Interview With Charles Bernstein (Part I)
The following interview, conducted with Charles Bernstein at his home on March 19th, 2010, represents Bernstein's thinking about the composition of his selected poems just released by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, All the Whiskey in Heaven, as well as his thinking about selected poems as a genre.
In the first part of this two part interview, Bernstein also discusses the editing of Robert Creeley's selected poems by Robert Grenier and Benjamin Friedlander, his own editing of the Library of America's Louis Zukofky: Selected Poems (2006), and selection by process of what Bernstein calls "aversion" and "bachelor machine."
For more reflections on All the Whiskey in Heaven, check out the interview Bernstein gave with Jay Sanders in the current BOMB.
For audio of Bernstein and others reading from the book at Zinc Bar (NYC) check out the following link at Penn Sound.
Stay tuned for part two of the interview next week at Harriet!
Thom Donovan: How did you go about making your selections for your selected poems, All the Whiskey in Heaven (FSG, 2010)?
Charles Bernstein: I wanted All the Whiskey in Heaven to stand up in its own right as a book, comparable to The Sophist (Sun & Moon, 1987) or Islets / Irritations (Roof, 1992), in which there was a marked contrast of styles, approaches, tones, and moods, poem for poem. Once I realized that I could use the selected as a structuring device to make a collage of discrepant works including, in some cases, making excerpts . . .
TD: So in a sense your previous books could be considered selected poems?
CB: I’ve tried to think of many of the previous books as being something like group shows. When you go into an art gallery you often see that the artist has tried to create a body of work in which all the individual pieces appear similar to one another. I always want to do the opposite, to try to create a set of works that are different from one another, keeping in mind that such difference allows for other connections. Ironically, at least in my work, when the overt form or style or rhetoric is different, the connection of one poem to another is intensified.
All the Whiskey in Heaven has a very strong connection from beginning to end. But it’s not in the way that the poems look, or the tone, or the style. The earliest poem in the book is “Asylum,” which is entirely taken from Erving Goffman’s book, Asylums, about closed worlds like insane asylums, prisons, and monasteries—social spaces that are closed-off from the outside. “Asylum” focuses on the beginnings and ends of the sentences in the Goffman text. So every line is a kind of trapped or frozen transition. And the visual arrangement suggests an Olsonian “field” style. It’s from the mid-70s, the earliest work in the book. I published it myself in a small side-staple xerox edition (maybe 40 copies) and then Ron Silliman published it in his similarly produced Tottel’s.
TD: You were 25.
CB: Yes. And I really wanted to include the work from before that, Disfrutes. For this manuscript I originally had something that was about 400 pages, whereas it’s 300 now. I regret that I couldn’t have all of those poems, though I think this is a better book. In that original version, I included Disfrutes, which are very short poems with slight modulations of vowels and consonants—highly miniature. But once I realized I had to cut that and also a lot of the longer serial poems out I still kept “Asylum,” which is a long and dark poem to begin, because it establishes an ongoing motif for the book, which has to do with closed systems—socially closed systems as well as linguistically closed systems (what I’ve come to call, following Duchamp and Kafka, bachelor machines). So the notion of closed systems provides a common thread throughout the book.
I also wanted variations of long and short, part to whole, and the possibility of potentiating recombinations among parts. That was my premise. It’s like stringing and restringing a charm bracelet. Then there’s a question of how many elements you can string together as a constellation, since there is always that moment when the constellation shatters, when a centripetal force turns into a centrifugal one. And can that turning itself be articulated as a rhythm, a kind of hyperrhythm of the pops at the points where frames shift or break (both within poems and at points in a string of poems).
In making the selection, I also decided to exclude several types of my work, which was difficult for me because I think I could have made an equally interesting book if I had not made that decision. I didn’t include essays—defined in the broadest sense. So even essays that combine aspects of poems—verse essays—are excluded. I didn’t include any of the libretti, so nothing from Shadowtime. That’s over half of my work, maybe more, that I didn’t even consider for inclusion in All the Whiskey in Heaven. My Way: Speeches and Poems (1999) provides the alternative model. But here, by keeping the field of work from which to pick discrete, I was able to work more intuitively and precisely on the selection. I also kept the order chronological and eliminated book titles for the main body of the text. The table of contents tells you what book each poem is from, including date of publication, but the main body of the book reads as a continuous long poem of many parts (a kind of text opera).
TD: The selected poems is obviously a genre at this particular cultural moment. Are there selected poems that are generic models for your own?
CB: I’ve never loved the genre of selected poems, even less “new and selected”; but that attitude spurred me on. In any case, the genre was new for me, so perhaps I arrived at the obvious, slowly. My reinvention of the wheel produced, well, another wheel (that keeps happening to me). Another way of saying this is that I compose books not just poems; my books have been the primary frame for my work. So it was hard to make that leap to breaking those books up, “repurposing” the constituent parts. It was a simple trick I played on myself, imagining that I was creating an entirely new book. And that worked. Now that I have this book, I like it as well as, and in a similar way to, my other books. I could see doing several more “selecteds” (though it would be impractical).
I think Ben Friedlander did a terrific job with the Robert Creeley selected. These are two people I feel very close to, and it was certainly the example that was most immediately on my mind when I made my own selected poems. Plus there was the prior history of Creeley selecteds: Bob Grenier’s brilliant structural plan that was ultimately not used by Scribner’s (though the table of contents was published in the Creeley issue of boundary 2), then Bob’s own fairly recent, mildly revisionist selection, and then Ben’s, the newest one. Ben noted to me that he organized the book so that there would be a chronologically equal representation of Bob’s published work, and so the second half in particular of Creeley’s work wouldn’t be neglected. This was to bring out something not fully recognized: Even if we didn’t have Creeley’s early work, we’d still have a great poet, based on his later poems alone. Creeley’s early work is so seared in my mind and other peoples’ that he tends sometimes to overshadow himself (his early work overshadows his later work).
