Interviews - December 2012
Note: I first discovered the poetry of John Wieners, seminal Boston poet and peripheral member of the Beat generation, during my undergraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts. As I continued my relationship with his poetry, the idea further cemented in my mind of the solitary voice, becoming clear to me that the work Wieners has amounted through associations, with Charles Olson and the Black Mountain school, with Ezra Pound in Spoleto, Ginsberg in New York and among friends in Beacon Hill, is of significant and lasting artistic achievement. Throughout his career, Wieners’s writings have been overshadowed by the more mainstream success of his old friends, creating for us, the students of the Beats, a kind of “diamond in the rough” presence on the fringe of contemporary American Literature.
We met on Joy Street on Beacon Hill, January 1993, at the apartment of Jack Powers, a mutual friend and organizer of the Boston Stone Soup Poets Group, and took our places in the front reading room with a surplus of cigarettes, wine, notepads, and questions. We found Mr. Wieners to be comfortable, unrestrained, dressed simply in a sweatshirt, casual slacks, worn-down shoes, steadfast in mind and manner.
Steve Prygoda: Did you grow up in Boston?
John Wieners: I went to school in the South End, Boston College High, right off of the City Hospital.
Prygoda: Is it still in the same place?
Wieners: Well, no. It has moved to Dorchester. I went to Boston College in the fifties before I moved into the city as a grown-up. I was worked over a couple of times while I was still at school, coming down Commonwealth Avenue, so I’m not crazy about the place (BC).
Prygoda: What made you want to become a writer?
Wieners: Immortality, in the sense of living after one’s own time has run out. The paintings will endure; they’ve lasted for, oh, ten centuries. They bring the artist back to life; they hold the proper names of Asian into appearance.
Prygoda: It was at Black Mountain where you first began to develop your own voice and place within American poetry. Who was with you there?
Wieners: The most friendly sort that came out of that experience was Jerry Vanderwile. Do you know the name? He has since slipped from the world’s esteem. He was my sort of person.
Prygoda: How long were you associated with Charles Olson?
Wieners: For about fifteen years?
Prygoda: Did you stay with him while he lived in Gloucester?
Wieners: For suppers, breakfasts, overnight.
Prygoda: Was he doing his Maximus series then?
Wieners: Yes, he had many disciples.
Prygoda: Do you think that is harmful, the “cult of personality”?
Wieners: It is if the person has died, and become ill … that they have been hypnotized through a Danish theologian, that he wasn’t … whose work I am not too keen upon, I don’t know that he is actually aware that he wrote that book, that one anyways.
Prygoda: Do you think Olson was an important presence on the US poetry scene?
Wieners: Yes, I think he swayed thousands, the masses, to become attuned to themselves — sight, hearing, sound, lips, tongues, sort of thing. It comes down to the child, or elementary lessons.
John Wieners’s career as a poet began on the West Coast; a little-known 1957 publishing credit finds two of his early poems in the Chicago Review, an issue focused on the eclectic and vital “San Francisco Scene” including work by Kerouac, Ginsberg, McClure, and Ferlinghetti. A year later Wieners’s first book, The Hotel Wentley Poems was published — lean, personal modern verse bristling with nervous spontaneous energy and Keatsian eloquence. The young poet’s life was off and running.
Prygoda: Do you think the Beats, as they are called, were that big an influence on American writing?
Wieners: Not as big as ten centuries of classical painting. (Anyways) It was just a phrase, a title. I think we got it from the Russians … when they launched the satellite Sputnik in the late 1950s. I think that’s what really popularized the name Beatnik and then shortened by the press and others to just Beat.
Prygoda: When did you first meet Allen Ginsberg?
Wieners: Was it Finnegan’s Wake? A play very well done at the YMHA Auditorium. It was that evening, after the performance, we shared a taxicab over to one of the bars. I got to know him for a nightcap, to a hotel. I can’t remember where we stayed; the director had a car waiting, and he (Allen) made his leave.
Prygoda: If you were to contrast the differences in style between Ginsberg an Olson, in weaknesses and strengths …
Wieners: They were innovators, with style, with character. And Allen, his work will have relevance today and tomorrow.
Prygoda: And Ezra Pound …
Wieners: Ezra Pound was quite a foreboding figure. I met him during the same week we went to a play by Pinter, in Italy. He was in town for the action, to see the Swedish Ambassador, the Czechoslovak, the Russian. These were the men who intrigued him, as melodramatic figures. His world needs melodrama.
Prygoda: Why did you say he was foreboding?
Wieners: He was so small, I think, in his attitude toward reality, as if he had been blanched to an exceeded condition of intelligence. As I have thought of him frequently afterwards, shown in his makeup, do you believe poets should wear makeup? Well, I do worship him.
Wieners found little to do with the mighty forces of literary academia, and chose a life away from the scholarly advancement of his peers. Black Sparrow salvaged over thirty years of John Wieners’s poetry from the jaws of obscurity and published Selected Poems 1958–1984 in 1986. The poet settled into the cobblestones of Beacon Hill, content to live out the remaining years as a Boston poet, contributing sparingly to local literary causes while writing occasional verse, contemporania, thumbnail sketches of the oddities of life set to words, and a play is also currently in the works.
Prygoda: Last year you had a piece published in The Paris Review; am I correct? I’ve had a bit of trouble finding it …
Wieners: A few squibs about … I’m glad they take my stuff out of circulation. They realize that it is not to be discerned. You can’t look in on one’s neighbors.
Prygoda: Were you aware that The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958) would create the amount of impact they did?
Wieners: [Long pause.] I don’t think they have. I certainly don’t want them to.
Wieners: Well, I used to take the trolley into Boston a lot, in the evenings, go downtown and have a couple of beers. I was so nervous ever to be seen by somebody and have them raise an eyebrow against me that I … shun … having notoriety attached to that area of income. It wasn’t that much but …
Prygoda: More a collection of private thoughts to be shared among friends?
Wieners: That’s what they claimed, yes; more to counteract a bankruptcy claim, period. It’s important to know, and thank you for inquiring about it. That was main purpose and reason.
Prygoda: Well, you got some many beautiful lines, I keep coming back to “I am engaged in taking from God his sound” from “To A Record Player.” Can you tell me about that one?
Wieners: Well, I was so hopped-up. I’ll have to have another beer to answer that!
The evening came to a close and we made our goodbyes, with a smattering of camera flashes and a book to be signed, another bar to visit and begin to unravel the past few ours of conversation with, in Allen Ginsberg’s own words, “one of the ten greatest American writers living today.”
Tenzone wishes to thank Jack Powers of the Boston Stone Soup Poets, who made the evening’s transactions possible.
June 5, 2011, to August 15, 2012
Discourse 1 with Rachel Zolf
June 4, 2011
I’ve been reading reviews of your books — and what are reviews if not testimonies to such-and-such-a-thing happening to a reader— and what a way to hear you again, in yet another kind of crowded room, after a flash of a chat in Buffalo when you came here to read (it was not snowing, there were nachos) — and what is a reading if not testimony to such-and-such-a place gasping around the voice of a poet — and there are two such ones that I want to begin by reciting here. If reciting is to say out loud, then these two moments are worth reiterating in a new context — reciting someone else’s words as if to say “Hello” again and to have my questions follow the greeting as exclamation marks: “Hello!!”
In the February/March 2010 issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter, Thom Donovan reviews Neighbour Procedure expertly. He describes the book as an “investigation of grievability” driven in part by Judith Butler’s query in Precarious Life: “Who counts as human? … What makes for a grievable life?” Grievability — unlike flammability, combustibility, solubility — is an unnamable index of an ability to be mourned; a quality that every subject “possesses” in varying quantities; a coordinate that locates a subject within cultural remembrance. Your investigation into this impossible index begins not with the mischievous pointing of Holmes’ pipe but with the studious, open palmed gesture of appropriative poetics. Indeed, ceci n’est pas une pipe, but a poetry of a telling of a sketch of a drawing of a painting of a landscape of terror and unknowing. This is a poetry that is just as many times removed from the content of its sources (war coverage from the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, comment streams from Jewlicious.com, the Qur’an, and so on) as it is knotted into their weft.
Thom’s sentiment is that you “remain [/] remarkably faithful to [your] affective content — an achievement appropriative poetries too often fall short on.” I concur with this, somewhat. It is true that your book emerges after your return from your very first visit to Israel-Palestine a few years ago and deals with the intersection between your life as traveler, scholar, poet, investigator, and guest. But my sense is that, even upon “return,” the author remains at that diwan — the guesthouse which forms the “centre of Palestinian communal life” — and that this continued residence (as guest) is perhaps what could be termed “affective content.” Would “affective content” be a trace to a source or relation to a host long after the poet’s displacement? How do you read the term “affective content”? Do you read this consistent fidelity to source texts as an “achievement” or something quite else?
Thom’s claim about your fidelity to “affective content” in Neighbour Procedure comes three years after K. Silem Mohammad’s review of Human Resources, which points (sans pipe?) to how you deal with “the basic problem of reflecting the state of human language with a feeling accuracy.” I wish to place “feeling accuracy” close enough to “affective content” to examine the combustibility index of their relation in your own process. How do you experience the neighborliness of appropriative strategies and your own “mad affects”?
I really liked this section. I felt right from the first line that the section had kind of a sad, apologetic tone, which seems appropriate to a list of corrigenda. I was very struck by all the delicate, tender imagery in this section, especially the parts about plants: “skirl: frond of thrush notes,” “the pudge of hibiscus,” “apply sepals on your groin,” “sulk of lawn,” etc. It was exciting to see these phrases juxtaposed against images of the inside of the body and against religious language. There were many nachos, too many, as evidenced in the Holiday Inn bathroom, wondering how did they get the cheese so smooth and orange and uniform. Interviews can be so that poem died long ago, and yet somehow right here right now a discourse blooms in the bright orange sun of the creamy white paper to vocalize “Hello, Divya,” gaily smiling “yalla yalla yhello!”
Oh no, do I now have to go back to the TD review and the JB book and brush up on this or that pearl or pudge of coal? Or shall we nail our bums to this proboscis I mean prosthesis and see what swells I mean swills from the welter of our associations. Ah, metaphor I mean metonymy … Okay, I love the range of TD’s mind, the risks he takes to reach for discourse beyond what he knows he knows, so rare and vulnerable and somehow vilified in “our” circles, which bugs me, but I digress. So what I remember from NP PPNL review (let’s be all corporate and an acronymistic, shall we) is a kind of existential horror that puff, my four books had melted into two, but after I got over the first sentence, there was JB and again a sinking feeling like fuck did everything come from JB’s maw, where is my brain, my very own idea, my non-existent BA, is this because I have an innie not an outie? In this sense, the reader is presented with the possibility of communication or community “as if we had answered,” but this is foreclosed or problematized by the complicated folding that preoccupies the text. What can be between? How can the folds be negotiated Q14543 liu ougadougou pogrom?
Clearly this author function needs more couch work. Do you think Kim Rosenfield has an opening? Of course, I was tickled purple to read TD’s theorizing, how he got so much right, even if most of the book was written before said author function got on said plane with the Birthright Israel kids playing “Two Truths and a Lie.” No razor’s-edged thanatourist, no go native, no modest witness on grand tour for aesthetic signal output gain. I steal because I have no imagination, so she says in hi-fi surround. Mark Twain’s trip was way more trippy. The first thread that I will discuss is the text’s articulation of proximity and distance. In beginning my work on the text, I made a list of all of the words relating to “far & near, between, together & apart.” The list included nearly every word on the first page and a good portion of the words on the remaining pages. Then I added mad affects between, beside, underneath, above, and after what remained, because I think it was Shoshana Felman who said something about madness, unreadability and literarity, whatever that is. I think the author function may have wanted to enact, I dunno, affective economies or something like that that, you know, swirl around in the air and stick to your bones like bits of flesh and wire. Like that, as Rodrigo Toscano would say. Combustible.
