112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Grand Gestures: Language Writing and the Body, Singular-Plural

Rebecca Steffy Couch, University of Wisconsin, Madison

This presentation will offer a provisional account of embodiment within The Grand Piano, a major ten-volume, multi-authored work by the West Coast circle of writers associated with Language poetry, in order to think through what poet Ron Silliman identified as the utopian promise of “gestural language,” and the possibility of sustaining community through collective writing practice. 


In “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” a poetics statement by Ron Silliman first published in 1977, Silliman wrote of the “dual function” of art: “for the group, art interiorizes its consciousness by the ordering (one could call it ‘tuning’) of individual sense perceptions; for the individual, be it artist or consumer, art provides him or her with experiences of that dialectical consciousness in which subject and object, self and other, individual and group, unite” (The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book 130). Here is an early utopian articulation of Silliman’s views of the political, aesthetic, and affective work that art can produce—to overcome alienation. I propose two general aims for this paper: first, to understand Silliman’s evolving poetics as both a desire for and a negation of an embodied poetics or “gestural language” in his theorization and practice of “the new sentence,” a unit of composition divorced from the writer’s physiological presence that contrasts previous models like the poetics of Olson or Ginsberg. Second, I want to explore how we might use the multi-authored, multi-volume work The Grand Piano as a measure of the limits of that poetic wager.

 The Grand Piano is a ten-volume procedural work co-authored by ten writers who formed an influential circle of San Francisco-based Language writers in the 1970s and 80s, and who participated in a reading series at a café of the same name. The authors – Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Ted Pearson – call the work an “experiment in collective autobiography.” This genre description recalls both Stein’s Everybody’s Biography and sociological attempts at collective biography while inflecting the invented form with a dialectic between individual and collective authorship that attempt to account for their shared past as a writing community.  Yet, as the durational composition of the project wore on, fissures widened in the authors’ collective identification with the project. In an essay published just last year, Watten describes the community indexed by the project as being in unresolved crisis (Among Friends 106). Thus, as I seek to relate Silliman’s poetics, which admittedly do not speak for all the writers involved, to The Grand Piano, I mean to explore how the project tells a story about the desire for the body and the collective body, for something like poetics as a practice that restores the subject to her body and to a contingent body politic.