Books In Conversation
JOE PAN with ANSELM BERRIGAN
(Augury Books, 2015)
(Edge Books, 2015)
Anselm and I first met through a mutual friend, the painter and collagist Jonathan Allen, whose artwork I’d exhibited and whose first art monograph I’d published though my press, Brooklyn Arts Press (BAP). The opportunity to collaborate came in 2013, when BAP published a book-length poetry and visual art work by Anselm and Jon called LOADING, which coincided with a solo show of Jon’s at Lu Magnus on the Lower East Side.
A poem from LOADING has since found its way, as narrated by Anselm, into one segment of a multi-sectional modern dance piece, Find Yourself Here, choreographed by the inimitable Joanna Kotze, in which Jon Allen also performs. This wonderful sense of collaboration and intertwining and recycling and dipping into various forms and finding new avenues of presentation seems, at least to me, one way of entry into Anselm’s poetry by way of aesthetic introduction. His work is constantly on the move; even when quiet, it refuses to sit still.
During one of our regular lunches, Anselm and I found we both had new books coming out around the same time. In the exchange that follows, we discuss life, books, and generally enjoying each other’s company.
Joe Pan: Anselm, what a brilliant collection of poetry you’ve written! Primitive State is certainly now among my favorite books of yours. The individual lines operate in ways I might imagine Steven Wright’s anxiety dreams play out, in ceaselessly entertaining, endlessly quotable quips.
You say it’s a long poem, and formally and tonally it operates as such, but the genetic makeup of this corpus are these single lines, each their own thought, it would seem, but grouped together and separated by vertebrae of stanzas that often arrive as lists. The magic of these lines, which can operate entirely as short pieces themselves, or as bundled pieces, is that although they’re allied with or arrive by way of a recognizable voice, they resist uniform destinies. They seem to want to spread themselves out, investigate different end-points in their mapping of a confusing world—a kind of echolocation of the heart.
Charting the mundane and fantastical in turn, it’s quite impressive how cohesive the book feels, given the diverse range of genres and styles the lines perform in, and the subjects they take on. It’s a kind of literary gesture akin to stream of consciousness, and easy to compare to internet browsing, but the comparison undermines the gravity of these short pieces, many of which are endowed with a particularly moving or unyielding personal sentiment. Lines like “There’s no way to unleash such carnage without creating a ton of paperwork” and “Tidiness is merely an extension of contempt” strike some dark notes. But these particular configurations are included among many less aphoristically inclined but somehow still vitally important-sounding sentences—“I felt the acid go down the wrong pipe”—so that the overall feel of the writing isn’t the “bored-but-awake, dropping-down-the-rabbit-hole” situation of internet browsing, but much closer to the provocative invigorations of a manic mind. Or any mind, really, if we consider how frequently we change interests and focus.
Reading your book, I felt gripped by a consciousness that was not filmic, but immediately had me feeling like I was experiencing the living narrative of another human being in a somewhat filmic way. I think this was due to the jump-cut effect of missing transitions, each line delivered in a tonally deadpan way. The reduction of life to moments of clarity, or brief clarification, each given equal weight through tone, was much more jarring than I would have expected. Death and advertising are on equal playing fields in terms of importance and influence, and the book succeeds because the sentiment expressed in each event feels true, and because it is buoyed by so much wonderfully perceptive dark humor and asides.
How did you set about writing Primitive State?
Anselm Berrigan: Greetings from a baffled chair. I’m glad the book is working so well for you. I never really have a particular expectation of what anything I write might do for someone else, though you’re right to hone in on the individual lines as the crux of the matter. I wrote the poem across the autumn of 2008. I didn’t set out to write a poem at first. My daughter Sylvie was almost a year old, it was hard to sleep with any regularity, my routines were in tatters, I was afraid I was turning stupid, that my brain was shrinking, diction evaporated, flocked out.
Somehow I decided to write ten sentences a night in a notebook with the constraint that each sentence had to do something slightly different from the others and also have its own plot. So I did ten a night, occasionally twenty, for a few weeks, and realized I needed a number to get to—the painter George Schneeman would always aim for fifty or a hundred collages or paintings whenever he did something he thought could multiply. I settled on one thousand sentences, and got there after about three and a half months. Midway through, I realized I might have a shape going, that it could be a poem of some kind. I typed it up and started working on it as an arrangement, which took about a thousand years.
