Along with Cristiana Baik, Andy Fitch is assembling the Letter Machine Editions Book of Interviews, which also includes interviews conducted by Noah Eli Gordon and Joshua Marie Wilkinson. This talk will be published in that collection, due for late 2014 release.
Andy Fitch: Can we start with the Free Cell acknowledgments page? Here this 2009 City Lights collection goes out of its way to present Edge Books as your “primary publisher,” and even offers a brief timeline of Rod Smith’s founding of the press. What type of gesture did you wish to make with this acknowledgement? Why align oneself as a writer in this way? Did you want to demonstrate ongoing loyalty to a hardworking small-press publisher who gave you crucial early support? Do you appreciate the art-world model of a gallery cultivating/representing its selected “stable”? Can the symbiotic models of family-hood, of civic citizenship (both of which I hope we’ll discuss in detail later) extend to the relation between poet and publisher?
Anselm Berrigan: The acknowledgment of Edge Books was actually Garrett Caples’ idea. He’d gotten the go-ahead to edit a new line of poetry books for City Lights, and wanted to make sure the prior publishing relationships of the poets he intended to work with were recognized. I think in my case, because I’d primarily been published by Edge up to that point, Garrett wanted to make sure that Edge got some particular attention. He is very respectful of the work that Rod Smith has done with Edge. In fact, Garrett initially asked if I was interested in doing a kind of selected poems volume from the Edge books and other things, but I had plenty of new work and, anyway, the earlier books were and are still in print. So that didn’t feel necessary. I wouldn’t liken my relationship with Edge to a gallery model, mainly because I don’t really know what the gallery situation is like beyond a certain point. I have friends who are artists, and my cousin Will Yackulic, who I’m very close with, is a wonderful artist and works with a few galleries. But I don’t ask him what that’s like. The economics are obvious enough, anyway, and it’s clear to me that I don’t have to deal with that kind of stress. I can just deal with the special kinds of stress that come with poetry’s relatively puny economics. I’ve had very good relationships with my publishers, and they have all been poets themselves, which tends to keep things fluid.
AF: I’ll hope that we can discuss a variety of projects, including Free Cell’s various parts, Notes from Irrelevance and the forthcoming Primitive State. But first, since you clearly value the art of arrangement, could you arrange these various pieces before us? Are there ways in which this diverse array of recent books can be said to comprise a composite/kaleidoscopic whole—a catalog of different tonalities, forms of inquiry, phases of life? Or does approaching these books as discrete, self-contained entities make more sense? Your work consistently flouts reductive distinctions between an “experimental” and a “confessional” poetics. But, along the lines of this Free Cell excerpt, “Explanation befits a mirrored / version of me, so I / move on,” can we trace the autobiographical through your writing’s ongoing, always evolving desire to move on?
AB: Free Cell is made of three poems: “Have A Good One,” which also happens to be ninety-six poems, and which was written between 2004 and 2007; “Let Us Sample Protection Together,” which came out of a collaboration with the composer David First, and was written in the summer of 2008; and “To Hell With Sleep,” which was written very quickly in December of 2007 and maybe worked on a bit in early 2008. Notes from Irrelevance was written over a three-month period in late 2009, then typed up and worked on across 2010. Primitive State was actually written in the fall of 2008, but it’s taken a long time to get the arrangement to a place where I could consider it ready to go as a whole thing. I decided it was done last year (2013), but every time I read through it I get the urge to tinker with it a bit more. I can’t quite see them as a composite whole—I view all of my writing as part of an ongoing body of work, but that’s not something I’m looking to project onto the works as they’re sent into whatever version of the public they might reach. So I think taking the books as discrete entities is to the point. They’re not dependent on one another, at least outwardly, though they are by and large long poems. I don’t think I could have written Notes from Irrelevance without having gone through the experience of working on Primitive State, but is there really any way that could tangibly come across? I doubt it. They’re quite different.
It’s easier for me to have a feeling for the autobiographical as it works across all these pieces than it is to articulate that feeling as an arc or progression. That may be because the first three books of mine each contain a number of explicitly autobiographical poems, and by the time I was working on “Have A Good One” I was starting to treat autobiographical material in very short order—as glimpses, to borrow the word from Willem de Kooning’s usage (“content is a glimpse”). I was also working at the Poetry Project as Artistic Director for the duration of that poem’s making, and the poem became a working space I could go to in order to narrow myself down to artist, as opposed to playing host, organizer, fund-raiser, administrator, liaison to the public. All those roles were still on at the same time, so it’s not really like the writing was a method of escape. It was more a practice of de-consolidation and assessment, maybe. But even that take only gets at a little bit of what goes on across one’s own practice during any given spread of time. The single biggest autobiographical moment marked by the writing is clearly the birth of my first daughter, Sylvie, in late 2007. “To Hell With Sleep” is an instant response to her entering our lives and completely altering our relationships to time and need. Any writing from that point on had to happen fast, or so it seemed, if it was going to happen at all. And any sense of routine was upended, which was useful. Working at the Poetry Project slowed my practice down way too much. It was a good period for listening to what others were doing, but it wasn’t easy to let myself make sets of rapid decisions with materials while all that listening was happening. At some point after Sylvie’s birth I was desperate to have some kind of routine again, and not turn stupid, as in narrow-minded, which is a fear of mine. Primitive State and Notes from Irrelevance separately come out of those impulses in different ways.
