Charles Bernstein Interview
When and why did you start to write and/or feel you were a writer?
I think I write because I can't do anything else as well. Early on I became obsessed with the verbal texture of things, that is to say, how words distort and distend things, how they make patterns as if on their own. There has always been for me an incessant daydreaming about the different aspects of rhyme, rhythm, the origins of words (real or imaginary). So I guess that is the source of my being a writer and a poet.
That's the why?
Yes, that's the why
And the when?
Ah, the when, well, it's hard to say. Writing begins in reading, no?, and I began reading very seriously at the same time I got involved with visual art, when I was in junior high school. I was living in New York, where there was an enormous potential to see painting, Abstract Expressionist painting and the work that came after, Pop Art,and also theater, music. So that's when I first imagined some possibility of making art myself. I met Susan in high school, in February 1968. ’68 was a very interesting year, perhaps now we can say even a famous year. I was a senior at the Bronx High School of Science and Susan went to Music and Art. We would go to art galleries together and museum shows. Susan's parents were artists; my parents, well, my father was a businessman, we were not an arts-oriented family. And then I went to college and, you know, studied and read, and this is when I did my earliest work that directly relates to what I do now. At college I edited a couple of literary magazines, I did theater, too, a sort of experimental theater, and that was more visible than writing. But I guess writing was always in the back of my mind.
Why do you consider poetry important?
Poetry is not important. That's why it matters.
Which poets do you admire? How do you feel they relate to your own writing and life?
I admire many poets whom I do not like and like many poets whom I don't admire. It's a complex question, but then this is always my problem, so many apparently simple things seem complex to me. There are many poets that are, in some aspects of their lives or thought, not very admirable but who are still great poets; the most famous example would be Ezra Pound, but he’s hardly alone.
Among my contemporaries, there's a large number of poets whose work I read with great attention and appreciation. And while, of course, I like specific poems and specific poets very much, I am perhaps most interested in the relationship among them, in the matrix of work and in the field of activity that is created through not just production but also exchange. I think of poetry as a conversation, not just expressing an isolated voice but placing voice in the service of voices, voices that are in dialogue with one another. Poets exist within constellations. To understand what the achievement of any one of us is, you have to read through the field, to know not only the social and historical contexts but also the different approaches taken by each poet. It diminishes or trivialize any one poet if you read her or him in isolation.
My work is informed by such radical modernist poets as Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikofff, and Laura Riding. And the New American Poetry generation – Jackson Mac Low, Robert Creeley, Larry Eigner, Barbara Guest, Jack Spicer, Hannah Weiner, James Schuyler, Charles Olson, and many others. I could give you a list that would go on and on, the list could also be found by looking at the poets that I’ve written about or who I teach. But, to come back to this: the poets with whom I am engaged form a series of interconnected ensembles. And, for the most part, these poets were (and are) working outside of the mainstream, outside of Official Verse Culture. I continually learn from the way these poets rethink the relationship of representation to language, meaning to expression, voice to voices, not assuming that these things are unified but actually thinking of them as if they were in conflict … dialectically.
What is a day in your life like?
It's not like much. It's like very little. Once in a while there is flickering, and then there's a kind of blank, and then it continues on. Actually, my life these days is much too busy, possessed by things that I must do, deadlines, responsibilities. And too much anxiety about not getting things done or things not going (or being done) right. It's not my imagination of how I would be living, and not much like how I lived when I was younger, when I had more time to stretch, more time to drift, more openness.
You regret that?
No, I wouldn’t switch. Time is not reversible (Arakawa and Gins notwithstanding). And besides, I like the things I do. It’s almost as if it’s too much of a good thing. (There is no failure like success.) And poetry is still a place for turning things, anxieties and responsibilities, around, from the purposeful and the productive, into a kind of purposeless non-functional space, which I think is the basis of poetry.
What do you do for a living? (How do you obtain money?)
I'm a professor of English, although I try to teach English not as a limit but as the host language, and to include literature not originally written in English too. I teach 20th century poetry and poetics. I started teaching only when I was about 40; before that I was a freelance medical writer, though most of my energy went into poetry and poetry-related activities. Teaching came after.
That's not usual here . . .
It's unusual in the U.S. as well. Most professors, anyway those teaching in a graduate program, have PhDs, while I only have my undergraduate degree (in Philosophy). But it's possible in the United States because there are so many universities that occasionally one or another will go out on a limb. And anyway my circumstance is not very typical. I like to think, though, after directing 25 or so dissertations, and serving on another 15 committees, that I have earned an unofficial doctorate. One of the great things about the Poetics Program at Buffalo was that none of us in the core faculty had a Ph.D. in English: Susan Howe, Bob Creeley, and I never having pursued doctorates, Dennis Tedlock got his Ph.D. in anthropology, and Raymond Federman got his in French.
