Interviewed by Caleb Beckwith
Alan Bernheimer has been a mainstay of the Bay Area poetry scene since 1977. He hosted the KPFA radio show In the American Tree, and his work was later collected in the Language writing anthology of the same name. Where the narrative of Language writing has largely been determined by those of his peers who later became professors, Bernheimer is one of what I affectionately call the "West Coast Weirdo Language writers" who kept on trucking outside the academy. He has published approximately one book every decade since 1980; in the following interview we catch up about his latest book From Nature (Cuneiform Press, $18) and more.
Caleb Beckwith: In your new book From Nature, a poem titled “The Truth about More” opens with the following stanza: “Everyone is an intellectual / Whose words can be exchanged for cash / Mothballs dissolved in vodka.” I can’t think of a better place to begin this conversation, because that stanza feels like such an apt description of our present moment, wherein quantity seems worth so much more than quality.
In a review of The Spoonlight Institute (Adventures in Poetry, 2009), Ron Silliman described you as the “Sandy Koufax of poets, recognized & cherished for the brilliance of his writing although the absolute quantity of that work is rather slender.” I’m struck by this same gesture in From Nature. Where many writers use the occasion of a book to gather as many pieces as possible—often compromising the effect of the book object—From Nature comes in at a demonstrative eighty pages. Rather than feeling light, this brevity underscores the intentionality of the three sections: “Sleeping with Sirens,” “Beautilities,” and “The Spoonlight Institute.”
Could you tell me about how this book came to be—the period of time in which these poems were written—and perhaps also your approach to publishing more generally? That is, how do you conceptualize the work that a book of poetry does? And how do you consider your approach to publishing in context with your contemporaries—many of whom seem to somehow produce a new “project” every year?
Alan Bernheimer: I wouldn’t mind being more prolific, but it seems to be turning out that a book every ten years is just my speed. From Nature collects most of what I’ve written since The Spoonlight Institute, including the last seven sections of that book’s title poem, so that “The Spoonlight Institute” appears now in its entirety. (Although, in fact, the prose pieces in the middle section, “Beautilities,” date from an earlier time but never saw the light of day.)
I also wouldn’t mind having a project for a book-length work or series of coherent poems, for the sake of momentum and the discipline of just keeping going on it. The closest I’ve come is “Spoonlight” with its 13 sections of 13 couplets each, 338 lines that must have taken me some six or seven years to complete. I was working along on other things, of course, such as my translation of Philippe Soupault’s Lost Profiles, Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism (City Lights, 2016), so I wasn’t a total slug.
On being slow: The greatest compliment I’ve heard is the report that Miles Champion, whose work I revere, having been asked about his own writing pace, replied that it was “Bernheimeresque.”
My approach to publishing is simply pragmatic, trying to put together a shapely collection whenever I’ve accumulated enough to warrant a spine. I want to keep my hand in the game. The gap between State Lounge (Tuumba, 1981) and Billionesque (The Figures, 1999) made some people think I’d dropped away, and it’s true that family and work life decreased my involvement in the Bay Area poetry scene for a couple of decades until Stephanie Young recruited me to work with her on the Poets Theater revival program that was presented at Small Press Traffic in early 2008. My reinvolvement since is pretty well documented in my flickr album, with more than 800 photo portraits of poets reading their work.
That’s a good question, the work that a book of poetry does, especially in this age of continuous access and contact. A child of the 20th century, I still get two newspapers delivered to my doorstep each morning, even though I’ve often read much of their content already on various screens. But seeing how editors play the stories on the page still holds interest. A book in hand is obviously a qualitatively different and corporeal experience, mediated not only by 500 years of evolving printing technology but by the publisher (self or other), the book-making process, and the nerve to claim our attention, its chance through bookstores and libraries to find a reader not on our friend list. Maybe that’s it, nerve and focal point of attention.
How about your own first book, Political Subject, just out from Roof? It’s insane to apply the baleful and pernicious metaphor of the marketplace to poetry, but it means something to be on the shelf at Small Press Distribution and hence available at Amazon (“one left in stock, more on the way”) and, just checking, at Target (mail order only).
