Anselm Berrigan and Marcella Durand

Berrigan and Durand
Each Other

Anselm Berrigan: What do you think of the possibility that one's poetics, for lack of a better term, do not have to come primarily out of poetry, or philosophy for that matter? I'm thinking of a letter I received from my stepfather about five years ago, in which he suggested that a personal poetics could just as easily come out of geography, history, music, many other places — and your poems are pretty clearly informed by yr sense of structure, be it through civic planning or abstract visual art.

Marcella Durand: I'd strongly, in fact, I'd inevitably agree with your stepfather. There's no reason to separate poetry from the rest of the arts, or from life, science. I find these other areas so fertile for ideas in form/content. It's really exciting to try and integrate, say, how a water pipe is built for a city of millions into the form and idea of a poem. And wouldn't this kind of "inspiration" be incredibly pertinent to life? I have this weird hope that someone, Joe Schmoe or Jane Doe, would read one of my matter-oriented poems with not much in them about psychology & interpersonal relations, or intrapersonal relations, and say, "Hey! That's about my drinking water!" To think about what's happening around your body when you live in a big city, or just a world filled with all sorts of moving things in seeming chaos. And maybe then people will develop more of a spatial sense of responsibility. It drives me wild how spatially irresponsible Americans are (to grossly generalize). Like these developments and malls are just so badly placed in physical space. People want to escape their bodies and material space, and I want to drag them back. To somewhat digress, I went to see this fantastic show at the NYPL on scientific illustration, and saw a drawing by Descartes — claustrophobic renditions of atoms in vortexes. The accompanying blurb said that Descartes was actually incredibly close to solving the laws of motion, but he didn't because he would not accept the existence of voids. And speaking of voids, one thing I find incredibly interesting in your poetry is their spaciousness on the page — you have voids between lines and words and poems that utilize the entire space of the paper, a real generosity to the page & word. I'm thinking particularly of the "Position of Planets on the Human Forehead" where these voids and spaces add a "constellation" of shadings ...

AB: I derive a great deal of comfort and solace from voids, and the idea of an abyss. Voids are hard to colonize, and since they generally freak people out, there's a certain increase in elbow room if you stick around. But I tend to think that the whole page is available so why not use it; it buzzes me to work with the line, as it's placed, in a gestural mode from time to time, free of breaks indicated by thought, breath, or syntax (not in opposition to those methods, however). "A spatial sense of responsibility" is intriguing. I love the fact that Silicon Valley, which is in some respects the backbone of the so-called American economic boom, is located on this tremendous fault line that seismologists have been indicating for the last decade is going to produce a monster earthquake within the next twenty-five years. I'm not sure how you mean shadings, but I would be interested to know what you think that might mean, vis-a-vis poems.

MD: Well, the most basic root of America's spatial incompetence is that they/we stole the land in the most brutal, unfair, low-down ways possible. But the U.S. also has a tradition of ecological awareness and appreciation of "encounters with the wilderness" that definitely comes from both the overwhelming physicality of the land and influence of the native tribes. Cabeza de Vaca, Willa Cather, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Sarah Orne Jewett, Black Elk, Aldo Leopold are some earlier American writers who wrote with a particularly interesting spatial consciousness. I just finished Cape Cod by Thoreau where he experiences nature in a full-frontal (literally at times!) way that I just don’t think is possible anymore, at least, not where I live! Douglas gave me this book about the Grand Canyon which talks about how the early Spanish conquistadors who first saw it were unable to perceive it; their previous experience did not allow them to really see the magnificence and enormity of it. We’ve become able to perceive nature — Thoreau looks and looks into the darkness until his pupil becomes large enough to see — and what’s happened after that moment of perception? I’m being rather retro in my poetical aims by trying to drag back a sense of unpredictability, but I’m also trying to encompass, or maybe perceive, the industrial, genetic, and silicon revolutions. But I want to ask you more about your lines and voids — I’m quite intrigued by your line "free of breaks indicated by thought, breath, or syntax." Could you talk about that more? And also what you mean by "gestural mode"? Maybe that will coincide with what I mean by "shadings."

