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Literary Prestidigitations on Display

15 Questions: An interview with James Berger

 

Author:  James Berger

BlazeVOX Book:  Prior

 

Bio:  James Berger lives in New Haven CT. He is a Senior Lecturer at Yale–where he does not lecture. He teaches seminars on how language, in the proper solution, dissolves, or else reincorporates into unrecognizable, engulfing signals disguised as pieces of the world. He also plays euphonium and valve trombone; the slide locks his brain. He is father to two young daughters and is married to the historian, Jennifer Klein. He is author of After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (University of Minnesota Press, 1999) and the forthcoming The Disarticulate: Language, Impairment, and the Narratives of Modernity (New York University Press); and is editor of Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life: The Restored Edition (Random House, 2003). You should read all his books, but especially the unwritten ones–of which this book is an inversion.

 

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15 Questions

 

 

 

1. “Tell me about your book.”

 

            Prior is a book about time.  It is about things that happen in time and about things that don’t happen.  Whether or not an event occurs is important only because of how time works.  Time is proof–that’s all.  Proof of liability, proof of consequence; a thesis that personal horrors correspond to universal models.  Time is the only guarantor that it matters if the house burns, the faces cling or separate, or the fetus comes to term.

            This is my first book of poems to be published.  All I can say to that is, it’s about time.  I used to have in mind a book to be called “Lost Occasions” because a lot of what I write is connected to some personal or public event.  Occasional poems.  I wrote a wedding poem, a poem on the death of my father-in-law, a poem for the naming of my daughters, a poem responding to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, a poem responding to Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.  But none of these were ever published in a timely way.  Each event receded into the past and the poem no longer mattered, certainly not to poetry magazine editors.  And none of the various manuscripts of “Lost Occasions” were ever published.  Prior is subsequent.  But it contains many of these occasions.  And this book, whose poems reach back through many years, is an archaeological site; it contains strata, though not in sequence.  The poems of the young man rub against those of a much older person.  Love changes.  The relation to self changes.  Even anger changes, and this book is full of anger, political and personal. 

            Life took certain directions, as some of these poems chronicle.  And other directions did not take shape–and this book tries to indicate those directions as well. 

            Procreation is a theme–always a matter of priority and consequence.  Would I have children?  Would they be human children?  (I mean, as opposed to aesthetic or scholarly creations).  Or would my being be enclosed, with no gate or canal for any outpourings; a vestibule of continuing, unfertilized ovulation?  Eventually, biological children came, twin girls, one of them named for the twin sister of my wife’s grandmother, who was murdered by the Nazis in Hungary in 1944. 

            I, James Berger, take responsibility for all the words in this book, and will bask in the deserved acclaim or, more likely, seethe in its absolute disappearance and anonymity in even the smallest micro-niches of the culture.  Just another lost occasion.  But a small advisory: the book contains many voices, and “I” is always having conversations with itself.  There is a great deal of ventriloquism, and a reader should not assume that it’s immediately obvious who is speaking through whom. 

            Also note the presence of sisters.  They will speak, or not speak, for themselves.

            As for form, it goes and comes as seems to fit.  I’m not so interested in arbitrary applications of form, as with Oulipo and others.  Though voice is multiple and conflicted, I still believe in the primacy of voice.  My form is vocal–which is to say, dialogic.  It’s back and forth, call and response, tension or suspension and release.  It’s recitative with occasional arias, and a few choruses.  I got the memo about the obsolescence of lyric–and sure, as a monological Cartesian expression of the bourgeois subject, etc., it’s over.  But when was it really ever that when it was done by someone who knew what he or she was doing?  The “lyric” that was the object of that critique was always a straw man.  There are plenty of things you can do that can simulate some state of absolute disjunction and estrangement–some place presumably outside of all current ideology, which would also be in some utopian spot beyond all current possibility of feeling.  So, at some point you have to come back if you actually want to reach a reader’s feelings or even maybe say something.  And I do, at times, want to do both those things.

            The line is where things start.  Stanzas can be nice, I like them–but I think, on the whole, they’re overused.  If poets have no genuine sense of poetic form, sometimes they rely on a stanza form to pull them through.  I think of poetic composition as something like musical improvisation.  A phrase generates its complement, its successor; imagined harmonies take shape around it (vertically) as it moves ahead horizontally.  Later, you go back and reshape it so that it sounds the way you want it–or says what you want it to say.  But I find that most of the things I cut from poems have to do with the discursive sense of the poem, places where it says something too obviously.  It’s got to have a life and shape of its own, apart from what I thought I was saying. 

