Bill Berkson, who passed away of a heart attack June 16th, is the author of some twenty collections and pamphlets of poetry—including most recently Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems and Expect Delays, both from Coffee House Press. He was a beloved teacher and art critic. In the 1960s, he was a regular contributor to both ARTnews and Arts, guest editor at the Museum of Modern Art, an associate producer of a program on art for public television, and taught literature and writing workshops at the New School for Social Research and Yale University. After moving to Northern California in 1970, Berkson began editing and publishing a series of poetry books and magazines under the Big Sky imprint and taught regularly in the California Poets in the Schools program.
His poems have also appeared in many magazines and anthologies and have been translated into French, Russian, Hungarian, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, Romanian, Italian, German and Spanish. Les Parties du Corps, a selection of his poetry translated into French, appeared from Joca Seria, Nantes, in 2011. Other recent books are What’s Your Idea of a Good Time?: Letters & Interviews 1977-1985 with Bernadette Mayer; BILL with drawings by Colter Jacobsen; Ted Berrigan with George Schneeman; Not an Exit with Léonie Guyer and Repeat After Me with John Burier.
Interview By John Wisniewski
AMFM: Are there any poets and artists who may have influenced your work, Bill?
BB: I’ve lost track. “Influence” is such tricky word. What flows into the work, what goes out? What poems encourage you to be more fluent in your own terms? What’s the difference between something influential and something inspiring? It makes sense that every poem I’ve ever read has influenced my poetry in some way––try this, baffled by this, stay away from that, assertions I’ve felt called upon to gainsay by way of writing another poem, tones that seduce or repel, things I wish I’d written that get dealt with surreptitiously in some veiled form. On the other hand, there are artists and art works that give me ideas for writing in ways that other people’s poems rarely have. The very open, non-narrative montage in Nathaniel Dorsky’s films, for example. The way certain artists––Jasper Johns. for one––use different styles in a single work, as if style was objective and portable. The sensation of things slipping between identities––metamorphosis––in Guston and de Kooning. Or else, just someone’s attitude inspires me to do more, or do things differently–-Robert Smithson, Bruce Nauman, a younger artist named Colter Jacobsen . . . The list goes on. Douglas Dunn’s dances. Rachael Harrison’s sculpture. And on back to Piero della Francesca and the Romanesque. For poetry, the list is fairly “boilerplate.” T. S. Eliot was the first poet I studied in depth. Kenneth Koch, the teacher who convinced me that poetry was a real-life pursuit; his love of poetry and the largesse of his own poetry, both exemplary. Frank O’Hara had an enormous impact on me as a person and a poet. John Ashbery hardly ever fails in the sheer delight department. Otherwise, I keep returning to Keats, Thomas Wyatt, Philip Whalen, Edwin Denby, Robert Creeley, Bernadette Mayer. Alfred North Whitehead’s prose is a constant model. John McPhee’s progress as a writer has been inspiring, the way he accumulates and concatenates topics. And Adam Phillips’ early books. The list of contemporaries seems to expand daily as I get a lot of poetry books in the mail, and the online tsunami keeps coming.
AMFM: Do you enjoy attending poetry readings, and the live reaction to reading your work?
BB: Yes and no, and yes, maybe. One possible pleasure in a poetry reading is hearing the poems of someone whose work hadn’t quite registered before and gaining an appreciation of them from hearing them read. But, just as with a bad play, it’s horrible, if the reading is bad, to be trapped several seats in from the aisle, and if you get up to leave you’re making a statement for all to see, including the poor reader. Reading my own poems in a public setting––“giving” readings, as they say––is a pleasure if the setting is right. If I get relaxed enough about it, I enjoy the chance to play out certain poems for different tonalities or rhythms, to hear more in this or that poem than previously suspected. The “live reaction,” if there is one, can range from unfathomable silence––some audiences seem inhibited from making any audible response at all––to someone’s remarking on some aspect that I hadn’t noticed or thought was there.
AMFM: What do you look for in the writing of new young poets? Are there any poets that you currently enjoy reading?
BB: Those new young poets will be the death of me! No, I’m only kidding. American poetry right now is in a particularly healthy state. As usual, it depends on where you look. Two poets whose work interests me a lot at the moment are Lyric Hunter and Alli Warren. There are others. The list is long. The amazing thing is, there are hundreds of good adventurous young poets. How they manage it economically is anyone’s guess.
And the good work is very nuanced, which would seem to be the last thing the general culture is looking for, nuance being mostly drowned out by the roar of the “Now.”
Your latest from Coffee House Press is named after a Jackson Pollack painting. Do you often think in images, when writing your poems, and do you view paintings for inspiration?
BB: Actually, the Pollock is called “Portrait and a Dream,” and my book of new and selected poems is Portrait and Dream. I always liked Pollock’s title, which I purposely misremembered, but especially the fact the painting has two somewhat contradictory images next to one another, a jumble of abstract forms and a face, which may be Pollock’s own. It’s the title of the book, without there being any poem of that title in the contents. And the cover has an image, dreamlike in its way, by Ed Ruscha, a literally glorious shaft of sunlight zooming through what might be a transom and splat, hitting the floor in a perfect parallelogram. The Ruscha image is alluded to in one of the poems near the end of the book.
If I think in images it’s graphic images that propose kinds of imaginary formats for poems, the shape, somewhat mentally conceived, that a poem might take. It’s a way to get going, and really nothing ever turns out according to plan. As I’ve said elsewhere, painting and poetry have in common a sense of charged surface. With painting you know the surface is what you see, whatever might be there. With poetry, it’s hard to point to the surface, even though that’s where the action, the sensational aspect of the words, actually occurs.
Does music inspire you at all, in your writing?
BB: Music is probably the primary inspiration, but who knows how that works? I’ve fantasized about trying to write in terms of musical forms, sonatas, ragas––terrific notions, but I never get around to following through. I used to write with music playing in the room, but now I find it too distracting. On the other hand, listening to music is a big part of my life.
Which of the arts, is most powerful for you, when creating. Which art form provides you with the most in which to work with?
BB: Ultimately, it’s poetry that counts. If I didn’t find that to be true, I’d probably take up DJ’ing.
Bill, you are currently writing a memoir, what was it like to look back on your life, and your early days as a poet, remembering those that you knew.?
BB: Looking back on one’s life isn’t unusual, but immersing myself in trying to sort out and tell what happened, what I may or may not have done, people I’ve known, places, the intersecting with historical events, that much feels somewhat convulsive. I’m not writing a memoir as consecutive narrative. I call it “memoirs in pieces,” in different sections, and each section has different parts. Then again, the piece that initiated this project, the title piece for the whole book, “Since When,” runs about 50 pages. The original 40-page version was commissioned in 1999 by Gale Contemporary Authors in a very sweet proposal, that one could write at that length in any form one chose and that they hoped that doing so would encourage me to write more in this vein. They also made room for illustrations––family photos and the like––to accompany the text. That was the proposal they made to seemingly hundreds of writers. The ones I know of are Joanne Kyger, Robert Creeley, and Anne Waldman. Writing the piece for Gale I got very inspired by how quickly certain memories kicked in and how the prose came so readily, how much could zip by in a single paragraph. I must have written those 40 pages in just a few days. The book project, however, has taken at least ten years, and it’s not over yet. I’ve come to realize that not everything I have to tell has to be in the book; there’s probably enough for two more at least, counting one that would deal with family history.