And Kasey’s review. I smile when I think of meeting Kaia Sand in Olympia, her happy eyes and brilliant “Lotto” reading, how we exchanged five books to send on, and one HR bloomed on a limetree, and KM got the unlovely materiality of hording and shitting and fucking and sticking as if he had answered, indeed, and yes, dear DV (ha, Diana Vreeland), I have to say in my awshucks Canuck way, I was so pleased, kind of like when you poured that expensive brandy in my Buffalo tea to soothe ragged vocal folds so that Dada could rise up and colonize for the third time that day. It is in this sense that the text is able to express a certain sadness, as it recognizes its own imperfect ability to communicate and expresses that imperfection through complicated language, conditional sentence structure, sound play and puns, and sentence fragments. The reader is placed in proximity to a body, only to be pulled away from it, is offered communication, only to have that bungled and complicated, and is forced to become active in the text, as if it were possible to answer, as if it could be parsed. There you go, as my ma would say.
Discourse 2 with Rachel Zolf
June 26, 2011
Your response pulses with so many voices. I had to use a many-tentacled stethoscope to find the one beating throat that was yours in there, tangled as it was in a pile of other vocal chords. I hear Sarah Dowling’s reviews of my own project exuviae from our years at Temple (where we were so like baby snakes, baby harpies, that we had to invent a movement called nubilism just to name the difference between the uterus and grad school) echoed in your own ventriloquy. You pulled threads of language from her reviews and responses to her peers and wove new poems that became part of The Tolerance Project. And now they unravel and braid new threads into this thing we are weaving between us. And of course, how not to notice the whiplash effect of seeing “one’s own words” appear without warning? The familiarity of poetry done and dead, an archive long buried hurried right towards me and I had to turn so fast — the experience was the affective equivalent of the impulsive stretch of your spine when something going 80 mph hits you from behind. Archives can do that. They travel very fast even when they appear to be still.
Your response reminds me of Bernard Réquichot’s “reliquaries,” Rachel. Do you know his work? He made voluptuous and repugnant dioramas of animal forms through collages of appropriated materials — entrailling composites of bone and skin, fingernails and lashes. These reliquaries, fabulations of soft tongues of oil paint and flesh, thicken the visual frame towards a kind of endoscopic purview of organic forms. The result is body projected so far outward that its guts spill out, reorganizing itself as the viscera of the viewer herself. So, the gallery space becomes a hall of mirrors and encountering his work becomes an awkward autopsy — a “seeing with one’s own eyes” gone terribly awry, horribly pleasurable. Roland Barthes described the experience of his painterly sculpture as a “detumescence of the body.” I read that as a pleasurable arrival at the fact that entrails leave trails.
I see your Neighbour Procedure as archiving traces in a way not unlike this. When I see Réquichot, I am pleased with my whole body. I see collage as the drift of subjects toward contact. Which is to say: I can recall the continuity between two bodies. This too is something I can sense in your own response about a poet’s “fidelity” to “affective content.” A touching that is not touching in the sentimental sense, but an abrasion of the very part that is touched and a daubing of that portion with something resembling unction. To cure (both to preserve and to relieve) relates to curate. And this is how I see myself as you make me understand any “fidelity” to “affective content.” Curating a “fidelity” to “affective content.” When another someone says in your voice “the reader is placed in proximity to a body, only to be pulled away from it,” and this other someone is Sarah Dowling, then I too see why the possibilities of response need be “bungled and complicated,” why we must maintain the “as if” when parsing the texts emerging from appropriative strategies. As things of this ilk, both Neighbour Procedure and your The Tolerance Project have something in common: they both claim that those who speak in tongues always include themselves in their estranged speech.
In your introduction to The Tolerance Project you say: “The collaboration wants and includes you.” I see this project as a repetition, a saying again of other masters of fine arts. The project involved eighty-six writers who have “donated their poetic traces.” Each of these traces is give a barcode. Every poem you created towards the completion of your MFA was archived, labeled, curated, and organized on the premise of the hyper-rational barcode and the metaphor of the DNA trace. This is quite unlike how you seem to be thinking of collaboration in terms of affective negotiation with source content, no? Barthes noticed a kind of collaboration in Réquichot’s reliquaries that I want to share with you in this regard:
[For him] the [reliquary] box was not the (reinforced) frame of an exhibition but rather a kind of temporal space, the enclosure in which his body worked, worked itself over: withdrew and added itself, rolled and unrolled itself, discharged itself: took pleasure: the box is the reliquary not of saints’ bones but of Réquichot’s pleasures.
This seems like a productive analogy for the MFA experience, no? How would you describe the experience of The Tolerance Project — how and why it was conceived, how and why you rolled and unrolled and (enrolled) yourself in it, how and why the “collaborative” was essential in the so-named mastering of “fine” art?
Wow, you just managed to gross me out nicely, my dear Divya. Not enough for you to get my bowels bouleversing with the radioactive orange nachos, was it? Because the identification between Bernie’s viscera and the eggplant parmigiana samwich I just wolfed is a little too close. Here I thought I’d do a nice one-two click and up would pop a pleasing little Joseph Cornell-like assemblage prompting me to spout something pseudo-smart about after Auschwitz failing better at containing uncontainables; instead j’est un autre viscera spill on bloody nose and eyelashes. When the be stings indeed!
Anyway, sorry about the whiplash, Dr. ABDiviso Victory, but I do love that you were pleased with your whole naturally stinky body. Maybe we could pretend like we’re in a Nicole Brossard discourse and talk about desire in language in, across, and splayed on the wooden table between us. But I digress, je m’excuse, said estranged throat beats multitudes. I wonder which one came out for you, they tend to slip from grasp like the snakes at the foot of my childhood bed. Love the image of the viscera of the viewer herself, don’t know why I went to such a clean association as Michael Asher and the blank walls of the Claire Copley gallery, but I disembodied. I see why you went for the gross out, but I’m surprised it wasn’t Human Resources that popped, the pilgrim’s progress from collecting marbles to coins to gesturing to hand over poo to ma only to — psych! — pull back, incorporate.
Ain’t got no ice cream, but got an archive swerving. Like the barcodes that go nowhere certain or pure, just to yet another archive. There is no identifying Das Ding there or there there, no mastery or comfort, just a conditional opening to another discharge, travailing, as if. Google any line in Neighbour Procedure and witness the spill — is that collaboration? The final Barthes quote draws me to Tehching Hsieh, the hunger artist in his Tribeca cage, how an image of him comforted me during the duration of the MFA, every second a strait gate, yes and no unsplit. Like guest and host and hostis, we come from the same root enemy, we want contact and encounter, loaded words like Lot’s girls given away to be raped, fidelity to proximity and contiguity, not just me and my appropriative mastery. Language really spoken by as if here I am on several throated registers, not mad like angry, mad like response.
Discourse 3 with Rachel Zolf
August 18, 2011
I want to note something that is emerging as a motif without us calling its name — so I guess I’m going to baptize it.
Q: “What did Althusser name his baby at the baptism?” Why did Althusser strangle his wife?
A: “Hey You There.”
Q: Why did Althusser go not straight to jail but to lecturing philosophy at the university?
You reference two major projects from an “institutional critique”-era conceptualist art vein: an earlier piece by Michael Asher (Untitled, 1973) and Andrea Fraser (also Untitled, 2003) in your essay on the inception, method, and experience of The Tolerance Project. For his piece, Asher installed space as space at the Claire Copley gallery, a storefront peeking out into LA’s La Cienega Boulevard, by removing all the artworks, and taking down the wall that would divide the curator and gallerist Copley’s office and storage area from the rest of the exhibition space. Copley, the curator-gallerist turned exhibit, the all-seeing eye turned ideal object, could be gazed upon by an audience who would be confronted by the visibility of the ideological and social division of the art-gallery. Sandy Ballatore’s immediate and astonished response to Asher’s piece in Artweek was to note that “all that stuff on the walls is gone, along with every bit of privacy.” Exactly thirty years later, Fraser’s piece takes the audience-as-voyeur/creep into a hotel room in which she performs sex with a private art collector for $20,000, “not for sex” but “to make an artwork” along with the mystical white crow, the sword and the flower that shattered stone. You also mention the face-smashingly ouch compelling One-Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece) by Tehching Hseih in which the artist captured himself in a exactly? 11’6” × 9’ × 8’ wooden cage with only extremely minimal provisions was there a toilet? and spent a year recapturing recapturing his image image in a daily single photograph.
These three pieces about four walls were very significant to you during the MFA experience and, of course, throughout The Tolerance Project. They work explicitly with the limitations and pleasures of along, against walls. They work to expose “architecture” as an ideological drama between concrete, plaster, and the hoops made visible studs. They are attempting to negotiate the permeability of the gallery wall like the apartheid fence shot through with nails, the privacy of the walls of a hotel room plastered with soporific wall paper and well hung ha! with cropped reproductions of Monet’s Water Lilies, and the absolute irrelevance of the barred walls of a cage during voluntary confinement/constraint/the poem.
This comes into our conversation as I was considering your description of the many resistances to The TP during your MFA. You were told that you were “violating the privacy of the workshop structure,” that the workshop instructor “spoke about preserving the “sanctity” of the “safe” workshop space, where “you can feel like you can do anything” (except something like The Tolerance Project)” The language of privacy, describing the seminar or workshop space as a Temple, not to be molested (much like the body of a masturbating Christian, hairy palms aside) you’re creepy and not to be betrayed, seems in direct opposition to its public, institutional status. one fellow ephebe, wearing an epaulette of red wool, after hearing teacher-sage cry re broken hymen of workshop sanctity, ejaculated the rather banal “I thought everything was public” (but only into my little ear, not the pub(l)ic torso of the sweaty workshop).
There is a whiff of the old talkshow-mistaken-for-therapy-session TP as reality TV show for poets (suggested other-Rachel Levitsky in initial brainstorm) privilege syndrome which I myself was often confused by (“Divya Victor rolls her eyes too much, too often, at too many students”) see how DV averts the gaze that is not merely benign or polite or discourse. The talkshow is, in fact, not surrounded by four walls the talk show ain’t containable. Neither is it a private “chat.” could be the last public space, says Lisa Robertson Applause is the obtrusive mark of the audience. I don’t get it I don’t get it Applause is the sound of the poetics of witness. is so uncool The so-named sanctity of the private convo between the Big Oooh, hairy palms inside and her abused-fame-tourist-du-jour I’m having a flashback is marked by this applause’s resounding and repeated violation are you making a pun, dear Div? of what would otherwise have been a private conversation. This is also the structure of testimony, in the court of Law where’s V(i)P when we need her? as it is in the church of Lord, sans applause. one hirsute paw flapping
“Respecting” someone’s privacy in a public space actually reverses the logic by which egalitarian inclusion can be conducted within splitting architectural spaces. This is one of the things Matta-Clark Acconci’s Seedbed ooh, re-flapping proposes in its utter disregard for the Puritanism of the cognitive, aural, and self-conscious privilege Not only does the architectural intervention presage much of the private and invisible shell implied by the museum-goers’ well-paced gait and sober nodding. of his subsequent work, but all of Acconci's fixations converge in this, the spiritual sphincter of his art. Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen offers a similar fuck-you. It forces us to reckon with the private-domestic shredded open into public and mediatized by collapsing the invisible wall between the gallery and the TV-screen, and by flashing our historical fondness for eroticizing (rather than compensating) female labor (in or out of our trenchcoats). or Jeanne Diehlman’s sexy housedress kneeding meat.