            I assume both the impossibility and the possibility that poetry can create a location in language where some very deep and pleasurable and difficult conversation can take place at many levels of feeling and intellect, sometimes quite intelligible, other times pretty untethered. 

 

2. “What influenced this book?”

 

            The world.  America.  Modern poetry (which includes everything since... Donne?  Since Chaucer?  Since Sappho?... So, just say poetry).  Being mortal.  Being sexual.  Being a brother, a son, a father, a husband, a Jew.  These myriad sets of overlapping relations–social, historical, aesthetic.  My relationships with language and poetry. 

            I’ve had a longstanding sense (picked up I don’t know where; quite early, I think, perhaps high school, certainly by college) that poetic language works in two ways simultaneously: first, as an indexical outcropping of inner conditions that are themselves non-linguistic, and thus ineffable (a term that may require quotation marks... “ineffable”), but whose visceral, emotional force is such to activate linguistic centers in the brain so that language can record or recode them.  And, second, that the spontaneous, conscious application of language creates its own world; a language-place that has its hooks in the place prior to and alongside language.  We’re always in both places, and poetry is the record of the experience of being always in both places.  That, I think, is what makes it poetry and not some other sort of language use.  In Charles Peirce’s terms, poetry is indexical and symbolic at the same time, and that is the source of its explosiveness.  It is interwoven always in the slippery, allusive, social-historical, pun-laden, ambiguous, deceitful, rollicking texture of the symbolic.  But still it tries to point toward what it takes to be the real, the true, the thing that’s there–felt, experienced, seen, and heard. 

            As for my immediate poetic influences: I’m a modern American poet.  And that means, for the most part, I write in that canon of usual suspects: Whitman, Dickinson, WCW, Eliot (yes, him too), Zukovsky, Stein, Pound (yes, him too), Mina Loy, Stevens, Rilke, Neruda, Vallejo, Marianne Moore, not so much the first generation of post-WWII American poets (Lowell, Bishop, Hecht), NY School has been very important to me, esp. O’Hara; and K. Koch was my teacher at Columbia and had a big impact as a teacher; and Ashbery–early and mid-career Ashbery is frequently somewhere in the background.  More recent poets I like and maybe take a few things from have been Ann Lauterbach, Rachel Blau du Plessis (who I think is the best thing going today), Nancy Kuhl (not nearly as famous, obviously, but really good–and really good at dramatic/dialogic sequencing of poems).

            To narrow it down: Whitman, WCW, O’Hara

 

3. “Where does this book fit into your career as a writer?”

 

            What career?  I have no career.  I have a career as a scholar, an academic critic, historian, and teacher of modern literature.  A reasonably respectable one–published work, a Google presence.  And yet I’ve been writing poems seriously since I was 15 or 16.  Why I have no “career” as a poet I really can’t say.  If I had had one, Prior would be a kind of selected poems (with emphasis on those written in the past, say ten years) organized into an archaeological site, or set of palimpsests, or Escher’s staircase of time.  It’s the start of my career, but it’s the work of someone who ought (I think) to be in mid-career.  This book shows where I am and explains in some measure how I got here. 

            Its publication is prior to the books that ought to have preceded it.  Its priority is an accident of my reticence and of the weird state of the U.S. poetry biz.

 

4.  “If you had to convence a friend or colleague to read this book, what might you tell them?”

 

            If you don’t read it, you won’t be my friend.  What else can I say?  It’s a hell of a book.  If you read poetry, you’ll like it; it knows what it’s doing.  If you don’t read poetry you’ll like it too; it’s well-written and funny, it even has chips of wisdom scattered about.

 

5. “Tell me about the last literary reading you attended.”

 

            I don’t get out much.  Having five-year old twin daughters does that to you.  And when I go out, I don’t generally seek out poetry readings.  They’re boring.  Contemporary poetry is generally too complex to work well orally–especially when the poet is a tiresome reader, as most are.  (I’m not, by the way.  I used to be a pretty serious actor, and I’m a teacher and musician.  So I know how to perform).  And most poems are pretty boring to start with.  I listen to a lot of music.  When you go to hear high level musicians play, you hear people who really know how to play.  Words are difficult to perform.  Most contemporary theater is disappointing as well–I’m not sure why that is, considering that the actors are usually quite good.  I think it has to do with some skewed workings of the theater as market-driven. 