What do you enjoy reading? What do you read that is not "literature"?
I read the newspapers everyday, The New York Times. It's not a good way to start the day, it always puts me in a bad mood, and not just the news reported; the cultural coverage, especially regarding books, is quite irritating, as befits one of the leading organs of the Mediocracy. Apart from poetry, I read mostly philosophy and critical and political writing. I don't read novels very much, though there are some novelists that I read without fail (Lydia Davis, Peter Straub, Paul Auster, Federman); but then I guess novels are literature, aren't they? What can I be thinking? I end up reading a great deal that is immediately related to my work: essays and criticism about poetry, poetics, many magazines and books of poetry. I've just put together on a web site with which I'm involved (the Electronic Poetry Center) a long list of recommended reading for this past year. There's an enormous amount of very engaging work being written in poetry and in poetics, so I do tend to read more of that than other things. And I regret I can't keep up, there is so much more I want to read than I have the time for. I always feel with the books around me, and manuscripts, like the proverbial kid in the candy store who wants it all. Well also, not to forget, I read job-related documents of various sorts, applications, reviews, committee stuff, bureaucratic documents that can be very time consuming because it's necessary to read them in detail and to sometimes to write summaries …
And what do you read in holidays?
I don't really take holidays. I think Susan would agree with that! At the beach I read exactly the same things that I just mentioned to you. I enjoy reading what I read so I just wish I had more time. I always feel hounded by the fact that I don't have enough time. So “free time” allows me to catch up with things that I haven't gotten to, but often in quieter and more pleasant surroundings. If I had more time I would read perhaps more detective fiction, catch up on the Elmore Leonards I missed, reread all the James M. Cain and Jim Thompson and Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Or maybe just Poe and Borges would do it.
Do you know any poetry from Argentina?
I became informed about poetry from Argentina through Ernesto Livon Grossman, who sits here with us, across the table, at this remarkably charming cafe in Buenos Aires, where we have come every morning, for expresso and croissants, and to read the paper while sitting across from the park. In the early 1990s, Ernesto brought to Buffalo, and also to New York, Jorge Perednik, whose work I did not know until I was introduced to it at that time. And through that process, I read through the magazine Xul as best I could, since I can't read Spanish (much to my regret), but also with the help of some translations. Ernesto published for us a very important book of translations, The Xul Reader, where there is a strong selection of work from the magazine. That was very exciting for me, I felt a real connection between what the Xul review was doing to what I was doing with my friends in and around L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. So that was my primary introduction. But it's a very limited perspective mainly based on what has been translated. But then, on this trip, I am learning a great deal more, through reviews such as yours and tsé, tsé and also meeting so many poets here
Could you please tell us about your experience of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E as a person, as a poet, within the group of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, and in relation to other ways to think poetry? What changes and contradictions took place since the beginnings as an "avant- garde" group till the nowadays relative "acceptance" or "hegemony" of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E? (I guess I'm thinking mostly about two different positions, you as poet in a group, and you within a group in society, as forces or contradictions to face.)
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine came out of a collective exchange among a number of poets, perhaps 25 or 30, who, in the mid-70s, were actively writing letters, reading each other's work, talking to one another in person and on the phone, publishing magazines and books, and organizing readings and talks . L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was a small part of that but it was the part in which some of us reflected critically and publicly on the activities in which we were engaged. There were many poets interested in this ongoing, multi-site conversation as a form of collective exchange. We shared a very strong dislike of the Official Verse Culture of that time, which seemed to favor poems so crippled by their formulas for personal epiphany that personal epiphany was shed at the starting line in favor of a highly mannered voicey voice "indicating" (like they used to say in Method Acting) rather than expressing the poet's feelings, the so-called feelings of the so-called poet. In contrast, we tried to focus our work more on an acknowledgement of the structures of language, forms, styles, and also the relationship of ideology to syntax, you might say, ideology to grammar, ideology to rhetoric, with the recognition that language is never neutral but also that language always has an unconscious or nonrational dimension to it.
