'Pulverized language'

Bill Berkson in conversation with Carlos Villa

“There’s another kind of poem […] where there’s a kind of interchange between […] scratching around with the words or following the word, and some sense of what’s actively present in the environment, like the fog bank is very Bay Area. Especially if you are living in the country and the fog envelops you. You have no point of reference.” Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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. — Amy Stidham

Carlos Villa: Bill Berkson is a curator and teacher who has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since the early 1970s. His Bay Area art community actions have included the Big Sky Magazine and Book Series, the Summer Art Writing Conference at the San Francisco Art Institute, and also at the San Francisco Art Institute, the very renowned Monday/Wednesday public lecture series, which, in his hands, has reached its twentieth year. During the past three years, his work has been published in no less than four publications, three volumes of poetry, including Fugue State and Serenade, and a new compilation of essays, The Sweet Singer of Modernism

Today, Bill will read from that new compilation of essays, The Sweet Singer of Modernism, as well as Fugue State and Serenade

Bill Berkson: I’m going to start off reading some poems from this book Serenade, which has drawings by Joe Brainard that you, the listening audience, can’t see. This poem is called “Domino.” It’s a prose poem. 

[Reads “Domino.”]


[Reads “Poem.”]

This is a poem called “Fourth Street, San Rafael.”

[Reads “Fourth Street, San Rafael.”]

And I’m going to read three poems from the other book that Carlos mentioned, Fugue State. This is called “A Finial.”

[Reads “A Finial.”

“Clerical Workers.”

[Reads “Clerical Workers.”]

So, I said the last poem I’m going to read, but I didn’t say the title right?

[Villa, off mic.]

OK, the last poem I’m going to read in Fugue State is a poem called “Signature Song” that I guess you can say is a little bit of history.

[Reads “Signature Song.”]

Villa: Bill, maybe we could talk about some of the imagery in these poems. To me, they seem like wonderful windows or glimpses. So, maybe you could talk about those windows or glimpses, if I read that right.

Berkson: The first three poems that I read are, I mean, some of them are windows or like looking out on the world and trying to register what’s happening as I look, whether it’s really in the present. I used to write a lot of poems just watching out the window, watching what was going on and writing it down. And the other would be, like “Fourth Street, San Rafael,” the couple in the bank is something that I noticed, and when I got home, I wondered: it seemed so corny, so perfectly a Hallmark greeting card idea that I wondered if I could write it, and I sort of began and the encouragement was it began as a limerick, you know. There was an old man … There was an old man, so as I went along I realized that this poem would be okay as long as I kept myself out of it. 

So, there’s this kind of poem, you know, cutting brush and getting my eye poked and all, where the mother and son playing dominos, those are real life stories in a way. They’re narratives. So, in a way, is the bank poem. There’s another kind of poem, I guess “A Finial” is sort of like that, where there’s a kind of interchange between just writing in a way or just scratching around with the words or following the word, and some sense of what’s actively present in the environment, like the fog bank is very Bay Area. Especially if you are living in the country and the fog envelops you. You have no point of reference. Maybe you can see the ridge, you know. So, it can be very oppressive. 

So, there’s that range in the poems, and then “Signature Song” is another kind of poem I like to write, which has to do with a fascination with facts and how any one fact will connect to one or more other facts in a very interesting way. So, in this case, the fact of “I Can’t Get Started” and the relationship of Bunny Berigan and Lee Wiley — I mean, Wiley is one of my favorite singers — and then all of a sudden there was this temporal connection with the Spanish Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, you know. Then I realized there was this part of the lyric that was about that: “settled revolutions in Spain.” What did he mean by that? Since the Revolution was settled in what you and I would probably feel to be a negative way.

Villa: You know, your association with what I guess Irving Sandler felt about the triumph of American painting, I think that you were really at the heart of that amazing time in New York. As you were speaking, the thing that flashed through my head was de Kooning’s comment about being a “glimpsing glimpser.” 

Berkson: A slipping glimpser. 

Villa: Right, a slipping glimpser. That’s where I thought you were coming from. Can you talk about the slipping glimpser?

