This interview was conducted following the publication of Bill Berkson’s book, Expect Delays (Coffee House Press, 2014).
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa: Expect Delays is divided into four sections, the first of which is titled “Lady Air.” I’m intensely curious as to what “Lady Air” refers to or how this title came about or was chosen. When preparing a speech about Catherine Walsh’s book Optic Verve for a local (in Japan) Irish literature conference I came across a quote by D. H. Lawrence, which worked its way into my speech:
A woman is not . . . even a distinct and definite personality . . . A woman is a living fountain whose spray falls delicately around her . . . A woman is a strange soft vibration on the air, going forth unknown and unconscious . .
Although very likely your title has nothing to do with this!
Bill Berkson: “Lady Air” is the name of the section and, as you know, also of one of the poems in that section, poems that were included in a chapbook that preceded Expect Delays. There’s another poem in the final section of Expect Delays called “Sister Cadence.” If you think of those two titles in tandem you’re in the neighborhood of “Mother Russia,” “Father Time,” and perhaps the Rolling Stones’ song “Sister Morphine.” But I had in mind the gentle sustenance that air is, the godliness of it. “Fair” air, so to speak. The gender specificity feels accurate. Then again, I had “air” as in “song,” in the old sense. One is calling upon air as Dante might call upon the lady Beatrice, or Auden upon Dame Kind, which is a medieval epithet for the natural world.
As for D. H. Lawrence, his politics, including his sexual politics, seem pretty screwy to me. Woman as generic, woman as “strange soft vibration.” Well, I guess he wishes her so. It’s not a woman I know, although the terms are those one would want to know—the delicate spray, the soft vibration—as facts experienced. Otherwise, Lawrence’s conception comes awfully close to Edmund Burke’s painfully categoric view of Beauty exemplified as a blushful, fainting girl.
JJN: I’ve always wondered if strangeness and lack of consciousness describe Lawrence perhaps more than the women he writes about.
“Lady Air” sounded to me like the possible title of a jazz tune. Lady Gaga, Air Supply, Billie Holiday’s “Lady Sings the Blues.” “Lady,” as opposed to “woman,” of course does have the same sense of refinement, of floral pattern furnishings. I find delicateness as essential as air in our current era.
BB: Well, for “Lady Air” you sort of breezed by the most obvious sources, one of which would be “Lady Day,” Lester Young’s sobriquet for Billie Holiday, and the other is Lady Luck. I can’t say which of these, if any, was in the back of my mind when I came up with the title.
JJN: “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara?
“Sister Cadence,” in the fourth section of the book, includes words/phrases that might suggest the feminine such as in “taffeta coinage,” “purse takes charge” “the knowing wobble trills,” “best known for blurs” and “filed under blossoms.” Both poems “Lady Air” and “Sister Cadence” seem quite densely packed with unusual word choices and twists, like when you leave the walking trail to go off course and as a result feel exhilarated, perhaps even a wee bit lost but not so lost you feel panicked. How do you get this welcome strangeness and density? How do you go about composing and editing poems like these—these as opposed to other sections of Expect Delays? The second section is titled “16 Acrostics in Love and Friendship,” for example; I wonder if the acrostic form made it easier or more difficult to compose those poems.
BB: “Packed” is correct, and “panicky” may mirror the process some of the poems in the final section went though, especially “Sister Cadence,” which went through about ten rewrites. Density—that “packed-in” feeling that Bernadette Mayer once commented on—has been characteristic of at least one strain of my poetry for a long time. On the other hand, the poems in the “Lady Air” section tend to be—well, airier, or aerated.
Of course acrostics are easier to write; that’s more or less why they exist. They’re perfect for occasional poems, which is what all the ones in that section were designed to be. They’re perfect, too, for poetry classes K through 12 and beyond, because of the flexibility of the form and the way it adheres immediately to the topic at hand: someone’s birthday, a wedding, Valentine’s Day.
