Strangers in the Nest
Poet Anselm Berrigan and journalist Bethlehem Shoals share a protean sensibility. No scrap of everyday language is too small to find a home in one of Berrigan’s slice-of-cognition poems, and no philosophic concept is too large to find a home in one of Shoals’ peripatetic basketball essays. Both writers elude the confinements of their respective genres, widening the potential for each. And for that they’ve both earned devoted readerships. Berrigan is a New York poet whose work as been described as that of a “"A language poet trapped / In a confessional poet's body.” His poetry—in books such as Integrity and Dramatic Life, Zero Star Hotel, Some Notes On My Programming, Free Cell, and the forthcoming Notes from Irrelevance—proves that the opposite is also true. Bethlehem Shoals is a Seattle journalist, founding editor of the basketball blog FreeDarko.com, and co-author of The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. New York magazine said, upon the latter’s publication, that “We are now living in a FreeDarko world. Hail, hail.” The two writers talked over the phone twice, once while Shoals was watching the NBA Finals in Seattle and Berrigan was on the road in Needles, California; the other while Berrigan was up at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York and Shoals was home preparing for the birth of his first child. The following is a partial transcript.
Bethlehem Shoals: I checked, it was Snoopy's brother who lived in Needles. I’d thought Schulz had just picked a town off the edge of the map.
Anselm Berrigan: There are a couple little plaques around town. They’re not exactly plaques, they’re more like notes, public notes. Just well placed.
BS: So nothing commemorating Schulz’s table at the local diner?
AB: No, no. But there is a letter from Schulz at the Needles museum that reiterates that he was here.
BS: Incidentally, I’ve started recording. Figured I might as well, even though that was probably massively unethical of me to not announce it. I really have no idea when this interview started.
AB: Well, I don’t retract anything.
BS: As a rule, never?
AB: Well, only when I’m arguing with my wife. So I found out that we have a friend in common, I think a much better friend of yours?
BS: Every single person I know from every period of my life has ended up in New York. You’ll meet three people at a bar, and they might as well not even know the same person.
AB: I used to think it was a good idea to try to get different people from different phases of my life in the same room when I visited places. I’m no longer on that wavelength.
BS: I’m always worried someone is going to catch me in a lie. I feel like the older you get, the more you mythologize your life or stretch the truth. Sometimes you do so without even realizing it. And you certainly believe it.
AB: And that thing happens in New York where, if there’s too many people around, you might wind up not honing in on anybody and you have the classic 30-second conversation with 20 people.
BS: I used to always marvel at how many friends everyone I know in New York seems to have. I also wonder why they don’t perceive my friendship with them as disintegrating.
AB: With the kids, I’ve only been able to go on really short trips. I just don’t tell every single person I know, so then I can see some people on the next trip.
BS: My wife and I are having our first kid in September, and if I don’t go to New York this summer, it could be a long time.
AB: Oh wow, congratulations. I’ve got a nine-week-old and a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter here too.
BS: I almost asked, “Which one do you like better?,” but I realized that was a really weird question.
AB: The three-and-a-half-year-old sleeps more than the nine-week-old one does. We didn’t travel with my older daughter until she was eight months, or six months actually, so traveling with June at nine weeks was a little daunting.
BS: I’ve also found myself strangely sympathetic to the people with crying babies on airplanes. I used to think it was a crime against humanity.
AB: You’re crossing over.
BS: There should be a master list somewhere. It’s like puberty.
AB: One big thing is that your sense of time gets really altered. And it almost gets inverted in a way. Ten minutes can start to seem like a really long time, and two hours can seem like nothing. You can go out—you still go out—but you go out for two hours instead of four or six, and the two hours seem to pass by really quickly. And then other moments when you’re not sleeping and you get ten minutes of rest, that ten minutes can seem like a long time. What do you think about the Finals?
