Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Charles Bernstein: A Dialogue


originally published in
American Poetry: States of the Art
Fall 2000

Charles and I became acquaitned during many vivid poetry events hosted by Segue Foundation at James Sherry's loft in the seventies. Over the next twenty-five years, our dialog evolved into a friendship that included our work, our children, the art of our spouces, Susan Bee and Richard Tuttle, and more. We decided to focus this interview, which took place in July, on the poems published in Conjunctions 35 and on recent work. --Mei-mei Berssenburgge

Charles Bernstein: In front of me, or perhaps in my mind's ear, I have two of your books, Four Year Old Girl and Endocrinology, and your new poem, "Hearing." I have been thinking about the way your work envelops me in its own world of extended sound waves, carrying me along as I read and then lapping back for another line. It's not mesmerizing exactly but there is a strong tidal pull. You seem to have turned Clark Coolidge's notion of "sound as thought" into sound as perception and then again thought as perception. Anyway, these are among the themes of the new poem. Hearing not as the physical listening to the words - you write of the "physical latency of hearing" late in the poem - but as a form of response. The difference between hearing and a resonant listening that I'm getting at is suggested, for example, when one says - you hear what I say but you don't listen: listening is, in a word you use in "Hearing," "reciprocal." Your work seems to feed that reciprocity back into the loop: "hearing me hearing it" as you write. (I think this is what Charles Altieri is picking up on when he writes about your work in terms of "intimacy.") "Hearing" begins with "A voice with no one speaking likes the sea," echoing the opening lines of Stevens's "Ideas of Order at Key West": "She sang beyond the genius of the sea / The water never formed to mind or voice." However, where your voice "merges with my listening," for Stevens "The song anthe water were not medleyed sound / ... it was she and not the sea we heard." These are not the same "she"s - and that is one thing I wanted to ask you about. Also you seem to show not a medleyed sound but something I would say is merged (or refracted, another of your words) by means of the poem's extended duration, getting back to your prolonged overlapping sound waves. The "real" of which you speak is transactional and temporal, a flickering pulse that we hear only when we listen. I'm curious about some lines at the end of the third section, where you write "they withdraw from matter to representation which gives more agency." It seems to me the matter of your poems is very much this "shimmering" "translucence" of listening, where it's not that "the images have power, because the drama is real" but, rather, where the real is the reel not the image. Who is she?

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge: Your question resonates like hearing. I hesitate to respond, because the question is whole. I think of the physical latency of hearing as a form of response. Now I realize I think of hearing as encompassing and receptive, while listening which I didn't really address would be a more focused, directed perception.

"She" specifically is Kuan Yin as muse. She is "the hearer of all cries" in Chinese. She also represents compassion. I think of the cry as poetry, and also the image, the representation you mention. I'm trying to encompass my conflicting worlds of poet and caregiver. The value of poetry, the value of compassion. Hearing the hearer is intimate. Sound in waves, as plastic, is how I think of time, which is intimate. Whether this compassion is intimate or generic is not resolved, here. There's a net of emotion, not so specific, compassion for the person and the world. Inspired by a white porcelain Kuan Yin I love and another I grew up with.

I know your poem Reading Red was written in collaboration with a series of relief sculptures by Richard Tuttle. Richard described them as consisting of two layers of painted particle board in which the shadow of the overlay ("at the exact height of 54 inches, which represents the self") implies a linguistic element. He told me he hoped you would complete or "give" this linguistic implication. The resulting collaboration takes the form of a gorgeous book published by Walter König. I find these poems full, evocative and mobile in dialogue with the visual. I was in Germany when the poems were presented. Their achievement of making a whole with the sculptures and at the same time remaining so open was thrilling to the audience, even in translation. Would you like to talk about these poems? I see a lyric directness in them. Is that a particular response to Richard's works? Do you have any thoughts about qualities of abstraction as it crosses and recrosses between the visual and verbal?