Berkson: Yeah, I mean, I think, well, what he meant was, he said, around that, when I’m standing upright, I don’t feel so good, but when I’m slipping, I know something can happen. And I think that’s — we were sort of talking about the relation, or I was talking about the relation between observation or keeping a steady eye on things, at the same time not knowing where you’re going, not having a plan. I never have a plan for a poem. I mean, it’s like if you have an event in real life, in real time, you think you can get that down, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the language. The interesting thing is, the Jack Kerouac principle is keep your eye on the birdie, keep your eye on the inner view, the mind’s eye view of the story, and the words will come, which is sort of a miracle, and it’s very true. It’s amazing how the right words come, and I tend to not only trust that, but delight in the surprise of it. And that’s a little bit of the slippery part, where you sort of go in and say where is this going to go, even where is it going to take me, or the poem? Well, sometimes it takes the poem off the rails. Then you write another poem.

So, de Kooning — the big word with de Kooning and that whole atmosphere, to which I came very late, was attitude. De Kooning said that you had to have an attitude. I immediately thought because I was, well, around the same time that I got to know about de Kooning I got to know about dance, like Balanchine, New York City Ballet, and Merce Cunningham and people like that, and in dance terms, attitude is the way that you hold yourself. The way you project. And so that made a lot of sense, and some people see de Kooning’s and Pollock’s paintings and others as a kind of dance, where it’s gestural. It seems like a dance. But two things there: one is let’s not pin that on Irving Sandler, because his publisher insisted on that title, and he was always embarrassed by it, you know, the triumphant American imperialist painting. He didn’t want to do that. And we don’t either. The other part of it is that he is talking about the early- and mid-’50s when there was that ascendancy, and then I think it ended, actually, it culminated or solidified the year that I began to know about this stuff, about these arts, which was 1959 when they had the New American Painting show that travelled to Europe and Japan. That was the broadcast of “Hey look, Europe, we got it now.” That was the trumpeting of the triumph.

Villa: Your time in New York, and your ascendancy from RISD-Brown —

Berkson: [Off mic] At RISD what I went to were the great parties. […] That’s an education.

Villa: Listen, that’s another class. But just thinking of your apprenticeship to Thomas Hess and also doing reviews, and I just think of that time in New York — okay, I’m talking like the old guy right now, but God, I remember Grove Press and I remember Evergreen and I remember Blue Note Records —

Berkson: Well, you’re talking about the man who just died, Donald Allen, who just died in San Francisco last Sunday, almost a week ago. He was the editor of Evergreen Review, and he was the guy who brought, who probably brought Beckett and Ionesco and all those people to Grove Press, as well as Allen Ginsberg and whoever else. Frank O’Hara. 

Villa: But it was that time, it was that time that you were indeed blossoming into this fantastic world. 

Berkson: It was because of, for instance, because of Evergreen Review. I remember being at Brown University, and finding my first copy of Evergreen Review which had Beckett and O’Hara and Robbe-Grillet, and all these fantastic things in it, as well as a long article about Carol Chestman and capital punishment. And that just blasted open the barn door, you know. That, and around the same time, you know, Gregory Corso’s Gasoline, Howl, On the Road, and all that was appearing. That was the beginning of the sense that there were a lot of possibilities in writing. And also, it’s very hard for somebody young who’s reading a lot of old work or old Modern work — if you’re reading T. S. Eliot as well as Shakespeare or Whitman or whatever — to understand that something really great can happen in your own time. And not only that it’s happening in your hometown, because I happened to grow up in New York, and it never even occurred to me. I mean, I thought when the Beat generation hit, I thought it was all in San Francisco. I went to San Francisco and said, “Hey, is Jack Kerouac around here?” “All those guys are in New York, man.” I thought: What? I came three thousand miles to find what’s around the corner from me?

Villa: You know — well, listen, the grass is always greener, I think. Being an artist in San Francisco, we all wanted or aspired to — I mean, I was reading those Evergreen books, and I was listening to all those records, and I dreamed about me walking in New York, the same streets that you were walking on, incidentally, probably right around the same time.

In your book, The Sweet Singer of Modernism, there were two figures that were present in your life, and I don’t want it to go unsaid that — that we did not cover these people and your relationship to them. I want to ask about Alex Katz and Fairfield Porter. Maybe you can, before we read into the book, maybe you can talk about these two giants, I think, in your life. Am I correct in assuming that? 