AF: One more general question, before I ask about specific books, concerns the identification of your work (by reviewers, by you in interviews, by the poetic-subject of these projects) with New York City. Certainly your Lower Manhattan youthful experiences (getting lost on the walk home from “Eileen’s,” buying fake acid in Washington Square and such) speak to an immersive urban existence in a way that many subsequent New York transplants only can envy. You capture the nonchalant grace of New York’s over-saturated, moment-to-moment simultaneity, both in descriptive flourishes (such as, “They were getting in their hula hoop reps in November bikinis twenty feet away from a crowd gawking at a red-tailed hawk eating freshly killed pigeon in a Tompkins Square dutch elm”), and in more elliptical yet resonant motifs (such as “Backs in touch,” which may have nothing to do with this, yet, for me, evokes the subconscious animal comforts provided even on a cramped subway commute). Still, as someone who for a decade felt fully devoted to New York life, though who now lives just as happily in rural environs, and prefers to visit other cities, I’ve grown skeptical of most New York-essentializing formulations. Can you tell me something about why I, why everyone, still should care particularly about New York? Or, as an alternate way of approaching this question: Do you sense that the ecologies of other cities and other settings could have influenced your poetics as profoundly as New York has?
AB: Well, I envy being able to take a walk in the woods at a moment’s notice. If I lived for a long enough stretch somewhere else, that place would get into the writing too. In fact, I started writing in Buffalo, where I lived while in college, and really took it on in San Francisco. I lived there for a few years just before it became prohibitively expensive due to the tech boom, and a lot of my initial impulses and ideas about poetry were worked out there. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Mojave Valley and along the Hudson Valley too—this feels significant, despite the intermittence. I have no interest in making anyone feel some type of way about New York. Nobody needs to care about it. It’s a big source of material, but anywhere might be. I despised New York as a teenager and was very happy to leave. When I turn to memory zones from growing up here the colors tend to be gray, the environment threatening and my sense of being is heavily weighed upon. If I focus on my family there’s much more lightness, but I get a lot of memory hits outside on the streets by myself and those memory flashes tend to be stark and cutting, and somehow available.
That said, New York is where I’m from, and it’s where we live and work, and where my kids are starting to grow up, and those are evolving, concrete aspects of my experience that I rely upon at times to give me some ground. Otherwise I might just float into a permanent head- and sound-trip, and I mostly don’t want to do that. I’ve also lived here long enough (in the same neighborhood, the East Village of Manhattan, that I grew up in) to have some understanding of what the longer-term development of a neighborhood and its adjacent neighborhoods can make happen, and that’s been getting to the surface of my writing more often in recent years. But I understand it best in terms of this one neighborhood, and there’s a need on my part to be particular about the given environment without giving in to local boundaries. It might be nice to upend it all and go somewhere else, but that would have to actually happen. I remember being in Istanbul for a few weeks in 1993—it felt very familiar to me in some ways that probably have to do with having grown up in a massive, crowded, churning international city, and it was also an extraordinarily different environment in so many respects. Every now and then I wonder what it would be like to live there for a good long while.
AF: If we look more closely now at Notes from Irrelevance, I wonder if we can contextualize its emphasis on particular local place within a broader practice of citationality, incorporation, assimilation. This book continually allows for the intrusion of mundane physical fact, of overheard or recollected soundscapes (as mapped, so it seems, by Joy Division, The Doors and Biz Markie, just to name a few), of echoed poetic precedents (Lyn Hejinian, Dante, Whitman, Eliot’s Prufrock). There are moments in which the book’s “I” seems to think by means of pure description—starting off, at least, like Emerson’s transparent eyeball. Here’s one of my favorites: “I find myself walking / through Williamsburg, / Brooklyn, where I lived / some ten to thirteen yrs / ago, in an Italian pocket / by the Lorimer St L / station, feelings as if / some gnawing vitality / is sheathed in plexiglas / around me, and there’s / the possibility of seeing / some neon reflecting / off the sheaths that / have a passing contour / similar to dust on a / contact lens mixing with / bastardized specks of light / pretending to signal an / acid recidivism, but that’s / about as far as it gets, “it” / being my impulse to be / in some state of intensity / or drive that’s rarely ever / been a true encasement / for my measure.” Yet that turn away from some sort of ecstatic, transparent or psychedelic consciousness of place interests me as much as the preceding description. Just as verbs and nouns often exchange roles in this book, oscillating between fluidity and stasis, Notes from Irrelevance will evoke a Paterson-like conflation of persona and city, but then calmly walk away in the opposite direction. Early on, this book offers the clarifying/obfuscating claim that “Carlos Berrigan / would have a certain ring / for umps on demand.” Here is the question: I know that you value bringing in the city in all its teeming multitudes; I know that your stitching-together of immediate urban particulars foregrounds an intricate collaging of overheard cultural and literary references, yet you also seem suspicious of any self-monumentalizing poetics that would privilege, glamorize, celebrate its own prodigious scope; so how do you (how can we) continually expand your sensitivities to the broadest possible range of evanescent experience without making everything ultimately about “you”? How can you keep the city an animal or environmental presence, not an anthropomorphized self or self-reflection? And why did a Schuyler-esque skinny-poem form seem fitting amid these tensions of scope and scale?