The works in “Songs for Bands,” on the other hand, were all a matter of editing; the actual writing for the most part having been notebook writing with little initial sense that any of it would amount to anything fit to print. Then, once I saw that indeed it might add up, I began to piece the parts together in ways different from the way they occur, chronologically, in the Word document file. There were, as I think I say in the notes at the back, three separate passes, one for making each of the three arrangements. In the process, I was relieved of the question of whether these arrangements could be justified as “poems” or not; the relief in the form of a terrific mootness—i.e., call it what you will, it just doesn’t matter. It’s also interesting that those arrangements aren’t necessarily final, that the parts might be reshuffled and have been in some of the readings I’ve given since the book was published.
But to backtrack to what you said about the poem “Sister Cadence,” the scenario there has distinct flashes of somebody’s “erotics” (a term William Carlos Williams used in his preface to Kora in Hell). There’s a “she” and a “her” appearing now and then, and the Keatsian figure “Lamia” gets her say—all part of the atmosphere, all insinuated to some extent. At one point, I took out some of that—the “taffeta” and “purse,” I think—but then when I showed that truncated version to John Godfrey he said he missed the sexy parts. As I say, the poem went through a lot of changes, and the dedication to John Godfrey is meant to acknowledge his part in helping me through them.
Another thing: that title came about in a flash when, in the course of telling me about his family, the artist Colter Jacobsen told me that he had sister named Cadence. That day, right after Colter left, I wrote down “Sister Cadence,” but by the time I got around to actually writing the poem I had forgotten the connection; it wasn’t until after the book came out and someone—Cedar Sigo, I think it was—remarked, “Oh, you named that poem after Colter’s sister!” that I remembered the source, the poem itself having gone through so many permutations.
JJN: I haven’t written many acrostics, but I enjoy reading them. I wrote a book titled incidental music, the first draft of which was only poems in a type of form including acrostic; I wrote an acrostic sonnet for Michael Jackson (who had recently died at the time) for a particular e-journal and then was pleased to notice that Stephen Hawking who I admire also has a name that comes to 14 letters, so there are two acrostic sonnets for him. The whole book really was easier to write than free verse is for me typically, I mean it came together faster than the others.
I love your Expect Delays acrostics and maybe of these most especially the eight poems contained in “Six for Connie” and “Double Valentine” because I very much like love poems! It seems to me that not many innovative contemporary poets attempt overt love poems—I wrote myself only one that I recall specifically for my husband Junichiro, an earlier poem never collected into any of my books but included in an anthology of Japan-based writing, that I recall ended “It will be almost perfect / there is no need to do anything.” I think that the “almost” is crucial, right? Otherwise it could sound sappy/sentimental/silly. So when reading your eight poems for Connie, I was noticing how you avoided sentimentality, which I think can be difficult for a love poem—as also in “Songs For Bands”:” “Connie, her great combination of steady goodwill and basic dolor….”!
Another favorite for me in this group might be “For Kate, at 26”—a tender but formidable blend of reality and optimism in the advice of an elder. There is something very intimate about much of this book, the acrostics being personal/about people, “Songs for Bands” reading like a very intelligent journal making the reader feel she/he is possibly privy to your private thoughts, and poems in other sections which touch on the personal such as health, not to mention the fact that many of the poems are dedicated to people, that pop culture occasionally surfaces—and maybe also your inclusion of dreams. Do you feel this book is more “intimate” than earlier books, perhaps due to this mix of styles?
BB: The Valentine poems for Connie and some of the other acrostics, as well as narratives like the ones about my mother and me and other, rather personal musings in “Songs for Bands” certainly qualify as intimate. I’ve been surprised by how drawn people have been to the acrostics and the notebook arrangements, often leaving to one side the other, more abstract poems. But I can’t deny that the abstract ones—if that’s what they are—can be daunting: less, as you say, “approachable,” more difficult, surely, than the occasional lyrics. They are also generally darker, more irritable in tone and require the reader to slow down a lot to get with the nuances—hence, the expectation of “delays,” in one sense. I have to say, though, that the pleasure of the book for me is in its sort of no-holds-barred aspect—different kinds of poems, different tones, and how any type of poem seems now to allow more inclusion, more life, every which way.
JJN: “Daunting” as positive, poems that reveal their secrets slowly.
The title of your book evokes travel delays (planes/trains), and you mention a lot of different geographical places in the book. I like this notion of delayed expectations. As a reader, I felt the juxtaposition of the types of poems to be an exciting facet of the book but interestingly linked by the notion of song.