Berkson: Well, Porter — I admire Porter’s criticism very much. And his painting. But I didn’t know him particularly well. In fact, we sort of had, you know, sharp or rough edges between us. He was hard to get to know. He could be very quiet. He could be very abrupt. It seemed like we were always saying the wrong thing to each other. I mean, at one point, I think it was 1961 or 1962, there were these amazing poems of John Ashbery’s coming out, which were influencing all the younger poets, I think, and some of Ashbery’s peers, too. It was a sort of pulverized language, you know, syntax blown to the wind […], these scatterings of words across the page, and they were certainly rocking me. I said something to Fairfield Porter about them, admiring them, at a party, and he said, “Oh, I don’t like John’s new poems very much.” What’s the matter with this guy? [Laughs.] And it wasn’t until, well, I did like his painting from the get-go, but I couldn’t get next to him somehow, or he to me. It wasn’t until after he was gone that I realized how close he was with other friends of mine, and also when Rackstraw Downes collected the criticism, that’s a kind of a bible for me, his criticism, partly because of the way he gives me a certain permission. I’m not a writer who can develop an argument. I work perception to perception. And he does that too, so that sentence by sentence, the sentences don’t necessarily follow one another. They follow one another according to a kind of rhythm and according to some sort of cut-and-paste thing. It used to drive Tom Hess crazy, I learned later on, but he let him go because they were good sentences. Tom was very respectful of what he called “the real writers.” He would edit the art historians who couldn’t write worth beans, which was the way it was then, and probably still is largely now. But he would let the poets and the artists like Elaine de Kooning and Porter, who could write, […] he would let them alone. He would pretty much not edit them unless it just absolutely had to be edited. So, that’s the Porter story, and Alex is a different matter because this is somebody who, you know, he’s older than me but he’s not so much older, he’s not as old as Philip Guston and de Kooning and other people that I knew but were a bit more avuncular. Alex is sort of — even though he’s probably ten or twelve years older than me, he’s probably more of an older brother. And that’s the way he was with me, and he was very much a teacher. He didn’t mean to be, but I would listen, I still do listen to what he says. I love his attitude, which is, you know, he loves to just make quick, bold, opinionated statements, and see if you’re ready to take it or not. So, his opinions are almost always interesting to me, though he’s about fifty-fifty probably in terms of being right, but who cares?

Villa: He makes it look so easy, though. He makes it look so easy.

Berkson: You know, teaching a contemporary painting class last year, I thought, okay, now I’m really going to do it, I’m going to ram Alex Katz down their throats. It was okay. There were some people who were interested, in the usual Californian terms, the art’s very superficial, it’s all about surface. Where’s the meaning, where’s the emotion, and all that stuff. Then I showed this film that Alex’s son and daughter-in-law made called Five Hours, which is a documentary in about twenty minutes of Alex painting a painting, or finishing off a painting in five hours. No, painting it, a big painting done from — what do you call that technique, from a cartoon? — pounced. The students were just jaw-dropping. Because why? Because it was like Matisse: he gets the paint down, gets the paint down and it’s right. How did he do that? He gets it down direct and fast. Of course at that point it’s different than the early work because he’s got a sort of method. It’s not a system, but it’s a method where, by the time he gets to that big picture, he knows the image. He’s got it outlined. He’s already mixed his colors. He’s made all kinds of decisions. So, it’s like that idea of executing the work as fluently and professionally — I like this professional attitude — professionally as possible. Proficiently. I mean, that’s one, I really admire that, but I can also admire the other thing, which is a completely wildass, undisciplined, emotionally charged style. I don’t know who has that. I mean, my two teachers were Guston and Katz, and they are very diametrically opposed as artists, but they’re both incredibly handy. I mean, Guston, you could watch him in the films made of him, the film made of him at work, and you see this, that proficiency of how he gets a contour down, for instance, drawing with paint. Of course, I don’t know, you see. I rely on the students, because I don’t know if it’s unusual, because I don’t paint. So, when the students’ jaws drop or they go “whoa,” you know, I say, Oh, I got to listen to that. I’m going to learn something from that. I know how hard it is to write a poem, but I don’t know easy and hard with —


Villa: Between the guy that’s holding the microphone right now, Armand, and myself, we’re both painters, and we both know how incredibly difficult it is to make this one fell swoop and make it count, and to have that confidence, and you’re talking about professionalism. Of course, I didn’t see the Alex Katz movie, but with the Guston movie, there’s a rationale that you could just see everything just synthesize in that one stroke. And with Katz, I mean, he’s the most realist acrobat that I could know right now. That’s the way I see it. And when he makes that other trapeze, your jaw drops. 

