Note: The following conversation between poet Bill Berkson (1939–2016) and visual artist Carlos Villa (1936–2013) was recorded on September 4, 2004, in San Francisco at the KUSF studios. It was transcribed by Michael Nardone and edited for publication. Audio recordings of this interview can be found here and here.
As we begin the beginning of mourning the loss of Bill Berkson, we naturally look back on Bill’s appearances in Jacket and Jacket2 over the years. In the fifth issue of Jacket (back in 1998) Bill published two poems, one of them “Last Words” (above). In 2006 there was Robert Glück’s interview with Bill. The Berkson “Close Listening” episode was released in 2015. There was James Hart’s review of Portrait and Dream in which the poems are “masterfully composed from a depth, which ... seems to disappear.” In December 2012 we published Tom Devaney’s interview with Bill, “The Education of Poetry.” Said Bill to Tom: “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.”
“Only three years had passed,” Lewis Warsh writes of publishing the journal Angel Hair, “but it felt like many lifetimes.” By 1969, when the last issue of Angel Hair appeared, Warsh and Waldman had begun publishing books--mainly because many of their poet friends needed publishers for their book-length collections, but also because The World, a new magazine published by the Poetry Project, was covering much of the same ground as Angel Hair. “I also felt,” Warsh says, “that we had made our point in trying to define a poetry community without coastal boundaries--a community based on a feeling of connectedness that transcended small aesthetic differences, all the usual traps that contribute to a blinkered pony vision of the world.”
Angel Hair was born in the “backseat of a car [as we were] driving from Bennington to New York,” Warsh says in his introductory essay to the Angel Hair feature in Jacket. Waldman and Warsh were driving with Georges Guy, a French professor at Bennington, and once they'd made the decision to publish Angel Hair, Guy offered them his and Kenneth Koch's translation of Pierre Reverdy's poem, “Fires Smouldering Under Winter.” The Reverdy poem begins the first issue, and the line, “Could it be enough to speak a word in this abyss,” perfectly captures the gesture of launching a literary magazine.
Ted Berrigan’s “The Drunken Boat” — a mimeograph publication from 1974 with drawings by Joe Brainard — exemplifies a different type of insouciance towards the source text than any we’ve seen thusfar. Berrigan passes off his seemingly straight, utterly conventional translation of Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” as his own work. He calls his translation a “homage” to Rimbaud — which, while usually a humble gesture acknowledging influence and gratitude, in this case could be possibly interpreted as a form of naked aggression and erasure.
Bill Berkson in conversation with Charles Bernstein on Close Listening (36:56): MP3 Berkson in conversation with Bernstein undergraduate seminar (34:49): MP3
February 10, 2014, University of Pennsylvania; recorded and edited by Bernstein. Bill Berkson discusses unprincipled poetry, vulgar beauty, the poetics of surface, the emergence of the New American Poetry, the trap of being too serious, and the possibilities of the unexpected.
Marci Nelligan, David Kaufmann, and Thomas Devaney joined Al Filreis to discuss what David thinks might well be one of Bill Berkson’s own signature songs; during our discussion, David opines that Berkson’s poem “Signature Song” is the best of the poet’s “fact poems.” Marci and Tom certainly did not disagree with that judgment. Its diction and tone are mostly that of familiar factistic subgenres: the liner note, the encylopedia entry, etc. Finally, of course, it’s more than merely encyclopedic, for it wanders around both historical and personal connections and interleavings, and concludes with a quiet but still jarring judgment of the “odd” work of writing through these associations in and out of the extremity of political situations they somewhat ignore and somewhat express.
Marci Nelligan, David Kaufmann, and Thomas Devaney joined Al Filreis to discuss what David thinks might well be one of Bill Berkson’s own signature songs; during our discussion, David opines that Berkson’s poem “Signature Song” is the best of the poet’s “fact poems.” Marci and Tom certainly did not disagree with that judgment. Its diction and tone are mostly that of familiar factistic subgenres: the liner note, the encylopedia entry, etc.
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.