BB: “Expect Delays” is a sign, usually in LED lettering, that indicates that some kind of city-street or highway construction will probably slow down the traffic your vehicle is part of. As John Ashbery says in his blurb on the back cover, it’s “an all-too-familiar warning to urban Americans.” I felt it fit the book, but was careful, by way of the cover design, to take the phrase away from its traffic connotation. Only one person I know recognized the Duchamp connection, his “delay in glass,” and for me, as well, “Standard Stoppages.” To reiterate: I want the reader to slow down a little, actually—if at all possible, in this age of Time Famine and general disregard for nuance—quite a lot.
JJN: A good idea in this era of annoying sound bites. Thanks for de-mystifying the John Ashbery comment—
Since quitting my university job I’m enjoying spending a lot of time in a remote mountain part of a small farming village. For the locals it’s pretty much the “slow life” out here. Most people have time for an impromptu chat at the market or the middle of the road. The people driving by really fast in their cars are almost always out-of-towners visiting from places like Tokyo.
Though we might blame job overtime (notorious here) for people’s inability to find time, there may be here too a kind of anti-intellectualism, though perhaps not to the degree or the same type found in the U.S. In any case, others have written about the benefits of approaching the difficult versus expecting everything to be easy / quick / simple / instantaneous.
I have to ask you to comment on this part of “Song for Bands” where you ironically write: “Reading my poems in Japan, I realize how immersed they are in several idioms . . . If they serve at all, it might be as vocabulary drills, tests of grammar, sound checks”. I recall when you read from Portrait and Dream in Kyoto, there was a poem that contained a line from American TV that you explained to the Japanese audience. You must do a lot of readings abroad in various countries. Can you say more about this and/or the influence of travel on your writing, or your writings’ influence on travel?
BB: Frames of reference get harder to predict in terms of their receptions. Like any person in the 20th and 21st centuries with a fairly wide range of experience, my personal culture is complicated, it contains multitudes, so to speak; and likewise, the words, the phrases in mind, their associations. It’s what Cubans call their native culture—ajiaco, or a stew of many elements. Who but myself would recognize all the elements? Everyone has names coursing around in the brain, names occupy huge amounts of memory space and are maybe the most efficient coordinates for recalling anything. The cast of proper nouns in Dante, just as in Frank O’Hara’s poetry, is immense, and you can bet that not even Dante’s most intimate friends could identify them all. Ultimately, if you stop to consider what someone is going to “get” this or that reference, you would have to stop writing altogether, or take a poll, or else just keep doing it, imagining that, if necessary, eventually all those “frames” will get clarified to some extent.
JJN: Would you mind also talking a little about your close connection with the art world and its influence on your poetry? On p. 84 of Expect Delays you write: “I guess the big question is how `mediated` life can get in poems that see life through art”.
BB: There’s a big difference between art and “art world.” Except that I am married to a museum curator, my art-world connections are becoming more and more tenuous. The art world as such is pretty boring, so limited and uninspired in its conversations. I’ve railed enough about the absurdities of the museum-and-gallery system, as well of what passes these days for art history and criticism. Enough already. Art itself is doing OK, despite all that, although “OK” often doesn’t allow for anything we might call Greatness. Writing art criticism, especially during the 1980s and early 90s when I was doing it intensely, had a good effect on my poetry, I think, although the effect didn’t really take until I had time away from writing so much about art to enjoy the greater degree of continuity and letting my vocabulary loosen up, as it has over the past ten or so years. Seeing life through art is a tough one, the “mediated” life and its confinements. Sometimes I have to bat aside the swarms of sheer “stuff”—art, entertainment, social niceties, even the poetry I’ve been reading—just to see the sky clearly, or what’s or who’s right there, in front of me.
JJN: I should’ve said “world of art” rather than “art world,” as “art world” does suggest a buying, selling and political connections. I think your lines: “Sorting through recent poems, I find so many dedicated to and/or about artists and their art. What does this make me, the Art Poet?” Isn’t it correct that some works in ED were commissioned by museums and/or originally appeared together with visual art?