CB: I’ve historically joked that any poet with a book out was “famous,” so of course I had to revise the criteria after Roof agreed to publish Political Subject. My sense is that this is more or less a universal post-book feeling, but the responses to Political Subject have been both far more and better than I could’ve imagined, yet also somehow never as much as one hopes. For now, I’m back in love of more fugitive publications like chapbooks, pdfs, and ephemera. Younger Than Yesterday, for example, includes material from notebooks that you kept in the early ’70s, when you first moved to the Bay Area, as well as two recently composed essays that reflect on that and earlier periods in your life. When I did some quick searching, I also learned that Younger Than Yesterday is the title of an album by The Byrds that supposedly "transformed rock and roll."
I’m thinking about how I missed this Byrds reference, how it somehow attests to the way that the popular lore of the late ’60s/early ’70s has in many ways paved over actual cultural materials and experiences from that time. Much of Younger Than Yesterday feels like it pushes against this tendency, setting a cultural scene that more recent residents of the high-tech/high-rent Bay Area might have trouble imagining.
This is the context in which I read the poems, drawings, and collage, and it leads me to ask about the personal essays that bookend the chapbook. What made the publication of journal materials from the early ’70s feel timely to you? How does it relate to your recent personal essays? And are there other obvious references or place settings in Younger Than Yesterday that I've missed and that should be talked about as well?
AB: Younger Than Yesterday is an oddity, at least for me, in that I never before considered raw notebook entries fit for publication, instead of simply materia poetica. But when Gordon Faylor at SFMOMA invited me to create a DIY chapbook for Open Space, he proposed including “various uncollected writings and/or images you’ve accrued over the years . . . finished works, fragments, notes, etc.,” and I ended up taking his suggestion. I was also inspired by Invisible Oligarchs, the late Bill Berkson’s Russia Notebook, which combines travel notes, letters, and other apparent ephemera into a far-ranging intellectual-experiential work.
The retrospective essays that I’d already written made sense to use as bookends, especially the opener, “13 Rides,” which gets me to San Francisco in 1971, where and when the notebook items that follow mostly originate. It and the closing essay on hypnotism were recent lookbacks, each inspired by their dedicatees—Paul Maziar, who remarked that “13 Rides” was a great title when I told him how I’d traveled cross country, and Suzanne Stein, whom I’d heard read a work in which relaxing numbness moves from a person’s extremities to their core. Both seemed like good stories to tell, and having someone to tell them to made them all the more pointed. And yes, looking back across decades gets more interesting as they accumulate.
Transformed rock and roll? Really? Certainly not for me! The only title I even recognize on the track list is “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star.” But The Byrds album title had always resonated in my memory and attached itself almost autonomously when I realized what I had put together for the chapbook. (Their three earlier albums, Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, and Fifth Dimension were transformative to my ears, even if they didn’t make me a rock star.)
In 1971 there was no Bay Area poetry scene that I or my roommates Kit Robinson and Alex Smith could discern (the San Francisco Renaissance having wound down after the landmark 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference), despite occasional readings in North Beach or Panjandrum bookstore—certainly nothing to rival the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York, where I’d become a regular after college. There was plenty going on in Bolinas (where East met West), but you had to be there. (We didn’t have cars.)
The academic calendar was an ingrained habit, so after nine months I packed up and headed home to NYC. When I checked back in here at the end of 1976, everything had changed. There was already momentum. The term “language writing” hadn’t yet been coined, but the Grand Piano reading series had been under way for several months, This magazine was up to number 6, Hills to number 3, and Tuumba Press was in the midst of its move from Willits to Berkeley. In a few months Bob Perelman’s weekly Talks series would start. Something was clearly afoot, and I wanted to be part of it.
CB: Can you tell me more about the early days of that scene, your involvement in it? I know you hosted In the American Tree, the KPFA radio show from which Ron Silliman’s anthology of Language writing took its name. How did that program come to be, from Lyn Hejinian and Kit starting it to your later taking over hosting duties, and, looking back, how do you see it contributing to the coalescing of a scene that you’re describing? Obviously a fair amount of this narrative now belongs to the institutional record, but I’m interested in the gaps between the official narrative of Language writing and your experience of the scene as a community.
AB: “In the American Tree” is a terrific poem by Kit that leads off his third book, Down and Back (The Figures, 1978). It is startling, irreverent, and optimistic:
Flipping out wd be one alternative
simply rip the cards to pieces
amid a dense growth of raised eyebrows . . .
And it is Spring.
