'Look for the Address': Ted Greenwald & me, 1998 interview
Ted interviewed me for the Poetry Project Newsletter, part of a series of interviews he did when he was the editor. It was published in the April/May 1998 issue.
Ted Greenwald: What does it feel like to be a poet in the “postmodern” era?
Charles Bernstein: [laughs] What does it feel like to be anybody in the postmodern era? Is one anybody in the postmodern era? As far as poetry goes, for most people modernism never arrived, so postmodernism seems premature.
Greenwald: Does language have a future?
Bernstein: Language only has a future. And we can find it only in the present. It’s too bad many people find the present in language something that makes no sense to them, because if we can’t make sense of/with the present then prospects for the future are none too good. And our ability to understand and respond to the past is numbed, if not obliterated.
Greenwald: What about the future of words?
Bernstein: What about the future of words! In a sense there are no words, only languages. And languages have no meaning outside their use. So the future of words and languages is dependent on our doing something with them rather than their doing something with us. We are given the words that we use, but we don’t have to pronounce them the way we’ve been taught, or order them as we have been ordered.
Greenwald: Can poetry develop an economy?
Bernstein: Poetry is always involved with economy at many different levels. The question really is, can poetry evade economy, as Romantic ideology seems to suggest. At one level there’s the semantic economy of poetry: accumulation and loss, absorption and repellence, excess and limitation. At another level, there’s the economy of distribution and dissemination: production, context of publication, readings, distribution, response. This second level of poetic economy contributes to the meanings of a poem as much as the first.
Greenwald: What does love got to do with it?
Bernstein: They don’t know what love is. I know what love is.
Greenwald: You do?
Bernstein: Love is only doing. And acts of love are not the same as talking about them.
Greenwald: What’s your sense of the direction poetry’s taking as we move into the twenty-first century?
Bernstein: I think that there’s a greater understanding that poetry even within a single language like English cannot be understood as a unitary practice. The differences among poetries are incommensurable. And this radical decentralization of expression opens up the potential for communication of a different sort than we’ve grown accustomed to. You might call this a revolution in democracy. At the same time, one can expect enormous resistance to these developments.
Greenwald: Are you suggesting that art is democratic?
Bernstein: The kind of democracy I’m talking about is not the majority dictating to and restricting the licenses of the minority, but rather a democracy in which the rights of minorities and the particular individuation of their perspectives are not only protected but fostered. The “English First” movement is perhaps the most visible symbol of opposition to the sort of radical democracy I am talking about.
Greenwald: Sort of like endangered species?
Bernstein: Our species is endangered. Not only by physical annihilation but also mental annihilation, which means greater and greater uniformity of thought, expression, and conduct. And uniformity is engendered, not limited by the sorts of “either/or” choices which are a product of our consumer society.
Greenwald: Does poetry require inspiration to be produced?
Greenwald: How important is boredom to “modernism”?
Bernstein: I think that boredom is often a way of pointing to the inexplicable and the unknown as much as the mundane. The value of putting forward boredom as a positive feature of a work seems strained at this point, but readers will often find it difficult to involve themselves in that which is totally enthralling. If paradise were put on the market there wouldn’t necessarily be that many buyers.
Greenwald: What’s your favorite weather?
Bernstein: I don’t have a favorite weather. And for that reason I don’t like it to stay the same too long. This is also an answer to your last question.
Greenwald: Who gets the horse?
Bernstein: Not the horse trader. And not the rider. Maybe nobody should get the horse. Maybe the horse can just go home.
Greenwald: Who does the dishes?
Bernstein: We alternate.
Greenwald: Who gets the girl?
Bernstein: Not the girl trader. And not the rider. Maybe she can go home too. Maybe.
Greenwald: But you can’t go home again?
Bernstein: You could if you found the address.
Greenwald: Any advice to young poets?
Bernstein: Look for the address.