That makes me want to swerve into asking you about your Hiccups and time—I’m wondering how much time is covered by the book, which has the secondary title of “Autobiomythography II,” but I also guess that you’re layering the relative time of the writing with the hits of immediate present that every poem brings up to the surface. You have these scale contrasts in play in terms of time, form, and maybe lived experience, which I’m guessing is the primary source for the writing. The individual poems are short, but they run together as long chunks of material organized more or less thematically. The stanzas in certain poems feel like individual poems—probably because variations on the haiku form are the building blocks of the book. And experience is mapped out as a series of glimpses, though a mind-at-work-making-choices is developed across the book as a kind of personal ground. I imagine each bit or set or poem was written almost exactly as it appears in the book. What duration is in Hiccups is oddly elusive. The present is clearly past in the longer opening chunk “Atlas,” which literally moves all over the world. But the when and where of the second section constantly changes without telegraphing the change.
Are these accumulated poems that happened amidst many other things over the years, or is Hiccups a concerted effort to write in short form over a particular period of time and then make a structure out of all the short forms?
Pan: I have different answers for each of the four sections of the book. The collection took about eight years to complete. I knew I wanted to write a book based on short forms—haiku, epigrams, and so on—to counterbalance my usual long-form aesthetic, which was being put to good use in a sibling compilation to this book. But I didn’t begin with the four sections in mind—they developed as I began noticing structural, linguistic, and thematic congruities between poems. Even “Atlas,” despite having poems that share the context of specific place, contains poems that could have been relegated to other sections. There was a lot of organizing after the fact. The second section, “Nineteen Years After My Nineteenth Year,” has a very specific time element at play: seasons. Each of the nineteen groupings contain four poems, one for each season, using certain telltale referential words and phrases, approximating the Japanese kigo of haiku, to let the reader know when and in certain instances where the poem’s occurring. For example, mentioning orange blossoms: they aren’t as prevalent in Maine as they are in Florida, they point to a specific time of year, and they impart perhaps a feeling of “sunniness.” I actually planned to add a fifth poem for the New Year, which is sometimes celebrated as a fifth season in traditional haiku, and even a sixth section for muki, a kind of “seasonless” season in modern haiku, but felt that readerly familiarity with the four seasons was better for what I was trying to accomplish, and I could let the last two sections of the book handle the more experimental and playful takes on time and form. I would add that being “in the moment” is important to each of the poems, and hope that regardless of their section placement, they live individually in a kind of non-static, kinetic present.
As for representing lived experiences, the subtitle Autobiomythography II allows for a widening acceptance of varieties of lived experience—with a realization that the self is ever-shifting and manifold, and fictive voices are just as capable of fomenting truths as actual voices. The creation of a self is the hard work of both people and characters alike. As for the research and writing of the poems, this took place in different areas of the world over the course of those eight years. I traveled a bunch and kept notebooks. For the most part, I let the edits occur in my head at the time of composition, before anything touched the page. I found this process very bizarre at the beginning, because I normally type a poem out and save it and return to it later for editing. But there was something about the process itself—sitting still and parsing out a reality from what I was experiencing—that encouraged me to hold the feelings and images and thoughts together in a semi-focused cloud for as long as I could.
I wrote these poems consciously aware of my intentions: to find a place to sit and literally shut up and watch the world happen, but actively and intensely, as a kind of private eye investigating the what of things, hoping for a certain confluence of particulars to occur, which I could then sculpt into a poem, or which honestly at times created itself without my much interfering, handled perhaps by a sort of practiced underlying literary sculpting technique. The generative event of these particulars—an image, an object with emotive resonance, an internal intonation or external voice—was then paired with the musical play of language itself. In this way a poem might come together quite unexpectedly and rapidly, like a hiccup—hence the book title. The more I got used to dropping down anywhere and focusing my thoughts on the immediacy of the present, the more aware I became of microcosms, mini-events, of the world’s shifting and stabilized agents, and the quicker the poetic formulations occurred. I would test new words against the reality of the situation as I saw it, and let certain words or phrases that felt right remain fixed. Then I’d let those phrases ferret out compatible sounds, images, insights, until the whole thing just clicked into place. Then I’d repeat the poem aloud to check if it sounded cheesy or overdramatic or if I was inserting too much ego into the mix (which I was sometimes cool with) or playing to my reader’s expectations too much, versus letting it represent my own experience; and so on, before finally writing it down to see how it looked on the page, as a visual object.
