LINEbreak: Barbara Guest in conversation with Charles Bernstein

A transcript of the 1995 radio show

Charles Bernstein and Barbara Guest at the New York Public Library, April 23, 1999. Photo by Star Black.

Editorial note: Barbara Guest (1920–2006) was the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, including Fair Realism (1989), Defensive Rapture (1993), and Quill, Solitary Apparition (1996). In 2008, Wesleyan University Press published her Collected Poems. The following conversation was recorded in 1995 for LINEbreak, produced and directed by Martin Spinelli and hosted by Charles Bernstein for the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo, at the Charles Morrow and Associates Studio in New York. The interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone and edited by Katie L. Price and Charles Bernstein. A sound file of the original recording is available at Guest’s PennSound page. You can read Bernstein’s “Composing Herself: Barbara Guest” in Jacket 29.Katie L. Price

Charles Bernstein: This is LINEbreak. I’m Charles Bernstein. On today’s program: “The Art of Poetry” with Barbara Guest. Barbara, it’s a pleasure to have you here on the program. I wondered if you would read “A Reason” from your new selected poems.

Barbara Guest: I would like to read “A Reason.” The reason I’d like to read it is because it’s from my first book, The Location of Things.

[Reads poem.] 

Bernstein: You must have written that poem in the 1950s?

Guest: 1960s. The book was published in 1960.

Bernstein: How has poetry changed for you in the last thirty-five years?

Guest: Well, it has changed because poets have changed. I have changed, but my sensibility is the same. The group that called themselves the New York poets, with whom I was connected, were just starting out. We were trying to experiment and we had certain ideas about the way poetry should be written. We were not going to write about ordinary things unless they were encased in extraordinary thought. We were influenced by European poets. We were not exactly daisy pickers. [Laughs.]

Bernstein: Was there company in the work for you at that time?

Guest: Yes, there was. We arrived, somewhat simultaneously, with the abstract expressionism. Most of us, four or five, were involved in painting. We reflected the ideas of the painters. They, in turn, often reflected our ideas and we collaborated. There was much more emphasis on painting and poetry together.

Bernstein: That has always interested me about your work. There is often a discussion of the relation of the New York school, and other poets in different contexts, to painting or to the visual arts. But your work has a very close formal relationship to aspects of painting. How would you describe that connection?

Guest: It’s a connection that I have somewhat broken, but when it was in full flower, it was very agitated because I did collaborations with painters. A few certain tenets I still remember, such as the nonimportance of the subject: the subject finds itself.

Bernstein: The subject matter in this case. You can also talk about the subject as the person.

Guest: Yes, the subject matter. I was talking to some students in Santa Fe. They were very worried when I asked, “What have you been writing?” They said, “Well, not very much.” I realized they were more disturbed by what they didn’t want to write about, so I told them that the subject matter wasn’t important. And this released them. They were thrilled. They went around for days saying, “She said the subject doesn’t matter!” The idea is that sometimes you find the subject as you proceed with the poem. It’s a good rule. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a good rule.

Bernstein: Can you read “Parachutes”?

Guest: Yes, this subject just found itself. I think it was written in late fall.

[Reads “Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher”.]

Bernstein: Rereading that poem after many years, does it seem different to you?

Guest: It seems like a poem that I might have written. I’m kind of pleased I wrote it, but I’m very far away from it. A way of explaining that might be to read a new poem next to it. This is a recent poem. I have a barometer outdoors that I bought in France. It tells you what the weather is like by saying, in French, different names. This, for instance, is “Neige Fondante,” which means melting snow, so it’s that cold. Sometimes it says hot is wagadou. This is “Neige Fondante.”

[Reads poem.]

Bernstein: Where do you feel the discontinuities and the continuities are between these poems at the two ends of your work chronologically?

Guest: I see that I’m still interested in weather.

Bernstein: Which is what changes.

Guest: Yes.

Bernstein: Always changes.

Guest: In this poem, I’ve gone outside of the idea of love to a broader look at the world in which Keats at Chichester was thinking about the eve of Saint Agnes. I brought a literary allusion into it.

Bernstein: How about imagination, is that something that goes through your work?

Guest: Well, you know that I preach it.

Bernstein: I couldn’t let it go by. This is the time for a poet to preach, on the radio, right? This is our only chance. [Both laugh.]

Guest: I want to get there before somebody else does. I believe in imagination, and I think it’s disappearing. It has become a harder quality. It is not as fluid as it used to be. It’s more something you chip off the old block. It’s not used so much because practicality seems to be a vision of the future. Within imagination, there aren’t too many corridors for the practical.

Bernstein: Practicality is in contrast to imagination for you?

Guest: Yes.

Bernstein: And yet, you’re kind of an old-time pragmatic person, just leading a life.

Guest: Yes, but I don’t believe in pragmatism. I’m not an Emersonian.

Bernstein: No? 

Guest: No. [Both laugh.] I don’t believe in it at all.

Bernstein: Because you’re not an Emersonian and you’re not a pragmatist, I won’t ask you what you are, because you don’t have to be anything in that case.

Guest: I’m not John Dewey. [Laughs.] I’m an old-fashioned – I suppose you could say – imagist. How’s that?