BS: It’s funny that no one’s acknowledging that the Heat made the NBA Finals. They’re four wins away from winning an NBA title, but everyone’s still talking about Derrick Rose. The silent treatment they’re getting today is in some ways even more annoying than the persistent yammering about how awful and snobby they are. Are you a long-suffering Knicks fan?
AB: Not exactly. I get interested in the Knicks, or the Nets for that matter, when they’re interesting. That hasn’t been the case with the Knicks for a while, but I’ve paid attention to both of them since the mid-Eighties. Basketball is my number two sport, behind baseball. There, I’m an unreconstructed Yankees fan. In basketball, I just like the sport.
BS: That’s the sense I get from your poetry. The basketball references are sort of all over the place, whereas the baseball stuff is a lot more New York. That makes a lot of sense to me, given the roles the two sports play, culturally. Baseball is more resonant, personal. It does a better job of attaching itself to people’s lives, whereas basketball is primarily about a love of the game. With local fans, basketball has much bigger “what have you done for me lately” problems.
AB: It might also be that when college basketball players go pro, they’re essentially migrating to some other part of the country. With baseball, you don’t really get attached until they get up into the major leagues, so you wind up sticking with the team a little more particularly. And in baseball, there’s so much space in the sport. The pitchers are doing a lot physically, but at the same time, they’re also standing there. You have to get interested in a slower sense of time passing.
BS: I hate to admit it, but baseball does lend itself much better to contemplation. Incidentally, I just sent someone that line you have about Knoblauch and Dibble.
AB: When the sports stuff gets into the poems, it’s because I like the way the name or the word combination sounds. Knoblauch and Dibble was purely “Knobloch and Dibble” as material. I’m always fishing for language and odd combinations of sounds that appeal to me. The reasons aren’t always explicable in a reasonable sense. I would put both of the sports almost on an equal footing, except that I’ve probably watched more baseball than basketball, and read about it more. So there’s more to cull from.
“Knoblauch and Dibble” is in that poem because I was writing right after my kid was born, and my brain felt completely empty, so I would let things in as I was hearing them. A lot of them were song lyrics, sports stuff, headlines, or things that people were saying around me. I like to write in public, so there will be a certain amount of sonic activity around me. I can let that come in and fill the gaps between things that I’m thinking or conjuring up and trying to put together. There’s also a whole vocabulary to infants and newborns that I wasn’t really aware of.
BS: I’m also a big proponent of working with what people might consider noise or distraction. I watch movies while I write. I listen to disco. I’m sure that does something to warp what I’m writing. If I go out in public to write and there aren’t people having an annoying conversation by me, I’m at a loss. I need something to feed off of. So there’s definitely something to “polluting” writing in that way.
AB: There’s the old Wordsworth notion that writing poetry is “a recollection of emotion in tranquility.” I don’t know anyone who does that. I’m sure there are people out there who do, but the recollection of emotion I don’t do and the tranquility part I definitely don’t do. If things are too tranquil, it’s almost a problem.
BS: I think for a lot of writers, whether it’s prose or poetry, there’s this idea that being serious looks a certain way. You reach deep within and that’s where great work comes from. You’re describing the ways in which you get jarred by the external world. It doesn’t take you over, but it certainly serves as a catalyst.
AB: When you’re writing, a large part of what you’re doing is arranging material. If there’s material all around us, putting something together is partially about grabbing it, rearranging it, and putting it into a form where it has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. If you have a sense of that, then you don’t have to make it from point A to point Z.
BS: Can I ask you a very, very specific question about Notes from Irrelevance?
BS: I’m not completely blowing the whole “trying to talk about poetry” part of this, am I?
AB: Oh no, not at all.
BS: Of the three books of yours I’ve read, it’s by far the most discursive. Parts of it are almost proselike, and so I read it occasionally as prose. Was that something you knew the reader might end up doing?
