Monday, December 18, 2023

TtD supplement #254 : seven questions for Anselm Berrigan

Anselm Berrigan’s books of poems include Pregrets, Primitive State, Come In Alone, and others. He is the poetry editor for the Brooklyn Rail, and also hosts the Rail’s online Wednesday afternoon reading series.

His poems “*****,” “Binge Better,” “Theories of Influence,” “Poem written during a zoom meeting” and “Still Here” appear in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems ““*****,” “Binge Better,” “Theories of Influence,” “Poem written during a zoom meeting” and “Still Here.”

A: They're a strange brew to me. "Binge Better" was written on a nyc subway not too long after some time I got to spend in Kenya at a kind of roving student-based but somehow international open mic bussing from situation to situation -- and then I'm on the train heading to one of my jobs thinking about pigeons and zebras as my affinities. The other poems are a little harder to talk about, or type about -- I think because the writing of Binge Better and the present in Binge Better are overlapped in a state of active remembering as writing. The other poems aren't so conducive to me to locating as writing so exactly.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: “Still Here” is maybe close to some of what I’ve been able to write lately. I was in a lot of arthritis-based pain the last few years, and was able to have a surgery done in May that helped alleviate a lot of that pain. Then I had a burst of writing – none of which I’ve typed up – that I think “Still Here” maybe made room for – treating an impulse as a lead and following it and letting things get said then leaving it alone.

Q: When you say “leave it alone,” are you suggesting not typing up those particular pieces, but allowing them to inform some of what followed?

A: Yeah. Not never typing them up, but waiting a good long while, and reading them frequently, including at readings if one arises. I’ll do some shaping around the edges when I type things up, if needed, but I seem to wait longer and longer to get to the typing. “Binge Better” is not an example of that. I wrote that one in 2017. “Still Here” was written this past February.

Q: Do your pieces usually emerge from handwritten first drafts? And what kind of distance exists between those handwritten first drafts and the eventual finished poem?

A: I write almost everything by hand. And then I wait a long time to type things up. Waiting makes me change things less. And now I believe I get it in the writing. But that’s after millions of years of fucking around with every micro-bit of space and sound.

Q: With a small mound of published titles over the years, including your current works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A. On some level I’m just glad to get to write at all – I wrote a ton in 2020 during the first half-year of the pandemic, and then went blank for 2021 and most of 2022. Getting back around to very up on the surface experience and reconnection with friendship as a core has been what’s happening on one level. On another, maybe, I think I did a lot of work in the last ten years to really stretch my relationship to language – it’s resulted in books like Pregrets and Come In Alone, the former a set of slabs, very dense, and written in relation to painting and sculpture compositionally (not ekphrastically), and the latter a run of rectangles written out at the end of the page, clause by clause and totally on the outskirts of sense. That anyone reads these things amazes me sometimes, though I do aim for pleasure for readers on the sonic beat, which sometimes means people have to hear the work out loud to feel like they can get into it. I don’t mind living with that, but I am finding myself in this other kind of autobiographical space lately that feels like a dance between memory and temperament, with the present pressing the issue of being present, if that makes sense.

I've been thinking lately about this good-hearted teacher I had in 5th and 6th grades who also very cruelly abused me emotionally after my father died in the summer between those two grades. I think I really stopped trusting teachers after that, and it’s almost bizarre to me right now to know I became a teacher after all of that. I’m saying this because I think maybe I’m working up to write either out of or back into that experience or both. I had this other really disturbing experience a couple years ago, where a student ended a thesis performance by pulling out a big toy gun, finding me in the audience, and unloading it. Everyone seemed to assume I was in on this, and so mostly didn’t react other than with applause. It was the culmination of a lot failure – institutional first and foremost, but also a kind of collapse of trust in the face of the pandemic that just seemed to infect all of us in that particular program. I just this summer wrote a poem called “Fake Assasinated” that tries to get into it a little bit, though it’s a just a drop in the ocean.

Also, I had to have my right hip replaced this past May after discovering I was severely arthritic – I thought maybe I had a muscle injury that never healed properly, but once I had the diagnosis things seemed to get worse pretty fast. I feel like I had a six-month crash course on living with a disability, and doing that in a big city – walking hurt every step, and I had to rely on a cane and make it to work and so forth. Now the arthritis pain is gone, and I’m in better shape and figuring out what this ceramic hip I have has to say to me. So I’m saying all of this because I think my writing has changed in tenor since the surgery, and I’m still trying to figure that out. I can’t see that far into the future, writing-wise, and this is not meant to be a mournful preface (I am borrowing “mournful preface” from Fred Moten’s interview in his book B. Jenkins). The ongoing experience of renewal and decay is one of the lines I seem to be walking.

Q: It does sound as though you’ve experienced an enormous amount of shifts over the past few years, which can’t help but affect the tone of the writing. Do you consider yourself a different kind of writer now, or are you working similarly with a variation on approach? Or does it all come down to tone?

A: I feel freer. That may not make the work read as very different, but the whole experience of writing and making work does feel different in me. I don't have the measure of what I’m doing.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: That’s a harder question to answer, for me, than maybe it should be, because I don’t ever feel like I can stay on top of reading everything I might like to be reading. That’s probably because reading is a big part of my jobs as part-time teacher and part-time editor. And then I always feel behind on those things. Plus when I don’t or do feel pressure I read real dorky things like comic book message boards, fantasy baseball chats, and plot summaries of shows I think I’d like but don’t want to take the time to watch.

I’ve read Harryette Mullen’s book-length poem “Muse & Drudge” aloud in writing classes – group readings, where everyone reads a page at a time as we go around – maybe thirty or forty times over the past twenty years, so that has to be imprinted on me. Actually just read it again yesterday with a class of poets. And Kevin Davies’ long poem “Karnal Bunt” I’ve probably read a couple dozen times, and read aloud with groups too.

In order to work through this internal agonistic space that had to do with approaching my father’s age when he died, back in 2019, I used Frank O’Hara’s poem “Joe’s Jacket” as a model for a poem I was asked to write for a performance series – we were asked to consider the word “proof” but with no particular constraints. So I decided I’d try to start by listing some things I knew to be true but couldn’t prove, and was able to get to some places and say some things. I love “Joe’s Jacket”.

But I love a lot of poems, and I think I get energy from those poems whether I’m thinking about them or not, because they’re permanently with me. There’s a poem by Hoa Nguyen that she's never put in a book that has become, like, my best secret friend. I think about individual poems that way much more often than books, which makes me wonder if we don’t have the role of books all wrong somehow. I just got to hear Dana Ward sing, with his band The Actual Fuck, live in Cincinnati, and that was completely amazing and inspiring. I am, in fact, quite capable of being inspired. And I’m sort of saving Dana’s long poem “Typing Wild Speech” to reread a little later this fall.

And all that said, I have been tremendously energized by a bunch of new books  that I’ve gotten to read in the last few years – books by Claire Hong, Charles Theonia, Courtney Bush, Chime Lama, Claire de Voogd, Kendra Sullivan, Jed Munson, Tse Hao Guang, LaTasha Diggs, Cliff Fyman, Ari Lisner, and George Albon, in particular. I’m leaving some stuff out. My old friend John Coletti has a new publication out – it’s called Attachment Simply – and it’s unbelievably great. I have a new book in the works, that will come out next year – it’s called Don’t Forget to Love Me – and it has sections, and one of those sections is called “John Coletti Imitation Racket”. So that should tell you something.

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