AB: I’ll take the last part of the question first. The poem was written in a small sketchbook. I wrote to the edge of the page and that determined the breaks, to an extent, in that I typed up the notebook using the page-edge as indicator of where to put the breaks. That process put the short line in play, and I worked the edges of the lines to get a kind of speed-of-turning going across what were, for me, longer articulations of thought. I’d always wanted to try the skinny-column form, and Schuyler’s work is an indirect influence on that desire, certainly. But the direct force behind my interest was Eileen Myles, specifically her book Not Me, and some of her subsequent books, because of what registered to me as an angular quickness of tone that has this forceful and nonetheless flexible capacity to it running down her columns. To be clear about the process by which this poem came to be, I should tell you that I did not write the poem knowing that I was writing a long poem, or even a single poem. I made a decision to fill a notebook and write as often as I could over an extended period of time, while not typing any of it up until the notebook was finished. Only after typing it all up did I come to the conclusion that I had a single poem. The first typed draft actually had gaps marking where one passage or sketch ended and another began. I made a conscious decision to close those gaps and run everything together once I had a sense there was a real shape to it all. Maybe knowing this helps address the other parts of your question—it’s difficult for me to answer questions that lean towards poetics without talking about how the work happens. It’s not that I’m especially suspicious of any self-monumentalizing poetics. I’m suspicious of all poetics, period. It’s painful to think about, actually, albeit in a mostly minor way (who cares about that kind of pain?). The writing that turned out as Notes from Irrelevance came from forcing myself to extend my individual thoughts as writing. I was concerned that I couldn’t carry a thought, and I had also started reading literary prose very heavily, because the novel had opened back up to me as vehicle I could read through after feeling claustrophobic in novels for over a decade. So each instance of writing was an exercise in pushing for extra clauses while keeping an ear out. I had no overriding thematic sense going, no concrete underpinnings that were supposed to tie it all together. The writing had to happen fast because there wasn’t much time available to write on any given day. So some of the turns and intrusions you mention probably come out of the by-play of focused extension in a given moment, and the sense of starting from scratch each time I sat down to work. As for the part about keeping it from being all about me: There’s a trust I have in the working of the materials that takes over. I did at a certain point realize I was reasserting, for myself, a strong first person in Notes, and that I had a need to reconstitute “myself” that way. I felt like I’d receded somewhat in the years prior, in my writing and in my life, and that was a problem—a personal problem, no doubt, and maybe an imaginary one, but a problem nonetheless. But I don’t think most people would read Notes and decide it’s all about me and that’s that. I could be wrong. In general, I think the question of whether an “I” is too present or too absent in a given body of work is not terribly interesting.
AF: Well, the “I” in Notes from Irrelevance often tantalizes with its elegant, introspective, quasi-psychoanalytic or therapeutic (both for itself and others) formulations. Yet, at the same time, the book continually evades any sense of thoughts recollected in tranquility, of conclusive epiphanic pronouncements. And in the book’s juxtapositions of coherent-seeming photographs and chaotic-seeming memories, in its announcement that “I am most / certainly engaged to a / dissolution of image, / even as I wield my own / anti-program in glossy / fashion,” a question arises for me about the propulsive nature of the sentence. For a preceding interview you emphasized, in relation to Notes from Irrelevance, the importance of prose, of sentences. Do sentences allow you to project something like a reflective self, even as you keep moving on and beyond, Proteus-like, in a way that poetic lines do not? Do sentences provide this book with distinctive possibilities of closure, traction, propulsion—perhaps all at the same time?