The goddess herself
The 1986 Silliman anthology that memorialized “this moment in writing” borrowed the title and reprinted the poem before the preface. But meanwhile, back in 1978, Kit and Lyn were invited by sound poet, composer, and KPFA music director Charles Amirkhanian to host a weekly, half-hour, live program of “new writing by poets.” They adopted Kit’s title for it. I recall regularly tuning in. Our friends did too. It was simply another dimension of the thriving, multifarious poetry scene that would shortly also include, for instance, Poets Theater productions. After four or five months, Kit and Lyn invited me to take over, in January 1979. As you know, many of the shows are available on PennSound—including all of mine. This sounds quaint now, but we’d mail out fliers, a sheet of paper folded in thirds, to alert the audience to any poetry event. I used postcards for the radio show, and I handed it off to Tinker Greene and Erica Hunt in the summer of 1980.
The official narrative of that time is exhaustively covered in the ten-author, ten-volume series, The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, to which—as “the eleventh pianist”—I contributed some chronologies and an essay on the filmmaker Warren Sonbert.
Taking a look back at a specimen month, April 1977, I find a poetry event every other day—though that’s not all the poetry events in the Bay Area, just the ones that my friends were likely to attend. I did make it to 60 percent of those. It helped to be collecting unemployment rather than reporting to a day job. (Few of us were fully employed. A two-bedroom flat on the Mission edge of Noe Valley went for $200 and Muni fare was a quarter.) Plus there was my film education to consider. San Francisco was then a filmgoer’s paradise, with two-dozen pre-plex screens programming repertory revivals. I managed to squeeze in eight movies that month, a hair above my average seven that would bring the year’s total to eighty-four. I know it’s scary that I wrote all this down, but there was time for that too.
I don’t know what this says about social formation, but it was intense, and fluid. Darrell Gray’s Actualist Convention that month welcomed all comers. (Steve Benson improvised a performance impersonating his parents as children in their parents' own homes. I read a Valery Larbaud translation. Leonard Pitt performed. Summer Brenner read.) That September there was a softball game between SF Language writers and East Bay Punks. I don’t recall the score, but that the teams could be rostered says there was lumpiness in the socio-poetical soup. That the game was played says it was before the lumps hardened.
For me, the social intensity, or certainly the social delight, kicked way up a few years later with the formation in 1980 of Poets Theater. Not only an opportunity to explore the performative potential of language and writing, it was a chance to play with my friends in an even more collaborative arena than writing, uninhibited by any careerist theatrical ambitions.
CB: Sitting down to read your poems from In the American Tree—"Inside Cheese,” “Amarillo,” “Spinal Guard,” Wave Train”—I’m struck by the transformation that must’ve occured between the early notebooks mined in Younger Than Yesterday and the disjunctive verse and fragmented prose collected in the anthology. Obviously there’s a coming of age that occurs between those texts—1971-1976 in New York—and I wonder if you could speak to the different influences that still manifest in your practice, and how they came to affect your development as a poet.
In your recent appearance at the Kelly Writers House, for example, you described yourself as having one foot in the New York School, another in San Francisco Language writing. Do you think of this combination as simply an organic product of where you lived and with whom you studied, or was it more of an intentional aesthetic self-fashioning. And what, if anything, do you see in common between these two camps? I’m specifically interested in hearing about how your work changed after moving back to the Bay Area in 1976.
AB: Big questions! The poem “Spinal Guard,” written when I lived on Cape Cod (1973-76) before returning to the Bay Area—and so a hinge period between NYC and SF—marked a departure that has played out in much of my writing since. I wanted consequential syntax, but at the same time to let imagery and metaphor slide disparate elements into the flow and so open up many more surprising associative possibilities. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. I wrote four more short lyrics in the same vein, forming a suite that I published after I got to SF as a slim mimeo booklet called Celestial Mechanics.
What had originally drawn me to the New York poets, fired my enthusiasm, was their vernacular diction, the opposite of the solemn academic pomp my I’d been educated to, as well as the Lower East Side ’60s scene. But I was also intrigued and attracted by the eventually fugitive abstract strain in their early work, as in John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath, Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, and even Ron Padgett’s “Detach Invading” that bookends his Great Balls of Fire (and which he said was the only poem of his he ever learned by heart)—the mystery conjured in Dick Gallup’s phrase (and later title) “shiny pencils at the edge of things.”