I see The TP’s simpatico with Asher’s critique, along with Fraser’s later pieces in a network with all these other artists who suggest not merely that privilege is co-constituted with access but also that that we continue to think of subjective privacy in architectural and material terms — even in the times of the post-post-Patriot-Act (the new post-post-postmodernism), that breakfast cereal, and the diffused-ownership of all data. The cachet claimed by the privacy of a subject in arts practice is baffling at a time where the “private citizen” cannot exist in the US. (“What is your house made of, little piggy? Straw or brick or language?” etc.) The story utilizes the literary Rule of three, expressed in this case as a “contrasting three” Further, however, the Romantic notion of the lone artist writing by the faint glow as the third pig's house turns out to be the only one which is adequate to withstand the wolf. of her MacBook which the MFA model of privacy retellings of the story sometimes omit the attempts to trick the third pig wishes to sanctify is necessary or state that the first pig ran to the second pig's house to sustain the multi-million dollar private hyphen State complex that is the MFA industry, then both of them ran to the third pig's house of bricks — what Mark Novak has called a key institution in the “neoliberal language industry.” The latter is often an attempt to write out death or violence in the story.
One of Novak’s big questions in his provocative “Neoliberalism, Collective Action, and the American MFA Industry” is whether “the American MFA industry is capable of producing anything other than the neoliberal writer” Um, not really. The TP is certainly lumbered with this question. I am not expecting you to answer his question Ask Jeff Derksen, he’ll know. Where do you see the issues of privacy and poetic composition intersect with the interests of the Sing it: we are neo-lib-er-al familee, “neoliberal language industry”? look at us discoursingingly In other words, your preoccupation with walls You know the Israelis have this equipment throughout the MFA that can see right what has that meant through concrete walls during and since? the heat of bodies flickering along the border with Mexico.
Discourse 4 with Rachel Zolf
February 14, 2012
It has been a long time since we’ve written to each other in this here, rather than in the here of my Gmail inbox. And since the last writing-to, you’ve moved to another place than the place you were writing to me in. This has not changed anything but assures me that a half a year has passed out of consciousness. However, it is good to return to asking you questions and saying things remotely to your ear.
All the while, I’ve been wanting to return especially to the paper you gave at the Rethinking Poetics conference at Columbia University on June 12, 2010. In this paper, you stake a claim for the “Noone” who/that Paul Celan mentions in closing of his poem “Ashglory”:
bears witness for the
“Noone” is both the absent body who does not bear witness and the (present but remote) one who does bear witness for the witness — a figure who partially fails, a figure who partially tries, a figure who is twice removed from that which needs witnessing. Celan’s is both a complaint and an admission of the “Noone.” Using this figure, you argue against the role of “the poet as direct transparent witness,” against the “modest witness” as ethnographic fieldworker,” and against the claims that poetry functions as proxy-witnessing. But you do see the possibility of “the polyvocal, multi-focal, desubjectified or maybe just ‘bad’ subject who bears witness for the witness who bears witness” to a catastrophe.
Even as you give this ten minute talk on the muselmann — the mute, illegible, silhouette of racial resemblance; the “faceless,” “donkeys,” “cretins,” “camels,” “cripples,” “swimmers,” “tired sheiks,” “shell-men,” “husk-men,” and “mummy men” of the camps who no one can forget and who no one can remember — you also interrupt yourself to give an account of what might be happening in Israel-Palestine, as you speak of not speaking: “Israeli troops have killed at least nine unarmed people and wounded scores of others on a humanitarian ship carrying ten thousand tonnes of food, medicine, building supplies and toys to Gaza.” This ruptures the conference with the rhetorical question least beloved by a pacified audience: “Can poetry do anything about a tragedy like this?” To this you respond with a “No” and a confession “[a]nd again I wonder what the hell’s the point [of poetry].” The point of poetry, as your paper seems to conclude, is that it continues to call you to “fail well in the catachrestic effort to listen to what is unsaid and beyond knowledge in the testimony of the witness who bears witness for the Muselmann’s “bare, unassigned and unwitnessable life” (Agamben, Remnants 157).
The fact and trope of aesthetic failure has a long and important history, but that is not what I want to get into here, exactly. I was struck by your use of the phrase “catachrestic effort to listen to what is unsaid.” “Catachresis” is an event in which a word is misused or applied to a thing unwittingly, or with mistaken certainty (one of the dictionaries offered me “Militate” as a word often used instead of “Mitigate”!). Apart from semantics, catachresis is a rhetorical fact which emerges when there is insufficient language for a certain parallel to be drawn between two things (for instance, “He was forced to buy the Morrissey record sight unseen” has a catachrestic use of “sight unseen” as there is no ready parallel for auditory phenomena). In this, catachresis is about an application of language out of its “appropriate” context. Spivak talks about catachresis, in the post-colonial context, as a misapplication of an (often abstracted and academic) rudimentary category/nomenclature to a lived/real experience, and is critical of it as a figure of translation that is complicit with the so-called subaltern’s muteness.
I am intrigued by the phrase “catachrestic effort to listen to the unsaid” not only because of all these amazing refractions it produces, and not only because (more obviously) listening to silence is a type of catachresis (catacrisis? catechism? catechasm?), and thus also bound to “fail well.” I am also interested because of the way in which the act of listening displaces/replaces writing or speaking in your sentence. Is this listening also the work of composition (aurality as metaphor)? Or perhaps it is a matter of the audience’s “catachrestic effort to listen” to the shifts in diction, languages, volumes, and textures of your performance? How do you now see/name the different scenes in which the “catachrestic effort to listen to the unsaid” occurs?
Here we are once more entre nous, not a catachrestic space, but a little rust-covered, too long away from words (forgive me). As the fascia tissue begins to loosen within a too-stuffed frame, I feel room in this room (thank you).
You know how you can have fixed ideas in your memory that are actually just wrong? Like I was certain that in one of my vain attempts to be in university in my 20s, an inspiring teacher, Doug Chambers, taught me that occupatio was the rhetorical term to describe a line such as, “No light, but rather darkness visible.” And I was even more certain that that particular line came from Milton’s “Sonnet 16: On his blindness.” For years, I’ve been using occupatio to describe how the negation enacts the negated, but, once again, I failed to find the right word. I hope I didn’t use it in that essay you mention. Is plus de metaphore or plus de metaphore more or no more (metaphor)?
You may have guessed that I use “catachrestic” catachrestically in that try (essai). Always this reaching, these impure limits, (peut-être) thresholds. The liminal doesn’t interest me so much anymore. I want the mirror to become a window, the threshold a gate, or whatever failed metaphor you choose. The act of “bearing witness,” like the act of being a “neigbho(u)r,” is a theological-political limit concept that I find productive to think about. The impossibility and necessity. What does it mean to speak not to or for but with? What does it mean to decolonize? What does it mean to be a bystander? What does Spivak say? “It is called ‘power’ because that is the closest one can get to it. This sort of proximate naming can be called catachrestic.”
Come to think of it, maybe “Noone bears witness” isn’t occupatio or apophasis but prosopopeia. As De Man says, “Something monstrous lurks in the most innocent of catachresis: when one speaks of the legs of the table or the face of the mountain, catachresis is already turning into prosopopeia, and one begins to perceive a world of potential ghosts and monsters.”
I like to try to listen with ghosts and monsters. Much is left unsaid, must be imperfectly enacted or performed. I have a poem about a famous Dada guy who thought it was okay to take over a Palestinian village and turn it into a Dada artist’s colony for Jews. I think people tend not to “get” much from this poem until they hear me (fail to) perform what the ghosts and monsters didn’t say. Did you know that catachresis means abuse? They really did set up another Cabaret Voltaire in Palestine. Plus de sens or plus de sens? Like a discourse on vocality. What does Divya Victor say?: What does it mean to enact or perform vocality?
Discourse 5 with Rachel Zolf
June 8, 2012
So much of communication is apologizing for silence, and it is my turn to do so. I wish readers could also witness how much of the time composing this conversation takes place in walking around dining tables and skirting the dishes in the sink or lingering between PS617.A55.2007 and N6537.S648.A35.2010. There is also silence in this inter/entreview on vocality, also, yes. But there is also a lot of saying again — repeating, parroting, quoting, misquoting, displacing. To displace that: As an adolescent I had recurring dreams about translating for ghosts of bulls, panthers, horses, houses — but I rarely ever managed this since that dream community would also be made of bulls, panthers, horses. It was a difference of species that made it impossible. To displace that: Like how an Osage orange is also a Hedge apple, which is the way naming makes apples out of oranges. This stays with me even as I think about vocality today. But instead of recalling ghosts, let me recall two stories about ghosts. (They say this is narrative, no?)
When Primo Levi was walked into Auschwitz, confused, exhausted, starving, thirsty, just another piece in a pile of pieces, another rag in a knot of rags, he was sheared and shaved, stripped and disguised as another man resembling another man, standing ankle deep in cold water and among strangers muttering to themselves, unable to communicate with each other. Now, a German walked into the crowd. The crowd of monologues presented him with a German interpreter named Flesch — a translator, who, like the men in the crowd, was a Jew. Flesch’s job was to translate German into Italian for those “hundred miserable and sordid puppets” (Levi 26). Primo Levi recalls this incident as such: “One sees the words which are not his, the bad words, twist his mouth as they come out, as if he was spitting out a foul taste” (24). In time, however, Flesch stops asking the officer the questions of those men who have already been marked for death. He refuses to turn the Italian throat inside out for the German ear. About him, Levi says “I feel an instinctive respect [for this man] as I feel that he has begun to suffer before us” (24). Is it the content of speech that causes him to suffer? Or is it the manner of ventriloquizing the violator? Or is it the way in which he becomes a puppet for the puppets? Does he begin to suffer sooner than the others because he has to carry an other’s language his mouth first?
Vocality and witnessing are related in the act of carrying the “bad words” or in that twisting of the mouth that Levi observes. I’ve been thinking a lot about vocality and ventriloquism, as you know, and the figure of the puppet has become increasingly important — first as an analogue for an impoverished agent and then as a form of mimesis in poetry. This brings me to my second story.
When Paul Celan wrote to his friend Hermann Lenz about his reception after a reading he gave to a group of Germans at the peak of de-Nazification in 1952, he said that the audience accused him not just of writing “unpleasant” poetry but of performing “Death Fugue” in “the voice of Goebbels” (Celan, Selections, 21). Celan later described his choice to write in his mother tongue, German, and in the tongue which murdered his mother, German, as a “phenomenon of interference” in which you hear “the effect” of “the same frequency coming together” (34). He is the double-throated poet whose German speech transforms the audience’s eyewitness of survival into the earwitness of disavowing the expression of that survival. His German tongue was heard only as a prosthetic extension of expressions that he could not claim as his own. What of Celan was displaced when Goebbels was heard in his mouth?
The displacement of language is vocality specifically as it relates to witnessing, and my framework for it is built on Holocaust discourse. The displacement of language, as a physical act, shows up over and over in memoirs of the camps, diary entries, nightmares. There is a lot of anxiety about living and dying in Babel as puppets fitted with strange tongues. But why puppets? Why this figure? SS officers and criminals employed to dig out holes in the ground for mass graves were not allowed to refer to the dead as corpses. They were given strict instructions to call them rags, bricks, shit, dirt. One other word on the approved vocabulary list was figuren: puppets.
The subject of the camp is always also potential corpse, or, more tersely, as Adorno would have it, able to reproduce death. These subjects are provisional — both marked only by identity and utterly disenfranchised. There is a perforated agency here. Puppets are inanimate figures animated by the hands and vocal displacements of a ventriloquist — uncanny shells that resemble pupa — a little girl or rag doll, after which they are named, or pupae the emerging form of in-between life and potential form. They are small theatres of unliving, provisional, fragile life which resembles ours and yet are of an agency completely other.
When we speak of witnessing for or with these ghosts, do we take into consideration the corpse? The figuren? We dare not evoke them that in criticism. We dare not call them up in poetics. We shift our eyes. But, as my friend Joey Yearous Algozin recently declared during our panel on violence and art at the UBPoetics @ 20 symposium: “Let’s face it, subjects produce corpses.” Ventriloquy as vocality allows for the corpse to remain visible, ghastly, unbearable, bodily — rather than engaged as transcended or haunting.