So it was a very good time as a young poet to be involved with other people in this kind of exchange because Official Verse Culture was so complacent, so smug, and so very weak in its literary production. Our work took a certain alternative course that has its impact, even when we were just doing it on our own, on our own typewriters, never acknowledged in the mainstream, except perhaps to be attacked. And many of the individual poets, as you said, have continued to work in quite significant ways on their individual books and projects. Even now some of us continue to be in discussion. And of course there are generations of younger poets who, from my point of view, continue this exchange, but whose work, necessarily, is decisively different. I think the significance for that moment represented perhaps by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was that it really gave permission to do a wide range of non-traditional work, to tear off the mask of compulsory sincerity, of compulsory lyric, to do work that on the surface seemed not to make sense. I will always emphasize L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E's beef was not with meaning or expression but with false ideas of sense and false facades of sincerity that devalued the possibilities for new or unexpected forms of meaning, sense-making, and indeed sensation.
At the same time, the issue of acceptance is a complicated and complicating business and I don't want to ignore that. I have a very good job and I have a certain level of recognition for what I do. My own good fortune notwithstanding, I think that overall Official Verse Culture is more reactionary now than it was in the 1960s, when we had some breakthrough figures from the ranks of the alternative poets. And while some of the historical poets that some of us put forward, such as the ones that I mentioned in my earlier answer, have been more accepted, partly because of our efforts, Gertrude Stein being a very good example, I think that the reviewing practices in the nationally circulated publications (the Massed Media), and the prize-awarding practices in the United States are almost always (though not entirely!) reactionary (though my colleague Jim English would be quick to remind me that it's only complaints like this that give those prizes their primary cultural play and allow me to make remarks like this one). Anyway, I don’t think we have, quite, an hegemony. Official Verse Culture is still alive and kicking, even if bloated like a mule on hormones. The huge infusion of Ruth Lilly's money into the thoroughly corporate Poetry Foundation is a good example: the most money now being spent to promote poetry is done is such a manner as to undermine a good deal of the most engaging poetry being produced in the U.S. You won't likely see any of that Lilly money going to the Poetry Project in New York, presses like O Books or Factory School or Green Integer, or the EPC for that matter. Indeed the EPC, which many might see as a very established web site, has never been able to get any external funding, or even a dedicated graduate assistant from the university that hosts it, and has been specifically turned down by the big foundations because it features work that is not "accessible" to the public, despite its current stats of one million visits per year. It has a public all right, it's just not the right kind of public. And Sun & Moon/Green Integer has never been able to attract significant or private funding, despite its being a "major" press in every sense of the word. Nonetheless, you see a huge amount of activity in the United States and internationally that moves against the Lillyfication of poetry. But much of this activity doesn't quite come to the surface, to the degree that Green Integer and EPC do; but if you dig just a little bit, you can find it..And partly that’s because poetry is not a form of popular culture. Poetry is decisively unpopular, has a small scale. But its infrastructure is exhilaratingly tenacious.
And how do you relate to the fact that shape gets somehow old, inevitably?
I don't have any formula for what poem should be like. You can't say, a priori, what style a poem should have, what voice a poem should channel, whether it should be narrative or not narrative, lyric or not lyric, striated or smooth. It's not possible to prescribe because what's most interesting about poetry is how it responds to emerging circumstance and its local languages, local places; to the most local part of your mind; to the intersection of so many different, not necessarily definable, factors, which are specific for every poet and for every different point in time, and even for yourself as you move through time. So there is that provisionalty, that response to contingent circumstance, that seems to me what's innovative in poetry. Poetic innovation is pragmatic. Innovation is what lets you resolve emerging problems as they pop up, mostly unexpectedly and often unhappily. But better than innovation, call it ingenuity. It's not something rarified or, well, avant-garde. On the contrary, it's the absence of ingenuity that takes poetry out of everday life. Official Verse Culture, for example, in its refusal of new forms of poetry, clings to a past that has already passed by, making poetry something that resembles corpses in a museum. But when we are speaking of innovation, we are speaking of the basic condition of poetry. It comes down to the ability to stay attuned to, to stay in touch with, your responsiveness to the world you find yourself in.
I'll give you an analogy: When people disparage what they hear as nonsense or meaningless language they say, Oh that's just like children, it’s babble. It sounds as if, somehow, they have left their childhoods behind them. But for me, on the contrary, the people who say that have lost access to the sonic and acoustic potential within language, have lost touch with a part of themselves, and a part of the human world, that stays with us until the time that we die. The poetry of language, let’s call it, is not just for children. The loss, or denial, is not of childhood – we all grow up – but of what even little children know. Blame it in on your education, your rationality, your socialized mind. Maybe what is so frustrating about “difficult” poetry is that it is an unwelcome reminder of the loss of poetry in our everyday lives; the fact that we have too quickly and with too little thought turned the paradise of language into a game of cards.