AB: When I was writing Notes from Irrelevance, I didn’t know exactly that it was going to be a long poem. I was writing every day. And then I had a sense of pushing something forward that had a lot of connections across each interval of writing. But the reading I was doing along with it was mostly prose—mostly novels, actually—and I was also finishing a longer piece that was composed in sentences.
I had this feeling that I’d lost the ability to write more than one or two kinds of sentences, so I kept a long list of sentences for two to four months. I tried to make sure they were different from one another. After I came out of that, I found that I could read novels much more readily and faster than before, so I wanted to read them. I was in that place or mode when I started writing Notes from Irrelevance. I’m actually glad to hear that it felt like that to you, because that’s part of the idea there.
BS: I should probably work on changing up my sentence structures. That’s a constant anxiety of mine.
AB: I tend to look for patterns that are developing that I see as problems, or that I see as representing certain areas of weakness in the way that I’m thinking or putting my work together. Those patterns usually represent some kind of narrowing in thinking or writing, so I try to disrupt them and change them into something else. That kind of desperation spurs me on to write a list of 1,000 sentences across three months.
BS: Is being able to write different kinds of sentences strictly an aesthetic concern, or actually about being able to better articulate thoughts?
AB: It’s the latter, for sure. I was really concerned that I was limiting what I could say. I tend to sit down to write without anything specific in mind. I may have some material to start with that’s around me, or something that I’m going to begin with. But usually, I just know I’m going to write for a certain amount of time by putting material together. I find something out there and see what happens. I need to be able to vary the way I do that, because otherwise I’ll always be operating out of the same phrasal space.
BS: But on a granular level, it seems almost like you wouldn’t have the problem of trying to find that perfect, most accurate word.
AB: It’s a matter of being open to combinations that aren’t terribly pre-formed, so I can be surprised by what’s coming out, and I can go forward building off of that. I wouldn’t want to be so precise as to be looking for the perfect word. I might be looking for a sound or association or a word with a semantic register that can flip me into a different tonal space than the one I might be starting off in. But it’s not usually looking for a word to fit the idea or sensation that’s already there.
I’m not trying to be inspired. I’m trying to tap into streams of language that are all around me and to have there be some kind of interplay between that and where I am internally. I know people who generate their work by operating out of a philosophical or conceptual space. I also know people who write entirely through appropriation. I’m not exactly doing either of those things. I got interested in sentences because I needed a more stable structure in order to get my lines grounded again. I found myself in a place where it was hard to hold anything together.
This was after I finished writing the poems in Zero Star Hotel and Notes on Programming, which not coincidentally is made up of poems that were written from 2000 through 2004. That’s a lot of material coming out of the wars, the attack on New York, and a total change in how public language is being manipulated at that point.
BS: Do you go against the grain of it, do you acknowledge it, do you knuckle under?
AB: I was acknowledging it by taking from it and then mixing it in with language that I was getting from other places—reading the news, talking to people, looking at the TV. News tickers were starting to affect the way I was thinking about form. It was one thing after another, and often stuff that was sourceless or just a snippet. The problem was that my sense of form had become really jittery and haphazard. I wanted to show that I couldn’t keep a straight margin because I felt all over the place. There was this huge emotional content that was difficult to articulate, so it had to be all over the page.
I think of those poems as being a formal attempt to make a big mess and have that actually be the accurate depiction of what it was like to be in time during that period. And it sucked. When I came out of it, I felt like shit, and that’s when I had to figure out how to sort of rebuild my whole writing process.
BS: The crawler seems to have come and gone now. Wouldn’t it be something like Twitter today?
AB: The way that language gets used in spaces like Twitter is not very different from how it’s been handled elsewhere. Ultimately, what’s being said is going to affect me more than the means in which it’s provided. That gets in there too, and it’s always there with advertising language in particular. But it’s often because there’s a lot of accidental weirdness and humor and underpinnings in advertising language that aren’t up on the literal surface that you can kind of get at by taking them out of the context of the ad and putting them in the poem somewhere.
