Interview by: John Wisniewski
JW: Why do you call your latest poetry collection “Gradually the World,” Burt (Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 1983 – 2013 [BlazeVOX, 2013])? What may inspire your writing?
BK: The title comes from part of a line from a poem of mine, “Monet’s Garden,” which is a favorite of my own writing. And I do think the phrase “gradually the world” (“How carefully / the pigment would be placed, / how gradually the world — / its daily businesses — // would become still and deep) is apt for a title for a book of mine. But the title seems appropriate to me also since it signals a poetical and, implied in that, a philosophical tradition, which is exemplified by poets including a number of mentors and/or models of mine like George Oppen, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and William Bronk; for all of them the term and concept “world” was not merely of passing importance.
So to try to answer your second question, and by doing so to enlarge on what I’ve just said, I might say both that I wish to work in the tradition these and other poets represent and that I can do so in my poems by using words in order that a reader might feel the poem itself as an experience, that a world of the poem can be experienced (that is to say, rather than the poem referring to or taking a reader out of the poem to some world or experience exterior to the poem); in other words, I aspire to make a poem that need not be about anything but instead is a world, so to speak, unto itself.
But the other thing to see is that the phrase suggests the process of coming into the fullness of consciousness and thereby into the fullness of being. These poets I’ve mentioned were first and foremost poets and were truly poets but they were also intellectuals by inclination, though I would add that whatever knowledge or ideas they possessed—and they were quite aware of the tenuousness of knowledge, better to say of knowing, and their respective poems addressed this—they wore lightly.
JW: Your poems frequently capture a moment in time-are you conveying to us how you may see life experience?
BK: I am not sure that I “‘see’ life experience” insofar as I might be understanding life in any grand way (although I do feel now, as a senior citizen, that I’m a bit savvy about how people treat each other, in a way I don’t think is accessible to young people, and also I’ve just plain settled in with the notion that mystery is what makes life what it is ultimately, for better or worse, and perhaps mystery is what allows art to happen—my theory of art, contra most opinionators, is that it is a consequence of our dreams, an outgrowth or reaction or response to them, art, the making of art, having really less to do with someone’s need and hence effort to cope with her or his mortal condition).
Yet “time” is the most profound and elusive experience we have, arguably. Even so, I would like to think my poems are experiences within time that cause the forgetting of time if only for a very brief moment.
JW: You co-edited an anthology of the poems of William Bronk—what inspires you about his work?
BK: As it happens (referring back to what I’ve just said in part), Bronk’s dreams were often how his poems got written, and he wrote poems about his dreams too. He also said that poems came to him fully written in his dreams at times. Bronk wrote with great concision and that is one reason he’s been both an inspiration and model. He also is the poet of skepticism in American literature. I’ve always been taken by his unabating and uncompromising examination of epistemology in his work, of how we know what we know or think we know, and while his work might beckon a reader to think of him first and foremost as a philosopher, that was not the case; he was a poet (and essayist who wrote in the belletristic tradition) always.
People might think of Wallace Stevens as the American poet of skepticism, but Bronk took a daring step beyond what Stevens was either willing or capable of doing. Also (I’ve written an essay on this and it comes up in my book on Bronk—which came out in 1998, the first of a number of books as well as lengthy book chapters on him, to say nothing of all the essays and special issues of journals on him, conferences and so on), one way to compare Stevens and Bronk is on the basis of their language—Stevens’ poems, which I find utterly gorgeous (and yes he wrote some great poems) are, as I’ve argued, incongruously flamboyant in terms of his skeptical meditation on the possibility of reality and of how we might know what we think we know. Bronk’s language is austere and exact and quite appropriate. His was a gorgeous poetics in its own right, and that it embodies a profound philosophical investigation only enhances it. As Olson said about Bronk’s poetry (a blurb on the back of Bronk’s early collection The World, the Worldless), “I may have, for the first time in my life, imagined a further succinct life.” (Stevens was a huge influence on him, to the degree that the day came when Bronk had to rid himself of all of the older poet’s books, so that the younger poet could continue to write poems.)
JW: How did you meet artist Fred Caruso and come to collaborate with him—what did you see in his work that made you wish to work with him?
BK: Fred and I met at a local community center for parents and young children in Brooklyn, many years ago. His son and my daughter became friends and were in the same nursery school too. I was very struck by his paintings (which I describe a bit in a poem of mine, “With Fred Caruso, Standing in Front of Pierre Bonnard’s Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet”). Fred’s family and mine began to vacation together in the summers, as the kids were growing up.
We shared a house across a narrow road from a pond full of wildlife, which was at most a ten minute stroll from the ocean in Cape May Point, New Jersey, the most southern tip of the state. One summer Fred brought a set of water colors with him, and at the same time, that summer period, I had begun to jot down brief percepts of the life in that pond every day—the water and weather and wildlife—in brief statements (I came to realize that these sketches, as it were, could use the unobvious rigor of syllable counting, and that way of writing seemed appropriate to the subject matter as I sort of communed with the pond every day). Coincidentally, Fred was beginning to paint the wildlife in and the pond itself, in black and white water colors (a difficult medium and also perhaps appropriate to the subtlety we both felt from the pond and its inhabitants).
