I’ve started several times to write something about the Tulsa School Conference since I came home to New York Sunday night. Exhaustion prevented anything coherent from happening initially. Sticking my head up my ass for a moment inside a comment box yesterday was mildly derailing as well as metaphysically concussive (currently I think it’s kind of funny and feel initiated into some kind of horrifying club of fuck ups). Now today in the midst of starting again I find myself going back to the moment I began writing poetry only to be interrupted several times by my daughter’s need to be rocked down repeatedly because her energies are getting harder and harder to let level off consistently. Very interesting to type while feeling like your arm is about to fall off by the way (I pity the pitcher).

So I had written this:

“I came to writing poetry through journalism. That is, I worked for the student paper at college and my initial forays into writing were through the frame of the campus desk of The Spectrum at SUNY-Buffalo. Covering a murder story tested my stomach and covering ground breaking ceremonies tested my patience, but I was more or less into the gig until I realized I could write music reviews for the newspaper’s entertainment insert, then known as The Prodigal Sun. Writing short pieces on new albums veered dangerously close to imaginative writing and triggered a desire to start keeping a notebook, which led to attempts at something like fiction. There was an open column in the Sun, which came out weekly, that could be used for short fiction or like pieces if a writer so desired, and I found myself writing little stories every now and then to test out that space. My stories were somewhat violent – the first one centered on a one-armed junky named Ricky having a vision in which God appeared and turned into a cockroach, leading Ricky to freak out and throw himself from a roof. These stories were typically less interested in plot than in creating an environment, it seems to me now, within which words could bang around and get into odd combinations. About eight months after writing the first “story” I made a decision without any prescience to break a line in my notebook instead of carry out a sentence. Something like a full body buzz enveloped my person and I felt immediately hooked into writing poetry. That happened one day in May of 1991.”

It’s probably also worth noting that I’d have ultimately made a lousy news journalist because I hate picking up the phone and calling strangers. But the (heretofore undisclosed) point seems to be that the conference was, at its heart, about beginnings. How the four figures of Brainard, Gallup, Padgett, and T. Berrigan pushed and prodded each other to “break through,” as it were, their earliest formations of self, humor, mind, art, writing. To get a richer sense of that dynamic and the place in which it swirled around before they all left town was invaluable and mostly terrific. I don’t have a lot of experience with conferences, but I suspect this one was not typical. It was small, intimate, and could even be fairly characterized as sweet. It was non-competitive, but also laced with emotional oddity – one doesn’t typically, I don’t think, give a talk on a writer and have present that writer’s children who are writers; his spouse who is a writer; his thesis advisor (seriously!); and friends of various degree who are also all writers making up the bulk of the audience. That happened a few times. But then, hell, what do I know. Maybe that happens all the time. At any rate I don’t feel there’s a particular narrative to spin out of the conference but I am finding myself drawn back to my own beginnings with poetry.

I also started writing this paragraph earlier today:

“Not long after that first breaking of a line I received a copy of Nice To See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan, a rather large book published by Coffee House Press and filled with memoirs, photos, drawings, poems, and letters centered on my father’s work and friendships. I say “friendships” instead of “life” because this type of book tends to accumulate into a kind of poly vocal take on friendship in recollection rather than something succinctly biographical. It was a treasure of information – I was ten when Ted died – but a complicated treasure that became further complicated as time passed and I came to perceive it as slanted towards my father’s life before his second marriage to my mother. That perception is not terribly important, nor is it being pitched here to put down the homage book.”

Um. Tying these two paragraphs together, as I was going to attempt to do, ain’t gonna work. There’s some kind of longer story to tell in there, but I’m not sure this is the right time or the right place for it, and I don’t know that it has enough weight to it to tell at all. But here’s one thing that I do find interesting, or at least I’m interested in how true it may be: my own beginning as a poet was informed by an introduction to my father as a remembered figure, and by one that I ultimately found to be full of holes with regards to the time period in which I knew him best ­– the last years of his life when he was ill and some of his older friends found him difficult to deal with. I never experienced that difficulty. In fact, the only real contribution I had to make at this one “roundtable" discussion (the table was not round) had to do with talking about the great extent to which my father talked with me – in no small part because he was home all the time and laid up in bed in our dinky railroad apartment. He talked, a lot, to his kids as well as everyone else dropping by (people dropped by every day, often throughout the day and evening). Maybe what I want to get at is a feeling that the version of my father who didn’t strike some of his older friends as completely there at the end was the one I found most useful as a kind of voice-in-memory to consult from time to time when I was getting going, and precisely because he wasn’t “in” the book that arrived shortly after the line-breaking incident. At any rate, I aim to enjoy giving it some thought.

Originally Published: November 10th, 2009

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...

  1. November 11, 2009

    As a 19-year-old college student I was one of the people who dropped by your apartment, and remember meeting you and your brother. Your mother had given a week-long seminar in Ann Arbor, arranged by my teacher, Ken Mikolowski. Your mother invited me to drop by and say hello to her and Ted if I were ever in New York. That "spring" break, February '83, I went to NYU to see a friend. My friend and I dropped by. Your dad was in bed and talkative and witty, and both of your parents were incredibly gracious and kind. Your dad signed my copy of "So Going Around Cities," incorporating bits of our conversation into the inscription in a delightful poem-performance, completely in his style. \r

    When I got "Nice to See You," the virtual absence of your mother and brother and you from the book struck me as odd. I always wondered whether that might have been because your mother wanted it that way, or because the editors did. \r

    I've always been grateful for your parents' generosity of spirit. The man you describe as being absent from "Nice to See You" sounds exactly like the man I very briefly met.

  2. November 12, 2009

    "You asked how old I was? I made no verse-but one or two-until this winter-Sir-"