writing/Talks. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.*
Critical Studies: Total Syntax by Barrett Watten, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984; The New Sentence by Ron Silliman, New York, Roof, 1987; Textual Politics and the Language Poets by George Hartley, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1989; A Poetics by Charles Bernstein, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1992; Double Reading: Postmodernism after Deconstruction by Jeffrey T. Nealon, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1993.* * *
What does a poet write about now that Western civilization is (finally) dead? I once watched newscaster Tom Brokaw with then President George Bush and his wife Barbara on TV, their interview sandwiched between a tampon ad and the Pillsbury Doughboy. The rhetoric of the three Americans formed an impermeable shield, utterly incestuous and hell-bent on selling a state product none of them could articulate; the noise simply spun without friction on its own synthetic inertia in perfect, fleshless symmetry: "the dead language everyone reads by nature / but no one gets to speak." Television now constitutes an all too digestible medium that goes down so blandly we fail to notice that we have metamorphosed into vestigial appendages of a smaller, more neutral national me: "History (present tense, all lies) is the strictest form of bondage," "a communicated disease."
Bob Perelman seeks immunization against this through language as a site for exploratory, highly political, and socially conscious poetics. He begins with grammar, the alphabet: "syntax," he writes, "is, for me, a kind of history." If community is to be achieved—sincere communion, that is, among real others, not the self-congratulatory products of workshop poets and New Formalists burping out metaphors of moral significance (and other myths) in fetishized sermons ripe for The New Yorker—then one might best begin with the tangible and tactile, that is, with language as the subject of its own conveyance: "Words: wind sculpture. Mouth: wet red rubber bag" and "Trying to hear the words before and after they make sense."
Not that Perelman is a romantic when it comes to defining community: "There is no such easily positable thing as a writing community. Writers are part of the larger community-which-is-not-acommunity-either … there's no simple, single mechanism of mediation between one and many." Despite this, Perelman understands that "the sentence is an obstacle to noise," and to move beyond noise—be it the vatic homilies of smug contemporary poets or the anesthetic of the television talk shows—might be our only alternative. We now recognize the concept of the self to be at least questionable, if not ridiculously (tragically) nostalgic: "In theory the names are on tight, but when they move the bodies fall apart." In light of this, I find Perelman's urgency to write, read, and interact within a known community of individuals not so much heroic as reanimating.
Perelman has pointed out that language poetry has often been accused of being the product of soulless androids powered by literary theory. (For those unfamiliar with the works of this tribe and its associates, an effective entry point would be reading works by Perelman and friends in In the American Tree, edited by Ron Silliman, while a good starting point for Perelman's work might be The First World or Face Value.) This is due, in part, to the determination of writers like Perelman to "liberate language from the shackles of nominative clarity." Language poetry, from Perelman's frame, is aimed at grappling with the bankrupt notions of self, history, and other matters through reconstruction of the language, an inherently political attack: "all figures of speech are a crime against the state. Crimes against a mythical clarity."
The scenes and psychic debris of Perelman's poetry gyrate in kaleidoscopic flashes of unsettling speed, and he is one of the few contemporary poets maintaining a position several dozen steps ahead of the techno-sophisticated barrage of passionate statistics and reified commodification of our "culture." Perelman's mind is a centrifuge with the hatch left open; to walk into his poems is to get stained and splattered. These are works that scathingly, sometimes abstrusely, but more often hilariously slice through the international headline Muzak we mistake for knowledge.
Words are opaque, but vibratory, nodules; we butt our heads against them and raise welts on our temples. We read the bumps with our fingertips (our signatures), are sometimes moved to respond with further words, which in turn give rise to other transitory maps, and thus the dialectic web gets woven. Perelman is a wonderfully inventive architect unafraid to let himself be composed by his alphabet. He knows that language is an artificial intelligence and that he, like all of us, is a virus in the machine: "Seeing something continually for the first time. And it's done with words. "