Once the poems hit the page, many kept that form, although a good portion were edited by a word or two over the years, and certainly more when it came time to edit the book as a whole. I’m not against editing. Normally I espouse very much the opposite practice than the one I detailed—editing is usually where my best writing occurs.
Returning to the voice in your book, devised by a man who’s afraid his brain is shrinking, whose words are leaving him as he battles the insomnia that accompanies fatherhood, I can easily see why television and media are conjured throughout as voices in their own right, mixing with the speaker’s, perhaps as self-doubt begins to take hold, or as part of a waking fever-dream of exasperation. The injection of consumerist copy, boardroom speak, television ads, and sports banter strike different but not disharmonious notes from other seemingly personal observations—it’s the difference between the lines “At participating locations” and “Help me into the sleep position, sculpt me there when I resist.” Were these external voices ones where you felt the speaker was overtaken in his vulnerability? Or are they simply representative of the mind at play, or at ease, grappling with what’s out there? Is it a single speaker or a chorus? It feels very much of one voice to me, but there is modulation.
Berrigan: It’s a scroll of demented fortune-cookie slips. The voicing is a little hard to characterize—I was trying to kick-start writing by treating the sentence as a discrete form. So on a given night, at home or in a bar or on a subway or bus, an observation followed by a declaration followed by something overheard followed by a word followed by a string of sounds turning out as phrase could happen, and be half that night’s list. It wasn’t so much a matter of self-organization with regards to voice or qualities thereof. I wasn’t keeping track, other than trying to work in points of difference from sentence to sentence, however minute they might have been. The pronouns changed a lot as a result. The “me” in that line you quote is a case where I’m imagining my one-year-old daughter saying, when she has almost no language, the particular order in ten or twelve words that takes care of the endless process of getting her to sleep at night. Whereas “at participating locations” is one of those little levitating phrases that needed to be freed from its advertising source in order to let its inherent challenge to common temporality loose.
That said, you should read it the way you want to read it—it’s meant to be an open read that happens to be made of all these particulars, which is probably where you and I are overlapping with these books, even though I’d wager our relationships to language are quite different. There’s a logic to the arrangement I ended up calling “final,” but it’s certainly not the only one imaginable. I wanted Primitive State (once I was willing to accept it as a work with a possible public future and not just an extended bout of self-training) to function as something happening right now. The action of each line being as in the present and disappearing behind that ongoing nowness, as it ought to be, without forcing the issue. So when you say or type “modulation,” I end up thinking “tone”—and the question of how to keep all this matter building on itself in short form from caving into a single tone. I find the world is not very forgiving when one forces encapsulation on it, in any aspect. But it sounds like the process you describe helps keep everything from taking on the same kind of tonal surface. And the cuts across time, too, help in making the longer sections happen. But I could be wrong. Am I wrong? Is tone your friend or your enemy?
Pan: Tone is a funny thing. Like any stylistic variation, it can be a very useful tool in letting the reader in on an emotional state. Like, a flat monotone can relate a speaker’s deep resentment or loss of feeling or nostalgia or even a prolonged manic state, which I once utilized for a long poem on drones. The purpose of repeating the poems in my head was so that certain acquired words or feelings could magnetize and draw in whatever sensory aspects or words hovered near their fields. The introduction of a new word or phrase would ultimately change the chemistry of the poem, the music, visual and spatial relationships, and the overall feeling. It was more about accumulating variables, keeping my options open, so whatever purpose I might have started out with was apt to change with the introduction of new language. There’s your modulation. But in some of these poems I do think there is a certain shared tonal surface, as you put it, but I don’t think of that in a pejorative way, like a boring monotonous sound, but as a certain baseline that’s being returned to. Haiku sometimes sounds tonally similar because the act of waiting around for something interesting to happen in one’s mind and fitting those thoughts into a small box hasn’t changed that much through history. I can say I often wrote from the same frame of mind, which was meditative and attentive and possibly over-caffeinated. I had also read a bit about object-oriented ontology somewhere early on, and tried to imagine at times, while looking out on the world, a deeper relationship things were having with other things. I formulated a still rather underdeveloped theory about how haiku is a much more object-centric or other-focused form of poetry—where the world is the point—whereas its cousin-form, the senryū, seems to be much more about human foibles and social habits and comedic, personal perspectives. So when writing the poems I tried to remain aware of where I was looking from, what I was looking at, and the relationship between things and things and myself and things. The poems ultimately had to endure my personal perspective, but recognizing a world outside myself helped me engage with a certain amount of humility. I like to think that a certain sense of place and time, in conversation with the music—itself created by a sort of stumbling, grabbing word-search by my subconscious—ultimately formed the path of each poem, allowing for a series of coincidences and random connections to create their own tension, urgency, and ultimate expression.
