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Interview with Charles Bernstein (part II)

By Thom Donovan

The following is the second part of an interview I conducted with Charles Bernstein at his home on March 19th, 2010 about his selected poems, All the Whiskey in Heaven, recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (the first part can be linked here at Harriet).

In this part of the interview, Bernstein and I continue our discussion about the disciplinary regimes addressed throughout his poetics. Bernstein also discusses extensively his turn to what he calls a lyric of “radical legibility” through his 2006 book Girly Man and his collection of librettos, Blind Witness: Three America Operas.

For more reflections on All the Whiskey in Heaven, check out the interview Bernstein gave with Jay Sanders in the current BOMB.

Also check out Harriet’s own Daisy Fried’s review of All the Whiskey in Heaven for the New York Times, Tim Griffin’s review in Bookforum, and Alan Gilbert’s interview with Bernstein at FSG‘s website.

For audio of Bernstein and others reading from the book at Zinc Bar (NYC) check out the following link at Penn Sound.

Thom Donovan: That brings me to another question. Many of my prepared questions are going against the grain of what you’re saying, which is that the selected is a kind of procedure or constraint, and that what you’re interested in is the artifice or the disruption or interference of the procedure. That said, I am still interested in looking back at what poems for you, which may or may not have made it into this book, seem transitional, groundbreaking, inchoate, or to anticipate later work. Something very interesting about writing poems over the course of a life is that one picks up on threads, one picks up on things that one left behind or that never extended very far. I feel that tension within your own book, particularly where the later work emphasizes song-structure, or found song-forms that become like frameworks, things that you put words into that are given in a certain way and which you innovate. I don’t find that in the earlier work so much, although I do find many moments of lyric intensity in which the sound values are very present. So that is a major transition striking to me. Another being the way the rhetoric becomes much more focused and effective in the later poems. To what extent does that grow out of having a clearer target—being at Buffalo, but also being more exposed, vulnerable, and public?

Charles Bernstein: One poem leads to the next, via digression. And the digressions go on indefinitely. Maybe they’re elaborate tangents; or a pattern emerges (in retrospect). Maybe the pattern is a chimera; more likely, the visible mark of the unconscious – or, better to say, intermittently conscious. I don’t have all that much perspective on a process I feel so much, too much, inside of; I feed off that insideness. (There’s a poem in Asylums called “Out of This Inside,” not in the selected, that’s probably an example of the sort of inchoate, germinal work you are asking about.)

There were some other key poems for me which I couldn’t include in All the Whiskey in Heaven. I first had in mind to start the book with Disfrutes, from 1974, which were these very short poems with micro-modulations of syllables; I think those bursts of sound are suggestive of a utopian possibility – “lyric intensity” – that I keep coming back to. Then again, there’s the “Sentences” sequence from Parsing (1976) (which was collected in Republics of Reality 1975-1995) – all complete sentences, each of which begin with an “I,” “you,” or “it.” Both of those works might anticipate some of the qualities you find in the second part of All the Whiskey in Heaven. And then there is “For —-,” from Shade (1978), a long poem with very short lines, which has a strobe-like movement of a broken or fragmented, but longing and insistent, voice. Rob Halpern’s recent work, Disaster Suites, brought that poem to mind, in a happy way.

And yes, absolutely: There are always the outer circumstances that the poems are pushing against, but which are not named. I remember an exemplary story from Wittgenstein, in which he was complaining that when we look through a window at a man who is wobbling and stooped and walking in such a queer way, we don’t see that there’s a fierce wind, the glass removes that, we don’t see that all the man’s queer body movements are just so that he can stay upright and walk down the street. I’m sure that applies to my work, and in the way you suggest. If the selected is a journey, I don’t feel like I’m swimming home or swimming anywhere, I feel like I’m treading water. I’m trying to keep from drowning.