            Anyway, with poetry, I’ve determined to go local–like seeking out local food at the farmers’ market.  So, I’ve caught a couple of Buffalo products now in New Haven: Mike Kelleher and Richard Deming, a couple of very witty, genuinely verbal guys.  Richard has been a friend for about a decade now and has helped me a lot with my poetry.  He even wrote a blurb for this book!  He’s very skilled and really knows poetry.

            Richard and his wife, Nancy Kuhl, have been impressarios of an extraordinary ongoing seminar on contemporary poetics that brings to Yale many of the most interesting poets around.  One week, we read some of the poet’s work; two weeks later the poet appears in the flesh and we all talk and drink a little wine for a couple of hours.  It’s not a reading, not an interview.  It’s a real conversation among people serious about poetry.  So, over the past ten years, I’ve got to schmooze a bit with Ann Lauterbach, David Shapiro, Rachel Blau du Plessis, Charles Berstein, Ron Silliman, Nathaniel Tarn, Forrest Gander, Michael Palmer, Peter Gizzi, ...   And Jean-Jacques Poucel has brought in post-avant people he knows in France–....

            It was out of this seminar that one of us, Katie Yates, author of the recently published Poems from the House, decided to organize a reading series.  We all knew, or suspected, that most of us sitting around the table chatting with the visiting star poets were writers ourselves.  But we never, never made reference to this.  The seminar was about poetics and its leading practitioners.  Our own private pursuits were of less consequence– unless one of us actually published a book, and then we were all very pleased.  But Katie thought, rightly, that this was a bit ridiculous.  We should share our work.  There should a be generosity among us.  The pursuit and love of poetry was not just a matter of talking about poetry, talking with visiting stars and analyzing their work.  Everyone who is a poet is a poet.  Everyone who thinks about poetry has some notion of poetics.  And so we began.  The readings are in the waiting room of a small “wellness” business.  There are a few chairs and a few pillows.  The readings draw a dozen or maybe twenty people.  And so now we see what we’re all doing.  We’ve been demystified.  Poetry is something we do, read, talk about, socialize around–even read in a public space that is also a genuine social space.

 

6. “When did you realize you were a writer?”

 

            I loved poetry since before I could read.  “James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George DuPree/ Took great care of his mother though he was only three...”  In second grade I was writing poems to my cat.  In fifth and sixth grades, I wrote comic detective stories modeled on Get Smart.  Moved back to writing poems in tenth grade, inspired by the sound patterns of Poe’s “The Bells.”  Inspired also by politics.  For some reason, I was taken by the civil strife in Ireland–recognized parallels to the American civil rights struggles--and wrote a lengthy poem about that, no longer extant.  Discovered English romanticism in 11thgrade, a bit of modernism (Pound and Eliot) in 12th.  But I’d say I never really discovered what I felt I needed to find–the work of the contemporaries I really needed to know.  Even taking Kenneth Koch’s great but incomplete survey of modern American poetry course at Columbia, I never found it.  I found Koch, of course; only a bit later Ashbery and O’Hara.  But not Barbara Guest, not Lauterbach... Hell, not even Gertrude Stein or Marianne Moore.  But Koch taught me Whitman, and Whitman is what I always come back to.  “Song of Myself,” WCW’s Spring and All, and Stein’s Tender Buttons.

            Poetry is a funny business, as I may have suggested before.  Yes, I thought I was a writer, a poet, quite early.  That’s where I put my energy, curiosity, and commitment.  By the standards I was familiar with, sure, I was a writer.  By current standards, I’ve probably always been just a dabbler and dilettante. 

            The training, I think, is so much better now.  Even as general literacy is declining, among certain demographics–I mean, the elites or the few working class offspring who get access to elite education–kids are becoming more sophisticated and knowledgeable than I ever was.  The virtuosity of the young elites is breathtaking.  The little creeps know everything.  They all studied with Bernstein or one of his students or his students’ students.  And they all know the business of making it in the poetry biz.  Good for them.  It’s like in music.  Classical and jazz are in decline as forms of mass entertainment, but my god, the kids coming out of the good schools can play!  Run through the changes of “Giant Steps” in all twelve keys, why not?!