Berkson: He once said this, I mean, he can get off some good ones, and one is: I want to paint a painting that’s so technically, I think he said proficient, that if you think it’s no good, it’s because the man’s character is bad. In other words, like the technique is beyond question, and then if the painting has gone wrong, it’s because there’s something wrong with the person who made it in terms of their worldview or what they’re trying to put across. 

Villa: Well, that’s the other thing. I think that when I look at certain painters and they do this one broad stroke, to think about what’s behind that stroke. That has to be one of the questions, one of the aesthetic questions. It has to be: why does the thing look like that? Why does it look like that? It looks so easy. But then, boy, that preparation to make it look so easy. It’s a killer. It’s a killer. Anyway, you know, maybe this could be a good segue into maybe a reading from your Sweet Singer of Modernism book, which I think is a terrific, terrific book. Later on, I’d like to know about how you compiled all of these moments, but let’s hear from the author. 

Berkson: Well, because we were talking about ancient history, I’ll read from, I think it’s the last piece in the book. It’s called “A New York Beginner,” and it’s about the sort of early years when I was having my education in the New York School. The Sweet Singer of Modernism is along the lines of what we were talking about before, this sort of ancient history of the New York School, and I said, the dateline on this is kind of 1950s or early ’60s, 1959 or early ’60s. 

[Reads from “The New York Beginner.”]

So, that’s a little of that.

Villa: You know, the whole series of essays ranges from — it touches on a lot of different periods. It goes all the way from, for me, from Pollock and Kline, and what you said about Kline and how the paintings are deteriorating, but then, at the same time, there’s this quality even in how it’s falling apart. It’s like the Parthenon. We’re appreciating it not just because of the polychromatic beginnings, but then now everything is falling apart and, god, it looks pretty good. I don’t know.

Berkson: The trouble with its falling apart is that people may never lend those pictures again to a big show or, indeed, any show. So you don’t get to see them because they’re so fragile. That’s why it was Betsy Baker, the editor of Art in America, who said to me, the race is on to see which survives the longest: the ’70s earthworks or the paintings done with cheap art materials like house paints that people like Kline and de Kooning and even Pollock [used]. I mean a lot of that stuff is very fragile because the materials were inexpensive because the artist didn’t have very much money. You know the trick. You went through that yourself. 

Villa: Still are.

Berkson: Yeah, still are.

Villa: I was wondering, since your span of experience and knowledge has really touched the pulse of, say — you have the administrators, the arts administrators, artists from all over the world, artists from the Bay Area, these things — I’m just wondering, maybe this is the question that a lot of people have always wanted to ask and maybe I’m going to ask it right now: Where does Bay Area art and artists sit in your eyes? In terms of the world, in terms of a global dialogue? 

Berkson: I think you think less because, well, there’s an overall spirit of globalization, right? I mean, it’s not just business. It’s not just the sort of evil empire of globalization that people get out and protest on the streets of Boston or wherever, or Genoa. Or here, probably. There’s the fact of it, because of telecommunications and much else. So, for better, for worse, the local distinctions tend to get — well, I think the Bay Area, the tradition of Bay Area art that maybe carried from, you know, Clay Spohn and Clyfford Still’s influence on Frank Lobdell, and David Park, Bischoff, and Diebenkorn, that, you don’t see that. I mean even at UC Berkeley, where I think it held the strongest, you’re not seeing it in the students’ production anymore. Those teachers are gone, and their students who became teachers are pretty much gone. We have two or three of them at the Art Institute. I guess you could count as one, but you moved, you know, your frame of reference is so much beyond. I think it also had to do with your years in New York, your connection with Leo Valledor. I don’t see any trace of Bay Area fingerpainting [laughs], you know, in your work. And even the funk thing, you just don’t, I don’t see anything. There may be a sort of funk spirit that sort of carries on. I’m not seeing anything that relates to Wiley or Bruce Conner or Hudson coming out of our schools now. So, that tradition seems to have played itself out pretty much, even if people are making so-called “figurative work,” it doesn’t look — I mean, I’ve had students like Mitch Temple, who has a deep, deep respect for David Park, but it’s David Park, it’s not, you know, Bay Area figurative painting or something like that. So, what goes on here has it’s — well, look at what’s happened with people like Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen and Chris Johanson. It’s like they’re international art stars. I mean, you look at this Barry McGee thick book from Prada, and you say, “How did this happen? This yokel from Mission Street, yeah.” But it’s terrific. Obviously, that’s packaged in a certain way. The Mission School got packaged, but the content and the fact of what those artists do is completely respectable. In fact, terrific. And that goes everywhere. That’s exportable, and it has a lot to do with the San Francisco streets, right? Because it was born and grew in all of that, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the old, I don’t see any connection with the old Bay Area aesthetics. 