AB: I think so. Working with the sentence, at least as an imagined unit of composition channeled through short and fast lines, let me get away from cutting too quickly and being overrun by fragments. I’ve got no truck with fragments, but they’re tricky to work with en masse, and my writing had bent to the point where I could generate fragmented phrasing without trying—no computers or scissors necessary. I wanted to follow my logic down some different pathways, and the sentence turned into a vehicle for that task. It turned out my sentence-logic was battier than my fragment-logic, actually. I was reading a lot of prose—novels by Robert Walser and Thomas Bernhard, To the Lighthouse, Nightwood, the Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia Butler and this super-messy great Allen Ginsberg poem “Television was that Baby Crawling Toward the Death Chamber,” all of which felt helpful, if not overtly related. Then there was this strange book by Villem Flusser, Toward a Philosophy of Photography, which seemed to provoke a need to consider self-image in material terms. At some point it felt necessary to utilize my visual sense, and the moments that do some city-description often came out of a need to go to that sense. I really wanted to try and describe what it’s like to stand in the middle of First Avenue and see several miles up the avenue, because you can on a clear enough day, but you can’t stop because you’re in the middle of the street and cars are coming. I couldn’t write that standing there waiting to get hit by a taxi, so it had to come in a micro-degree of reflection. I also wanted to be able to access the present while writing in the present, and to use present sense-registration without watering it down by slowing it down, and that’s very difficult. Sensation is layered and works faster than its replay can handle, and one is aware of that while writing, so something else may get in there and tamper with the whole works, and that’s writing. So the description, such as it is, is unlikely to be rational. I let myself go with that, and kept the writing in something like sentences. I forgot a lot of what I’d written as I moved further into the notebook. I was deliberately trying not to go back to what had been put down, in order to maintain a feeling of being unsettled, although I don’t know if I would’ve put it that way at the time. It may have weirdly become a foray into rhetoric, about which I only know what I’ve experienced live.
AF: One last question about Notes for Irrelevance. “Solitude” here often appears as a balm. But it’s a solitude again quite far from that imagined by Wordsworth—for example in the lines “O solitude / as a public refuge and / backwards tumble through / demi-historical banners / of Them Who Was Alive.” Can you describe the sense of solitude put forth in this book and your other books? Can you speak to the implications of a poet performing solitude? You have used the phrase “crowded anonymity” before. Here could we place that phrase not just in the context of New York life, but in terms of the rhetorical question “Couldn’t the perception / of rules, orders, tricks / and brainwashing be / more sensitively addressed / in the public arena?” Do your own personal forms of solitude and public display somehow harmoniously enhance each other? Do you see them as divergent possibilities that simply (by arbitrary necessity of birth, of place) have been forced together?
AB: I guess the real division for me is between solitude and privacy, and I’m not sure that the latter exists without a strong assertion of collective control, since it’s so dependent on what others do (unless you’re rich, or unambiguously non-descript, if such a thing is possible). I take solitude as an aloneness in mind, or a belief in that prospect. Privacy seems to be more about not wanting to be fucked with. Fat chance. So no, I’m not talking about the Wordsworth version of solitude. Solitude for me, in physical manifestation, tends to last a few minutes or less, often enough. Solitude from even my own sense of duty. This is impossible and probably sounds idiotic, but there you go. In Notes this is all tied in to being in a family, becoming a parent, being a political creature, being part of various communities, being a person in a city of millions and so taking solitude in doses while being a body in public spaces—the matter of self-image. The question about rules, orders, tricks and brainwashing came out of a desire to level the parts of any conversation in which the cynicism of the American public is routinely assumed, but not really taken on. I think people tend to be cynical about many things, including and especially the ways they’re governed, and while that cynicism is subject to excoriation and manipulation it’s also useful at times because, as I heard Carl Rakosi put it once, it’s a way to keep from being tricked. So let’s put all that on the table and begin speaking from our collective mistrust as a kind of common ground. I mean, that’s happening very specifically in certain quarters regarding specific issues, but I was thinking of a massive address. Those lines are followed up by other lines, so the thought doesn’t just stop at “public arena,” or at least I don’t think it does.
AF: More broadly, from this topic of solitude, could we discuss a poetics of fatherhood and/or parenthood that runs through your recent work? This could go any number of ways. Again, in relation to solitude, I think of parenthood as potentially isolating for an otherwise publicly engaged New York poet, even as the immersive relationship you trace between yourself, Karen and your children speaks to solitude’s apparent opposite. So we could talk more about solitude in relation to family, community, polis. Or we could place a poetics of fatherhood in relation to a contemporary poetics of motherhood (in works by Karen herself, by Cathy Wagner, Danielle Pafunda and many others). We could look at similarities and differences in representations of female embodiment, of masculine affect. I’m not a dad, so I’ll let you steer us how you see fit.
