Andy Fitch with Edmund Berrigan

Edmund Berrigan
Edmund Berrigan

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: Could we start with somewhat abstract questions of autobiography? Can It!’s foreword, for instance, celebrates two types of reading experience: the processual encounter with an idiosyncratic, hybridized form “in which seemingly disparate elements unite into a wonderful, though not particularly intentional, whole”; and the fortuitous discovery of “found” texts that have “escaped their previous intentions and arrived elsewhere”—far from their purported purpose. Can we consider our own random life experiences similarly “found,” seemingly disparate, not particularly intentional, only potentially coherent or unified? Does Can It!’s fusion of nonfiction memoir, fictional story, poetic cut-up provide, in this regard, a logical means of constructing autobiography?

Edmund Berrigan: I prefer to think of Can It! as a book of poems. Maybe the question is what can you really relate about a person’s perception of life. A memoir, autobiography or whatever a person presents about their lives can only ever be an incredible reduction of the total experience. Can It! is an attempt to express multiple levels of experience. It made sense to use multiple forms and modes, all of which I think I had worked in previously. In my view of the book all of the forms blend together, poetry turning into prose, cut-up turning into biography, with a recasting of impulses in a couple of the cross-out pieces. I usually don’t predetermine content, but rather make an account of whatever is accumulating. So I could pick a form, pick a different form, let some time pass, and a set of experiences would develop.

AF: Even this foreword itself seems possibly to partake in the fictional, certainly the lyrical. Did you only arrive at its elegant formulation of diffusive book-length structure after the fact? Did the foreword, in fact, come last? What prompted it? And could you describe a bit how the book did come together? Have some pieces (diaries, for example, with 1998 dates) existed for 15 years? Have those time-signatures themselves ever been falsified, through fictionalizing processes?

EB: The forward did come last and is nonfiction. Josh and Noah asked for it, actually, and it seemed like a reasonable request. The trajectory of the book has a lot of turns, and several directions seemed like a good idea. I grew up in New York City, and went to Purchase College in Westchester. From there I moved to San Francisco in the mid-to-late ’90s, and eventually returned to New York after three years, in 1999, where I’ve continued to live. When I moved back to New York, Disarming Matter had just come out, and I needed a new writing project. I came up with two: to edit a selected poems for the late Steve Carey, and to write a novel. I put together a manuscript of Steve’s work pretty quickly, and it finally was published by Subpress in 2009. I decided the novel would be more like a collection of chapters. It would not be restricted to prose, and one should be able to be read it in any order, like a book of poems. The bulk of the writing happened in early 1999 and finished sometime in 2000, coinciding with the death of my stepfather, Douglas Oliver. The structure allowed me a lot of freedom. I could include pieces I had already written, such as a diary I had kept in San Francisco in 1998. I expected the book to be done after the chapter called “2001,” but I started hitting some walls with it. I wasn’t much of an editor yet. I didn’t quite understand how the book should work. I had the manuscript, but I didn’t think it was good enough, and it was also very personal. I had to put it down for a while. During that time I started making “The Blood Barn” and “The Ball-Hallelujah Connection”—they were separate projects. Ultimately the novel seemed like a failure. Towards the end of 1999 I also broke into copy editing with the help of a friend, the poet David Kirschenbaum. Fast-forward to 2010. I’d been a copy editor for over a decade. I had another book of poems come out in 2008, Glad Stone Children. Noah and Joshua had started their press, and published a book by my brother, and were looking for experimental genre manuscripts. Anselm mentioned that I had one, which by then had been called “Woods” for a long time. Their interest was strong enough for me to try to put the manuscript together. I did a lot of editing, excised several chapters and wrote some new ones. I also re-edited and added “The Blood Barn” and “The Ball-Hallelujah Connection.” The new content was still connected to the basic story of the book, and gave it further depth. None of the dates are fictionalized, although there is an error regarding one of them.

