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Since 1994, Watten has taught modernism and cultural studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. Other areas of research include postmodern culture and American literature; poetics; literary and cultural theory; visual studies; the avant-garde; and digital literature.
Watten is married to the poet Carla Harryman; their son, Asa, was born in 1984.
Born in Long Beach, California, Watten graduated from high school in Oakland, California, and attended MIT and then UC Berkeley, where he took an AB in Biochemistry in 1969. It was there he met poets Robert Grenier and Ron Silliman and studied with Josephine Miles, who recommended him to the Iowa Writers' Workshop where he received an MFA in English (Program of Creative Writing) in 1972. While at Iowa, Watten self-published and printed his first collection Radio Day in Soma City (1971) in a letterpress volume, unpaginated (25pp. approx.) in an edition of 75 copies, and began co-editing This with Grenier.
Watten later returned to the Bay Area and began to form relations with some experimental writers who would become known as the Language School. This 'school' was not a group precisely, but a tendency in the work of many of its so-called practitioners (see article on Language poets). Thus, Barrett Watten is one of the founding poets and editors of the Language School of poetry and one of its central theorists, editing This and Poetics Journal (with Lyn Hejinian) two of the crucial vehicles and networks for the dissemination of Language Poetry.
Watten edited This, one of the central little magazines of the Language movement, and co-edited Poetics Journal, one of its theoretical venues. In 1986, he returned to UC Berkeley, earning his PhD in English in 1996. His published work includes Bad History (1998) and Frame (1971–1990) which appeared in 1997. Frame brings together six previously published works of poetry from two decades: Opera—Works ; Decay ; 1–10 ; Plasma/Paralleles/"X" ; Complete Thought and Conduit – along with two previously uncollected texts – City Fields and Frame. Two of his books – Progress (1985) and Under Erasure (1991) – were republished with a new preface, as Progress | Under Erasure (2004).
Watten is co-author, with Michael Davidson, Lyn Hejinian, and Ron Silliman, of Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union (1991). He has published three volumes of literary and cultural criticism, Total Syntax (1985);The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (2003) which was awarded the René Wellek Prize in 2004; and Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences (2016). Watten earned his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley in 1995. His dissertation was entitled: Horizon Shift: Progress and Negativity in American Modernism. In 2007, Martin Richet translated into French Plasma / Parallèles / «X», a volume that joins together three long poems which originally appeared in a chapbook by Tuumba Press in 1979.
Watten is also co-author, with Tom Mandel, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Carla Harryman, Rae Armantrout, Ted Pearson, Steve Benson, and Bob Perelman of The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography. (Detroit, MI: Mode A/This Press, 2006-2010). This work, which consists of ten volumes, is described as an "experiment in collective autobiography by ten writers identified with Language poetry in San Francisco. The project takes its name from a coffeehouse at 1607 Haight Street, where from 1976-79 the authors curated a reading and performance series. The project began in 1998; it was constructed via online collaboration, using Web-based software and an email listserv.</ref>
- Watten sites, exhibits, homepages
- Barrett Watten Homepage, Wayne State University
- Barrett Watten.net launched January 2010, Watten provides "continuously updated new content and material", some material relocated from the Watten's homepage at Wayne State
- Works by or about Barrett Watten in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- The Grand Piano website devoted to the 10 volumes of "Collective Autobiography" by 10 of the so-called "West Coast" group of Language poets, including Watten, which began serial publication in November 2006.
- Online work, poetry, essays
- Question of Interpretation an interactive piece at mark(s), an online quarterly.
- Total Syntax: The Work in the World an essay by Watten focusing on the work of Clark Coolidge
- Holloway Reading Series Archived September 5, 2006, at the Wayback Machine at UC Berkeley; site provide info on Watten who read there
- Le Quartanier éditeur & revue
- For additional details, commentary, and links see Barrett Watten's piece How The Grand Piano Is Being Written Archived June 30, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
- in a publicity release at Watten's homepage (see "External links" above)
- In this piece, Watten employs or figures poetry as epigram or analog to hyper-contextualize and cross-cut the literature of the Rorschach. An example of digital poetics as it delves, perhap by way of cathexis, into what Watten refers to as "New Meaning"
- This on-line text excerpted from Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics (1998), and as originally published in Watten's book Total Syntax (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985)