AB: I lean toward the belief that this world is a shadow of the real world, that you can, as I have been made to understand that Crazy Horse would, dream yourself into the real world. I had a dream the other night that my father, who has been dead since 1983, came walking up to me and said that he hadn't been dead, he'd just had a really bad back. I have not formalized these distinctions, and do not plan to do so, although Will Alexander knows of some Sufi dream techniques that I may want to experiment with later in some form of life. I leave wide open the possibility that this world is not the real world. But I'm interested in this world as a subject for poems. I had an interesting experience once, which suggested to me that the dimension which we take ourselves to reside in is rather thin, and could be torn away as if wallpaper. Anyway, the "free of breaks ..." thing, I was thinking of Projective Verse, and the Ginsberg variations on it, as he would explain them; i.e., the end of a breath or thought marking where the line should end, and the possibilities for shaping within those parameters (one line actually equating to four or five, etc., with the breaks inside the line being determined by where thoughts end or pause). I’m not sure that thought or breath is an adequate structural basis for a line of poetry a lot of the time. I was also thinking of non-conventional syntax as not being a terribly interesting method of generating poetic energy. “Gestural mode” is probably my attempt to explain line choices within poems by not explaining them but suggesting a frame. I haven’t ever been able to discern that the position of being an intellectual or anti-intellectual has anything to do with intellect. So I take back asking you about shadings. Mainly I’m interested in the arrangement, less so the method reflected by the arrangement. Has the telephone ever helped you to write a poem?

MD: No. The telephone is an evil invention and I stay away from it and all associated with it as much as possible. I do, however, adore e-mail.Yes, I can see in your work that you would be operating within a frame that happens to engage the entire page, rather than prescribed linebreaks, and that the frame also comes from an engagement & connection with collaboration and reading aloud. I think what I mean by shading, is what comes thru this engagement from life and people and how this transfers to the page. I think we both came to poetry simultaneously early and late, if you know what I mean, and in your work, you have a particularly "real" (a real connection with the shadow?) presence that comes from a more extended exploration of "other" careers. This goes back as well to being interested in how other areas can feed into poetry. But what do you mean by "non-conventional syntax as not being a terribly interesting method of generating poetic energy"? What does generate your poetic energy then? The real world behind the shadow world? The crystal cigarette under the cigarette? I remember reading something about your mom saying that it's not the words or the syntax that makes a poem you agree with that? Let's get mystical. And to return to syntax, I'll be ornery and disagree with you. Some of the most fun moments I've had is while twisting syntax up — I like driving down that road of a sentence and turning away at the last minute — playing chicken with nouns and verbs. That's why I love Joe Elliot's work — that he'll take some phrase like "You gotta go in it's the big game" but he'll take out the comma, and do something else with the next line that screws with that corny phrase. So let's talk about mysticism and let's talk about subject-verb agreement.

AB: Oh, no, I feel skinned! Well, that was a stressful day when I responded. I think the non-conventional-syntax thing, I dislike being beaten over the head with it as much as being beaten over the head with poems that are really prose with line breaks. I don't think about it when I write. Energy comes from words and the unknown, and the space between them? No. It is possibly unwise for me to try and locate that energy, or even to refute other sources of energy. I've been feeling unwise since September of 1999, before that I felt neutral. I feel much ack. I thought I was on my way to being a journalist until I wrote a poem. I considered at various times, marine biology (because I was fascinated by sharks as out of the evolutionary loop in a strange way), sports broadcasting, short-story writing, political science, as possible life choices for work, but never for very long. I would often like to change my name to seven-of-nine. Some questions: How much time do you spend under artificial light?