BS: It’s funny how, when Sarah Palin makes a statement on Twitter, there’s only so much resonance that can be packed into it—because, like you’re saying, the use of language there is not particularly rich. There’s only so much resonance you can pack into it. But then people try to interpret it, even though what it really represents is someone trying to cram information into 140 characters in the most rudimentary way possible. And yet people read into it because we’re so used to these people messaging. The messaging power of Twitter is almost nil.
AB: The interpretation machine is a whole other dynamic. I remember seeing this article a couple of weeks ago on ESPN, and it was about the Florida Marlins general manager warning the outfielder Logan Morrison that his R-rated tweets might eventually get him into trouble. It was so far removed from the field at this point, and it’s like warning Logan Morrison that he’ll run his car off the road some time in the next five years.
BS: I think as much as people say things as public figures, we know so much more about them because they’re showing so much more of themselves. The truth is, we have more and more data to interpret, as opposed to just what we see of them and what they were put on earth to do for us.
AB: I would figure in the case of you interviewing an athlete, there’s more data on them, but they’re training themselves to be not exactly closed off, but to be scripted in the interviews so they don’t reveal too much. You had more loose cannons—not loose cannons, but people who would speak without as much of a filter—20 to 30 years ago, I think, in the sports world.
BS: It’s really a bad fit for Twitter, and gets us even further from what we supposedly want from athletes and other public figures. That apparatus exists only because people got into the act of interpreting and overinterpreting everything in very narrow, or overly broad, terms. Off-the-cuff remarks that are raw, careless, and three or four places at once—those will cause a problem. So it’s almost a harm-reduction thing. You can’t be 100 percent behind something that, by definition, is going to slip through your fingers if you try to grab onto it in that way.
AB: There’s this book called Voices of Baseball—I don’t know if it’s in print anymore. It’s a book I got when I was a kid; I think it came out in the Eighties. It’s not an oral history of baseball, but it’s basically a book made out of quotes pulled from all different kinds of sources and then arranged by subject, including teams, cities, players, eras, race, drugs, sex, and the history of the game. Sometimes I think my whole idea of poetry was shaped more by books like that than by poetry books.
The tone comes through in a lot of those things, interestingly enough, but that’s because a lot of the stuff is just really funny and stuff you wouldn’t hear anymore. Like Reggie Jackson describing Oscar Gamble as hitting like he’s worth his contract, but playing the outfield like all the money he’s making is stuffed inside his uniform.
BS: When we can read that on the page, we understand it as a person talking: the emotions that conveys, some of them are contradictory, and the irony involved. It also has to do with the increased corporatization of sports. Charles Barkley has been given free rein to say whatever he wants and defend himself in whatever way he sees fit, but that’s because he’s been made into this lone wolf. When you have this entire chain of command and chain of handlers, the whole idea of everyone being on the same page gets complicated. You can’t have a same page that looks anything like what an individual utterance looks like.
AB: It’s also just about how people get filtered into or away from these places where language is used. Why would any smart person, at this point, who wasn’t completely power driven—why would any smart person want to go into politics at this point? It’s a place for insane people.
I gave a reading from Notes from Irrelevance at Bard during the winter, and somebody actually told me after the reading that they thought I’d been influenced by Sarah Palin. They were teasing me, but I think this person was not accustomed to the colloquial showing up in the poetry that much.
The son of poets Alice Notley and the late Ted Berrigan and stepson of poet Douglas Oliver, Anselm Berrigan earned a BA from SUNY Buffalo and an MFA from Brooklyn College. His collections of poetry include Integrity & Dramatic Life (1999), Zero Star Hotel (2002), Some Notes on My Programming...
Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of the basketball writers’ collective FreeDarko.com and co-author of the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. His writing has appeared in GQ, Sports Illustrated, the Nation, The Awl, and McSweeney’s.