The manner in which voiced puppetry or ventriloquy imitates a human body and throws forward a dissociated human voice exposes a fundamental problem for the politics and poetics of witness associated with trauma, for me. Ventriloquial vocality confronts the complacent tether between an identity and the origin of a voice — whether heard in the shocking gap between the thin croak of our recorded voices and our ideal voice, in the amusing scandal of uncoordinated vocality in poorly dubbed films, in the acousmatic resonance of Pythagoras’s disembodied voice booming at his students from behind an arras, or in the frightening spectacle of an exorcist yanking twelve voices out of a twelve year old. To ventriloquize Kelly Oliver, these voices are “beyond recognition.” Dissociated from its so-named “rightful owner,” the ventriloquial voice wanders, occupies strange throats and speaks in frightening tongues. It repeatedly exposes our misplaced faith in the primacy of the voice which presumes that a disembodied voice must be attached to a plausible body. But in scenes of historical concussion, physiological trauma, and extreme physiological and psychic trauma, what constitutes a plausible body is made ambiguous. And this is where poetic vocality lingers, far from a voice’s rightful owner — ventriloquized. So, Rachel Zolf, poppet, I, a puppet, pupa, pupae, whatever is speaking, am barely I, and that is what Divya Victor would say.
Here is a sweet story of a little Indian girl. It shows how a few lessons learned in early life about religious truth enabled her to be a great blessing to her stern old uncle, a great Indian hunter in the cold north land. I am sure when you have read the story you will say it is a beautiful fulfillment of the prophecy uttered long ago, “A little child shall lead them.”
Astumastao was the name of our little Indian girl. It seems to be rather a long name, but, like all Indian names, it is very expressive. It means “coming to the light,” or “coming dawn.” She was born in a birchbark wigwam, in the wild country far north. Her parents soon drowned in an accident. A poor little orphan girl, her relations often half starved her for days together.
One summer it fortunately happened that there visited that country a devoted missionary, who was travelling through those wild regions, preaching the Gospel among the different tribes. The boat in which he journeyed was a canoe made out of sheet tin. He had as his canoe-men two stalwart Christian Indians, one of whom, whose name was Hassel, acted as his interpreter. While Mr. Evans, the missionary, tarried at this village, holding services as often as he could get a congregation, he noticed the poor little Indian girl and inquired about her. When he learned her sad history, he asked her people to give her to him.
And so the little orphan child was taken to the far-away Mission home at Norway House. The Indian Mission school at that time was under the charge of a Miss Adams. Like many other noble women, she had left a happy home and many friends in civilization, and had gone out to that desolate country to be a blessing and a benediction to the people. She was anxious to do all she could for the welfare of Astumastao, the little Indian orphan. She took her into the Mission school, bathed and dressed her in new garments, and was constant and zealous in her efforts to instill into this mind so dark and ignorant some knowledge that would lead her into a higher, better life.
Astumastao was gifted with an exceedingly retentive memory. Hence she was able to quickly grasp the meaning of what she was taught, as well as to repeat many verses of the Bible, and some sweet hymns which had been translated into her own language. Although she had never heard any singing beyond the monotonous droning of the Indian conjurers in their superstitious pagan rites, yet here under Miss Adams’s loving care she speedily developed a sweet voice for song, and delighted exceedingly in this newfound joy. Thus passed a happy year, in which Astumastao saw and learned many things, not only about happy home life, but also about the one living and true God.
Some twelve months after Mr. Evans had rescued her from her cruel relatives, there came to the trading-post near Norway House an uncle of Astumastao. He was a great hunter, and had with him a large quantity of valuable furs to exchange for supplies he needed. As he had no children of his own, when he saw the bright little girl who was his brother’s daughter, he insisted on taking her back with him to his distant wigwam home.
With deep grief the missionary and Miss Adams saw Astumastao embark in a birch canoe with her uncle Kistayimoowin and aunt, and paddle away for ever out of their sight. Neither her uncle nor his wife were actually cruel to their young niece, of whom they had thus taken possession, but the lot of a young Indian girl in any pagan abode is from our standpoint often a very sad one.
Astumastao, remembering some loving advice given her by Miss Adams ere they parted, resolved to do all she could to be a blessing to her uncle and aunt, and so she was industrious and obedient. She loved to sing over the sweet hymns she had been taught in the now far away Mission Sunday school, and tried to keep fresh in her memory the verses of the Great Book, as well as the lessons taught her by the good white friends at that place.
Thus she lived for a year or so, and then there was a sad change for the worse. This was caused by the arrival in their midst of another and older uncle, Koosapatum, who was a cruel, superstitious old conjurer. Years before he had been robbed and swindled by some wicked white traders, who had first made him drunk with their fire-water, and then robbed him of a valuable pack of furs. This cruel treatment had so enraged him that he had become a bitter enemy of all white people, and was resolved to do all he could to keep the Indians from walking, as he explained it, in the white man’s ways. To enable him the more thoroughly to succeed, he went through all the years of suffering and fasting and dreaming required to make himself a great conjurer. We have not room here to tell of all the ways by which an Indian at length reaches to this position, and becomes an adept in the use of his poisons and other things, thus terrorizing over the rest of the people.
One day, while Astumastao industriously sewed a mocassin, a familiar song came into her young heart, and sweetly floated out on the forest air. Its singing carried her back to the faraway Mission Sunday school, her voice in sweetest melody. Poor Astumastao, little did she imagine the dire results or the sad ending of her song!
When her uncle, the conjurer, in a drowsy state over his tobacco, first heard her sweet notes he thought they were those of a bird, but as her voice rose loud and strong, and he was able to comprehend the meaning of the words she sang, all his hatred of the white man rose up like a tempest within him and filled him with rage.
When Astumastao regained consciousness she was lying on a bed of rabbit-skin robes and balsam boughs in the wigwam, with her aunt bathing her head with cold water. Of course her little heart was filled with consternation and sorrow when told of the terrible threats that the uncle would kill them all by poisoning if ever the songs were heard again. So from that hour the little forest singer had to hush her notes and keep mute and still. Often the song would seem to burst out of itself, but Astumastao had to be satisfied with its melody in her heart.
One day, Koosapatum’s gun, which was an old flint-lock, suddenly burst in his hands, and it was soon evident that the end was near for the old conjuror. Of course Astumastao sang in her native tongue this first sweet hymn she had ever learned, “Jesus my all to heaven is gone, He whom I fix my hopes upon; His track I see, and I’ll pursue. The narrow way till Him I view.”
When two or three verses had been sung, the dying man said, “Who is this Jesus?”
Fortunately for Astumastao, her devoted teacher had believed in having the children commit to memory portions of the Sacred Book. And so, in answer to that thrilling question from the dying man, she replied, “This Jesus is the Son of the Great Spirit, who died to save us. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have ever lasting life.’”
The sick man was thrilled and startled, and said, “Say it again and again.”
So over again and again she repeated it.
“Can you remember anything more?” he whispered.
“Not much,” she replied. “But I do remember that my teacher taught me that this Jesus, the Son of the Great Spirit, said something like this: ‘Him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out.’”
“Did He say,” said the dying man, “that included the Indian? May he go too in the good white man’s way?”
“Oh yes,” she answered, “I remember about that very well. The good missionary was constantly telling us that the Great Spirit and His Son loved everybody, Indians as well as whites.”
“Sing again to me,” he said.
And so she sang, “Lo, glad I come, and Thou, blest Lamb, Shalt take me to Thee as I am. Nothing but sin have I to give, Nothing but love shall I receive.”
“What did you say was His Name ?”
“Jesus,” she sobbed.
“Lift up my head,” he said to his weeping wife. “Take hold of my hand, my niece,” he said. “It is getting so dark, I cannot see the trail. I have no guide. What did you say was His Name?”
“Jesus,” again she sobbed.
And with that name on his lips he was gone.
Discourse 6 with Rachel Zolf
July 25, 2012
Responding to stories with stories is appropriate, and defines appropriation. The shift of property from mouth to mouth seems to take place in whispers and during in-between states. Be it of the brazen “My daddy can beat up Rambo / O Yea? My daddy can beat up Rimbaud” variety, or gossip, or the historical renovation of master narratives. Think of how the droning dictation during catechism keeps sleepy kids, dragged out of their Saturday night pyjamas, from nodding off, or how the hushed nightly reading of The Giving Tree sends children to their sweet 80 percent wool, 20 percent cotton winter naps, or how the hiss of rumor between two desks in a classroom half-lit by a flickering projector during sex-“ed” defines power hierarchies during recess. These stories are carried forward to audiences who are half-there, rapt or distracted, on-their-way-to-else.
Reading the story you sent me highlights vocality’s relation to storytelling. The form of its narrative — its curved syntax, its adjectives, its repeated saccharine pockets — is suited for the guardian’s (cultural? parental?) voice and for the sleepy child open to moral instruction. On the page, the narrative is less instructive and more threatening — its colonizing fantasy and violence screeches more sharply. The story is charged with intimacy in its form, but stripped too of its potential to become intimate to the listening subject. (I was certainly not tucked into bed by you). Obviously, wrenching story from the oral tradition also involves the displacement of mediums — from voice to page — and of audiences — from bunkbed to book.
You’re working on a project that adapts and curates Canadian white-settler narratives to the medium of appropriative poetry — could you say more about this project? How does storytelling and appropriation come together or diverge for you? How does the retinal page segue from the oral moral tales?
Dear Definitely Not Muff-Divya,
Here I am, as Abraham would say, writing to you from the so-called neutral Swiss alps, batting away pontificating EGS philosophy boys and trying not to feel too oversaturated by the monstrous landscape. Hey, there’s Žižek referring to Toni Morrison as a “fat black bitch,” and there’s writer Ilija Trojanow declaiming that Bulgarians are the “niggers of Europe.” Did that guy I was just discoursing with about bodies in architectural space just mutter to a swaggering friend that he hadn’t “tried with this one yet,” i.e., tried to hit on me? Yesterday, my new friend Chris and I climbed a mountain on our day off from Continental philosophy. I felt so Swiss and Romantic, until the last 50 meters when I felt like an old lady leaning on Chris’s hairy Lacanian-Canadian arm. Today we have a new teacher, the writer and Semiotexte cofounder Chris Kraus, and most of the philosophy boys chose to stay behind with last week’s professor, the one I called “Daddy” who decried “identity politics” and “political correctness” before introducing us to Heidegger. Did Daddy (who’s Jewish btw) really just ask my classmate where she’s from, and when she replied that she’s Palestinian, suggest “so you’re a Jew from Arab descent?”
The mood in class changed palpably today, and I felt relieved I didn’t have to come home at lunch to take Rescue Remedy while my true friend Melissa Buzzeo kindly recited to me from Luce Irigaray’s The Way of Love:
Some theosophists, some defenders of interiority, in love with the cosmos, as body and as universe, in love with a divine not reduced to a logos, resist the formal games to which these eunuchs of the heart and the flesh abandon themselves in diverse coteries. They are suspect in the eyes of such theorists, who seem to forget that the most rational knowledge is first mystical … For lack of taking this into account, knowledge, if it can be submitted to battles, notably with regard to power and appropriation, no longer conveys much meaning … it hardly indicates a path for living, loving, thinking with wisdom. The philosophers of the West are without doubt the first technocrats of whom we suffer today multiple avatars …
With, thus, a privileging of the object, of the similar, of the multiple, as the speech of little boys, adolescents, and men bears witness. A privileging that is totally unthought by the philosopher but which constrains him to remain among those like himself without confronting the delicate relational, but also logical, problems that a dialogue with one or several different subjects poses, or would pose. With women, for example. (3–4)
Fast forward a few days to a new pedagogical expérience (with a French accent and a decidedly German twist) and Hey, did that pretty-famous-I think-supposedly-feminist-definitely-supposedly-“outsider” Derridean philosopher just use battle imagery and violently shut down all discourse that didn’t come at her in a phallogocentric, uh, vein, while shamelessly flirting with the two philosophy garçons mentioned above? She had had dreams of people putting masks on their faces in order to avert disaster. One of these dreams was of a high tower on a hill being pushed over and falling down on the inhabitants of a village below, but the people put on masks and escaped injury!