In some of your articles you talk about being responsible in the writing as being conscious of the political consequences of the use of language. How do you see that responsibility in poetry? How do you see that responsibility in other discourses? What about the political leaders' discourses after Sept. 11, 2001, in your country?
“September 11,” like the Vietnam War when I was in college, makes me acutely aware of how language is used not to just express but also to manipulate emotions and values. In moments of crisis, where there is genuine trauma, as with September 11, but also with the war in Iraq and as in Vietnam, you see an acceleration in the manipulation of the public language by both the state and the mediocracy. At such time one comes face-to-face with how inadequate the language of the mass culture is, the reports and commentary on television and the newspapers. In such time, the necessity for poetry is all the more palpable – to deal with an ever more complex reality and in a more complex way. Yet the very complexity that prevents poetry from having a mass audience, from being popular, is at the heart of its political value, contradictory as that is to social realism or to populist idealism. Poetry is political to the degree that it refuses the language of Massed Culture and the Offiial Religions and Corporate State, while at the same time actively engaging political discourses. In this way, poetry might potentially interrogate the ideological presumptions of the dominant language. It becomes, by default, a place to reflect on the meaning of basic terms, including democracy, freedom, terrorism, God, truth, evil, and so on. The meaning of these terms cannot be assumed. So when you begin to interrogate these nouns, you open up into a no-noun space of poetry, where people say “I don't understand it” because they don't have the practice of listening to that which they don’t already know. Yet, without that kind of listening, politics is doomed. Poetry is not a form of macro politics, it’s not a form of direct political action, poetry doesn't’t change governments, poetry doesn't’t stop wars. It's a pre-requisite for political thinking but it's not sufficient form of action. Poetry is not the end of politics. It's the beginning of politics.
This idea of being responsible and conscious of the shape in writing makes me think of a new step from surrealism and automatic writing, I mean, I think surrealism may seen today a way to dig into the unconsciousness to bring things up to consciousness. What do you think about surrealism?
Surrealism is an important movement for everybody involved in a radical formal change within poetry. But I don't accept the idea that there's a surreality, a deeper reality, beyond everyday reality. Strange as my work sometimes is, I'm interested in a poetry of the everyday, of the daily, of the ordinary. Still, I think that the estrangement and displacement that you find in surrealist poetry is a very important. My poetics is in many ways contrary to surrealism but also very indebted to it. I'm less interested in the dream imagery, in the symbolism, in the illusion of depth, than in the syntactic openness and derangement … I feel more connected to Russian Futurism.
Romanticism had the idea of gathering poetry and critique, how do you see that relationship today?
There are many problems with the way in which Romantic Ideology governs the idea of sincerity, and by extension literary value, in contemporary poetry: The great poem as universal expression of man's feelings. I object to that on many grounds, including the very gendered terms that are then universalized. At the same time, the Romantic and Surrealist poets, if understood in a social and historical context, were doing crucial aesthetic and political work, which I relate to very profoundly. I think Blake in particular as an exemplary figure with his verbal-visual-visionary work. Blake remains the poet of the future. He manages to always be ahead of me, anyway. But I frequently return also to Byron and Shelley, Heine and Hölderlin.
And the critical dimension?
Coleridge’s poetics is crucial, and the German romantics as well … Really a model for the importance of poetics, for poetry as going beyond the production of poems to appreciate for their beauty. In the 1970s, however, it was necessary to contest not so much the radical thinking of Coleridge or Blake, but a Romantic Ideology that pitted thinking against feeling, intellect again the emotion; indeed poetics against poetry.
You've always worked with small and alternatives presses. Would you say more about what you think about the importance of the alternative presses?
The poem itself doesn’t exist outside of who produces it, what magazine it appears in, how the magazine circulates, who reads it, how they respond to it. All of these things are part of what the poem is. A poem isn't just some abstract letters on a page; it exists within its social environment. And not just the given historical world of jobs and states and family, but the ones we make through our writing, our publishing, our exchanges. The value of poetry is also the value of articulating specific, yet contestable, aesthetic values. And this is achieved by poets publishing their own work and the work of poets they believe in, by responding to the work they value, by organizing reading series and web sites and small presses in order to take control of every aspect of the means of production and reproduction.
Is there any other question you think should be included in this kind of interview?
Yes, but I prefer not to say. (Laughs)