So that did give me a basic structuring principle. All the Whiskey in Heaven covers 1975 to 2005—thirty years. The section 1975-1990 is 150 pages, and 1990-2005 is also approximately 150 pages. Everything is from a previously published book except the title poem, which is placed at the end of the collection as an envoi.
I also edited Louis Zukofsky’s selected poems for the Library of America. So that was the most particular model for me in doing my own selected. The Library of America keeps a very strict limit of about 150 small pages for the selected poems series, which makes things difficult. I got this idea, which I would normally think was reprehensible, which was to excerpt poems. Because I can’t stand it in Williams’s selected poems, where he takes poems from Spring and All out of that context (although maybe I ought to rethink that: the problem is if the poems get dehistoricized into a kind of “best loved passages,” though even such an eclectic/monstrous edition might have its charm). While excerpting opens up new contexts it also wrenches the poems from their original context. So there was a side of me that was against that, but then again it was hard not to excerpt in selecting Zukofsky. Because if one didn’t know Zukofsky at all, one wouldn’t know some key features, say, of “A -12,” which is an extremely long poem and could not have otherwise been included in the LOA edition.
So there were certain elements from “A-12” that I wanted to bring into the weave of the larger selected. Because I was an external editor dealing with someone else’s work that had great historical significance, I wanted to do right by the received sense of what was important in Zukofsky’s work and to make a judicious introduction to his work. I couldn’t be as indulgent as I am with my own work, I didn’t have the same freedom. I did leave out of the Zukofsky selected “Mantis” and “Mantis, an Interpretation,” which together are quite long, but also central works. Something had to go. So too his ode “To My Wash-stand,” which I mention along with “Mantis” in the preface. Paul Zukofsky was eager to have “Four Other Countries” in the selected of his father’s work, which is a long work from the mid-50s. I posted Paul’s argument for that inclusion …
TD: That the prosody is changing….
CB: Yes. And that it anticipates the later work, and other people’s work, and hadn’t gotten the attention that other poems like “A -23” had received. I like the way that that book came together. So when I was working on All the Whiskey in Heaven I felt freer to use short sections from long serial poems when they suited my compositional approach.
TD: Making a selected is a time to be retrospective obviously. I was thinking of Zukofsky’s notion of a life-work, his Bottom weaving the strands of an organic whole. What emerges for you as the strands of the weave?
CB: I wanted to create a work that was refracted by changing forms, in changing parts (synchronic); the retrospective aspect gave me an additional diachronic scale to work with: works/themes/motifs changing over time, an old-time trope for sure. And one of the things that I’m interested in is seeing how far I can not follow that Zukofsky idea that everything is connected, to see to what degree everything is disconnected, or simply acknowledge that there is disconnection. I don’t think either is true or not true, by the way. Connection and disconnection, in the sense I mean here, are heuristic devices. When things seem to be disconnected on the surface that allows for other kinds of connections, elsewhere. So, in the end, I think that the relation of part to whole is unstable (or modular); still, shifting constellations emerge. … and that you discover what those constellations are not by trying to consciously make things that connect, but often by a poetics of aversion. In aversion we find unexpected connections (my own Emersonianism).
I’m trying that way to resist too much of a nostalgia, in the best sense—in the Homeric sense—of going home, because I don’t know what home is. And this book is more about homelessness, or about being trapped in various ways. I think the modality that runs through “Asylum” is the way that certain systems trap individuals and groups—collectivities—into “isolate flecks,” as Williams puts it. And not just ones imposed from the outside. Ones that we produce—or I produce anyway—from the inside.
TD: Something striking to me throughout the book, which begins in “Asylum” as the first poem of the book, is a sustained attention to discipline and punishment. Continually there are these moments when someone is speaking and you do not know who that person is exactly, just that they are some kind of cipher or representative for a particular disciplinary procedure.
CB: Once I began to circle in and around that, then the book could begin to take shape. So it’s highlighting a certain cross-section of motifs that I’ve been obsessed by over the years. And, yet, some things are thrown in that don’t quite fit that pattern either. Because the idea of composing something like this is to trouble the pattern recognition so that the patterns become more syncopated, more striated, and also so that I lose track too, so that I don’t fully anticipate the patterning. And a lot of the process is intuitive just like writing. So partly what I’m interested in is disrupting my own sense of what might go together, but somehow intuitively linking that asymmetry by trying lots of substitutions. By doing a selected I had the opportunity to try out different sequences, and to see which ones I wanted to keep. And also I asked several friends, whom I acknowledge in the back of the book, what they thought should be included.
TD: Did you give those readers any instructions?
CB: I told them the nature of the selected but didn’t get into any details. Well, at the time, I didn’t know myself what I was going to choose. And I sent the larger ms to a few people, the one that was 1/3 longer. That was useful. Part of the issue in cutting was that I eliminated some poems that were stylistically similar to works that were already included, because, even despite what I’m saying, much of my work is similar in kind. In fact I could have done an entirely different book with poems that were quite similar to one another. As for space reasons, I didn’t include many long poems....
Upper West Side, NYC
Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog (whof.blogspot.com) and coedits ON Contemporary Practice with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series (NYC). He holds a Ph.D. in English...