It’s funny, I had this sort of crisis of conscience a couple days before I got on the plane to lope over the mountains like Frankenstein’s unnameable remnant son, thinking “Why am I still buying into Western notions of epistemology and ontology when there are more holistic and a fuck of a lot more embodied models of thinking out there about self and world?” I thought about how it wasn’t until I went to Palestine for the first time during the 2009 war on Gaza that I woke up to the ongoing colonization of First Nations in Canada. Why didn’t I know that the Boers modeled the bantustans on “our” reserve system? Why wasn’t that in the school textbooks? There I was writing a book in response to the ongoing murderous effects of insidious denial and disavowal in Israeli society, and I had no real consciousness of my own place as a settler-invader on someone else’s soil, no sense of response-ability (however impossible/disavowed that gesture may be in Continental philo-parlance) to indigenous knowledges and ontologies — and realities.
Anyway, I’ve gathered a number of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century white Canadian settler narratives, fictional and nonfictional, and am writing into their aporias and catachrestic moments. You could say I’m a little hunchback pulling messianic time flashes out of my solar anus, because I still like Bataille and Benjamin. Maybe I’ll coin a new um movement called Cunnilingual philosophy.
Back to the bit of puppetry I sent you, it may be important to note that the word “Indian” is much more charged among the wimpy Canadian multicultis than among US melting pot cowboys. This story is a snippet of a portrait of one of the “real” Christian missionaries who really took First Nations, Métis, and Inuit kids from their families and stripped them of language and culture and clothes and dignity and yes, voice. So there is appropriation and appropriation, and I know both are violent, and I am trying not to appropriate as I appropriate, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appropriate from the appropriators. Capiche?
Must return to Kraus class, though I’m already in Agamben’s (time spills). Supposed to bring three objects to write to via personal discursive autoprose, and I am hopeless at personal discursive autoprose. Think I’ll bring Irigaray, the Rescue Remedy, and the pen. Think that while I’m out there gleaning discourse to fold and shove and tinker into eruption, I should never again leave behind the mark of the hand of the poet. It matters.
Discourse 7 with Rachel Zolf
August 15, 2012
Why do I have that awful brute Rex Harrison singing “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” in my head? That awful, pedantic, Professor Higgins. You know, the truth is, he does begin the song with a “Damn, damn, damn!” And that’s how I close this discourse. I truly am damn, damn, damn sorry it’s ending. I’ve enjoyed our yearlong conversation and it has transformed my own thinking and writing over the last many months. For this and for all your patience and camaraderie, I thank you.
Damn, damn, damn.
DVide and Canker
PS: As we close our conversation in this context, I ask all poet-discoursers to ask my next poet-discourser a question. What is your question for this poet? Send it to me after your adieu.
I just read over our discourses — were we on acid? There’s a guy in my class here in the grotesque alps who takes acid every other morning — and he’s more lucid than the profs! Shall we really make this ecstasis public? I can feel the vultures wheeling. Still, I am beside myself with longing for your beautiful thinking. Thank you, dear Dingo.
Always already yours,
Rachie-poops (indeed a real childhood moniker)
PS: Dear Next-Discourser,
Do we have the right to bear witness?
1. “All that stuff on the walls is gone, along with every bit of privacy. Actually viewers don’t intend social interaction. They come to look at art. But without knowing it, they are an integral part of the work they see. How unsettling, and uncomfortable.” Sandy Ballatore, “Michael Asher: Less Is Enough,” Artweek 5, no. 34 (October 12, 1974): 16.
2. Rachel Zolf presented a paper at the Rethinking Poetics conference, Columbia University, New York, June 12, 2010. Panel title, “Affective Economies and Prosodies,” with Jeff Derksen, Lisa Robertson, and Chris Nealon.
An interview with Bill Berkson
Note: That the critic and the poet should be the same person is not a surprise when it comes to the work of Bill Berkson. Both activities have fruitfully informed one another over five decades of writing. What remains engaging in all of Berkson’s writing is how each poem and how every essay continues to be so distinctively and affectionately rendered.
In his “Critical Reflections,” Berkson expresses a commitment to “communicating the spontaneously dense, specific and often paradoxical events of consciousness in the face of contemporary works,” that he desires “to tell the polymorphous story of the thing.”
There are some affinities in Berkson’s polymorphous poetry to John Ashbery, especially The Tennis Court Oath, but Berkson marks the lyric poem in ways distinct from Ashbery. In Berkson’s collaboration with Bernadette Mayer, What’s Your Idea of a Good Time?, Mayer asks: “Do you think clarity, in poetry, is a thing to be worked toward?” Berkson answers:
I don’t think of clarity as an ideal. It’s just one face, very often very superficial. But declaration seems like a miracle. Why be so equivocal like everything else? The style of the times is equivocal, so the best poets seem like raving solipsists. Anyhow, poetry starts with a clarity flash — lines that open up a space, even if by themselves they don’t look so clear. Most poems I like are clear all the way, or are mostly forthright.
Berkson’s poems can be playful, but he is not a trickster. In fact, the more you read, the more you see just how forthright the poems are. Anselm Berrigan has commented that Berkson’s poems “quietly demand a clear eye without forcing a kind of clarity onto the reader.” And he quotes: “Nothing is more perfectly obscure / than the trace of intention and no mess.”
There is a great untangled fusion in Berkson’s best poems. The fusion is manifest in nearly every aspect of the work, including his use of talk (often decentered) as well as his artful description (often understated). Berkson’s poem portraits, such as “Roy Eldridge, Little Jazz,” “To Lynn,” and “An Ives,” are all achievements in this art of finely fused description. There is a deceptively matter-of-fact quality in Berkson’s poetry that emerges from his ability to consolidate object and subject. The latter is indicative of Berkson’s light yet incisive touch. He writes:
A man sitting at a piano, singing and talking.
A woman using an electric fan on her hair.
Berkson’s fact poems intertwine and become part of the poem’s history. In his compelling longer poem “Start Over,” facts and personal history intersect on specific days in specific places. Another favorite fact-driven poem is his “Broom Genealogy.” The poem turns on distinctions, but here personal history and facts overlap and becoming nearly indistinguishable. Berkson writes:
Eventually I learn to distinguish between two kinds of broom plants,
French and Scotch. Every time I take a walk with you I get to ask
one question about plant life, another you say I always forget
the answer next time around so my questions are repetitive like
an absurdist play or catechism. Both French and Scotch broom are
somehow naturally fixed in the mesa ground, the clay and sand and
real dirt of it, thought the Scotch kind you generally find
closer to the cliffs. […]
In the landscape, in the relationship with the narrator’s walking partner, in the intricate family genealogies — the poem continues on.
Some context for Berkson’s poetry can be gleaned from historian Christine Stansell’s American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. Stansell writes:
The talk was artful, with formal principles at work. The urbane, politically aware conversation was notable not for its discursive unity but for its juxtapositions: it was pastiche of speech, a bricolage, a collage. Lack of cohesion was the fundamental principle, random items and topics from the vast range of American life assembled with tonic excitement. It was an aesthetic exercise in daily life, a quotidian American corollary to European high-modernist aesthetics of language […]. Broadly speaking, the linguistic play of Ulysses and the urbane stream of consciousness of Greenwich Village talk were fostered by similar urban forces: a booming print culture, the spread of advertising, and the compression of polylingual populations, all touching off an explosion of language.
In all of his poems Berkson is singular in multiplicities, and perhaps he is most powerfully so in some of his shortest poems, which are simultaneously maximalist and minimalist. In the poem “Stamina,” he writes:
worn like sweaters against dark drifts.
He blinks in several places.
Then I wiped out the face
and when the face was gone
the skyline was standing
broke “in what
childhood scuffle I forget”
Employing numerous devices, Berkson continues to expand the reach of the lyric. Perhaps the most explicit characteristic, of my favorite Berkson poems, is an unflagging sense of forward momentum and “a forward love.” Here the senses promote the heart and mind and all that can intersect it into his nuanced idiom. In his poem “By Halves” Berkson’s synthesis is manifest. He writes:
do limits build
both sweet and cruel
or over to you off at
your compass studies,
visor to odd angles perforated,
plumb to sky
to service mouthful signage in pearly
cantina load where squawks from a ceiling,
headed down the demon slopes
for work place, total their sheer
carbon feed on an average night
that at any guardrail slick nails the morphological in bins?
Thus backup wealth lifts an ancient spume, glowering with grammar
whose joined bronze gives pause,
erect lapse paging glory, when wing is rag
This interview was conducted in 2008 at the San Francisco home of Berkson and his wife Constance Lewallen. It was first published in Zoland Poetry no. 5 (2011).
Thomas Devaney: Your poem “Blue Is the Hero” leads with the line “leading with his chin” and ends on “like fun in the sun, air in the air.” It’s a portrait of sorts: one of a time that has passed and that is currently passing in the moment of the poem.
Bill Berkson: Thanks. I think of it as what Gregory Corso would call a “top shot” for me, at least up until that time, summer of 1968.
Devaney: Sometimes it seems you’ve found your form in shorter poems. Poe, in his perfect Poe way, says that long poems do not exist. Still, it’s interesting that a slightly longer poem like “Fugue State” highlights a central mode in your own idiom.
Berkson: Soon after it appeared in print, Kenneth Koch told me how much he liked that poem and another called “In Gray Sweats.” He said they indicated something fresh in my work, which in retrospect seems true — or at least they went on at greater length. I think it was then that Kenneth urged me to write a really long poem for a change — something I still feel honor-bound to try. I don’t write long poems, or haven’t. The model I have in mind for one is Kenneth’s own 100-page, twenty-five lines per page “When the Sun Tries to Go On.”
Devaney: You’ve really explored the possibilities of the shorter form for sure. I like your poem “15 ½ / 34.” It’s not that it’s just both tight and open, but it’s tailored too, cut and fit: everything is where it needs to be. Anyway, “Fugue State,” long as it might be for you, is still in my own Bill Berkson anthology.
Berkson: Well, it’s funny you say that because that’s the one Dave Brinks asked me especially to read in New Orleans last week when I read at the Gold Mine. And it came home to me — not for the first time — but I said to him, I always hesitate reading that poem. It’s a very hard one to read. I think the difficulty may date to my years with severe lung disease. It’s hard to get up to speed, to arrive at the proper tempo when one is short of breath.
Devaney: That’s no small thing. Shortly before he died Creeley remarked upon having a “crisis of breath.” In 2004 you nearly died from lung disease. Your health — and that fact that you’re alive right now and we’re talking here — is a remarkable thing. How is your health right now?
Berkson: I’m in pretty good health, allowing for all the medications a post-transplant patient has to take to maintain the middle way between the ills immunosuppression can foster and the rejection of transplant organs it’s supposed to prevent.
Devaney: Well you made it. It’s miraculous. Now when you said that “Fugue State” is a difficult poem to read out loud, is that because of your own shortness of breath, or for other reasons, not including the challenges of reading any poem in a bar setting?
Berkson: Yes, well, shortness of breath can defeat just about any poem of significant length, especially if it’s meant to zip along, too. By now — post-transplant, as they say — I can meet the demands set by any poem pretty well, and I enjoy trying out different tempos and “vocal stylings,” as it were. But I should emphasize that reading for Brinks at the Gold Mine Saloon has come to be an extraordinary pleasure. As Andrei Codrescu said after the reading, it’s the only bar in the world where the ambient noise actually lifts instead of defeating you. The whole scene is so exhilarating. At the start of my reading I heard some ring tones coming from the far end of the bar. I stopped and said, “Somebody turn off their cell phone,” and a voice answered, “It’s not a cell phone, it’s the pinball machine and it doesn’t turn off.” Poetry plus pinball. So that continued — no problem — and it turned out inspiring.