Bernstein: Richard's series, "New Mexico - New York" was shown at the Sperone Westwater Gallery in 1998. I was immediately attracted to these works and felt they were, in some not completely abstract sense, saying things. But what were they saying? There was the recurring image of an envelope in many of the works, created by the overlay of one piece of wood on another, the superstrate being generally smaller and more tapered than the substrate. So my thought was: if they were envelopes, what text might they contain? Maybe they would tell their own story, one of a gap or bump (indeed, at "four foot six") where one piece of material is plied onto another, or of the shadow you mention that always falls over that crack, or of the conversation or tension between the two parts that made the whole. Of the painted surfaces that used color and line to articulate a multiplicity of possible relations and evocations of this basic circumstance.

Richard liked the idea of my writing a set of poems for the paintings, sharing with me a sense that the collaboration needn't be static. Often poems about paintings have the poet musing on the image before her or his eyes. The channel separation between the verbal and visual is foundational for many poems about pictures (as it is for pictures that illustrate already existing poems). While I remain interested in such separation, the idea here was different - for the poems to enter the reliefs. Richard and I made a time to return to the gallery and we had an extended conversation about each of the paintings, in which I took notes on much of what Richard said and wrote the poems, for the most part, using bits and pieces of the conversation, often taking just a word or phrase from Richard or myself, and scribbling out some ideas, which I then read to Richard as we continued through the series. We both had some sense of the poems as they were unfolding, and our conversation folded into that, as if the poems were a superstrate laid on top of, or framing, the stream of our conversation. In other words, we gave voice to the paintings by a kind of dialogic ventriloquism.

After the poems were finished, some weeks later, Richard designed the book in a totally inventive manner, extending the phantasmagoric adventure of his many other great book works. The works are displayed, four to a side, on three large fold-out circles and the poems are printed on top of the images, becoming a part of the works rather than a commentary on them. After a time, the publisher wanted us to produce a special edition of the book. To go against the grain of such editions, we decided that we should "deface" forty of the trade copies and at the same time reverse the direction of the collaboration. So we sat down at my dining room table with a stack of books, a scissors and a pencil. I quickly wrote variations on each of the poems in Reading Red (and then around again to forty) and read them to Richard, who responded by cutting and folding the blank endpaper at the beginning of the book, after which I wrote in the new poem, placing it in relation to Richard's page sculptures.

One virtue of this second collaboration was that I didn't get a chance to look back, to edit, to rework. I know much of your own work is based on all three of those processes. Can you talk about your process of finishing a poem? It's an old-time question, surely. I know you often hold onto a poem for a while, making slight changes. Now I suspect it's not some set idea of completion or even closure that you are looking for, or not one that is external to the process of writing, which you could apply to the poem like finish to a cabinet. What are you looking for? What makes the poem the poem you want?

Berssenbrugge: I know you suspicions about closure inhibiting process. Finishing a poem for me is more physical struggle for focus. A lot of my method compensates for my natural awkwardness. So, my first draft is a well-researched but very scattered approximation, often using other people's words, and tends to be written below my understanding. "Finishing" is an arduous process of trying to uncover what I meant and for it to be in poetry. What I meant comes into focus slowly over a long time. Criteria for "finish" are: a feeling of moving along, words smooth in saying, a feeling of something said emotionally, resisting changes, and a physical satisfaction with one word next to the other. The poem tends to be about a quarter as long as the first draft. I publish when the deadline comes, working to the last minute. (Conjunctions has always been wonderfully tolerant.) And then refine the poem at intervals for a long time after.

A "finished" poem becomes something like an artifact, something independent with its own dynamic. It resists change. I'm trying to discern now if there is any significant difference between being finished and being "good enough," which is more contemporary. The problem is, so much is unconscious.

How do you finish a poem? Do my concerns with "saying something,' with balance, interior, contrast with your feelings for instability, openness, etc. You say so beautifully in My Way: "I open the door and it shuts after me ... I am moving not toward some uninhabited space but deeper into a maelstrom of criss-crossing inscriptions. The open is a vanishing point ..."