AB: I would think having or having had a father or fathers or an absent father or a father-like figure or a mother or mothers or a mother-as-father or an institution-as-parent would all necessarily contribute to whatever a poetics of fatherhood might be. Otherwise it’s just another bunch of fathers founding something. A poetics of fatherhood would have to be seriously fucked up by nature, somehow. That’s about as much as I can say about that right now. Whatever is happening to me goes into my poems on some level. That’s one thing I get from Frank O’Hara, which I’d say he got from other places, and which many other artists before and after him have taken on and converted according to the materials and means available to them. Being a parent would have to get into the work; it would be folly to keep it out. Keeping it out would just become a fact of the work anyway, to anyone paying attention, starting with me. But the way into any larger point of content, for me, is often through diction, and having kids throws all this vocabulary back at you, much of which is alienating and redundant. And I do mean “back” at you—shit you thought you’d gotten around, maybe, in terms of how you have to deal with marketing language, medical language, moral language. Your reading material changes. The way people talk to you changes. Your interface with the medical world changes because you’re dealing with doctors way more often, or at least I was (I’m very doctor-phobic). Money takes on another weight because you have to get a new batch of stuff. The colors are terrible around that stuff, by the way. Baby-gear stores have the worst palettes. There’s a big turn-around later, because the baby starts walking and talking and being interested in colors and shapes and sensations in ways that can be astonishing, because the interest is so focused and new, so to speak. You spend months talking about purple. Kids are really easy to get material from. If you don’t bother to make it too affected, which is not always easy, and you don’t telegraph the source every time, you can get some great things out of them. It’s often gap-closing material, as in something-needs-to-go-here, but that’s often what I’m looking for. My mom says she just wrote when Eddie and I were there in the same room with her. Apparently we were not as intrusive as my kids seem to be, although I find that hard to believe.
Ok, there’s one other thing I can say about this: I have not found parenting to be isolating when it comes to writing, though I can easily see how it could be for someone else. I’ve practiced writing fast for a long time, and I’ve practiced writing from a relatively empty head. I don’t need much to start. These things have helped me adapt to some of the ways that parenting reinvents your relationship with time. I stopped typing material up right away. I’ll write for months before typing anything, and I came to realize I had often been too hard on the material when I went to type it up too quickly.
AF: So parenthood shapes not only your explicitly stated content, of course, but also your implicit points of entry and methods of inquiry for a project. Primitive State, with its own unique way of showcasing the sentence, as well as with its interspersed account of a “she” often grasping at new forms of physical, social and grammatical consciousness, made me think of the sentence as an emergent appendage, an ancient technology and a desperate, clawing reach all at once. The opening line “…touch the art…” here stuck with me. Bhanu Kapil and I recently discussed the sentence as a means of touch. You mention somewhere that parenthood has prompted 80% of your internalized arguments to silence themselves. Has it also given you access to how “primitive” infantile desires and pleasures can shape even the most detached, scientific sentence-based prose?
AB: That line “…touch the art…” is on the cover of a children’s book the Met museum published. I don’t think it’s the title. I think it’s a selling point. The book reproduces paintings from their collection and makes some details three-dimensional, like a Raphael angel gets a red feather for a wing. So yeah, literal touch is right there, and Sylvie ripped that wing right out at some point. I saw that sentence staring back at me one night while I was working on what would become Primitive State, and eventually it presented itself as a way to open the thing. I think your take on the sentence as having those three qualities gets close to where I was at with Primitive State, which began from a need for a fixed routine and another feeling that my ability to form sentences with any variance had narrowed. The problem with being able to write fast is that it doesn’t always work. It’s like having a pitch you can’t always command, to borrow some baseball terms. I’ve had to build a practice around the sense that no particular way of working is ever going to cut it for very long, and waiting around for inspiration to strike would mean writing about once a year. I was wholly dissatisfied with my ability to get anything going for months after writing “To Hell With Sleep,” and gave myself the assignment to write at least ten discrete sentences every night, and not type them up—to write them when everyone else was asleep, and to focus on making them distinct from one another without thinking about progression or continuity. Varying lengths, structures, subjects, speakers, tonalities and so forth. Once I got going it became clear that I needed to write 1,000 of these sentences. So there was emergence, by way of having a systematic approach to working with a new, for me, unit of composition (and it was an older, ordinary unit). Plus I was trying to retrain my mind, so the consciousness involved with making a work wasn’t there at the outset. And I was very desperate because I thought my brain might be shriveling. Lack of sleep can make you feel that way over long periods of time.