Devaney: So that one actually worked in the crowded murmur of the bar?
Berkson: Yes, you know, something in that poem and some few others comes clear for me that has persisted in the poems from the get-go. I think of it as my “Waste Land” mode.
Devaney: Eliot and you, that’s interesting, please say more.
Berkson: Encountering Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in high school yielded my first sense of serious poetry, and of modern poetry altogether. It was really the beginning for me. Before “The Waste Land,” although I had begun to write poetry, it was just a general field where I was casting about haphazardly. I had absolutely no taste. I would look at and try to copy poems in The Saturday Evening Post or The Saturday Review of Literature or virtually anywhere. You know, whatever anthologies we were handed in school, with their smatterings of Shakespeare and Milton, Vachel Lindsay and John Masefield. “The Waste Land” was the first modern poem for me that was recognizably that, but also I sensed that this was a poem of some power.
Devaney: So you’re still talking about being in high school, right?
Berkson: Yes, at this point I was fifteen or sixteen. I thought I knew what Eliot’s poem was about, or anyhow I was determined to find out. So I read up on it, all the secondary literature, which wasn’t much then, but then I also took this other initiative, which was to educate myself through Eliot. I followed the notes to “The Waste Land.” So that gave me John Donne and Dante, Jessie Weston, The Golden Bough, John Webster, Ovid, and so on. Then a teacher at Lawrenceville kindly handed me his annotated copy of Pound’s Personae and I got the Eliot-Pound connection. That was the beginning of a real poetry education, you know, where before it had been mostly osmosis — unconscious absorption. I paid so much attention to — not the method — but how “The Waste Land” happens as you read it. And about reading it: you have to wrench the poem audibly away from Eliot’s way of reading it, the one that’s on record anyway. It’s like Ron Padgett said about Wallace Stevens — at some point, you have to hear the poems read, not in the author’s rather stuffy intonations, but in the voice of some Ozark balladeer.
Spoleto, 1965: Bill Berkson, John Ashbery, John Wieners, unknown, Desmond O’Grady, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Olga Rudge, unknown, and two unknown in background.
Devaney: All the same, “The Waste Land” is a landmark. There’s still something immediate in the voices and bits here and there that retain their mystery after all this time. And how the classical and the contemporary (at least at that moment) were put together in the way that they were.
Berkson: One of the critics called it a “cinematographic” way of composing. So that business of one line put next to the other, phrases from diverse sources — I now realize how that persists with me. Frank O’Hara once introduced me at a reading at NYU by saying that I was the only young American poet making an interesting use of T. S. Eliot. How he figured that out I’ll never know. There’s a funny connection, too, between that brief phase of Eliot and what is loosely called Cubist poetry, “Lundi rue Christine” by Apollinaire or certain poems of Reverdy, the really adventurous French poets Eliot seems to have had no interest in. But then on to “Europe”: from “The Waste Land” to John Ashbery’s “Europe” seemed like a simple step.
Berkson: No, but clear to me. “Europe” was, in those terms, immediately comprehensible. Both “The Waste Land” and “Europe” — and this is, I think, key — allowed for a sense of format. Which is to say, whether it was Coolidge or Padgett, Dick Gallup or Ted Berrigan, Joe Ceravolo — those of us inspired by what John Ashbery was doing in the poems of The Tennis Court Oath, particularly “Europe” — each poet responded in his own way. Format was the handy aspect there. Ashbery was taking apart his native language, which had, because he was living a French life in Paris, become distant to him; his relation to language being already aslant with irony as it is. The so-called ‘pulverized’ language of “Europe” and those other poems was different from ours in that ours would not or had not yet composed itself. For myself, a nonsyntactical grid of words and phrases — or one where the syntax is slippery — allowed for a way of locating what I had. For the poems, or some of them, early on, all I had was a feeling for how to lay them out, some of which came from print culture generally, some from how “Europe” looked on the page, and otherwise from visual art and music. In some of the poems in my first book Saturday Night I repeated the layout of one poem for the next.
Devaney: That sounds right, so what did you do with that?
Berkson: Right, or what did I have to do? A lot of words banging around in my head, and not a lot of experience, not a lot of ideas or philosophy — though I could sort of fake or try it out, like trying out a philosophical tone. But for “experience” as in an “I do this, I do that” type of experience …what did I know? Very little.
Devaney: You’re smiling. It is a question of knowing?
Berkson: Well, yes and no, but all I knew was that I was sort of in love with words, and putting them together — phrases, one phrase next to another. The introduction to that kind of love is part of what Kenneth Koch provided in his workshop.
Devaney: What an enduring gift to give to a class and to receive as a student.
Berkson: It had a deep impact on me. My taste had improved, but I didn’t have much in the way of character. Through studying that one year with Kenneth I got to know O’Hara and Ashbery and Kenneth’s own poetry, and with their poems, this wonderful sense of high surface. But I took it that surface could be made of an almost innate sense of design or format into or through which I could put what I had, what I was carrying. I had words and phrases, music and patter, but no syntax. Or else the syntax, the language so to speak, that was available — the official language of 1950s America, the language of grownups in my social class, upper-middle, more or less — was absurd to the point of oppressive. Growing up absurd. As Saint Augustine says, “I heard the language of men,” at some distance, as if from the back seat of a car. I had some instinctual and also some well-trained formalities, but Americans are no good at forms. We seem to be very handy with design or what I tend to call format. Looking back, I understood that Ashbery was — just as Burroughs was — working in a completely different way, and both of course wildly different from each other, from different angles.
Devaney: What were their different ways in your view?
Berkson: Well Ashbery was refamiliarizing himself with his American language because he was living away from and lonesome for it. Burroughs was trying to attack the logical order of words. “Breakthrough in the grey room.” The subtext was Korzybski, whom Ted Berrigan also admired. I was maybe, in a way, closer to Burroughs’s way of seeing it, because I felt very aggressive about trying to short circuit any kind of anticipated meaning, to defeat the reader’s habitual expectations at all costs. I thought I wanted to write poems that didn’t mean anything.
Devaney: This is either a very simple, or a very loaded question, but is that possible?
Berkson: I thought it was. I was schooled to read any poem or story for a defined meaning — everything was symbol and metaphor — after which, if you get it, you sort of discard the text, a system I found nauseating and reacted accordingly. Then again I came to this sort of joyful, but also scary realization that meaning is unavoidable — you have to watch your language, what it might be saying. I got more interested in poems with a presence of meaning, or in which meaning is a sort of felt presence. Sometimes you feel you could get it, grasp and define it, and sometimes not, but you feel an impingement, an atmosphere where shifting connotations appear almost graspable.
Devaney: I think that describes something of what happens in a number of your poems. “A presence of meaning.” I like that.
Berkson: Presentiment. The sense of shifting or multiple meanings thickens the plot. With that came this other realization, that the scatter all fits, whether one intervenes or not, to make it so. As Beckett says, the mess gets accommodated. A similar thing became obvious to me much later — very recently, in fact — in the works of visual artists. Like the way Americans — and some immigrant Americans too — took cubism. Stuart Davis for one, and Arshile Gorky for another, took cubism as design, a design style. It wasn’t composition like it was for Braque and Picasso, or even Gleizes and the other Parisian cubists. Shifting planes — “planometrics,” they called it in midcentury art classes, when cubism had become an easy teaching tool — for Gorky and Davis was a format into which you could plug in whatever meaningful matter you were carrying.
Devaney: [Smiling.] Well, you’re describing an entire world, or several. Gorky’s painting “How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life” seems to be relevant for your poems: the concert and the abstract. Can you break it down a little more?
Berkson: Well Gorky came to America with his Armenian memory baggage, some of it mightily traumatic. You can see in his pictures all the stuff that goes into Turkish or Armenian rugs, birds, flowers, his mother’s apron, Paradise, the gate to Paradise. He found a place for it in the configurations that cubism made possible. Better there than in some surrealist stage set. Same thing with Davis. For him it was New York or Gloucester, as well as the look of an environment freshly plastered with signage. It’s a way of putting your specificity into a larger, mediating context. That’s what Americans tend to do about form; and what they do about subject matter — maybe because the sense of particulars is so strong in us — if they have enough respect for the art they’re dealing with, what O’Hara called poetry-respecting objectivity — which is also to say a bigger applicability. If Ashbery were writing a sestina about growing up in upstate New York — you know, with those cherry trees and the canning factory down the path — OK, the sestina is the setting for it, the front-page layout.
Another aspect of this is visible in the Guston drawing there across the [dining] room. Guston said, “I want to make or do something that will baffle me for some time.” I’ve been baffled by this drawing for almost fifty years, gladly, you know.
Devaney: That’s wonderful, because the drawing keeps revealing itself?
Berkson: Yes, I keep seeing new things in it. Someone was here and said that they saw a woman reading a book. That I’ve never seen. Connie’s five-year-old granddaughter sees it as just a bunch of squiggles. I’ve seen all kinds of things in it: syringe, leaf, schlong, hand, balloon, balloon head, tendrils. But what I love about it is the in-between-ness of — similar to what goes on in Jackson Pollock’s late black and white works — going towards an identifiable image and at just the last millimeter, flick of the wrist; veering away so that an “almost” recognition is left. A suggestion, suggestibility, furthering multiple suggestions. So that it’s not so literal. In writing, it’s not so much saying something, spelling it out or expressing some unfathomable “inside,” as an atmosphere that allows words to be taken as they’re given, one put next to another, line knocking against line — as someone said recently about the poem inspired by Richard Tuttle, like boats moored next to one another — open to meanings that accrue.
Devaney: And that’s a kind of description of some of your work, too.
Berkson: Yeah, some of it. A French translator whom you know, Béatrice Trotignon, asked which connotations I intended for certain words in a poem she was working on — or did I mean it to be polysemic? I wrote her that there should be as much polysemy as the poem could hold. But, at the same time, obviously some of my poems perform like those Gustons that, as he said, tell stories. If you have a story to tell, you tell the story or you find that it is a story by way of the telling. But even there there’s a little something, a texture perhaps, that calls the literalness of the account into question.
Devaney: I’ve never thought about Guston’s work in terms of telling a story. And you used the word baffling a minute ago, so it’s another way that he continues to baffle us in his raw and gorgeous work as story. Anyway, you can plug in what you’re carrying — each in his or her own way. But when I think about Eliot and Four Quartets after “The Waste Land,” and then Ashbery — they also have powerful forms. Whether it all works or not, there’s such a presiding tone in Four Quartets — and then Ashbery’s tone, or tones.
Berkson: Interesting, because after “The Skaters” came out — which is to say, after he put the language back together — we had lunch in New York at Larrés and I said that the poem reminded me of The Four Quartets, and he said he’d always meant to read them, and probably would. I think what happened was he had so steeped himself in secondhand Eliot — he may not have read Eliot much at all, though God knows Eliot was almost unavoidable in the ’40s — but he had read the post-Eliot poets: Devlin, Delmore Schwartz, F. T. Prince, John Wheelwright. Even the hoax poet Ern Malley of Angry Penguins fame was a post-Eliot poet, in some ways the most exemplary.
Devaney: Avoiding Eliot would have impossible altogether. Auden seemed to engage Eliot by fruitfully swerving from him.
Berkson: John, Frank and Kenneth loved the early poems of Auden, who was Eliot’s direct successor. So I think it came through that way. Then later on he wrote an essay — John Ashbery did — on Kitaj, and he connected Kitaj with Eliot. So obviously by then he had been reading Eliot. This was in the ’70s or ’80s.
Devaney: For me Auden does something different from his modernist predecessors; I feel your poems are similar to Auden’s in that you both used mixed styles and are not grand actors in historical dramas, but are both present in actual histories in other ways. Still I understand there are some threads in Eliot that are not obvious and remain generative for you. But early on, it was more the forms that got you rather than the tones?