So as to the contexts and changes, first of all, Emma and Felix. Their presence is marked by the proliferation of nursery rhymes and indeed their voices in the poems, but that hardly cracks the surface; everything changes. And sure, my getting the job at Buffalo – you know the Poetics Program turns 20 this year. Or my life with Susan (we met before any of my poems were written and she is part of all of them). Or then again readdressing the question of the explicitness of the political poems around the time of the invasion of Iraq, so the two poems in the selected —“War Stories” and “The Ballad of the Girly Man”—are attempts to think about the question of the 1930s: how can you have something that is formally inventive, that isn’t reductive, but that nonetheless has a specific political valence? Obviously, I come into poetry very much with the Second World War and the Vietnam War on my mind. My early work is in that shadow: What the possibility of articulation is, and meaning is, in a world in which so much of what we say seems controlled by the outside, as if we’re just robots repeating what we’ve been programmed to say — how can you push back against that?

TD: I feel like what saves the poems in Girly Man from political declamation or declaration is almost a Brechtian sense of lyric, lyric as inherited through cultural histories of song–structure, structures which are deeply imbedded within a particular culture.

CB: There’s a terrific discussion of the Brechtian dimensions of Girly Man by Tim Peterson (“Either You’re With Us and Against Us: Charles Bernstein’s Girly Man, 9-11, and the Brechtian Figure of the Reader”). And the Brechtian lyric is certainly central to Blind Witness: Three American Operas, the libretti I wrote for Ben Yarmolinsky.

Recently I’ve started to see a number of my poems, early and later, as “bachelor machines” after Duchamp and Kafka’s “Penal Colony” – disciplinary structures (to get back to a point you made earlier): self-imploding, non-procreative systems. Or maybe I’d be better to say anti-bachelor machines. Recantorium, which is not in the book but recently appeared in Critical Inquiry and was excerpted in Harper’s, is the most extravagant of these. But it goes back a ways. I would say that “Asylum” (the first poem in the selected) is also an anti-bachelor machine. And at the same time – it’s apparent in Girly Man – I became interested in what I call radical legibility — a mode of explicit reiteration that makes it almost impossible to get lost, to drift; each line is like a rivet, so perhaps this is anticipated in “Sentences” in Parsing. Radical legibility doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll understand the poem, but you can’t not follow. “A Particular Thing” in Girly Man (included in the selected) is a good example (“A black man waiting at a bus stop / A white woman sitting on a stool / A Filipino eating a potato / A Mexican boy putting on shoes . . .”).

TD: What fascinates me about that poem is imagining you writing it, or anyone having written it for that matter. Because there is something immediately kind of offensive about it in terms of this negotiation of multi-culturalism, then you start to realize to what extent it’s over-determining a liberal social content or point of view.

CB: It’s a way of directly confronting characterization. Often I have averted characterization or held it at a distance – you could even see it as a phobia that spreads through my work – as with the camp counselor reports or corporate bios in “Standing Target” (from Controlling Interests [1980], included in the selected). Or I’ve tried (“often I have been permitted”) – as with other sections of that poem – to create some kind of non-characterizeable language structure: poems, or moments within poems, that don’t reduce or pigeonhole the experience of other people. And try instead to collapse the separation, as through the glass in that Wittgenstein story, of see-er and seen, looking at the world as if we’re voyeurs – as if we are separate from it. So sometimes I’ve tried to obliterate the sense that you are looking at anything at all; you get the sensation of being thrown into “sheer” linguistic experience. “A Particular Thing” is quite different than that; each line is paradigmatic of something that’s reductive. It’s a rococo structure. By the excess and exaggeration of the permutations, the reductiveness (rhythmically) implodes. That’s true also of “War Stories” (another anti-bachelor machine from Girly Man, included in the selected), a set of sentences each of which begins “War is . . .”: War is so real we can’t even imagine it, so real we can’t do anything else but imagine it over and over again. Let’s just say these poems become crystalline structures of loss: imagined/fabricated dystopias, closed or trapped worlds.

It all ties together.

Upper West Side, NYC

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Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 29th, 2010 by Thom Donovan.