LETTERS: Anselm Berrigan and John Yau

Letters to Poets



Anselm Berrigan is the author of the recent Some Notes on My ProgrammingZero Star Hotel, and Integrity & Dramatic Life, published by Edge Books. A CD, Pictures for Private Devotion, is available through Narrow House Records. With his mother Alice Notley and brother Edmund Berrigan he has co-edited The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, published by the University of California Press. He is the Artistic Director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church and lives in New York City.



John Yau has published more over 50 books of poetry, artists' books, fiction, and art criticism. His most recent book is Paradiso Diaspora (Penguin, 2006). Other stellar volumes include Ing Grish, with drawings by Tom Nozkowski, from Saturnalia Books and essays, The Passionate Spectator, from the University of Michigan Press. He currently writes a column for the American Poetry Review, and his essays and interviews appear regularly in Art on Paper and the Brooklyn Rail. He has received awards and grants from the NEA, the New York Foundation of the Arts, Peter S. Reed Foundation and was named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture in 2002. He teaches at Mason Gross School of the Arts (Rutgers University) and lives in New York.


New York, New York
December 22, 2004

Dear John,

I'm staring at a picture of myself holding a fake Tommy gun in one of those black and white boardwalk "throwback photos" and remembering how the photographer, a girl of about 16, wouldn't let me pose with the gun pointing up at my chin. She was right to be dismayed, of course, but it was supposed to be a fake photo, and I was supposed to be dressed as some kind of Capone-era gangster, so I figured the gesture of aiming the gun at myself could be included as part of this phony reproduction—if everything else in it was fake, why couldn't the gesture of self-inflicted harm remain? I am enclosing a copy of the photo for you to admire, and wondering what it would be like to have all memory of my life obliterated in the future save this small piece of demented nostalgia.

Part of the reason this has come up for me in the space of this letter to you is the fact that I've wondered recently if, early on when I was starting to write (not just poems but record reviews and small pieces of fiction beginning around 18), I wasn't (in part, mind you) using the space of writing as a place to act out self-destructive tendencies that I mostly avoided engaging in for real (except for one incident with a knife and several dozen instances of hopping on the backs of buses and trucks when I was younger). An interviewer asked recently about the relationship between the body and the text in my poems, and beyond the fact that the word "text" drives me completely crazy when referring to poems and makes me feel like a fucking clown (as my brother might say), I could only think of this kind of transferral of harm from body to page.

At this point, fourteen years after starting to write poems, I'm not terribly concerned about the rote psychology of this jag, but instead am interested in the fact that poetry has the capacity to handle the darker aspects of one's imagination (and behavior) while making said aspects be part of the deal (part of the work) rather than taking over and enforcing a standard narrative-as-reproduction-of reality. I mean, I don't think I am capable of slitting anyone's throat, but I've used a poem to really ask myself if I could, and I still wanted the poem to work as a piece of art in the sense of being shapely and sonically alive. One is exposed to so much violence in our culture—imagined and real—via mediums of communication, and, simultaneously, if you don't do your own research, kept in the dark when it comes to the totality of suffering in places where we are at war and doling out death (Iraq) or standing by while masses of people are starved and executed on genocidal levels (Darfur). I feel like my poems have been full of explosions for the last three or four years, and one formal by-product of that is an increased erosion of the boundaries between thoughts as they occur on the surface of the work. I can't tell the difference at any given time between my imagination acting and being acted upon as I write, or at least I feel that way at times. Information comes streaming in at all points of time and space, and I've lately felt like what my poems do for me is to regurgitate a lot of that information on my own terms. All that said, I'm still really attracted to humor and weirdness and technical aspects of poetry that, for me, are capable of producing great moments of music and beauty. But I think all of those things have been internalized to some extent so I appreciate them without ever thinking about them anymore, or at least without thinking about producing them.

I realize that I'm not exactly asking you questions, but I think you can get the gist of where I'm coming from enough to respond. Feel free to add or change the terms of anything. It's not a case where I'm asking "what is the role of art, etc.," since I think artists and poets act that out in large numbers every day and the question, a common question in some quarters, is any cultural arbiter's method of actually avoiding the work that's being done altogether, but I am wondering if you can talk to me about writing poems in terms of all the horrific input we receive, are subject to, instigate, live through. What do you think Rilke's poems would have been like if World War I was on 24-hr cable news? I've been trying off and on to figure out a way to get back to writing poems addressed to one person I care for in the last year or so, but it ain't happening. And when I put it in terms of "getting back" I realize it can't happen, and I don't want it to happen. Someone recently asked me about the division between notions of text-based poetry and voice-based poetry, and I mainly thought "ack" . . . I will do what I have to do according to no one's dogma about what a poem should be like, and my life will always be in there somewhere, since it is difficult, I imagine, to write poems when you are dead (though it doesn't seem as difficult to get published).

The funny thing is, finally, that I don't think about poems when I'm writing them. I do think about emotion and information, but it's more like they're passing through than sticking around for analysis of the degradable-type.

I'm going to head off to the latest, greatest institutional space for visual art in New York City, the refurbished MoMA, when I finish this letter. Is there any new work there, or am I to just be impressed by a different space filled with the same art (or maybe some stuff from their big basement)? Have you seen it yet? Has Cerise helped you write any of your poems yet?