Bernstein: I like the distinction Stein makes between "completed" and "complete" (thinking of "A Completed Portrait of Picasso"). As a practical matter, I agree with your sense that the poem is finished when I don't need to make any more changes; the poem passes into some other state that in some ways is closed to me. Then it's time to do something else. Still, figuring out when that time has come - that remains a good part hunch. You're right to suggest that the contrast between balance and instability, interiority and openness, prosodically motivates many of my poems. Although I would have to say that I am often the last to find out what I am saying and even then I am not certain (just as when you are in the midst of something you may not know where you are even if you know you're there). Writing is often the most active part of my life. I can do things in writing I can't do anywhere else, things that won't work anywhere else (if, indeed, they can be said to work in my writing!). I like to say things like - it seems most right when the writing goes wrong, when there is a breakdown or an infelicitous turning of phrase. I am in fact alarmingly fussy about what infelicity is interesting and few, in the end, are. So it's a matter of searching and searching - you know how when the hard drive on your computer starts to whirl around as though looking for something and the screen freezes up until the whirring stops. I can relate to that. Often the people who surround me in everyday life (I won't mention any names) are shouting and gesticulating wildly to get my attention as I seem momentarily unconscious, or maybe just subconscious, which is closer by. Then the next day I read over what I thought was OK and it all looks bad, I shake my head, that awful discouragement that makes this kind of work unfathomable to those on the fabled "outside," e.g., why put yourself through that? This is what I was getting at: for the most part I have no idea where my writing has come from. In retrospect, the heart of it seems to have produced itself. It was being in the right place and the right time and having a pen handy. Or knowing when to start writing something down, being open to recognize what occurs to me. "Be ready but not prepared" as Dominique Fourcade puts it. And in that sense, when I am reworking something, I am basically just continuing to write, adding layers more than finishing. Keeping myself active. Until it's not complete but completed.

Berssenbrugge: I find your everyday environment of persons shouting and gesticulating wildly extremely stimulating.

In the poem "Hearing," I'm thinking about hearing as an ideal, like an ideal form. Now I'm interested in the audience as an ideal form of hearing, which is novel, because I never the audience considered before. "What the audience likes" is a mantra I've been saying to myself with curiosity. And this goes to entertainment, listening, etc., comedy, which I know you like. For me, being heard was existing. That's why I became a poet. Do you have anything to say about the audience? The practice of audience, as transcendence or as attention, or commerce?

Bernstein: I've never met an audience I didn't like. At least not until tonight. Mister, could you at least turn off your phone during the diminuendo? That's right you over there, with paisley hip huggers. Jeeze, you folks couldn't tell the difference between an amphibrach and the little green knickers I bought from Jimminy Cricket at the Atheneum. ...

Which is to say ... the idea of audience can be a foil that can be looped back into the poem, poem talking back, as if the imagined reader isn't silent. It's curious how an audience at a reading affects the performance; any performer experiences this, though in different ways. For me, it's probably most fun to read to an audience familiar with the work, which responds vocally and viscerally to the poems, so that the response creates a kinetic action that goads the performance onward. Yet there is another kind of reading, often at universities, where everyone is absolutely quiet, if no less attentive, and that situation seems to make me work harder at articulating the overall shape of the poem and maybe lets the poem be heard more on its own, since less interrupted (by laughter, for example). Because the frame of poetry readings is "serious" you get a suppressing of laughter, even at the most verbally slapstick material, which possibly brings out the uncanniness that roams at large in the poems, where the comic is always close to its double or doubling back on itself. The effect of an audience not laughing as a man laboriously slips on a linguistic banana is near perfect.

I think you had in mind the abstract idea of an audience as well. As time goes on, what's most meaningful to me is the particular responses of an individual. I never believed in a one-size-fits all poetry and it's of most immediate interest to me what resonates with someone in particular. It's the sense of "getting it." That a few people do may just convince me that the limb I've most recently climbed out on is breaking in style.

How about you? Your own performances are remarkably enveloping - and you are a reader one really has to listen in for, you aver voice projection and therefore good electronic amplification is a fundamental part of the process. So who do you think is the audience for poetry - or for your poetry?