My way of writing about the pond comported well with what Fred was doing. In conversation we realized that a collection of the paintings and poems, both about the pond, would be a nice idea, since a rather shared aesthetic sensibility was emerging in our respective “pond” work, a quality both his black-and-white water colors, some abstract and some fully representational, and some in between, and my brief syllabic poems that were not haikus but often partook of that tradition, though written in a variety of patterns, exhibited. From that point in time we worked separately and sort of together for a bit under three years on this project, creating two tandem series, one of poems and one of paintings. During the winters we worked from photos Fred had taken. The book, The Pond at Cape May Point (Marsh Hawk Press, 2003) is still available (from Amazon, SPD Books, etc.).
JW: What would be your main criticism of modern poetry and any advice for young poets, Burt?
BK: I’m not sure what you mean by “modern poetry.” But if you mean poetry written in, say, the twentieth or twenty-first century then my criticism, speaking to this vast body of work within which there have been many tendencies and movements, might be that it now should take more cognizance of what digital technologies can tell us. Once poetry was only oral. Then it became written (and bearing the aesthetics it derived from the oral experience), and this writing was seen as fixed. Digital literature, digital poetry, might tell us how ephemeral writing is. So where does that leave poetry? I don’t have any advice for young poets but maybe I’ll reprise what Eliot was supposed to have told two acolytes who sought him out. The one who said he wanted to be a poet because he had a message he wanted to get out to the world was told to “send a telegram.” The other, when asked why she wanted to be a poet, said because she loved the sounds of words—to which Eliot replied, “Come in.”
JW: Burt you studied Medieval history—what appealed to you about this period of man’s history?
BK: I didn’t study medieval history except within the purview of my study of medieval literature. I was lured into medieval studies by Chaucer’s poetry that just simply blew me away. I soon realized, moreover, that there was something special about medieval literature’s ideality and medieval civilization that a professor of mine, Frederick Goldin, described as a very “clean world.” He certainly was not referring to the standard of material living or anything like that, but rather to a clarity within a world in which what was right and what was wrong were easily and surely identifiable. The ambiguities and equivocations of the modern world had yet to come into being (ironic since they do along with the emergence of modern, empirical science).
JW: What was the most significant event in Modern American Poetry, for you, Burt?
BK: Well, again, if we’re talking about “modern” in a larger concept than just “Modernism,” and so that I should be picturing a span of time of a bit more than one hundred ten years, and if you mean for me personally, then I would have to say it was a “poetry convocation,” as it was called, held in Cortland, New York, in 1967.
I was a very young college student attending SUNY Cortland (I began my studies as a physical education major, in which the college did and still does specialize) who had started to write seriously by that time. Sherry Kearns (née Moore) and I were the co-editors of the college’s literary magazine called Transition. A professor there, David Toor, because his brother worked in the same print shop in NYC with Joel Oppenheimer, had been bringing a large number of avant-garde poets to a Friday night workshop he ran and then hosting readings for them on the following day.
In those days the state university was awash in money thanks to Nelson Rockefeller, of all people, who was the state’s governor then. David had some money to spend and told Sherry and me he’d like us to suggest a way to spend it. The three of us came up with the idea of holding a big poetry conference. She and I elected to ask Charles Olson to be the keynote speaker. The who’s-who of the avant-garde at that time came to read and discuss poetry for a long weekend in October. For a kid like me this was more than I ever could have hoped to experience. I was transported into another realm by that conference, actually, and my poetry has never been the same since, I think.
I got to pick up Olson at the Ithaca, New York airport, and then hang out with him briefly. He was very tall, 6’9”, and at that time planes simply landed on the tarmac where passengers descended to walk to the gate. A former poet and friend, Wayne Oakes and I, stood behind a plate glass window as we watched the passengers on the designated flight go by. Then at last we saw what looked like the kind of hat you think of Sherlock Holmes wearing; it was bobbing above the wing of the plane, moving along, and below it were two huge galoshes. Wayne and I turned to one another and said at the same time, “That’s him!” He was mesmerizing, but so were so many of the poets there that weekend, hearing their work, listening to their ideas—Creeley, Oppenheimer, and on and on. I felt that possibilities for writing were open for me after that, in a way I had not before. It was not long after that, by the way, that Paul Blackburn came to Cortland to teach (and to die there just a few years later).
JW: Do you think poetry today is like the poetry in the ’60s, when that poetry gathering in Cortland took place?
BK: In some ways, yes; the experimental in North American poetry still can be traced back to the Modernist poets, and more recently to especially the poetry in the influential anthology of 1960 titled The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen. On the other hand, we are in the world of digital technology, and our ideas of text are in a profound transformation. I do see the connection from the past to present-day innovations in poetry. On the other hand, the people at that poetry gathering could never have foreseen what is being done in poetry today. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
JW: Burt, this has been most enlightening. Thank you for our conversation.
BK: My thanks to you, John!