            So, I studied stanza forms in college with KK... Spencerian stanzas, ottava rima, and all sorts of sonnet variations.  But we didn’t get into Fibonacci number patterns or anything like that amazing forward and backward sestina-like (only more so) creation that Peter Gizzi put together in his Van Gogh poem inOuternationale

            Rachel Blau du Plessis asked me, did I have a project or was I just writing poems?  The memorable poets in the modern American canon have had projects: Whitman, Pound, du Plessis, Armand Schwerner (whom I consider memorable).  Or is this true?  Did Emily Dickinson just write poems?  Wallace Stevens?  Elizabeth Bishop (whom I don’t consider particularly memorable, though most people apparently do)?  But I guess there is a “project” running through ED’s and Stevens’ work–a set of formal and thematic preoccupations that they work on across decades.  Now, I think, there’s an emphasis on what look to me like artificial projects.  That seems to be what’s being instructed in the MFA programs, the current ethos.  Every book now must embody a concept–it can never be simply a “collection.”  It must play out a formal conceit and be unified around a theme.  The individual poem is necessarily subordinated  It comes out of an idea, or goal, of infinite invention, of mastery of the game.  I certainly don’t have that.  I always thought that I had a reasonable degree of technical fluency–that I could, in fact, write, as per Pound’s comment that poetry should be at least as well-written as prose.  And I thought I had what people used to call, without irony or denigration, “voice.”  Not that I thought of voice as simple or unitary.  To inhabit or emit a voice entailed immersion in complex mixtures.  To get that right required an openness to inner mushings around and a porousness in relation to numerous vernaculars and events.  Voice, as I saw it, was always a plural noun and seemed both idiosyncratic, wedded to and possessed by the (plural) subject, but also always estranged, the autre that je est.   My work would be “authentic”–a term in which I felt invested.  While I wrote some things that evoked some postmodern complexity and semiological intransigence, I was always predominantly a modernist.  Formal difficulty and sliding indicated the difficulty and slipperiness of reality.  My work was indexical; it pointed.  But I was never a virtuoso by current standards, where everything is extravagantly brilliant.

            So, maybe I’m not really a writer. 

            Nor am I a schmoozer.  I’m better now than I used to be–and I ought to be, I’m almost sixty years old, a person’s got to learn a few social skills in all that time.  In fact, I should acknowledge that part of the story of the publication of this book, Prior, is the story of my improved social skills–my schmoozing or “networking”–and my determination to make use of them.  But that’s part of being a writer, in the sense of writing for publication.  So, maybe now I am a writer.  There’s writing and there’s being a writer.

            Over these years (since getting my Ph.D. in 1994), I’ve been a reasonably successful academic writer.  I know how those wheels turn.  I know how to do that kind of writing, and I like doing it, and I know how to get it published–and knowing people sure doesn’t hurt in that business either.  So now maybe I’m a poet too.

            My wife used sometimes to introduce me to her colleagues in history as a poet, and I felt embarrassed.  What did that even mean when there was no place in public they could read my poems?

 

7.  “Tell about your process...”

 

            Nothing special.  I like to write with pens; my favorite now is a Pilot pen with very thin line.  I use notebooks, either those black and white marble cover comp books, or else spiral notebooks–need to be narrow “college” ruled lines.  Or sometimes I write on a computer, esp. if I’ve already started to write something.  My professional, academic writing I do partly longhand in spiral notebooks and partly on the computer.

            Aside from that– writing is difficult.  When I haven’t written poems for a while, it’s hard to get back in.  I need to write a lot of pretty bad stuff just to get the feel of it back.  If I want to get back to it, it helps to be reading poetry.  I find my poems respond to other poems, so when I’m engaged with poetry a bit, that’s usually helpful.  Just about any poetry will do.  Whether I like it or not isn’t important– the point is to get me thinking about it.

 

8. “How do you handle a bad review of your work?”

 

            I’m happy when anything I write is reviewed at all.  If it’s clear that a reviewer has actually read the work with some care, I’m happy.  If he or she disagrees with it for a plausible reason or thinks it doesn’t work, I’m glad to discuss it.  I write the work for it to be read and thought about and enjoyed.  The only thing that bugs me is when someone writes about my work without having genuinely read it.  The only bad review is a careless, incompetent one.

 

9. “Which writer would you most like to have a drink with, and why?”