Something in me responded to the idea of the reader, listener, audience being called on to make connections, fill in the gaps with their own imagination, meeting the writer halfway. As Kit says on a recent PoetryNow segment, “I’m not really an authority on my own work. Any reader is authorized to come up with ideas as they read it. That, to me, is why poetry is exciting.” This is also what I found in the writing that was being done in San Francisco, as well as the formal experimentation and exploration of collaborative techniques. And, as I mentioned above, the sense that a vibrant poetry scene was forming.
The St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the mid and late ’60s had been “the most exciting place in American poetry” (as Robert Hass acknowledged in his remarks at the Berkeley Art Museum’s 2001 Joe Brainard retrospective). The open hopefulness of the times, an easy, street-level economy that provided time and space for poetry, an exultant freedom to try anything, were all reflected in a ferment of low-cost publishing (see A Secret Location on the Lower East Side). “We were young, pretty, quickwitted and excitable,” writes Larry Fagin. “The next few years were a stoned blur of poetry, music, sex, drugs and friendship.” That looked good to me, but I was only on the trailing edge looking in, and it didn’t feel like a torch passed to any third-generation New York Schoolers was going to burn as bright.
Not returning to NYC from Cape Cod isn’t a strong case for “intentional aesthetic self-fashioning,” but it was a clear choice, and a fateful one, as it turns out, since I’ve lived the rest of my life in the Bay Area. If I’d returned home to NYC in 1976 instead, would I have aligned in the next few years with writers there who would form the eastern branch of Language writing, is actually a question I never asked myself until now! I’m not sure. My social history and leanings were decidedly “downtown,” not “uptown,” as the literary rivalry there came to be known. I probably would never have written the work in State Lounge, which is very much in sympathy with the exploratory writing my friends in SF were doing. An even more intriguing speculation, at least for me, is what would I be writing now?
It’s much easier to say who than what is in common between the New York School and Language writing—easy to point to Clark Coolidge, Ted Greenwald, and Bernadette Mayer, to name just the obvious points of sympathy
CB: An anthology might present a cohesive sense of a movement, but I’m really drawn to discrete, ephemeral units like your mimeo book Celestial Mechanics. This may run contrary to Kit’s insistence that he is no more an authority on his own work than you or I, for example, but I wonder what a closer examination of recurring themes, material, even words across his volumes might yield. Is there a particular Kit Robinson or Alan Bernheimer concern or vocabulary yet to be discovered? Writers like Rae Armantrout or Bruce Andrews seem to have a relatively cohesive project/style, but I suspect that the same cohesion might emerge for almost any of us under the right set of circumstances.
Though there’s more than one way to print a book, institutional access seems to yield a longer and more stable publication trail, therefore prioritizing the university-affiliated in any sense of the canon. However, the day job in y’all’s set was at least as common as the professorship—even serving as the site of collaborations like yours and Kit’s Cloud Eight, if I’m not mistaken—and one didn’t enter the academy to remain a poet so much as the other way around.
How does the universitization of Language writing fit into the San Francisco literary community that you’re describing? What does the academic narrative get right? What does it miss? And how would your answers to these questions change from the 1970s to the ’90s to now? I’m especially curious about the gaps that emerge between any event and its recording as history, which in the case of literary history necessarily happens in syllabi and classrooms—and conversations like these if we’re lucky.
AB: I’m likely the wrong person to answer some of this, in as much as I took the non-u day-job route, working where the money was, in Bay Area high tech and eventually in the solar industry. But plenty of us all did become professors: More than half the authors of The Grand Piano made a living through teaching, though many came to it later than today’s MFAs would, or would try to. And you’re right, several entered the academy through the poetry door, rather than with advanced degrees. It felt like some of the ’70s and ’80s activities, such as the Talks series and Poetics Journal, were rehearsals for those careers.
There were times in my corporate communications work when I looked longingly at tenure (still a possibility in my generation), three-month vacations, and sabbaticals, not to mention an intellectually engaging job and interactions with bright students. My parents were both university microbiologists. But an academic audience and milieu for my own work was not an attraction (in common with many second-generation New York Schoolers), though it might have resulted in wider readership. Wideness, or “institutional access,” seem like false gods to me. And I’m suspicious of the influence that feedback loop would have had on my writing that I may not have been steadfast enough to withstand. (Ron Silliman has written somewhat controversially about this in greater depth.)