You’ve got me wondering how other short-form writers modulate their sound and perspectives. When I read Richard Wright’s haiku, I find the same kind of imprinted patience on the page as in Bashō or Nick Virgilio, but the styles and details they draw attention to and the syntactical options employed, very much betray or insinuate different feels for the world, even though there’s a shared quietude and engendered respectfulness of that world.This is partly due to lived experiences, cultural backgrounds, circumstance, and place. These things help define values, vocabulary, visibility. Choosing autumn over fall, picking one filmic angle over another. There is also a cultural accountability to connotation—does the word winter strike within us a different tone than summer? In winter you bundle up, which introduces a sort of leveled, quiet tone at the outset, whereas in summer you go outside and run around. But that can be subverted—there are gray rainy days in summer and snowball fights in winter. It makes me think of how poems by writers like Rae Armantrout and Joseph Massey—who is a great writer of winter—drift and click and snap down the page similarly, at times, which one might think would introduce similar tones because of the similar formal look, but there’s no mistaking a personal sense of how the lines are cut, how enjambment draws us through an edited, prepared view of consciousness, and how word choice and breath variation keep them from sounding alike. With writers like Jorge Carrera Andrade, working with a kind of metaphorical surrealism, or Tsubouchi Nenten, who introduces baby talk into his writing, or Harryette Mullen, utilizing euphony, it can be an expansive music or a sense of the unexpected that is ultimately guiding the tone, and so we see a whole spectrum of modulation due to some relatively simple stylistic choices that produce entirely different universes.
I’m thinking of personal universes now, and how in the past, like with this book, you’ve written with a kind of built-in constraint or form, or at least a memorable reiteration, like the line “Have a Good One” repeated in Free Cell, or your forthcoming book of poems, which are written in square frames. What is the appeal for you? Is it that you like larger projects in general, or enjoy constraints, or that these ideas come to you and you take them as far as you can?
As a follow-up, but continuing with personal universes: have you noticed if your poetry has changed as your children get older? Do you find yourself with more or less time to write? Does your personal poetic universe expand with their aging, as you watch them learn and learn from them?
Berrigan: The three lines immediately under your title (or subtitle?) “Petroglyphs”: “Constellations cut in black / rock beneath my feet / as we wobble through space”—if I’d gotten something like that, I might have been happy to have it all by itself: a little endless room that turns on you when you try to catch it. I say that because I sometimes think I write from competing impulses: to either let a little bit of material take care of that glimpse of everything and nothing at once and move on, or to make these multiplying shapes that push my messes and holes all over the place.
I get real joy from writing and working on poems, but in the course of about twenty-five years of doing it—which doesn’t feel like much to me, but is nonetheless nearly as long as my father wrote—I’m pretty clear that I have steep deficits constantly in play. Deficits with regards to knowledge, imagination, character sometimes. These feelings are intermittent, but that’s what makes them real. I do not mean to imply that I am a poor specimen, but that I have to keep proving to myself that I can do something. So it’s never a “project,” which feels too often to me like another word for costume. What the ongoing forms do, be they lists with no beginning or end, or made of scrolling irregularities all over the page, or a repeating frame like the squares (which are actually rectangles), is forcing the music to go along and change, forcing habit to be undone, and pushing thought to replace itself with something unknown that is poetry, to make the thing be alive and have shape and not just be the sum of its sources. It’s very odd and freeing to put something into time, and the feeling of doing can take over those deficits and keep moving. There are also a million little details inside that I constantly reckon with, but it’s hard to get poets to talk about those things these days. But that’s fine, because I can find Stanley Whitney’s or Dona Nelson’s paintings to look at, and read interviews each has given, and listen to what they say about being alone with their work.