Villa: It’s not academic. 

Berkson: Definitely not. And that was a problem, which is a funny thing because these are people who really winged it economically. I mean, Barry and Alicia McCarthy, all these people completely winging it and, I don’t know, maybe it has to do with whether they were, see, but that first, that earlier generation, the Diebenkorns and Bischoffs and so forth, they were ex-GIs, they’re maybe going to the school and have families at the same time, they sort of sweat it being teachers and they’re going to be teachers for life. And I think that tradition, maybe particularly as it developed at UC, was bad for them. It made them academic in this sense. Academic means rules. And when you teach or you’re called upon to teach in a certain way where you have to tell students this is good and this is bad and why, or I like that patch and throw out the rest, it’s based on some kind of rule structure, which is bound to boomerang back into your own work, and make you an academic painter. 

Villa: Well, I’m thinking, too, that now that we’re having this conversation, that, you know, okay then where does Barry come from, where does Margaret come from, where does Alicia come from? Of course they went to schools, but then they kind of dropped that, but then they were fostered, or their careers, or their thinking was fostered pretty much by nonprofit organizations such as The Luggage Store, Intersection for the Arts, Southern Exposure, and all of those things. 

Berkson: [Off mic.

Villa: The other guy?

Berkson: Yeah. 

Villa: I mean, what are we thinking? Is that the new academy? 

Berkson: I think it’s very open. And Luggage Store and so forth has moved on. All those places moved on, the Lab and Southern Exposure, and they’re open to such a range of art. Look at all these different kinds of artists that have shown up around here. I mean, you have people working like Mitch Temple or Pablo D’Antoni, who had a show open this week. How do all these ways of making art coexist? And that’s the nice thing here: it’s become as various as New York. You have as many different kinds of art going on, and nobody is putting a cap on it, saying, “No, you can’t do that here because that’s not us.” And I think some of that did happen before, you know, if you were working in a non-Bay Area way, you were sort of ostracized. So, that variety is really exciting, the alternative spaces, and, you know, the artists were either lucky or nervy enough to keep the art, like Margaret Kilgallen told me that she really appreciated the fact with Deitch, that he said — and she was doing wall paintings, that’s what she wanted to do, an installation basically at the Deitch Gallery in New York — and she said that he told her: “Do what you want to do, I’m not worried about sales.” So, obviously, he had some cushion because he was being supported by some institution, I forget what it was, that was supporting him. Somebody was supporting him. He had like a corporate angel behind him, maybe still does. But he wasn’t worried about sales, so he could act, and he has acted somewhat like an alternative space in those two spaces he’s got in downtown New York. And so she could continue and Barry could continue, you know, Barry did this installation with Steven Powers and Alicia and some other people, this just fabulous thing in the garage space at Deitch. And this again is something that, I mean, how could you — I suppose some big-time museum could buy the whole space, but that’s it. And then where you do you put it? You put it in storage. All that’s very exciting. But then the thing is, people, like who’s the guy you see everywhere now, the draftsman, Shawn [O’Dell], you know, he shows with Jack Hanley. He’s in every show. He does these very delicate, very literary drawings. They’re very, very good. I think he shows at Gallery 16, too. Anyway. Why can’t I think of his name? He’s supposed to be famous.

Villa: I mean, he is famous. […] His interviews are right in my head. 