AF: In a piece like “Paris Diary,” I find it particularly interesting how fluctuations in tense seem to blend the immediate scene and its subsequent significance. “Paris Diary’s” penultimate paragraph describes your stepfather Douglas Oliver’s final days, in the present tense. The concluding paragraph (which opens, “Doug had come into our lives…”) shifts to past tense. I then went back and realized that such oscillations had seamlessly occurred throughout. Did you want the overall book’s reflective/ruminative/retrospective tonality to shape even the form that single, stand-alone pieces take?

EB: I think the shifting in tenses is something that happened on its own—by the length of the time period. Doug was healthy and happy when I started the book in 1999. By the time I got to Texas, he was in trouble; by the time I got to Paris he was bed-ridden and in bad shape; by the time I finished the book, he had been dead for 13 years. He was still alive when I was keeping the Paris diary. I might have thought about using it for the book, but it was probably just comforting to keep writing. Poetry can be very helpful for that kind of thing, when every detail seems to be magnified because a life-and-death event is going on.

AF: “Paris Diary” gets followed by a piece called “Doug.” Similarly, the bad-dream episode in “Third Floor” precedes “Oh Death,” about you learning of your dad having died. I’ll want to ask soon about how musical structures inform your writing, but first could you describe your interests in this book’s overall sequencing, and how the final lineup of pieces came together?

EB: For the most part the order is chronological, though in some of the chapters how or why that works isn’t going to be apparent to the reader. The “Paris Diary” and the “Doug” pieces are straight storytelling. “Woods” is representative for me of my college experience. “Opening” is a little trickier—it was written in response to the situation with Doug (dying of cancer). However, Doug became a part of our family during my adolescence, at a time when several other deaths had just occurred: my half-sister Kate, my uncle Albert and Steve Carey died over three successive summers. One of the key lines in that piece is, “We’ve been hit hard as a family lately.” Doug’s dying and death was an event that touched the present, but also reached back to those summers in the late ’80s, and was also an echo of the death of my father. So the decision I made about that piece was that it represented the emotional resonance of that whole time period from my adolescence on. “The Ball-Hallelujah Connection” came before “The Blood Barn,” but I put a lot of work into both, and their time periods cross. Some of the other more poetic pieces, like “Intellect Feedback” and “Frieze Drawer,” are representative of my own poetic development and of my developing view of existence. I probably took more latitude with the placement of those pieces.

AF: Again, part of what interests me here in questions of arrangement, design, artifice, is how such concerns get placed alongside conventional (perhaps delusional) expectations for nonfiction prose to provide something like straightforward, unmediated testimony. But before we get to that, do you have favorite diary projects? For instance, given “San Francisco Diary’s” self-conscious examinations of evolving friendships and fraught relationships, its quotidian sketches and it’s explicit Bolinas Beach reference, I couldn’t help but recall my all-time-favorite diary project, Joe Brainard’s Bolinas Journal. Lyn Hejinian’s cycling musical motifs in My Life seemed to get echoed by Can It!’s repetitive structures. Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls and James Schulyer’s diaries and John Wieners’ 707 Scott Street all came to mind.

EB: The repetitive-structure pieces were influenced by Lisa Jarnot’s Some Other Kind of Mission, which was along the lines of the kind of book structure I was interested in, and by Dan Farrell’s Last Instance, which I reviewed for the Poetry Project Newsletter. Dan gave a particularly brilliant reading from it at the Poetry Project around that time. One piece that stood out particularly for me seemed to be based on a questionnaire about mental health.

As far as other diary projects, there are two by my dad that come to mind: Yo-Yo’s with Money, made with Harris Schiff, which is actually their commentary during a baseball game; and Train Ride, which I once heard Joanne Kyger read the entirety of in a journal workshop at Naropa. I’ve also spent some time with her journal about India, Strange Big Moon. The Yage Letters between Burroughs and Ginsberg also stand out.