Your contrasting a writer’s body of work with the anthology view is good food for thought, though it’s harder to have schools and movements without the latter, and harder to get read and published at all without those affiliations and collations. “It is so very much more exciting and satisfactory for everybody if one can have contemporaries” (Gertrude Stein). The Donald Allen anthology was such a useful signpost in our youth, but it’s up on my shelf, while John Godfrey’s new and selected, The City Keeps, and Paul Violi’s selected are on my bedside table.
I too am drawn to the fugitive and ephemeral. Jason Morris has some wonderful thoughts and words on this subject in his “Providence”: “I would like to read through completists’ libraries like a magpie, picking up beautiful unmoored pieces of writing that might serve as metonyms for whole bodies of work. . . . Memory is an oblivion in which only ephemera floats to the surface.”
It’s not just my parentage that inclines me more towards the microscope than the algorithm, more fascinated by the insanely obsessive missing Joyce scholar than the digital humanities book crunchers, more in sympathy with a cohesion that develops in the attentive, reading mind than from machine data patterns.
The pre-corporatized university of my parents’ day (’30s though ’80s) was a more benign home to intellectuals (a term not yet demonized), with a much greater tolerance for eccentricity than most other walks of life, and one where I assumed I’d end up until the ’60s woke in me and others a stubborn contrarian, anti-institutional streak.
CB: That anti-institutional streak seems to run through your corpus: from the book publishing we talked about to fugitive ephemera to your recent translations of the French Surrealist writer Philippe Soupault. I’d be remiss if I ended this conversation without asking you about a comment that you made at the Kelly Writers House regarding Breton, Soupault, and their different relationships to Surrealism. In your words, “Soupault, though he loved Dada and Surrealism, he didn’t make it his life. Breton did, and he gets credit for that.” My question is: What drew you to Soupault in particular? Do you see any parallels between his relationship to Surrealism and your relationship to the Language and New York Schools? And what advice would you give younger writers for loving and making poetry, but not making poetry one’s life? This balance feels increasingly pivotal as the academic route becomes less available to so many of us, and it’s something for which traditional structures of mentorship, mostly coming from academic programs, cannot prepare us.
AB: What directly drew me to the Soupault memoir was an anecdote about Henri Rousseau le Douanier in Roger Shattuck’s marvelous book, The Banquet Years, where he quotes Soupault describing the painter’s routine, saying he “did not mind living in one room because when he woke up in the morning he could ‘smile a little at his paintings.’ Then he would get up and go to the corner café for his breakfast. ‘If the weather was nice, he had a glass of white wine; if it was raining a cup of coffee; and on a gray day, some cognac.’” I wanted more of that, and tracking it down led me to the previously untranslated memoir. I started translating it for fun but soon began to think it could be publishable, despite Soupault’s relative obscurity, because of the more famous writers he befriends and profiles, such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Guillaume Apollinaire.
Previously I knew Soupault only through a little of his poetry and his novel Last Nights of Paris, famously translated by William Carlos Williams. As I got to know him better, I developed considerable affection for him and respect for the path he took, especially following his banishment from Surrealism by his former collaborator Breton. He was very prolific, publishing two dozen volumes of poetry, ten novels, several plays, and a half dozen biographical studies in addition to a career as a journalist in print, radio, and TV. He was a man of letters, and of the Left, spending six months in a North African prison after heading Radio Tunis under the Vichy regime. I wouldn’t draw any parallels with my relatively modest output, but his independent streak is certainly something I admire.
I love and respect those who make poetry their life, whether it’s John Keats, Emily Dickinson, or Ted Berrigan. On the other hand, speaking practically, Bill Berkson advised decades ago that poetry is not a career. When I reminded him of that more recently, he looked quizzical, and suggested, “But maybe a lifestyle?”
One thing I can say to your question about balance is that it evolves. I remember seriously wondering in my twenties whether I should take a job as a (small town) newspaper reporter for fear of its infecting my own writing. Balzac’s scorn for journalism was fresh in my mind. That quandary seems nothing but precious now. The job turned out to be one of the most enjoyable I’ve had, and could have started a career if the San Francisco Chronicle had hired me when I showed up with my hick clips. But working with words in one way or another made a good living for me, and I like to think that people who can put them together intelligently and effectively will still be valued.