Berkson: Anyway, so he’s a completely different kind of artist. I mean, he’s not a wall, graffiti-making artist or anything like that. He’s a fine drawing artist, but he’s somehow in the same culture as those other people, right? So all that stuff is going on. What Herman’s doing, what Amanda Eicher is doing, and what Rigo is doing. What’s quite interesting is how much painting there is as well as all the people who are getting up on the roof and getting themselves arrested for dumping on people’s heads or something. [Laughs.]

Villa: What about poets, what about writers, what about people who review things?

Berkson: People don’t review things, that’s the trouble.

Villa: Or enough. 

Berkson: The Sweet Singer hasn’t been reviewed. It’s going to be, actually, finally, in a couple of places, but who knows. The poetry books get reviewed, you know, in Publisher’s Weekly, and there’s […] a place for books called Rain Taxi that comes out of Minneapolis, I think. But there’s very little reviewing of poetry. Only corporate publishers, for the most part, get their poetry books reviewed in The New York Times. So, you know, one can’t complain about it. Poetry exists in this culture as a seepage, you know, a leech line. And in a way that’s true of what really is at the heart of the visual arts, too. It’s just an accident that there’s this weird money involved in the visual arts, that it can be luxury goods, and so you can pay $30,000 for a painting and the artist gets half and all that kind of thing, all the expensive museums. This absurd economy that’s built up around the visual arts, which there’s nothing comparable to that in poetry. There’s nothing comparable to that in the struggling independent contemporary dance, or avant-garde — in America — avant-garde concert music, like Morton Feldman or Alvin Curran. Those guys had to — Alvin has to live in Europe to get his works performed to make any money. And otherwise they have to teach. The economics of the thing are really weird. 

Poetry, if you start playing the numbers game, like how many copies of the book are produced, who knows about poetry, does poetry, you know — some people, like Peter Schjeldahl made a brash statement many years ago that he was going to continue as an art critic and virtually quit as a poet because poetry didn’t have any place or relevance in contemporary culture. And what he was thinking is that, see, art criticism has come to the point where it talks about all art in some sort of cultural terms, as if it is supposed to show you what is going on in a culture right now. You’re supposed to understand it in those terms, which usually I find very uninteresting, or usually they’re put in uninteresting words. It’s not that poetry is detached from the culture. It may not figure on the big bandstand. I say it sort of leeches, you know, but that’s like playing some kind of numbers game. Can you fill SPC Park for a poetry reading? No. Not unless it’s Patti Smith, you know, a crossover poet. Not to say that Patti isn’t a poet or Jim Carroll isn’t or Lou Reed, but it’s crossover into the music field, into pop music. So, that’s different. You’re not going to get me onto the pitcher’s mound. God save America, or whatever it is. 

Villa: Well, maybe we can. In the last four months, Bill, you’ve been the subject of a lot of very positive, very positive exclamations. Your situation was that of a miracle, and I’d like you to talk about that miracle if you could. 

Berkson: [Off mic.] I’m now ready to pitch to Barry Bonds. 

Villa: Say that again. 

Berkson: I am now ready to pitch to Barry Bonds.

Villa: Hear that everybody? [Laughs.] Why? 

Berkson: Well, I’ve had, I guess it was about ten years ago, I was diagnosed with severe emphysema, which is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and definitely came from forty years of heavy smoking, which Carlos had to put up with in the office that we shared for a few years. He was smoking cigars then, at the same time. So we really, we were really in the smokehouse. [Laughs.] So, there I was, and it was harder and harder to breathe, and my lungs were destroyed, and eventually I got to some place where they informed me that I had something like fourteen-percent lung capacity. Then I was told by a very good doctor at UCSF that I had what they call end-stage emphysema, which meant that although I didn’t feel like I was at death’s door, if I got a severe infection, which could turn into pneumonia, that I could be rushed to the emergency ward, put on a ventilator, and possibly die right then and there, or else suffer a more precipitous, a faster decline actually than I had already suffered. You know, it was getting so that going across the room even with oxygen I would have to stop and lean on something to catch my breath. So, then I was told either you’re going to go this way, or you better do something about it surgically. And there were two options. One was lung reduction where they sort of staple off, see, the problem, the issue with emphysema is that your lungs lose their elasticity so that you breathe in, you hold oxygen, you can get in enough to live on, but then you don’t breathe the bad gas, the CO2, out. So, that gets stuck in there. It’s just bad. You staple off the lungs and you give them back some elasticity, if you’ve got good lung tissue, usually down below. I didn’t, they discovered. So that operation was out. And the other operation is an operation that I was told two years ago nobody anywhere would touch a sixty-five-year-old person to try to do this, which was a bilateral double lung transplant, a donor’s lungs, somebody who has just died. The lungs are good for something like six hours. They’ve got to get them into you fast. So, I had to become a candidate for this, which meant that I had to get in shape, gain weight. I had lost a lot of weight. I had to exercise, build up muscle strength. All of this looking towards: Can I survive this operation and get into gear, exercising and so forth afterwards, because that’s required for the lungs to be able to do their job, to have a job to do and do it. Every part of my body was tested, you know, my heart, all my organs, circulation. Everything, everything. It was quite amazing. I went to all these tests. Bone density, ultrasound this and that, and everything looked good. And I worked largely with my wife’s, Connie’s, urging and help. I had very little faith in this whole process. I mean, I was indecisive. At a certain point, I just said okay, I’ll go for this operation, but I don’t really believe it’s going to help. I don’t even believe I’m going to survive it. And so I was preparing, well, here I go, are my papers in order, and so forth. Well, you know, you had something of the same thing. 