Berkson: No, early on it was that curious thing, you know — when you’re a teenager, depressing literature is very appealing. Angst, despair, melancholy — they all answer the confusion you feel, which feels heavy but may not be the same as despair. All those books that I read — Dostoyevsky, all the existentialist material and so forth, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, which is sort of a guide to the depressed side of existentialism, which I now know wasn’t all that existentialism was about — but that was the cover story, the popular view. Like Funny Face — sallow-faced girls in berets and leotards, sullen boys and everybody sort of down. And so depressed literature just answered my confusion and sense of the absurd, which I then followed, responded to by getting into a serious funk as a kid. Kenneth to a certain extent saved me from indulging that funk too much.
Devaney: You once mentioned a teacher you had, who you said said: “You may not know it, but you are all existentialists!”
Berkson: Oh yeah — Gerald Weales, who taught a wonderful seminar in my freshman year at Brown and who now lives in Philadelphia. You met him when he came to the Kelly Writers House the day Trevor Winkfield and I were there. And it’s very interesting because I thought, if you walked into the classroom today, could you look around the table and say, “You may not know it, but you are all Pragmatists” — or Neo-Pragmatists. Actually, Neo-Pragmatism grew out of — certainly in the shape of Richard Rorty — rereading Sartre, along with Pierce, Dewey and William James, in a different way. So it continues in a certain way. But it’s not so French. The French went elsewhere, less productively, I think.
Devaney: These are large ideas and forces you’re talking about.
Berkson: Yes, but at the poetry level I think it is this willingness to see — it is like, where are you going to project juvenile confusion and rage? I found my analogies in existentialist and protoexistentialist literature, because that’s the way things were supposed to be in the ’50s anyway. There was a kind of glamour attached to that mess.
Devaney: So how have your feelings held up or not about some of these ideas?
Berkson: About ten years ago I wondered what it would be like to read those books now. It certainly is a shock to understand Sartre or Dostoievski, say, from the point of having lived fifty or sixty years. At sixteen or seventeen, I hadn’t a clue, other than that subterranean connection. It was just the general aura of the thing. Edwin Denby said about Goethe’s Elective Affinities that it’s a book you shouldn’t read until you’re sixty years old. Funny because Elective Affinities is about two relatively young couples and their falling in love in more or less tic-tac-toe fashion. There are, however, books you probably shouldn’t read, won’t really understand, until you’re at least forty. I wasn’t alone in reading somewhat precociously — I belonged to this group of schoolboys who were just avid readers.
Devaney: For the record, or tape — or this digital sound device we’re talking into now — I want to question if the word “avid” is the best one to describe your reading habits? You were probably a few notches above avid, no?
Berkson: Well the idea was to read the whole of the Modern Library series. But we were really after the really depressing or dangerous ones — the taboo authors like André Gide with his act gratuit, and any obscenity, smatterings of homosexuality were in. Whether it was Radclyffe Hall or, you know — any sex. Henry Miller was banned in the USA then, so was Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Anaïs Nin. Absurd. Sex books were high on the list for obvious reasons.
Devaney: A great confluence no doubt. It’s a certain continental modernism you’re talking about too, and somewhere in all of that (and so so much) there’s some through-line to Ashbery’s “Europe” as well?
Berkson: “Europe” appeared, fortuitously, in the same issue of Big Table as a poem of mine that constituted my first magazine appearance outside of school journals. What number? Four. Paul Carroll decided to call a section of that issue “The New American Poets.”
Devaney: What year was that? Sometime in the late ’50s?
Berkson: 1959. Kenneth Koch encouraged me to send some poems to Don Allen for his anthology. And also to Paul Carroll, who was continuing Big Table with contents forbidden when it was Chicago Review. I sent just one poem off to Paul Carroll, a poem called “Poem,” which Larry Fagin reprinted last year in his anonymous issue of Sal Mimeo. It’s also in my Portrait and Dream. It begins, “You showed me the greatest poem of the century, / and then I wrote the greatest poem of the century.” A little Ashbery-esque, probably influenced by the long-uncollected poem that he published in the Evergreen Review called “The Poems” that Ted Berrigan kept referring to in The Sonnets. It was a poem in numbered sections.
Devaney: Interesting, until recently I thought Berrigan was referring to his own poem there. But to keep things straight, you were talking about your own poem called “Poem” right?
Berkson: Yes, well, Paul Carroll replied with a postcard saying, “I think you are a poet.” Wow, you know, “poet”? Ordained, so to speak. So the thing comes out, and there were maybe three or four quite young people, Diane DiPrima, me, I forget who else. But anyway “Europe” appeared. That was the first time anyone in New York other than maybe Kenneth and Frank had seen it. Other poems that were in The Tennis Court Oath may have appeared — I think some were in Floating Bear. So then next came The Tennis Court Oath.
Devaney: It’s a significant moment. And when was your first book published, in ’61?
Berkson: That’s right. And those Ashbery poems were already coming out, like “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher.” The Tennis Court Oath didn’t come out until 1962.
Devaney: There’s a lot going on with many different people all over the place too.
Berkson: Well, in October ’61, four months after Saturday Night appeared, I was in Paris and went with O’Hara to Joan Mitchell’s loft. She had the galley proofs of The Tennis Court Oath, which I immediately grabbed and went over in a corner and just started poring over. And I remember Joan saying, about “Europe,” “God, how I worked on that poem!” and Frank then saying, “John is the foremost poet of our age.” For people who at least were on to those magazines, the excitement was gathering well before the book came out.
Devaney: Even today The Tennis Court Oath still serves as a litmus test sensibility-wise.
Berkson: For me the book is important. I had a strange opportunity to say as much to Seamus Heaney, whom I met when Clark Coolidge and I went to Harvard to talk about Philip Guston. They sat me next to Heaney in the Faculty Club. It turned out that Heaney’s wife had met my mother in Dublin and they liked each other. I knew that Heaney knew Ashbery, so John’s name came up. At one point, knowing I was crossing some line, I said, The Tennis Court Oath was the most important of John’s books for my generation of poets. Well, Heaney’s the same generation! We were born the same year, he’s about five months older. But there I was, seeing him as a grown-up, as I tend to with unknown quantities. In such company I forget that I am an old man too! Well anyway, his face just fell. And I thought, uh-oh, an Ashbery too far. But I had made my point. There’s this camp of people — Harold Bloom is the least of them — who think John is great for whatever reason they have devised, but that The Tennis Court Oath was a brief aberration. I mean Ashbery really is, as Frank said, the foremost, along with a few other foremosts, and that’s not to say John’s other work isn’t great — I also love his recent poetry — but The Tennis Court Oath remains superb and the most suggestive of possibilities. I keep looking back into it, and it still holds up, just as dazzling.
Devaney: What I’m interested in is the fact that even Ashbery’s public remarks on his own book help to keep the conversation from simply being another predigested Raw and Cooked debate.
Berkson: Well, the talk about the book is one thing and what it means to me is another. In fact I’ve had two inclinations lately. You mentioned The Four Quartets. I have about three paperback editions — one very pretty one, the Harper Torchbook edition. Nick Dorsky, the filmmaker, who’s always reading those poems, inspired me to think it would be interesting to go back into the Quartets and write a sort of parallel text. Now I think the same about The Tennis Court Oath — that I’d like to go back into it and work off it in some way. I don’t know how. But it’s tantamount to the impulse to write some of Saturday Night again, but fifty years later.
Devaney: Maybe that’s what you are doing?
Berkson: It’s possible. Because, as I intimate in that Skowhegan lecture, you get to a point where you recognize that you’re doing certain things, themes or motifs that you went after when you were you were starting out but couldn’t quite address. The matter needed more handiness or clarity, a level of technique that the young artist or poet can’t muster. I’ve seen this more plainly in visual artists. A painter will come back, consciously or not — older and wiser, like they say, or just plain handier — to a certain image. You don’t necessarily declare this for yourself. The worker ant inside you takes care of that, recognizes that possibility.
Devaney: There’s also this idea, about the Four Quartets and The Tennis Court Oath, kind of doing another text: the tradition of art responding to art, and the criticism actually becoming the next work.
Berkson: Well that’s Pound’s assertion, that the best criticism of a poem was the next poem, and that just keeps coming up for me, that sense of ongoing conversation.
Devaney: There’s a word you used another time we were talking, it was “contemporaneous.”
Bill Berkson and George Schneeman, "Stars Fell …," egg tempera on paper, 2008.
Berkson: It’s funny. I was just reading in Art in America, the obit for Mike Goldberg, who died at eighty-three. John’s eighty now. So the obit says, “one of the last original abstract expressionists,” which puts him in the same class as de Kooning and Pollock.
Devaney: But Goldberg was second generation?
Berkson: Yeah, he was second generation. Um, yeah. You get past a certain age, and some are older than others — eighty isn’t sixty — but you never feel your age, really. Except when the creaks in the system occur.
Devaney: Good lord we can’t escape the body. But back to the artifactual idea of the contemporaneous.
Berkson: Amiri Baraka was here in San Francisco to give a reading recently, and I went backstage to see him. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. We hadn’t talked, probably, in 40 years. So I go back and introduce myself to him. Why? Because I’ve probably changed over time and he might not know me. And he says, “My god, when I knew you when you were just a kid!” OK, but he’s just five years older than I am.
Devaney: Ah, is that right?
Berkson: Yes, he’s born 1934, I’m born in 1939. Think of it, the generation of 1934 is him, Joanne Kyger, Diane Di Prima, John Wieners, Ted Berrigan, quite an array. But he was LeRoi Jones when I met him — you know, editor of Yugen, poet of Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. That already had happened, and he was in the New American Poetry, on and on. So I said to him, “Yes, isn’t it great? Now we’re the same age!” You know, five years doesn’t matter anymore. I’m three years older than Ron Padgett, you’ll be sixty someday with me around or not, and so it goes, on down the line.
Devaney: What you’re saying is completely right, but at certain points five years is a huge difference, and then voilá, you and Baraka are the same age! Still it was still a vote of confidence for Koch to urge you to send poems to Don Allen. After all you were young at that time.
Berkson: I was. I don’t know if there was anybody that young … David Meltzer, Kirby Doyle. Much later I ran into Don Allen at the Living Theater and made so bold as to walk up to him and say, “Did you get those poems I sent you?” Because I never heard “boo” from him. He didn’t send me a — Don wasn’t the most gracious of men. “Aspish as ever” is what Jimmy Schuyler said when he saw him here in the late ’80s. So when I asked Don he said outright, “Yes, but I thought they were too much like John Ashbery.” He was probably right. I certainly had no comeback to that. At that time, too much Ashbery was good enough for me.
Devaney: You hadn’t published Saturday Night at that point, right?
Berkson: That’s right, Saturday Night wasn’t even part of the package. You know, Don must have sewn up his anthology by ’59 to get it out by ’60. I think. I don’t know. I never felt like, “I should have been in there.” Joanne Kyger should have been in there. I don’t know who else. It’s an extraordinary book, and Don Allen took a lot of good advice to make it as solid as it is. Jordan Davies has apparently embarked on research into the making of The New American Poetry anthology, which should be interesting.
Devaney: You grew up in New York City. Did your parents take you to museums and things like that?
Berkson: No, but probably my governess took me to the Metropolitan Museum. I didn’t know or learn anything about art until I got to Brown. I had no introduction, except the pictures in our house that I later realized were pretty good, some of them. What art meant to me was the medieval armor section in the Met, mannequin knights on horseback with armor on. Everything came from movies — pirate movies, and knights-on-horseback-with-shining-armor movies, Western singing cowboy gunslinger movies. Romance movies. The English thrillers my parents liked, with Ann Todd. That was what was available and what I responded to. I looked at the armor and fantasized.
Devaney: It sounds wonderful.
Berkson: It was, and then I got into, like little kids do, the Egyptian area — mummies, tombs, and hieroglyphs. The mystery of the tomb with the mummy seen through a peephole. The same thing happened with my son when he was very, very young when the King Tut show came here, to the De Young. He really got on to Egypt. He’s in Egypt now, seeing it for the first time.