MD: I know in your borg state, time is merely an excuse, so I suggest that you definitely change your name. I thought of artificial light while watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. That poor crew is always under artificial light. They live in dislocation. Star Trek is a utopian ideal of human society: multiracial, multispecies, feminist, with miraculous medicine and technology, where "humanity" exists in everyone and everything — even holograms and nebulae. But Starfleet is militaristic and hierarchical: everyone answers to the "captain" with unquestioning devotion. A recurring quirk of all the Star Trek captains is the assumption that the crew will accomplish insane tasks within short periods of time. The borg are really the "logical" extension of the Starfleet way (incredibly orderly, devoted, collective), but they are visually "unclean." The drones are gooey-looking, the machinery is green and black, the borg hallways are claustrophic and dirty. So what’s our future? Borg or Starfleet? Birds don’t really hate me. I feed the little sparrows seeds on my fire escape. And I grow little plants that bees and birds like. But birds do hate owls. Owls are hated by all birds. Eagles and hawks may be hated by other birds too. Blue jays as well, I think, are not too popular with the smaller bird population. I don’t know what language I speak in between spaces because I am in another state, perhaps the same as your "unwiseness" and your "ack." The crystal Marcella would know, but she’s not around right now.Who are Dalziel and Stamper? What are you going to do with that porno lesbian Berrigan novel? In fact, please reveal your secret plagiarization techniques. Tell us how you use comic-book physical event exclamations (whap, pow, argh) to punctuate your poetry.

AB: How the fuck should I know how I plagiarize? Those guys are liars under my employ. I have nothing to pay them, except for the repetition of their names in certain circles. In the one hand prestige and cultural capital, in the other death and poverty, and I'm putting it down, but you're not picking it up. Not you, though. When did you learn how to read?

MD: Interesting to ponder to what extent plagiarism is a good career move. It occurs to me plagiarization is the purest homage to writers and the act of writing ever invented. Also, I don’t quite understand the term "cultural capital" that you use. Are you referring to living in NY? I learned to read when my best friend learned to read before me and I was jealous. I’d like to return to the idea of art and poetry, and I would dare say that both of us have been inordinately interested in and influenced by art throughout our tender years in this cultural capital. Who are some artists you particularly admire and why? Do you ever plagiarize artistic structures, colors, composition? I know I do. I would like to make poems that are like Rodchenko paintings, or Ad Reinhardt. I would like to do the black poems. Or Franz Kline poems.

AB: I've always been fascinated by an idea that by putting a color in a poem, it might trigger in the reader's mind their most vivid association or memory or sense of that color. Even if the color in the poem is describing some other object, like Williams' red wheelbarrow. It's his red wheelbarrow, and I can see his red wheelbarrow, but I also see my own red when I see the word "red" there in the poem. So then I think of artists sometimes in terms of a color that has stayed with me, like some of Joan Mitchell's blues, and a purple silkscreen of Warhol's that I saw at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo. It's an electric chair, and it's one of the most striking artworks I've ever seen, and the richness of the color combined with the fact of an electic chair and its function have a lot to do with why it still rings my head. I love Warhol's tone as created by his silkscreens, though I don't know that I can articulate what I get from it very well. A lot of the artists I admire are my friends, and that’s a lot of art, to tell the truth.Using art structures is an interesting idea. I never think about doing that. I've written out of paintings before, and I've thought about different styles, so it gets in there somewhere. I could look at a lot of action paintings for days on end. And I've imagined in a poem, a face made to look like some of the gold tempura Byzantine wood panels. My face, actually, with little demons and monks painted on it. It's funny, the painters I know, older and younger, tend to pay more attention to what poets are doing than most other folks, including a lot of poets. But getting back to structures, I would say I still feel like there's a lot of collage-type space to mine for word arrangements. I'm probably less interested in letting the seams show while collaging words than I used to be, but I still do it all the time. And I'm also interested in making poems that are still-lifes, figuratively speaking, and not boring. Cultural or symbolic capital is something discussed recently on the Poetics List at Buffalo, and it seems to be very subjectively defined. My father, for instance, has a lot of cultural capital by some folks' measure, even though he died broke with much of his work out of print. I take it to mean a kind of intangible capital created by other people's perception of your work and/or life. Like, you can't necessarily count up your own cultural capital, someone has to do it for you. It's like having a type of nothing that other people want. Some might say that you and I are raising our level of cultural capital by having this interview printed in Gary's zine. The most amazing piece of art I've seen in the last couple of years was the Williamsburg Bridge, when the new walkway opened while the subway tracks were still under construction. All the graffiti, the bright red walkway rail, all the layers of metal with the city and the river coming through them. It totally knocked me out all last spring and summer, and I would walk over it whenever I could. I have probably talked too much now. So my question really is, can you now say a lot of things in response to all the art stuff?