So I had read those, but the books I mentioned in the forward are the books that influenced my thought process regarding Can It!’s structure. Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles was an influence on mixing genres. The compilation of Lester Bangs pieces, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, was equally important as a book composed of rock reviews and articles that also function brilliantly as comic, autobiographical and revelatory exclamations. There’s also a book called A Field Guide to Desert Holes, which my mother discovered in Needles I think. It is exactly what it purports to be, but the generalized description of the kinds of holes, and who shares them, seems to have mythological qualities. I wanted to write a book that wouldn’t be held back by pre-classification, and that would relate to that “other” mode that those books seemed capable of rising into. That is also the place poetry can take you to.

AF: Some of Can It!’s diary projects seem to date back to the era in which you wrote Glad Stone Children, and yet this more recent book’s lucid, prose-based journal entries feel quite different from the kaleidoscopic language play in Glad Stone’s lyrics. Does the resonant phrase “can it” here also suggest a desire to remake some of your lived experience as condensed, compacted, assimilable and digestible material—like a “canned” TV narrative, or the contents of a Warhol soup can? Have you considered it therapeutic to “can” some of these episodes, to rework them until they get out of your head and into the world? Can “can it” suggest both a repression and a working-through, depending on the context?

EB: The title Can It! didn’t come until the end of the project when, as described in the penultimate chapter, my brother gave me a postcard that my dad had made with those words on it. It was the perfect symbolic ending. The phrase represents mechanical process, but ultimately is being used more in the sense of the colloquialism. It is a father’s message to his kid, and specific to me in that the postcard was titled “Song for the Unborn Second Baby”—which was playing off of a long poem my mother wrote in 1974 while pregnant with me.

Mechanical processes were used for some of the chapters, and there is a Warhol connection in there. But I take the message in the title as a permission to stop the recording of events.

AF: Could you also describe some of the more subtle, implicit forms of inquiry that you pursue in your diaries—beyond the immediate details of what happened from moment to moment? For example, “Texas Road Trip” first seems to investigate what it’s like to be continually around people for a concentrated dose. For 15 pages, this project’s “I” finds itself surrounded by others. Even when the “I” departs again, or takes a break from certain characters, it only does so by meeting up with and talking to somebody else. The purported recreational or relaxing or escapist aspects of drinking and drug use just lead to more people, more conversations. And then, finally, in the last line, after a Thai breakfast, the “I” goes “off on my own,” and the diary leaves us with that still-to-be articulated (maybe by another diary project?), solitary yet resonant state.

EB: Well, one day in 1999 I was invited to go on a road trip to Texas. I think it was only a week or so before hand, and didn’t have a steady place to live. I had typed up the San Francisco diary already, and it made sense to keep another one. My sense of the diary’s purpose within the book is simply that it offers another window. A sample of external life, even if voiced from my perspective. Anything could have happened on that trip, but what happened reflected aspects of the story. The kid in Texas with his own wild father, and who wanted to find a book to read. I went to a bookstore in Austin and found books by Edwin Denby and Paul Blackburn, two pillars of the New York poetry community. Or maybe it is to show how strange it can be to move through the world with that kind of loss looming in the background.

AF: Dialogues likewise appear throughout the book. Once more, any favorite dialogue projects that inform your interests here? Can It!’s acknowledgements thank Victor Bokris, and I thought of his dinner-based projects with Andrew Wylie, as well as of some of your dad’s pranksterish interview projects.

EB: I would say the dialogue pieces are influenced a lot by Bokris, Burroughs, Warhol, my dad’s John Cage interview, by the use of the computer, by the joy of typing, by Ron Padgett and Joe Brainard and by the joys of childhood. Dad’s book Clear the Range is probably at the forefront, though. That book has always been important to me, and was a big influence on my desire to do cross-outs works. “The Blood Barn” and “Did His Eye Melt?” both used that method, but one by hand and one by computer.

AF: “Cross Examination,” with its witty “side a” and its more psychedelic/sentimental “side b,” again reminded me of a Brainard interview, with Tim Dlugos, for Little Caesar, in which they get high halfway through. Could you describe the creation of “Cross Examination,” and of the majestic “Cloud Interview 2003”?