 

            At this moment, David Mitchell, author of the novel Cloud Atlas.  I want to know how he mastered so many genres, how he conceived the amazing architecture of that book.  It’s a funny book: very complex and very enjoyable in its complexity; also extraordinarily readable, partly because of its fluency with genres; and having a strong, though quite simple, moral-political message.  After my first reading, I was a little let down by what seemed the simpleness (simple-mindedness?) of that moral–i.e. don’t oppress people!  I thought, come on, after all the pyrotechnics, that’s all you can come up with?  On second reading, I thought, well, yes. The pleasure of reading, the appreciation of his craft and art is a kind of ethics in itself that leads quite fittingly into the ethics of anti-capitalism, environmentalism, and generally just not-fucking-people-over and not-fucking-things-up.  It’s kind of a Rabbi Hillel move.  A scoffer asked Rabbi Hillel to explain the entire Torah (another pretty complicated, multi-vocal, multi-genre book) while standing on one foot.  And so the rebbe stood on one foot and replied, “Don’t do to another person what you wouldn’t want him to do to you.  The rest of the Torah is commentary; now go and study it.”  So, I’d like to do some d’var Torah with David Mitchell.

            I’d also like to schmooze a bit with Armand Schwerner.  I knew Armand slightly when I was a young man back in the late seventies-early eighties.  He was a friend of a close friend of mine at the time, Diane Stevenson, a very talented poet who also has had no career–but she seriously is really good.  I haven’t spoken with her in over a decade because she is also a very difficult person to get along with and I got tired of arguing with her over every goddamn thing.  She’s married to the great film scholar Gil Perez–a couple of brilliant, contrary people.    Anyway, I sort of tagged along with Armand to a few poetry readings.  I was crazy about The Tablets, and for some reason, Armand thought I could be of use to his career by writing about him for some academic journal– he had Boundary 2 in mind.  This was a crazy idea and I have no idea what put it in his head.  This was before I went back to grad school and so I by no means had anything close to the theoretical chops to write for a rag like Boundary 2.  I’d written him a long fan letter, and he thought this could be expanded into a piece that would put his work in front of the postmod literary theory crowd.  I actually wrote a feeler and sent it to the editor at B2, and he sent me a surprisingly polite note back telling me that I should be writing for a different audience.  So, my relation with Armand was begun on a confused basis, and it soon ended.  I had nothing to give him, and he had no wish to give anything to me.  But now, many years later, I’d like to hang out with him again.  He was a very funny guy, and The Tablets is a spectacular and enormously original piece of writing.  I still have no desire to write about it for Boundary 2 or anyplace else–Jacket, I guess, would be the logical venue; who knows, maybe I will some time–but I feel that now, having reached just about the age that he was then, we’d be able to talk.  About a lot of things.  About what poetry’s supposed to do and how it can do it and why it fails so often, and what a poetry “scene” is and if it helps poems or not.  About what a beautiful and amazing woman Diane was back in those days–we were both in love with her, of course, at various points in our lives, never at the same time I don’t think.  And I guess I could also inquire as to why so many poets are such selfish pricks and there’s so little generosity in the poetry world–Armand himself certainly a case in point.  And I’d be happy also to tell him that I’ve found some generosity lately, and it’s helped get this book in print.  But yes, Armand.  I didn’t know how to talk with him then.  He was an enormously sophisticated man, hugely talented, rather bitter that his work wasn’t more broadly recognized.  Now I could talk with him.

 

10. “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a writer?”

 

            The biggest mistake might have been quite an early one–transferring after my freshman year in college from Tufts to Columbia.  Part of my youthful arrogance was that I had to go to an Ivy League sort of school.  I hadn’t gotten into Yale or Harvard, and I felt that Tufts just wasn’t up to the level of my ambition and genius.  But I got on very well at Tufts.  It was a small place without a big graduate program, so my teachers got to know me.  The poet there was X.J. Kennedy, not at all a poet whose work I’d emulate, but a terrific teacher and a good guy; and he liked me and took an interest in me.  As a freshman, I won the college poetry contest–which, to me, was another reason to leave, rather than, as it should have been, a reason to stay!  So, I could have continued to study with Kennedy.  And, the next year Denise Levertov joined the faculty, and from what I later heard, she too was a great teacher and someone who really looked out for her students.  So, I left a place where I was comfortable, successful, and valued and went to a college where I did not stand out.  At Columbia, I never got to know the student literary crowd, could never even place one of my poems in the undergrad literary journal.  And Kenneth Koch, though indeed a great teacher who gave me an enormous amount in the classroom (and gave me A’s in his courses), never took any particular interest in me outside the classroom.  Kenneth’s interest was in his own work.  The only student he ever truly noticed was the great prodigy David Shapiro.  And, in my view, David Shapiro, as a mature poet, never really amounted to much.  So, my relationship with Koch, though I valued it and am proud today to say that I studied with him, was disappointing.  I remember once, a couple of years out of college, I went back to talk with Kenneth about my work as it was developing and where he thought I might get some things published.  The accomplished poet and pedagogue thought for a moment and observed that the New York Review of Books published poems, perhaps I could try one there.  Thanks, Kenny.  That was the last conversation I had with him regarding the poetry biz.  I did speak with him a few years after that seeking advice on where to apply to grad school and asking him to write a recommendation.  He suggested University of Virginia, which turned out to be good advice. 