Bernstein: What does imagism mean then?

Guest: It used to mean using an image to replace an idea. I think now I would like a few ideas to enter in also — sideways, next to the imagination. But the imagination is being usurped by mundanity. It doesn’t have to be at all. I think it can fit into the new world. It’s just that one must remember that it’s there. And that it’s not funny; it’s not humor. It’s something fluid, which can twist itself into a poem.

Bernstein: One of your books is entitled Fair Realism. Is fair realism kind of like the fair lady? Are you a realist?

Guest: Fair is beauty, but it is also a shining object. I’m trying to remember Goethe’s phrase about the moment: “Stay, thou art … stay, thou art too lovely” [Verweile doch! du bist so schön!]. Since [fair is] an old-fashioned, almost medieval word with an “e” on it, is sometimes the way I spell it to myself, but it’s an aspect of realism that presents a fair countenance if you want to look into it, into its fair aspect.

Bernstein: Fair is lovely. It also has a somewhat pragmatic quality in that it’s decent realism, or well-distributed realism, as opposed to absolute realism. It’s a modifier, which is interesting.

Guest: [Laughs.] It’s a modifier. Exactly.

Bernstein: It modifies in a number of different ways that encourage my intuitive thinking toward meaning or possible meanings. There’s a particular poem in Fair Realism which talks about, or exemplifies this. It’s called “An Emphasis Falls on Reality.”

Guest: Yes this poem actually explains the meaning of fair.

[Reads poem. The text of this poem is here.]

Bernstein: Are the poems in that book, or your books, interconnected for you? Or do you see them as discrete?

Guest: I think the books connect. The technique is different, but one’s preoccupations — surfing for example … a handbook of surfing, which was actually about war — [remains] a part of you as you change. If I can read it, I have a later poem, “The Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights.” That poem happened because of where I lived in New York City. I would look out my window and there were all these white cars parked out there every night. I found the cars extremely humorous; they were all white like milk carts. There was a great deal of wind moving in that space. Now it’s occupied by big buildings, which is what New York does to you. So this is a relic of that time, but within the poem there is also a relic, which I did not anticipate.

[Reads poem. The text of the poem is here.]

Bernstein: In that poem, you talk about the grip of reality. You talk about immobility. I wonder about the grip of identity, the immobility that identity can often impose on a writer, and also on the way in which people read a writer. I’m thinking especially in terms of one aspect of your identity, that of being a woman. Are you a feminist poet? Is your identity as a woman crucial to you in terms of opening up or limiting what you do as a writer? In terms of the way people read your work?

Guest: I think I’m a feminist in the fact that I truly believe that women are writing almost the best poetry today in America today. I believe that that they’re extraordinary, that for some reason this has happened. It has not been true forever.

Bernstein: But as a poet coming of age in the fifties … do you feel a contemporeity with women of your immediate generation?

Guest: That is a problem. I do. There are many women, not many (as there are not many categories of things), whom I respect and like their poetry. But the male poets of my generation were the ones with whom I identified because we were involved in the same attitude toward poetry. That’s what I would say. In that sense, I feel very lonely. It wasn’t until newer generations, younger women came along with whom I could identify, as they could identify with me. Among the New York poets, there were very few women.

Bernstein: You’re looking down at your book as if you were poised to read another poem in this context, please …

Guest: I was thinking I could read a political poem. Before this terrible business in the late Yugoslavia, I was very interested in what was happening to Czechoslovakia. This poem is based on the lands that were incorporated in the Treaty of Versailles in Czechoslovakia — Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Slovakia, Ruthenia — and it’s called “Borderlands.” This was written about four years ago.

[Reads poem.]

Bernstein: Can you read one more poem before we say goodbye?

Guest: I can give you a difficult poem.

Bernstein: I love difficult poems. They’re my favorite kind. Except I love easy poems too.

Guest: [Laughs.] I know you do. I’d like to read a poem that is a followup to “Borderlands.” After we have encountered upheaval and revolution, new states or new governments, what happens is what I’ve called multiplicity. This is what we have today, a multiplicity which covers many objects, many changes. This is what I put into this poem.

[Guest reads “Multiplicity.” While this poem is not included in The Collected Poems, since it never appeared in a book, it was published in The Iowa Review 26, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 76–78. You can read the text of poem here.] 

Segmented audio for this interview (source: Barbara Guest’s PennSound page)

  1. introduction (0:52): MP3
  2. A Reason (1:09): MP3
  3. on the New York Poets and their relation to painting (3:31): MP3
  4. Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher (1:39): MP3
  5. Niege Fondant (1:51): MP3
  6. on how her work has changed (0:42): MP3
  7. on imagination (2:16): MP3
  8. on realism (1:30): MP3
  9. An Emphasis Falls on Reality (2:45): MP3
  10. on how her books connect (0:36): MP3
  11. Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights (4:08): MP3
  12. on her identity as a woman (2:00): MP3
  13. Borderlands (2:04): MP3
  14. Multiplicity (2:58): MP3

Full program (29:01): MP3

Three poems by Barbara Guest
Typescript of two early poems by Guest