EB: Both of those chapters are taped interviews/conversation. “Cross Examination” was taped on a cassette one night, so “side a” and “side b” are literal. That was the product of friendship, we came up with that casually and it happened instantly one night. There had been talk about an honesty game, which Ron Padgett writes about in his memoir about my dad, Ted. The idea is simple, you get asked a question and have to answer it fully and honestly. We obviously had some fun with it, but stuck to the basic principle. What I like about it is that it demonstrates actual conversation from two people, poets, sharing experiences when they are in their early 20s. “Cloud Interview 2003” was Mary Kite’s idea. We were taking a break from a hectic week during the Naropa summer writing program, and went up to the Flatirons near Boulder with a tape recorder with the idea (Mary’s idea) of conducting an interview about clouds. It is more or less verbatim, aside from some clean-up editing. That sat around for a few years, until I was pulling together more material for Can It! It seemed to fit well in the book as ethereal escapism. Chronologically it was a couple years after Doug’s death.

AF: In terms of conversation, I’d like to get to how this book enacts the goal, as stated in its foreword, of “continuing” the relationship with your dad (in part by engaging “the intuitiveness of poetry,” both in his work and your own). First I’d like to offer a slightly broader perspective, and see what you think of it. I feel that some of the most exciting traits of your dad’s work (particularly some of his cut-up pieces, with their saturated, almost monochromatic, index-heavy forms of repetition—perhaps too referential for subsequent Language formulations, and too catchy for the Conceptualist poetics that followed later) rarely receive the appreciation that they deserve. Roland Barthes wants the autobiographical without the autobiography, and your dad’s recurrent reference to certain prepositions, pronouns, objects, characters, colors offer the narratological without the narrative. They create extended temporal structures we can track without offering any paraphraseable plot trajectory. Moreover, many pieces in Can It!, such as “Opening,” “Woods,” “Centipede,” draw and sustain my attention for similar reasons. Then, in terms of dialogue, of artfully arranged and elided or abstracted speech-based idioms, I of course recall both your mom’s early and later virtuosic uses of speech patterns (transcribed, imagined, invented as she invents female-centered epics to contain them). And then your own work in music seems to allow you to synthesize and orchestrate these sensitivities to recurrent accumulations, to the deceptively straightforward thrust of speech, into newly elastic yet intricate compositional forms. How does that sound as a quick, somewhat reductive family trajectory?

EB: This is a tricky question in that you ask it from an outside perspective, but I can’t answer it that way. My reading of my dad’s work started when I was an adolescent, and my needs from it were personal in a way that critical, Conceptual or Language readings of his work could not supply. I needed both the autobiographical and autobiography. I was comparing it to everything about myself, and then writing to discover answers for myself. The emotional resonances of that situation became a strong foundation of my writing process. It was conscious, but distant at the same time—it didn’t have to be at the forefront of what I was saying, but it was part of the base of how I would make word choices. While making pieces like “The Blood Barn” or “Did His Eye Melt?” it was exciting to find that mechanical processes could carry aspects of that resonance, and that I could also echo decisions and feelings that I would find when reading his cross-out works, such as Clear the Range. For me, writing experiments like “Opening,” “Woods” and “2001” intentionally became vehicles to explore the emotional tones of specific time periods.

This is separate from my musical endeavors, as well as from my reading of my mother’s and brother’s writing—I simply don’t have the same needs from their work. On the other hand, I showed all of my writing to my mother, so I was always being informed by her aesthetics. My brother and I are more parallel to each other, and all three of us inform and influence each other’s work.

AF: Also, when I referred to “narrative” before, that’s probably the wrong word here. But still I’m curious about this role that a durational, echoing, resonant prose form plays in your efforts to continue the relationship with your father. If we take a piece like “The Blood Barn”: as a reader, I sense certain distancing devices and opacities in place, and yet I can sit with this long piece without losing focus. I can track the hand of the author in certain canned gestures (the apparent substitution of “ballet” for “bullets,” for instance). I begin to “figure out” the text, even while I realize that no cathartic, culminating revelation is on its way. Writer and reader begin to overlap as my own understanding of the process arises. Does my experience of your work here echo at all your own experience of your dad’s work?