            So, it might have been a mistake to go to Columbia.  I probably would have had a more successful poetry career had I stayed at Tufts.  Through Kennedy and Levertov, I would have gotten into some of the poetry scenes of Boston and Cambridge, would have gotten published, would have met more girls, probably would have gotten married in my twenties.... my life would have been absolutely different!  But would I have become ultimately a better poet?  That’s not at all clear to me.  I’d be a very different poet.  Maybe I would have hung out with Frank Bidart?  That would be cool.  Had I found some success as a poet, gotten a few teaching gigs, I probably would not have gotten the Ph.D. and become an academic; would not have met the woman I eventually married, would not have had the children I now have, would not have written the poems I’ve written.  After wrestling myself away from Koch’s influence, I pretty much have figured out how to write my poems myself.  I don’t think I’d be as original or idiosyncratic a poet had I stayed in Boston.  But I might be a happier person and have more publications and more readers in that other life.

 

11. “What’s the worst advice you hear authors give writers?”

 

            It’s been a long time since I’ve heard much advice.  And I think I only remembered what seemed like good advice, and often didn’t take that very well either.  The good advice, especially as I’ve been working on what turned into this book, has generally been, “CUT.”  Keep what’s strong and cut what’s not as strong, even if it seems pretty good.  Leave out what’s pretty good.  Only keep what really hits.  Joanna Klink and April Ossman, who have been my best readers and critics over the past five years or so, have consistently pushed me this way.  The fair-to-middling advice I’ve gotten has been to include more images.  My poems tend to be a bit abstract.  Richard Deming uses the term “rhetorical,” though not in a pejorative way.  So, okay, sometimes I try to put some more visual elements in–but “rhetorical” is really more the way my language moves.  Back when I was in the Columbia MFA program, the powers-that-be advised me to write according to certain models.  Philip Levine was the god of the moment.  I didn’t want to write like him–I wanted to write like Gertrude Stein or Zukofsky.  Was the advice bad advice?  Levine, I think now, is a terrific poet.  There are a lot worse things than writing like Philip Levine.  I’d be a different poet had I followed that advice.  I don’t know whether my poetry would be better or worse; or whether my career would have developed differently. 

 

12. “What scares you the most?”

 

            I guess, at this point, as a parent, the thought of something happening to my children.  Or of my dying while my children are young, and the effect of my loss on them.  Imagining their grief horrifies me and makes me far more careful of my own safety than I was before.  Apart from that, I’m scared of old age, of aging, losing more and more physical and mental capacities.  My parents’ various deteriorations frighten me.  And dying, of course–theirs and my own.  I worry a great deal about the global environment and the unsustainability of the world economy.  I wouldn’t say that’s a consuming fear, but it’s certainly a real concern–the shit hitting those fans, as I think very likely it will. 

            I have a deep scholarly and personal interest in apocalyptic thinking.  But I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of the “end of the world.”  I see our economy and culture destroying the world’s environment, and that makes me furiously angry–but not scared; it won’t really affect me.  It mainly pisses me off that my kids and grandchildren will have to deal with it.  But certain apocalyptic images do frighten me.  The final scene of van Trier’s film Melancholia stays with me: that planet, now enormous in the sky, about to annihilate all life on earth.  Completely fictional, but that terror somehow affects me, I don’t really understand why.  There’s something so unchangeable there; it can’t be swerved.  It’s death–forever, for everyone.  And it will come, of course, but who thinks about it.  It’s brilliant of the film to evoke it so powerfully.  And the good zombie films affect me.  The double ending of the remake of Dawn of the Dead.  Or the end of Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel, Zone One.  There’s something about the absolute closure those stories construct, the end of all things human, all thoughts.  The absolute triumph of the inhuman.  Quite amazing.  That does scare me. 