Villa: Yes. 

Berkson: A lot of the same thing. So, I became a candidate. They said we’re putting you on the list. You’re on a list for receiving a pair of lungs. When is this going to happen? You don’t know. It could be months down the line. They said, “No, it’s not going to be months.” Meaning that they had some sense that there was an urgency. They wanted to get me while I was still healthy enough to survive it and also while I was still in good shape. So, the call came at ten minutes of eight in the morning. For six weeks, I had been on the list. The surgeon, Doctor Hoops, said, “I’ve got a pair of lungs for you.” I say, “You want me there in two hours?” We were there in forty-five minutes. We live six minutes away from the hospital. Then I waited eleven hours for the operation, none of which I remember because the anaesthetic they gave me wiped out my memory for the previous ten or eleven hours. Connie tells me about things that we discussed; I don’t remember any of it. So, then it’s like an eight-hour operation. Yeah, like you say, a miracle. I woke up whatever time it was that I woke up, and I had all of these tubes coming out of me, and I was drowsy for like a week, I guess, but I felt great. I could breathe. And within a day, because of the way this surgeon is, I was up and toddling down the hall because, [he said,] “Get those lungs working, give them a reason to be where they are now.” Then that got easier and easier, and I began walking at a clip, you know. So much so that from the thirteenth floor where the intensive care unit is at the UCSF, you can see Kezar Stadium with its track, and when I was in high school I ran track, I was a mile runner even though I was beginning to be a heavy smoker. I looked at this track and thought: What would that be like now? To get out there now, with my cleats? So, what it made me think was here I am, ten years down the line, ten years older with this disease which is now gone. I’m not a sick person. The doctor looked at me and said, “You have to understand, you are not sick.” But the situation with the lungs is hemmed around with cautions. I could have a rejection, the rest of my body gangs up on this strange lung, and says get out of here, we don’t recognize you as one of us. The T cells particularly, the immune system, which has to be suppressed accordingly. Or else, because the immune system is suppressed, infection comes and gets them, like a fungus, or any kind of bacteria. You have to be careful, to wear a mask in the movies or in crowds. I had to take all these medications. But I am not sick. And so, I’m thinking, here I am, I’m ten years older, now I have this health, and what am I capable of? So, both Connie and Moses bought me basketballs for my birthday, because I figured I could go shoot baskets. I’m not going to play one-on-one with anybody. Except you.

[Both laugh.]

Villa: Did they have to cut any cartilage or any bone or stuff like that?

Berkson: Yeah, what they call a clamshell incision. It goes under my breasts. I developed gorgeous breasts because of a fluid retention. So, I really had these knockers. Excuse me, gentlemen. So, the scar is still there. And they saw through, or I guess they break the sternum. That’s the main thing that has to heal. That takes a long time to heal. People who have had this, there’s a support group of people I go to who have had transplants, lung or heart. Or people who are waiting to have them or are thinking of having them. And people say that that injury can take quite a long time to really heal. But, you know, it’s been painless. I hardly had to take any Vicodin. I maybe took one. I didn’t like it anyway.

Villa: That’s amazing. 

Berkson: Yeah, it is amazing.