BB: The ones that appeared within visual art are those in books or broadsides with accompanying images by artists. Only one of the poems was done in collaboration with an artist, the poem beginning “Stars fell,” which occurred in the last poem painting I did with George Schneeman, who died in 2009, only a month or so after we did that work together, and the poem came to stand as an kind of elegy for him.
In recent years, I’ve taken to responding to people who ask for something for a catalogue for a museum or gallery show by asking, “Would you take a poem?” At first, I was shy about doing this, but then the answer, more often than not, has been “Oh, we’d be delighted!” So that works out very nicely. They get the catalogue entry they asked for, and I have a new poem.
JJN: I know it’s a huge question, but could you say more about the effects of visual art on your poetry?
BB: It’s hard to say what the specific effect might be. I know I’ve been inspired by types of art that went places that poetry never did. I often have a spatial sense of what’s happening in the writing before either the subject or the rhythmic aspect comes clear. I understand the matter of scale in poetry, how the shape of it can expand in one’s mind, in somewhat painterly terms. I think a lot about sensation, which is more easily talked about in terms of painting, but it’s a strong aspect of poetry, as well. Then, too, the procedures, and sometimes just the attitude, of certain visual artists—Jasper Johns, for instance, or a younger artist like Colter Jacobsen—prompt ideas for how I might put a poem together, as well as for what might go into it. How a lot of disparate matters fit together to make a poem, or some sort of array that might be poetry, is something I keep coming up against. There’s that beautiful story of de Kooning walking into Buckminster Fuller’s class at Black Mountain and being confronted by two shapes that Fuller had asked his students to fit together; the students were stumped, but de Kooning just took the two shapes and joined them, flat, like that. Coherence like that is a kind of grace.
JJN: Could you also say more about the context of the New York School genre tag, how it has affected your work? I think of “New York School, or Something Like It,” in which you write: “The elders (all born circa 1925) had irony, superseded for those of us born 1940 or so—with higher expectations and more disappointment—by sarcasm”—and/or about your work / this book vis-à-vis characteristics of NY School poetries . . . ? Moreover, is there anyone/anything not related to the NY School group who you might see as having significantly influenced Expect Delays?
BB: I like your envisioning of poems that “change solids into vapor and back again”! I’ll have to look for any poem of mine that does that. Hopefully, by now I’ve transmuted whatever lessons I got from the elders of the New York School, as well as those of my contemporaries, or at least taken them some steps. One thing I’ve learned from my reading is how any generalization regarding poets with names like “Ashbery” or “O’Hara” tends to ignore the fullness of what those poets have done. And you’re right about the ironies in O’Hara’s and in Ashbery’s poems being very diverse affairs. There was probably a severe mood swing during the 1930s Depression and World War II, when people my age were born—the swing toward sarcasm and a different urgency and a cutting sort of nuance. Higher expectations and sharper disappointment. The inadequacies of the official language were more blatant. O’Hara was right on the edge of that, as were others not associated at all with New York: Philip Whalen, for instance, and Robert Creeley. And both Whalen and Creeley, along with John Wieners, and a host of other contemporaries, in both New York and San Francisco, have affected what I’ve been doing. Humor certainly is a necessary part of it. You do what you can to have your poems be good company.
Poet, critic, and professor emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, BILL BERKSON is the author of some thirty books and pamphlets of poetry, of which Expect Delays (Coffee House Press, 2015) is the most recent. His other books include For the Ordinary Artist, Sudden Address, and The Far Flowered Shore, a facsimile edition of his 2006/2010 Japan notebooks (Cuneiform Press, 2013). He currently divides his time between San Francisco and New York.
JANE JORITZ-NAKAGAWA’s most recent books, reviewed by Pam Brown in Plumwood Mountain, are Distant landscapes (Theenk Books, 2015) and the chapbook wildblacklake (Hank’s Original Loose Gravel Press, 2014). In addition to her ninth poetry book in progress titled <<terrain grammar>>, she is also at work on an anthology of avant-garde transcultural poetry by women. Her poetry chapbook, diurnal, is forthcoming in 2016 with Grey Book Press. She divides her time between a remote mountainous part of a small farming village and a small city, both in central Japan. Email is welcome at janejoritznakagawaATgmailDOTcom.