            I suppose I have fleeting fears of suffering through some version of gulag or holocaust, of being in the absolute power of people who have no compassion whatever.  It’s odd, this feeling comes to me regularly when I take the garbage and recycling out in the winter.  Often, I don’t dress warmly enough for the weather, since I’m just going out for a minute to take out some bags of trash.  But I think, what if I had to live in this weather dressed like this.  How soon would I die?  And I think of the people in the gulag and the death camps–that was exactly their situation.  As many froze and starved as were gassed or shot. 

 

13.  “Where do you buy your books?”

 

            Amazon, sad to say.  Simple fact is, they have everything.  When I look for something at a local bookstore, esp. something academic, but even more ordinary stuff, chances are the store won’t have it.  It’s too bad.  At the “Yale Bookstore,” i.e. the local Barnes and Noble, they have every goddamn color of Yale sweatshirts and coffee mugs and little stuffed bulldogs–but a reasonable selection of literary criticism... at the YALE UNIVERSITY fucking bookstore, forget it.  Ditto poetry, of course.  There used to be a branch of Labyrinth in town where I would buy a fair amount, but they shut down for, I believe, mostly personal reasons.  The owners wanted to focus exclusively on their store in idyllic Princeton.

           

14. “What am you reading now?”

 

            Thinking the Twenthieth-Century, by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder.

 

            The Poetry of Kabbalah, translated by Peter Cole.

 

            The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

 

(All these were, by the way, purchased at bookstores: the first two at Yale Bookstore, the last at the B&N in North Haven.  So, ok, they do have a few things).

 

 

Bonus Round: “What do you want the world to know about you?  Make it juicy...”

 

            The more “juicy” things, I’m afraid, are things I don’t want people to know about me.  So, I’m not going to say them.  As for what I do want people to know... that’s juicy.  That’s difficult.  I’m a reticent person.  Responsible.  Disciplined, though I wish I had more of it.  Repressed, I’d say.  Also lazy.  Also vain.  Also ambitious.

            Phillip Lopate, who was a colleague of mine at Hofstra, once said to me (and not meaning to be insulting, I don’t think) that if a writer had not made his mark by the time he was forty, he probably never would.  And I thought–I may even have said–fuck you, Phillip. 

            Not many people know that I was actually expelled from the Columbia MFA program!  Yup.  For “insufficient commitment to poetry”!!  Absolutely far from the truth.  I lived for it.  I wrote all the time–poems, plays, film reviews, fragments of memoirs.  I was, however,  insubordinate.  I didn’t realize then that being in a graduate program of any kind required that you subordinate your own views to the program’s premises.  If the program dictates that students write serious, image-filled, non-avant-garde verse, then you don’t come to workshop with poetical knock-knock jokes.  You don’t use Zukofsky’s “A-23" as your stylistic template.  You don’t treat your no-talent instructors with the contempt they deserve.  (That would be primarily Dan Halpern, who was head of the program at the time).  So, I did all these things with the innocence of a recent undergraduate.  I so did not know the ropes.  You get the degree, make whatever connections you can stomach, and clear out.  So.  That was a kick in the gut for a 23 year old kid who truly didn’t know what he was doing.  I can say that if I could do it again, I’d have a lot more fun doing it!  I thought for a long time that being booted out of Columbia MFA was my poetic badge of honor.  But then, I assumed I’d get some comeuppance fairly soon–I mean, deliver some.  But it never happened.  It turns out they were right.  My “commitment” to a career in poetry certainly did waver–as how could it not, receiving no encouragement or confirmation; and needing to make a living, and needing to get respect and affirmation in some form from this world I continued to live in.  So, as I taught elementary school, then got the Ph.D. and cranked up the academic career, I kept writing poems, worked at getting better, and kept thinking, this decade things will start to shift.  I’ll have my book out before I’m forty; ok, before I’m fifty...  Now here we are.  I still detest Dan Halpern, I’ll take that to the grave.  But it matters so little.

            Not very juicy, I realize that.  But I’m not going to talk about my sex life.  Oh, by the way, I have written pornography, never tried to get it published.