MD: The words "left-justified" and "right-justified" were bandied about today and I'd actually like to explore that more in terms of using art structures, which you say you've never thought about, but perhaps in a more innate way, you have absorbed in terms of using the page. Also, you talk about letting the seams show in your poems, which in a way, I think is perhaps a more "artistic" way of looking at a poem in that you're conceiving of a poem as a built composition in which seams can show. I guess where I'm getting to is poetry as a compositional space and what you think of that in terms of what you're doing in your own work. I agree with you that the Williamsburg Bridge is an amazing piece of art in that it achieves this sensurround experience that unites the perceiver with urban space — what is achieved in my perceptions and sensations of space after walking through and on the bridge is what many artists dream of doing. Actually, that sort of experience was in my head while I was writing City of Ports — actually, just today, for some reason, I was thinking about how much I enjoyed writing that series — that the compositional process that I went thru was so enjoyable, that I felt like I was walking, working, and writing thru so many interesting spaces, I mean, I didn't just feel like that — I was literally walking, working and writing thru various spaces! I was working, let's see, one day I counted up 8 different jobs I was doing that day, in all sorts of areas of the city. I was teaching in Williamsburg, copy editing at night in mid-town and the Village, working at Brooklyn College, writing articles where I was traveling thru places like Brownsville, back and forth over all these bridges and waterfronts (since I don't take the subway) and writing City of Ports during this, on buses, and during stolen moments at offices, waiting for copy. I loved writing that way — that sort of fragmentation and preciousness of time/space and continual production secretly in the faces of authority — that anyone and everyone can write like that, that writing can fit into the spaces of our lives and emanate from those various components — work, travel, journeys, errands, bus rides, ill-lit office desks ...

AB: When I lived in San Francisco and worked as a foot messenger I used to write between deliveries and pick-ups. On the bus, on the corners, in the elevators, etc. It was a great terrible job. I would smoke pot and go to work and write and read, all while wearing this uniform of navy blue collared tee with California Overnight logo over heart and tan khakis, plus beeper, walkie-talkie, and giant silver hand-truck. Then I got hepatitis and turned yellow and had no sick days or health insurance or anything. Not much fun. About half of the poems that are in this little chapbook called They Beat Me Over the Head with a Sack were written while I was sick and delusional at home, and while I was sick and delusional at work because I couldn't afford to stay home and be sick in bed. The poems aren't explicitly about those circumstances, but they inform every line in the poems in some way. There are life-readings of all those poems, and probably of every poem I've ever written that would ultimately be the most precise readings that could be done of them. However, that doesn’t mean they’re always the most necessary readings, though often they are. The compositional space I operate out of is living, and ideas related to artifice, language, form, etc. I take to be encapsulated within that space, so that it’s completely open as to what a poem can do, or be. I feel close to something Philip Whalen wrote in one of his poems, that he wanted freedom for and from everybody.

Anselm Berrigan Work Online

"Appendix" and "Way Exit" at Washington Review Online
"Life Section 1994" at $lavery
Poems and videos at The East Village Poetry Web
Poems at a l y r i c m a i l e r
"Fortune's Drift" at Transcendental Friend
Poems at Idiom
"Daily Planner" at Readme

Marcella Durand Work Online

"Embroider" at XCP
"Machine into Water" poems at How2
"Hunt" at Transcendental Friend
Three poems at Jacket
Five poems at Readme

[Back to Readme]