AF: Though to return to the ellipses from Primitive State’s opening line: In many ways, your artful arrangement of this book’s 1000 discrete sentences echoes late-twentieth-century accounts of formal/interpretive tensions posed by grid paintings. Grids, like your phrases with ellipses on either side, can be said to exemplify the centripetal pressures of an abstract art cut off from all external context, or the centrifugal pressures of a Cartesian coordinate system spreading out endlessly forever. “All stuffed animals in room staring beyond,” for instance, makes me think of both a minuscule Buddhistic emptiness and a maximal Pascalian terror before the abyss. And then grid paintings can be considered either subtractive (starting from a single canvas, subsequently divided into ever smaller sections) or additive (starting with one modular unit which gets multiplied countless times, producing a final shape only through this cumulative process), just as your line “By not thinking I resist prefiguring an arrangement” could stand as extracted, self-sufficient, totalizing summary of this book project, or as one incremental, incantatory step amid the allover, aleatory process. Grids, however, seem to get a bad rap in this book, often presented as something to be avoided or resisted. Grids of time (workdays) and place (Manhattan) certainly come to mind—along with grid-embracing/grid-avoiding artists like Joe Brainard: as in your “I remember white roaches” line, or your lack of periods, recalling Brainard’s lack of page numbers. Can you put your Primitive State pursuits in relation to the grid?
AB: I relate Primitive State more particularly to the additive notion of the grid, in terms of your formulation. The ellipses around that opening line reappear irregularly but consistently throughout the poem, and offer a way to make a list within the overall structure of the piece, which itself is a form of list. I think the ellipses may let there be a sense that the formal opening and closing of the poem don’t necessarily mark its boundaries. That the internal listing-mechanism just keeps going. One interesting point of difficulty with that piece was moving it over from being a kind of self-training mechanism into a work that had its own shape. That wasn’t my intention at the outset, but it became apparent that the poem could have a life outside of its initial framework, as I discovered by reading it in public a few times. I could ride its rhythms, and the tone was just pulled back enough to maintain a deadpan openness without having to linger in any one spot. The order has been impossible to settle on, but that’s the nature of having so many moving parts, I suppose. I say all this because the ellipses came about as a way to handle a line of material that runs through the poem and manifests itself in sentences that mostly function as little lists. It may be that the lists inside a list simulate some aspect of a grid. I’d made a decision for about five seconds during the writing of Primitive State that I wasn’t an artist who worked with grids, that I was much more of a gestural artist, and I might have even said so in an indirect way somewhere in the piece. But it was a temporary feeling, built out of reducing everything to grid vs. gesture, just to tease out a funny (to me) painting binary, and I think what you mean by grid I might otherwise state as system. Building a piece out of a routine is not too far from working out of a systemic approach to a form—working serially, or repeating the contours of a shape, or recombining a set of materials and so forth. My poem “Zero Star Hotel” has the look of a grid from an aerial view. But I was only conscious of it as a formal system that let me be all over the place on a single page while I was writing it, because that’s what I needed it to be in order to write at all after the death of my stepfather in 2000. I should tell you that I read from Primitive State at a reading in Tulsa a few years ago, and preceded it by reading from Brainard’s I Remember. The reading was part of a conference on the “Tulsa School”—my father, Joe, Ron Padgett, Dick Gallup. A pleasurable, odd experience. I’d never been to a poetry conference that wasn’t a marathon reading. Anyway, my mother was there, and after the reading she told me that Primitive State sounded like my version of I Remember with all the “I Remembers” taken out. Which is funny, because most of the lines in Primitive State are not recounted memories. But that formal structure, which is very basic when it comes down to it (line/space/line/space et al.) bends itself toward a surface of regulation, and I did want to know what working in that space could be like.
AF: I have my own private lineage of grid-like projects, many of which come from or from around New York, such as Brainard’s I Remember, James Schuyler’s Hymn to Life, Lewis Warsh’s The Origin of the World, Stephen Shore’s “American Surfaces” show, Jonas Mekas’ spliced film collages, Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, Renee Gladman’s sentence-based investigations and Mónica de la Torre’s recent collection Four. I also think of prose projects by Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Cage, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman. Your ten-sentences-per-night assignment recalls Harry Mathews’ Twenty Lines a Day. Or when I read “Echoes, echo suppressants” I hear Gertrude Stein’s “Roast potatoes / Roast potatoes for.” Your “beans on toast” line seems to pick up on Hoa Nguyen’s recent book. Can you offer some specific formative reading/artistic experiences that helped to inform Primitive State, and discuss how this project’s particular structure allows you to explore new possibilities of poetic elasticity?