To come back to your questions, I find the shapes and I try to push them as far as I can, and that dovetails with your question about having kids. I write more with them in the world because I write faster, but I take my time turning the writing into what’s typed into shape, I try not to let other voices pressure the writing too much, including my own doubts and anxieties (acknowledging them is different from letting them be cops), and I look at things differently. Color, shape, exchanges of tenderness, violence, rooms, all the paradoxes and rips and displacements that constitute recognition. Little compositions in the street or on the wall, the protean sense of hearing and seeing at the same time, having to answer the questions our girls come up with, having to be utterly open and contained at the same time in doing so—these are more immediate and open facets of perception than somebody’s idea of an idea. Composure is a series of practiced feints that sometimes feels natural. I don’t write anything but poetry, unless I get asked to do something brief on somebody else’s work. I write more now than I did when, say, I worked for The Poetry Project and didn’t have children, but a number of changes had to be made to make that happen. I now know that I need to not think when I begin anything, which brings me full circle with my own dumbness, and leaves me out of sync with the industry of poetics.
The last thing I want to try and get to here is something about Primitive State that I can’t find any other way to say. For me, it’s a highly readable book. I think a person has to enjoy listening while reading to get into it, but it doesn’t necessarily require any experience with poetry to be enjoyed. The poem itself doesn’t constitute a story, but each line can be read as a little story, or at least I believe that to be the case. I say each line—they started as sentences, but in the making of the writing into a work, those sentences became lines. For anyone out there who is a poet and can’t finish novels because you get hung up on the language and its texture in the first thirty pages and feel exhausted, I recommend writing a list of a thousand discrete sentences. Writing Primitive State made me able to read novels purely for pleasure again after years of fighting with them.
Last question: tone is a tool, yeah. I like the way you talk about that. I also find that it’s just there—you set something down and tone begins. It’s not prosody, but an aspect of prosody; you can wrangle with it but can’t get rid of it, so it’s mysterious, and often pretty plain for all the possible layers. It’s a tool you can’t choose to put away, and it’s also one of those little gateways between consciousness and material that has to facilitate the flow in both directions.
The last section of Hiccups feels like it’s working inside of a grid-based structure made available by previous structures but isn’t like them. It’s almost out of control, it’s made of twin columns and has multiple pathways, and feels like it wants to be taking place all at once. Reading undoes that all-at-once illusion, but I am wondering if you think of that piece, “Nyquil Lucid Fever Lucky Dream Emporium,” as “a graph of the mind moving,” to quote the poet Philip Whalen, or more of a kind of set-piece, so to speak.
Pan: The “Nyquil” section at the end is, let’s say, a matrix of crystal lattices—an architecture of several interlinking forms—wrapped around a bunch of gooey instances of assumed real life, themselves disturbed into unreality by a fever dream. The poem is meant to be read linearly, though as the molecular bonds pointing out the reader’s path suggest, there are moments which loop about in awful circularity, like the Charybdis of repeating dreams or those time quakes that anxiety sometimes produces, where we’re at the mercy of our own fears and embarrassments and are left cursing in the shower for something we said to a person ten years ago. If poetry is a haunted art, it’s because life is. There are certainly set artificial structures in place—the molecular bonds, the restraints of the hiccup/haiku form—which here both support and are agitated by a kind of narrative of familiarization. The poem isn’t so much a story as an interwoven series of surreal vignettes, anecdotes, overheard conversations, musical and emotional disturbances, each operating towards some idea of clarity or realism, which is forever out of reach. They are armed with the familiar, which serves in a reader’s investigation into the relationships between the poems’ skewed perspective and real life. But there is a sense, I believe, that all of these elements are bound together out of necessity, however inexplicably. The result is less collage than the mapping of a consciousness that is either failing or simply unwilling to chart every leap or transition into linear thought. It gives over to the sickness, to the fever. It’s funny that this discombobulation is caused by both the sickness itself and the drugging effects of its symptom reliever, Nyquil, a remedy that, like certain other remedies, further intensifies the adverse effects of what it’s trying to negate. I mostly wanted to speak to that sense of being neither here nor there, floating along light-headed and nauseated through a bustling metropolis, incorporating the smells and images of the city into a loose series of connections.