EB: Well, I have an emotional response any time I read my dad’s work. I think you’re on to something when you say “canned gestures”—that phrase is somewhere in the heart of the idea. I think I consider writing to be so personal that it doesn’t matter what level of distance is being applied, even when an artificial method is being applied. There was a point a few years ago when computer-generated spam emails were appearing everywhere, and they set off a lot of bells for writers. You would get these random paragraphs in your email, that might as well have been prose poems. Every so often you would hear a poet appropriate one and read it in a reading. It was exciting, until you realized they were never good enough—never as interesting as when a person chooses words randomly. There’s always a reasoning or experience in the background that facilitates people’s choices. I rely on that, and anticipate that people will respond to it.

AF: We haven’t yet discussed how your work with music shapes your poetics. Which folk, blues, Dylanesque elements seem to have found their way most explicitly into Can It!? For Bob Dylan, does a particular phase stand out (I thought of the Basement Tapes era, with songs like “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”)? What, more generally, can poets learn from taking up songwriting? In an interview somewhere you refer to the additional demands imposed on songwriters, who need to decide upon the precise intonation/inflection of each line. Has that type of intricate, deliberative scoring shaped your emphasis upon compositional arrangement in Can It! and beyond?

EB: Can It! does have those kinds of references in it, and they’re meant to be discoverable. Death is a strong subject matter in country blues, and there’s mention of that. I spent a lot of time with all of Dylan’s music, and have always been fond of the Basement Tapes as songwriting models with poetic and absurdist decision-making. My own songs tend to have more fractured lyrics. If anything, my approach to writing is consistent between lyrics and poetry and prose, until the various demands of the individual forms take hold. And the fact of performance has its own demands. I sometimes like to change my poems a little when reading them aloud, because having to make those kinds of decisions was part of the original process, and recreating that gives energy to the performance. Playing instruments also offers a physical challenge, which has made reading poetry seem a lot easier, and made me conscious of trying to give more dynamic readings. One of the possible influences of this on Can It! occurs when I’m reading pieces like “Woods” and “Opening,” where the phrase variation leaves a lot of room for me to change the words while I’m reading. There was a time when I was setting poems to music, but ultimately creating a lyric structure that suits the musical structure seemed to be the most practical way to explore the possibilities of both.

AF: Along those lines, having written one book of compressed, asyntactical lyrics, and one reflective, anthological orchestration of disparate parts, and any number of post-folk songs, do you have a sense of what types of poetic forms will draw you going forward? Are their elements of Glad Stone Children to which you want to return in a less ostensibly autobiographical project?

EB: There’s also my first book, Disarming Matter, which leaned more to syntactical lyrics, and included a sonnet sequence and a prose-poem sequence. Ideally I would want to continue to expand my range of forms and modes, and be able to return to any one at any time. But once something is done, I feel like I’ll be lucky if I ever write anything again. I get the most done when I just start writing without thinking too much about it.

AF: Finally, I’ve interviewed Anselm as well, and cockroaches come up just as frequently for him. I love the cockroach’s first line in “Objects”: “The couscous downstairs is killer.” Beyond the obvious fact of growing up in Lower Manhattan, can you talk about how cockroaches have shaped your content, aesthetic, idiom, attitude on life?

EB: Cockroaches represent filth, life. They’re hardy. They have exoskeletons. They create crazy emotional responses in people. In some countries they’re eaten, and they would presumably survive nuclear holocaust—which certainly wasn’t lost on my brother and I as children of the ’80s. There is no ignoring the cockroach. We must join them.


Edmund Berrigan is the author of two books of poetry, Disarming Matter and Glad Stone Children, and a memoir, Can It! He is editor of the Selected Poems of Steve Carey, and co-editor with Anselm Berrigan and Alice Notley of the Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan and the Selected Poems of Ted Berrigan. He is an editor for poetry magazines Vlak and Brawling Pigeon, and is on the editorial board of Lungfull!. He records and performs music as I feel tractor, among other guises.