AB: I’d written a poem called “Pictures for Private Devotion,” in Zero Star Hotel, that on first glance is formally close to Primitive State, though it’s much shorter—three pages. That poem came out of working with usable lines from discarded poems, and thinking a bit about something Lewis Warsh said in an interview about the art being in the arrangement when working with discrete, smaller units. I think Lewis was talking specifically about the poems that went into The Origin of the World, and I do see that book as informing the decision to make Primitive State go on in its form, along with some poems by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, in particular her poem “The New Boys,” which I published in The Brooklyn Rail. The Robert Bresson book Notes on the Cinematographer, which is a collection of notes from the field logs he kept while making his films, impacted me a great deal, though it’s hard to talk about that book. Bresson’s notes are very tightly drawn, and the space around each note feels like a little encasement. I was not aware of David Markson’s writings when Primitive State was happening, but I did read a bunch of his books while I was revising it. I don’t think there’s a direct parallel, but I devoured those books, and reading them (I’m thinking of This Is Not A Novel, Reader’s Block and Vanishing Point) helped me work out some arrangement problems, none of which I can remember now, thankfully. Oh, and there’s a book called Voices of Baseball that’s basically a book of quotes broken up into subject-chapters that is one of my favorite books of all time. I started reading that book when I was ten or twelve, and I’ve read it dozens of times. That’s one of the first books I remember getting a sense of structural pleasure from.
AF: Going back, now, to Free Cell, specifically the long “Have A Good One” cycle, could you talk a bit about the distinction between a poetic series that provides moments of rest, of silence between its lyric passages, and a series that incessantly encourages/orders us to “Have a good one”?
AB: To even recognize the difference between a short poem that sits on its own page and a scroll or run of short poems that keep coming, you have to commit as a reader to listening for the spaces between poems. It can’t just be a quick visual acknowledgment of incremental spatial differences. The end of the poem has to give out into the space around it, and be gone. Maybe the space sends you back through the poem again, but that’s another order of experience. “Have A Good One” had to be crowded, and the title phrase had to be a way in and a way out of the poem-parts. “Have a good one” is something usually said by someone going in the other direction, leaving, having finished a transaction. It’s a phrase for strangers, often enough, and hopefully in the poem it sets off the poems from one another as little episodes of consciousness made into adjacent shapes.
AF: I’m especially interested here in your ability to hold together so many vague emotional states and elliptical utterances (Creeley-esque sometimes, as in: “Don’t mind seeming / like I might / if pushed”) within a galvanizing long-poem’s forward thrust. Your individual units do not project a more typical lyric self-importance, yet the prodigious bricolage never loses its footing for the reader. “Have A Good One” seems to evade any need for narcissistic or transcendent poetic identity, but still to give us the personal history of a (sometimes) particular body.
AB: I’m glad you think it doesn’t lose its footing. I wrote the poem across a period when my footing felt shaky in several respects. It’s very much a poem provoked by the War on Terror, for me, underneath those emotional states and utterances, and the occasional discrete memory-shape. I don’t know that it reads that way to anyone in particular. But there is something corrosive and insane about being told by political authorities to assume a permanent condition of fear, to treat daily life as the battlefront at all times and to go shopping as a way of taking responsibility for doing your part. And the same authorities also don’t care if you respond rhetorically with an argument, if you disagree, or even if you organize around your disagreement. You’re free to disagree. The disagreement will be co-opted by the fact of the freedom, which is in fact a retractable privilege. Bush seemed to understand that, to me. He referred to the anti-war movement that sprang up to object to invading Iraq as a “focus group,” which was a way of saying “I don’t care,” or “so what.” Or “Have a good one,” I suppose. I was also writing those pieces as a way of patching together a practice. Organizing the Poetry Project had become consuming. I was struggling to concentrate, and the language felt broken to me. I had to stop writing chronologically into the sketchbook, actually, to get any kind of fluidity going. I would write somewhere, stop, and next time open to some other page and write and keep flipping around—writing underneath the same title each time but dispensing with an orderly kind of order. It felt like the only way to start from nowhere each time I started again.
AF: One non-literary model that came to me was Robert Schumann’s many-part compositions, such as Papillons and Carnaval, which survey a wide range of tonalities—including, even in the sweetest compositions, those of anger and violence. Could you describe the evolving place of anger, aggression, violence in your work?
AB: Gosh. I don’t know if I know how to do that. Description almost always changes course as soon as I start trying to describe anything, unless I’m talking live, and even then a change is always on the verge of taking over, which is probably why I respond to digressive works very strongly. Someone I knew in college once pointed out to me that I often used violent metaphors to write about music (I wrote music reviews back then, before I started writing poems, and then alongside the poetry for a little while). I’d write something like, “listening to Helmet feels like having a wall of bricks dropped onto your head, and you like it,” or “the guitarist’s head was bobbing so hard it popped off and rolled into the crowd.” That’s silly, but illustrates the point. This person, by the way, was attempting to come onto me by pointing this tendency out, so I noted it and stayed away. I’m getting blood drawn regularly now, to treat a genetic condition that causes iron to build up in my bloodstream and gradually form deposits in various places, and so I go get a half-liter of blood taken out every week or two. I keep wondering if it bothers me to see the needle go in, and I do resist looking, but then the site of my blood coursing out and filling this flabby bag doesn’t bother me at all. Seeing someone else bloodied is very hard though. So it’s possible that I have a degree of tolerance for violence that is self-directed, but am very intolerant of violence directed toward others. I could locate anger as a useful form of energy, and a basic human response that needed to be examined, starting very young, and I have a bad temper that I try not to let out. Generalizing about this is not terribly helpful though—there are so many forms of violence, and I don’t know that we’re very good as a species at doing more than cataloging them sometimes. I know I’m not talking about my work right now, but in my work and in my life there is an ongoing inward tension between turning to and turning away from violence, and that’s the only way I can discuss it at the moment.