I like the idea that poetry writing, as you say, is something you do to prove to yourself that you can still do it. There’s an understated fear that at some point one’s time is up, but also an understanding that creativity reconstitutes self, that art-making is a willed undertaking that changes us mentally and biologically beyond the normal passage of time. The act of writing can be a way to engage life with a counter-proposal, to show what things can be like, utilizing elements of memory as organizing principles. And memory is invasive by nature, constantly hurling our past selves through our windshields. But by engaging with our past relationally, by struggling with that information—with ideas, relationships, pains, anecdotes, consumed media that we use as fodder for relational thinking in the act of creating—we’re actually reinventing ourselves.
But this activity is definitely something that can color-code your deficits at times and make you feel stupid and lacking and incredibly helpless, too. Luckily, we can change that. We’re recreation machines. We like pulling our past selves out of the windshields. (I would like to note this particular metaphor is currently on lease from Quentin Tarantino, who has been on my mind, with his new movie and a provocative interview he gave on Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast.)
The thought of writing a thousand sentences in order to rekindle a love for the novel is a wonderful idea. All the fiction titles I’m reading right now are books that were submitted to Brooklyn Arts Press for possible publication. Last year I read something like thirty-six thousand pages, according to some sloppy math I did. I think about all these books in the world, all the unpublished manuscripts and all the books in bookstores, and it makes my insides bleed. We are very lucky to have books. I’m very thankful. It’s good to be thankful. Apparently it lowers your blood pressure, too.
I’m wondering what you are working on now. I’m concerned for our futures. This December the temperatures in Brooklyn are looking to be the highest on record. Miami might be underwater soon. I’m working on a novel now. What are you working on, Anselm?
Berrigan: Your answers unfurl many layers of answer, which is great, and also make me feel like I need to turn into a Cubist monster taking it easy on the beach in order to re-answer. I am trying to figure out if a set of poems I’ve been working on since the late spring of 2014 is done—I’ve been writing poems called “Pregrets,” “Regrets,” and “Degrets” for about eighteen months. I lost a notebook with nineteen of them—untyped—at one point in late 2014, so I’ve written more than I actually have. That’s a funny feeling. Anyway, I’m also about to start reading through a collection of my father’s prose in order to have a conversation with my mother and brother about what kind of book might be made out of it. There are art writings, book reviews, journals, reports, and several types of unclassifiable prose (this all separate from his novel Clear The Range). This is very exploratory. I’ve also started editing a collection of interviews published in the pages of The Poetry Project Newsletter over the past forty years or so—that’s going to be an actual thing, whereas the Ted Berrigan prose book is more imaginary at this stage. I’ve also just facilitated the publishing of Wherewithal, a book by poet Adam DeGraff—this is his first book, though he’s been writing for a long time—through the Subpress publishing collective, and need to get the book in people’s hands.
Also, I realized recently that I’ve been slowly reading two books for a long time, and I want to finish them, but I’ve had to acknowledge that I’ve bound them together in some strange way—these being T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death, and M. NourbeSe Philip’s book-length poem cycle Zong! The Clark is a kind of journal kept while sitting with two Poussin paintings every day for a few months, and Philip’s book has to do with a massacre of Africans on a slave ship in 1781, built entirely in the language of a legal decision that is the only known public document related to the massacre. The language-handle of each book couldn’t be more different, but both are intensely close examinations of materials at hand; I want to finish them with this in mind and see where that goes.
I would like to grow the ways I talk to certain people, not that anybody needs to know that, but it’s an interesting proposition to raise with yourself, and it requires some rewiring of your relationship with language. This is a little thing, but it’s an important thing—you talk differently to people, and you will possibly find you talking differently with yourself. Or so I wonder. I can’t deal with banal phrasing anymore. “All lives matter,” for instance, is a classic piece of American toxicity in the costume of phony composure. Time to learn how to talk all over again.