Devaney: How old is your son?
Devaney: What’s his name?
Berkson: Moses. Moses goes to Egypt. He’s got to find his boat in those reeds, discover his real birthplace.
Devaney: That’s great, a father’s instant poem for his son: Moses in Egypt. It’s interesting when you’re saying you had no introduction, and earlier you used the phrase “educating myself” — those terms come up a lot. Because I think there could be an essay written, or maybe even the title of this interview, could be “The Education of Bill Berkson.” Henry Adams’s book imaginatively reveals a boggling nexus of “interrelatedness” that I sense in your own relation to poetry, people, art, and the world. I like how broad your tastes are: from medieval art to pop art, so many strains.
Berkson: “Plato or comic books — I’m versatile” is the motto the Lawrenceville yearbook editors plopped under my picture the year I graduated. I think that, first of all, there’s the bedrock culture of — well, first of all growing up in a fairly articulate household. Both my parents were journalists. If they weren’t so smart, there were certainly talkative, joke-telling, verbally expressive people coming to our house all the time. So words are there. I’m at home with words at least to that extent. Then there’s what Larry Fagin calls my “Fifth Avenue language,” which amazes me as much as it does him. Words, turns of phrases that come from my initial surroundings, and I know it was just by osmosis that I absorbed them. This was just the language that was spoken around the house, and at the schools I went to. I don’t know if it’s WASPish, or just sort of upper-middle class New York slang. That was the language, part of the language, as well as the slang of my school years, that I had to put into those early poems. Yes, it was just that — as if I had to get those words out of me and onto the page. Sometimes in the way of an exorcism, sometimes in the way of its being just what’s here.
Devaney: That’s strikingly similar to what A. J. Liebling describes in Back Where I Came From, which is a kind of humorous title since he’s from New York City, a place where people from other places come to, rather than are from.
Berkson: I was still trying to find my place in the world, through many, many, many years, probably well into my twenties. In the process I had the advantage, so to speak, of going to these schools where one was at least exposed to a quasi-classical education. And what did I do in school? I was trying to be everything that was more or less required — good at sports, get the girls, and be some kind of character, whatever character seemed attractive to inhabit at the time. I was making the movie, improvising really, with no director on the set. Meanwhile there were classes, and I would do whatever kind of homework I was supposed to, sometimes. They made me memorize Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness,” and Shakespeare sonnets, and we studied a different Shakespeare play every fall and spring. And that stuff kind of stuck, thank God. It was a chore at the time. I think I enjoyed it, but still it was on assignment, not by choice.
Devaney: I’ve started to have my students memorize poems. Of course they groan at first, but then I’ve found that they’re glad, and even grateful, to have done it. So there’s school, and there is after school!
Berkson: Yes, that’s very important, the other function of the extracurricular curriculum, what you begin to find for yourself. Like finding music. Finding rhythm and blues haphazardly on the radio — and the secret sharings: one friend is into jazz, so we begin to listen together to jazz, no one else knows these sounds — that kind of thing. Well, the books get passed around, but the more mysterious thing is going alone to a bookstore — by the time I was at Lawrenceville, junior year, there was one very good bookstore in Princeton — and just sort of glomming onto things. Why? Why Williams — William Carlos Williams — at a certain point? Why D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen or The Book of Tea or R. H. Blythe? These things are in the air — I’m picking up on them, interestingly, by myself. I had no idea that Ron Padgett was in Tulsa or Larry Fagin in Germany getting the same books, you know? Nobody at Lawrenceville that I know of was reading them then, and I didn’t mention that I was. These schools that I went to — oh, Lawrenceville’s motto is “The Pursuit of Excellence.” Trinity was maybe more geared to inspiring writers, and a breadth of people with more diverse ways of life. But really, they were schools meant to train CEOs and government officials. And spies — like the plutocrats who invented CIA.
Devaney: Are spies born or bred?
Berkson: Yeah, exactly. I remember Ted Berrigan saying, “Where I come from, I have no business being a poet. I’m just a guy from near the Cranston Line,” meaning working-class Providence, Rhode Island. Well where do poets come from, you know?
Devaney: It’s question that could be posed in Plato’s Symposium.
Berkson: Maybe they’re supposed to come from the art classes or something — you know, the professional classes, or artisans. You know, doctors’ sons, and professors’ sons, or poets’ sons, ceramicists.
Devaney: The examples and counterexamples are endless.
Berkson: Yeah. It seems to me that they don’t come from those places, unless they toe the line in some way. For example, the acceptable Lawrenceville poet par excellence is James Merrill. He’s their prize alumnus poet. And I think he’s a very good writer, you know. But they will never claim me, really. I got pissed off about this recently and wrote to an old classmate, “I’m not giving them any more money or showing up for this alumni thing, our fiftieth reunion, class of ’57 indeed!” This old school friend’s a very bright guy, a classicist who reads — he’s a fan of Jeremy Prynne, and so forth. He writes back, “You don’t understand. You chose to write the way you do.” The implication being, why expect that a place like Lawrenceville would welcome such excess? It’s saying the same thing, but he’s sort of ranking me out like Gertrude Stein, like that I’ve chosen this obdurate path and I shouldn’t expect the world to come around to it — or not that world, anyway, not in this lifetime.
Devaney: When it comes to demanding poetry you can hit a wall very quickly.
Berkson: But meanwhile, I have all the advantage of this terrific — very nice teachers, very nice — in a way, a sort of contemplative atmosphere in these schools that allows a lot of high-minded stuff to come my way. By the time I got to Brown, I realized that a combination of Trinity and Lawrenceville was like college already. Brown’s advantage was John Hawkes was there, and S. Foster Damon — people who were serious about writing, who actually did it. Richard Foreman was an undergraduate there at the time and a very interesting guy named Ken Snyder who was kind of the campus, student poet. To whom I’d show my neo-beatnik poems, complaints mostly about America. One day looking at my poems, he said, “Don’t blame everything on America.” That saved me probably six months. Maybe a lot more.
Devaney: Rant poems. Well everyone’s allowed, or should have, one or two rant poems.
Berkson: Yeah, rant poems. And so it was really good to be in these places, but the thing that was happening, the remarkable thing — and now you realize, being a teacher, that yeah yeah yeah, you can give students whatever you have in the classroom and you can be really hip, too, hipper than most of the students, in your own terms — but those students really need to go to the secret bookstores, and the secret concerts, and find what’s going to be theirs, their own discoveries. Apparently that is what we all did, without knowing that “we all” were doing it.
Devaney: Another chapter in your education is working at ARTnews.
Berkson: Yes, at ARTnews listening to Tom Hess over the partition. After I dropped out of Columbia, somehow or other Alfred Frankfurter thought that I was this bright young thing and invited me to come work at ARTnews. I was his designated protégé.
Devaney: Well, you were in, you were there.
Berkson: So yes, there I was working at ARTnews in this cubicle. And over here was Tom Hess, on the other side of the partition, at his long desk, near the entrance to the offices, and people like Harold Rosenberg, Elaine de Kooning — all kinds of artists and critics — would come and sit and talk to Tom, and I would overhear their conversation. Plus, I got to know people on the staff like Irving Sandler, Mark Roskill, Betsy Baker, T-Grace Sharpless, Edith Schloss, who was married to Rudy Burckhardt, and Jack Kroll — all of them reviewers for ARTNews. I now think of that as graduate school. The end of my undergraduate education was night school at the Cedar Bar.
Devaney: There is certain kind of intelligence that happens during a great conversation. It’s like poetry.
Berkson: Well, it’s great to hear that, it’s a term that comes up for me too … I just got a transcription of a journal that John Wieners kept. The original physical book itself was a rather ornate Italian notebook that I gave him that Wieners’s friend Charlie Shively found among Wieners’s effects. The contents will be published soon by Bootstrap Press. Jim Dunn in Cambridge sent me the typescript. There’s a poem about me in it. I gave John the book on the occasion of taking him out for a day from West Islip mental hospital on Long Island. We spent the day together and at some point, though I don’t really remember it, I apparently handed him this book. Toward the beginning he wrote a poem characterizing me, and the poem is titled, “Intellect.”
Devaney: Does it say it’s written for you, or do you just know?
Berkson: No, no, it’s about me. I don’t think it names me, but it’s about that day, and he describes me in a way that’s recognizable.
Devaney: What a compliment.
Berkson: I think so. And then of course it’s John, whose writing I admire, who I admire to no end, writing with me in mind. “Intellect.” Intelligence is — you know, almost automatically, given the correct background and schooling, you’re supposed to be smart. An odd sort of genetics, really. “You’ve gone to the finest school, Miss Lucy, but you know you only used to get juiced in it?” A lot of people walk around and get by as intellects with that kind of veneer. Most of the so-called pundits you find in print media — William Buckley is a good example, as are most high-born conservatives — inherited an intellectual style that, if you take a pin to it, just goes poof — a very deflatable intellect. It took me a long time to wake up to my ... you could almost say, blessed stupidity.
Devaney: Then there are those rare and graceful souls who seamlessly seem to blend their intelligence and comfort all together.
Berkson: It has to be real. Joe Brainard was really inspiring in this way.
Devaney: Yes, Joe Brainard.
Berkson: How smart Joe was hadn’t quite dawned on me. I mean I knew he was smart, but I also thought he was being smart about that, letting his simplemindedness show — although actually it is difficult to clear away enough clutter to be that simple. A lot of Shining Leaves was written with that aspect of Joe in mind. Then finally one hears the Buddhist message of intellect as the sword or thunderbolt that cuts through ignorance. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about accumulated information.
Devaney: Well, we’re in the information age, so that’s worth saying.
Berkson: Right, worth saying. It’s intellect that leads you — or me, anyway, I’ve found — like a kind of gumshoe, a detective, to follow one lead to the next, connecting the dots as you go. It’s so interesting how things add up and connect, and also that there are topics in the air that many people, poets, are on top of all at once, so that one day you meet and you’ve been dealing with the same set. Discovering the detective in myself — the good student, too, at last! — was very helpful in art writing. Now it has become a habit. At least I’ve got the dots, but I don’t know if I’ve quite connected them.
Devaney: There’s a pragmatic modesty in what you’re saying.
Berkson: Some things people say to you sort of stick. When I was at Lawrenceville, one of the teachers accosted me in the library and said, “Why are you so erratic?” And I am. I just am. And so, you know, it’s like I have certain very good pitches, but I can’t count on always getting them over the plate. I don’t have a terrifically controlled mind, but I have some control. I’ve never gone crazy, off the rails. I liken my good fortune to those mysterious instances of being at the wheel of a car and it’s time to swerve out of whatever danger has presented itself — I could really total the car, and me, but a flick of the wrist makes the difference. No time to think. Where did that come from? The reflex that straightens it out, that keeps me out of trouble.
Devaney: It’s not simply an analogy.
Berkson: No, or I don’t go into the ditch. I can watch my better-controlled friends watching me go scatterbrained, scattertalk, as some of this surely is. And I think, well, OK, no control freak for you.
Devaney: Your book with Bernadette Mayer What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? [Tuumba, 2006] has this kind of wide-open energy and certainly allows room to let loose. You go with it.
Berkson: I think she does, too. She had a very tidy Catholic education, which really does introduce you to logic, syllogism, linear thinking big-time. She was a much better student, which means she was more willing to be indoctrinated and then rebel against the conventions of the Sisters. And that’s a very strong thing to rebel against. I think she’s more controlled than I am and has to will herself to be as loose as she is. After all, her writing is as limber as it gets, and very surefooted, too. Whereas …
Devaney: I love these distinctions you're making, and the connections.
Berkson: Well. One friend once pointed to what he called my Roman coin personality and messy mind. Where does the personality leave off and the mind begin? Is there surface and not surface? I think that, yes, both are operating at the same time, all the time.