AF: On a related note, throughout “Have a Good One” you consistently seem to be quitting something (jobs, drinking—or quitting your recent quitting itself, starting anew). I remember John Lydon once saying profound things about quitting. Can you offer your own theory/endorsement/poetics of quitting? Here we also could discuss the incomplete, the indefinite, the approximate. For instance, in “To Hell With Sleep,” staggered poetic lines combine to illustrate a calculus. The poem’s shape might seem to curve, but in fact only can offer a sequence of minute adjustments in rectilinear indentation. The “almost” of poetic process eclipses the “exactness” of poetic image.
AB: Quitting is often about extracting yourself from a bad situation, and not necessarily a matter of giving up or preserving a mind frame. Referring to jobs, relationships, associations, etc. But inside a piece of work, I see no reason why one shouldn’t be able to say “fuck it” at some point, or at several points, but keep going with the work. Quitting a line of order or content or an idea or what have you. The shape of a work is not necessarily dependent on one’s idea of aesthetic consistency, or loyalty to a manner of progression or a source. In “To Hell With Sleep,” anyway, I was writing through an ongoing relatively sleep-deprived consciousness, and so staggering the indentations made more sense to me than working with the composure a perfectly straight left margin gives off. But I wasn’t out of control in the writing, and did arrange the indentations to appear symmetrical. I also needed the form to be drawn tightly enough to give me a sense of contours to work with—it’s very hard to finish a thought, or even begin one, when you aren’t getting much sleep, as I imagine you know. The writing felt like working across a set of gaps that wouldn’t recede, and what was needed was a steady line of material pulled from multiple sensory sources to fill those gaps, which were almost always appearing mid-phrase. It was fucked up. That was not collage, though. It was collaboration.
AF: Hmm I’ve read several times you describing the need to clear your head before you can write. For me, “To Hell With Sleep” seems to emerge most explicitly from such a clearing of the head. But, as a closing gesture, could you describe what it was like to “clear your head” for this project, and, more broadly for your writing practice, can you parse that phrase in relation to the terms inspiration, accommodation, improvisation, meditation?
AB: It was cleared parasitically—by Sylvie in her newborn form. It was not possible, as I was saying before, to do much thinking in those early weeks beyond certain thoughts such as “will she ever stop crying?” and “did I just break her?” and “those two minutes were really nice” and so forth. I had this funny exchange with Cathy Wagner a few summers ago, where she semi-accused me of not being truthful in saying that I didn’t deliberately work with irony (sorry, Cathy). “To Hell With Sleep!” she said. But I didn’t think of the title as ironic. I thought of it as the opposite of a complaint, and so quite literal. New parents bitch all the time about not sleeping, and when you’re about to become a parent people who have kids are prone to taunting you by telling you you’ll never sleep again. So to me the title was a polite, micro-level “fuck you” and a statement of purpose underscoring a cracked poem about learning how to perceive your own function-ability when the baby has arrived and conquered you with its vast immobility. I didn’t have the title right away, though it eventually served as a little proof for me that I could still work. For me, the head-clearing has become a momentary state to begin with, a place to start from. I had a dream a long time ago that a giant Godzilla-sized pencil was erasing downtown Brooklyn, slowly and thoroughly, and I got out of its way by cutting down a side street and circling around behind it, at which point I found myself invisibly inside a zone of white space onto which these amorphous abstract color shapes started popping into view any time I tried to think. So I think of the head-clearing as getting to a place where the words appear on the page and in the head at the same time, at the outset. And then everything else starts pouring in.
Anselm Berrigan’s books of poetry include Notes from Irrelevance, Free Cell, To Hell With Sleep, Some Notes on My Programming and Zero Star Hotel. Loading, a collaboration with painter Jonathan Allen, was published in 2013 by Brooklyn Arts Press. Primitive State is forthcoming in 2014 from Edge Books. Other recent publications include: Sure Shot, a chapbook from Overpass Books; Anselm’s Half/Anna’s Half, a dos-y-dos chapbook with Anna Moschovakis from New Lights Press’s “This Is Your Last Chapbook” series; and Skasers, with John Coletti, from Flowers & Cream. He is the poetry editor for The Brooklyn Rail, former Artistic Director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church and co-editor with Alice Notley and Edmund Berrigan of The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan and Selected Poems of Ted Berrigan.