New York, New York

January 13, 2005

Dear Anselm,

There are so many people who are convinced that they have the right answers that I am wondering if we haven't started losing sight of what the questions might be. Or, worse, there are rote answers to what have become rote questions. If one were to take a test, how could one not be the perfect student? The dance steps have been laid out on the floor, and one need only follow in the appropriate manner. In this way, the new story mirrors many of the old stories. Once, at a dinner in Marseilles, during a large gathering of poets after a reading, I asked the person sitting next to me where she was from. It was a clumsy attempt at small talk. The person across from me, a French poet who has translated many American poets, interrupted me and said this was a typically stupid American question. She pointed out that in France it wasn't interesting or even necessary to ask such a question because one's family most likely would have stayed in a town or region for many generations. I was dumbfounded because I thought this person had made, and had felt comfortable making, a number of presumptions. I did not tell this person that my mother-in-law is French and Jewish and had to hide in France in World War II, that she went to Israel after the war. In my experience, this person's finger-wagging lecture is not atypical. She made a gesture, and wanted to make sure I understood how right that gesture was. It was not a gesture to be answered, because that person spoke from the position of absolute authority. It was a way of being clear that no dialogue would take place.

The question I think you are asking, and the one I am trying to answer, is how do any two people begin talking to each other. I don't think I began writing poetry out of a desire to talk to someone, to send (one could say) a love poem to either a specific or general you, but out of the recognition that there was no one to talk to. I don't mean this as a dramatic fact, but as a fundamental one. I suspect that Rilke wouldn't have felt different if World War I was on 24-hour cable news. I have been wondering about this division you seem to imply in your letter. Does one write poems addressed to a general you or to a specific you? Does one speak for some, many, all, any, one or none? Perhaps this is the wrong order. A few years ago I read a number of books on Multiple Personality Disorder, language acquisition, and recovered memory. And during this time, I considered (as I did before and still do, which is not to say "conclude") that one might no longer be writing a poem addressed to one person (Rilke's angel) out there. Rather, it might be that one is trying to write a poem addressed to all the voices (manifestations) one hears in one's head. Or maybe, and here I am thinking of Jack Spicer, one is trying to register their different tonal registers, the range of sounds they make, the inchoate emotions. In a taped conversation of Stan and Jane Brakhage and Hollis Frampton, Frampton says this about the well-known image of St. George slaying the dragon: "The dragon has often been emblematic of what is unwarranted and surprising, and thus undesirable, in perception and imagination." Stan's response speaks, I think, to the question you've raised. He proposes that Sergei Eisenstein made the "mass of people" into "the hero," and that until then they existed in history as a "pretty ugly apparition." Baudelaire would agree. The other dilemma the artist faces is "to find a way to make manifest to the general air [one's] own socially unacceptable particularities."

Where I think things have changed since Brakhage made these observations is in one's sense of place. The bustling, terrifying crowds that Baudelaire encountered in the streets of Paris shared the same physical space but did not, as the poet made evident, experience it in the same way. But what is the physical space we share today? If you happen to live in New York (as we do), is it MoMA? Is it "reality TV?" Is it the spaces that are offered to us in carefully edited glimpses (the so-called news)? Is it the spaces we see in the photographs of Robert Frank and Gary Winogrand, but which are now gone? Is it the megalopolis we inhabit, built on the ruins of hundreds of civilizations, and containing neighborhoods we will never visit or perhaps even know about. For this megalopolis is both lateral and vertical.

A few years ago, Paul Theroux published a piece about a dominatrix in the New Yorker. At that moment something in the general air changed. As you know, one of things Theroux publishes is called travel writing. In this piece, Theroux meets the dominatrix on a safari, and the writing that appears in the New Yorker could be called a "profile." The reader learns various facts about her and her clients. She likes to eat sushi for breakfast, because it has a lot of protein. She was on the safari with one of her clients. Twenty years ago (was it more or less?), Raymond Carver published his fiction in the New Yorker. They were stories about people living in trailer parks, about people who did not read the New Yorker. And, to come at it from another perspective, these characters lived in places that people who read the New Yorker don't generally inhabit or visit. With Theroux's piece, the terrain shifted a little (a tiny temblor, you might say), if only for the time of that article (a week). So the news of different neighborhoods and cultures is filtered through the New Yorker and other strainers, and made palpable to the taste of the audience. With Carver and Theroux, the reader becomes a voyeur. But we also know that that audience consists of people for whom Theroux's piece is not news. How can the erosion you mention not be inevitable?

The poetry world isn't divided between those who believe in (insert whatever word you wish) and those who believe in (insert whatever oppositional word you wish). It is adrift and breaking apart and reforming itself. It is difficult to get a larger perspective. We can't rise above this thing we are on (and in) to get a sense of where it is going, and what it is becoming. There are those who believe they can and should steer this raft, and are angry because not enough people listen to them. Or perhaps this raft is really made up of many smaller versions, each with its own constituency. Or perhaps the point is not to climb aboard any of the ones you encounter. Ack, I am getting allegorical.

One thing you wrote that sticks in my mind, which is that you don't think about poems when you are writing them. We live inside language. How to think in it and write at the same time? I don't think I can talk to you about writing poems in terms of all the horrific input that comes at us everyday. The person in Marseilles could tell us, but that is not who I want to listen to. I think you make art in spite of everything, and that maybe instead of teaching others, you learn something from this thing that we do.


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