Berssenbrugge: I like your idea that the double of a poem comes out when the audience is suppressed. It's true my idea of audience is more abstract. Up to now it has been about a hearer to verify me, that the hearers are hearing me, which goes along with a low voice. Then I started thinking about the natural wisdom of the audience, and the value of entertainment. It correlates to what I was saying about caregiving, "taking care" of the audience - letting things slip in, realizing that they're short on time, etc. Now in the middle of this dialogue, I've finished a poem about audience. It turns out in my poem, it's of no consequence whether I am heard, whether you hear your audience or they hear you. What goes on is some innate dynamic, a mirror or "doubling," some kinetic that works. Which may be why the internet seems so adequate, because of the movement.

I'd like to point out the unusualness of our speaking like this, who are friends but so disparate in history. I recall a dinner at your house after which your daughter Emma was crying in the next room, because the mother in the movie she was watching on TV died. Both you and her mother Susan Bee called out, "Stop crying, Emma!" which I understood as advice to her not to be so easily manipulated by media. This made an impression on me, because I'm one of the audience who cries at any sad story, loss, any emotional dynamic whatsoever, TV, commercials. When I look at my earlier work, this emotionality seems highly uncool. All the time I'd been striving to make a continuum of mental actions, thought and emotion, thought and perception, thought and physicality, even with autonomic physicality. For balance. You seem always to have been articulate, highly aware, evolved in world view, in balance with your persona, and effective in the world, with the audience. Which is a world audience, as well as the one on one you speak of. First, how do you reconcile your savoir-faire, clarity and ethos with your statement in My Way: "For my themes, to call them that have consistently been awkwardness, loss, and misrecognition." Is this solely a political "awkwardness" of position, which you have maximized into a life's work, or are you speaking of other arenas also?

Second, a question I alluded to earlier, concerns my experiences at some recent poetry readings. Your moving reading of "Rivulets of the Dead Jew" for Kathy Acker, who had just died, the Walter Benjamin libretto, and "Reading Red." I find a powerful and unequivocal emotional weight in this poetry and in many poems in Residual Rubbernecking (in Republics of Reality), which differs from earlier wit and versatility. Do you have anything to say about this? Is this connected to your interest in and exploration of performance, the emotional forum of audience?

Bernstein: Isn't one of the interesting possibilities for poetry that it can bring apparently disparate things together - with necessity? Some people seem to think that the point of that is to flag the disjuncture; but when it really gets interesting it's quite the opposite, it shows the exceptional necessity of the unexpectable.

I think it's fine to cry during commercials, just as long as you don't brake for animals too. Or brake for animals, just don't break my heartache.

I wish I had a dime for every time someone said I wish I had a dime for every time …

I guess I'm saying I like "uncool" better than cool. I think I've tried to make "uncool" cool - and maybe that's what you're getting at. Uncool of the sort I always harp on (as in Harpo not harpy) is emotional. There's a loony perception that complexity of form rules out the emotional or that indirectness isn't emotional. As if the only way to signify as emotional is to declare it. Maybe complexity of register is motivated, in part, by ambivolent emotional dynamics. I prefer pathos and even bathos to the "emotions of normal people." If I'm haunted by pent-up feelings of being misheard or misjudged or misaligned, it's not that I necessarily feel those things more than anyone else, but rather that I am more interested in them than most people, who spend their lives overlooking what I go alooking for. I'm a poet of anxiety rather than depression, of the private and inexplicit rather than the sunny and declamatory.

I don't like to be told to feel something but to be allowed to experience a feeling without naming it, without wanting to name it.

Anyway, the thing about commercials is that they make no bones about what they are selling and that they are so abstracted and condensed. I'd rather watch a sentimental commercial (remember the one for Hoffman's soda? or those "phone home" ads for long distance?) than read most dyed-in-the-workshop emotionally "bare" poems or watch emotionally hyperventilated confessional TV. In other words, for afternoon fare I prefer soap opera to Oprah, which I say as much for the off-rime as anything else. And speaking of opera, I am totally enthralled by Puccini and Verdi, though I don't find it more emotional than the explosively self-contained polyrythms of João Gilberto or the exquisite acoustic textures of Morton Feldman.

I find emotion in your work is achieved through indirection; it's introjective, concave; thus: intimacy. It takes you inside it. Offers sanctuary, not facts. (And that is particularly marked, to come back to this, in the acoustic interiority of your performances.)

It's a very sonically enveloping poetry, which leads me to ask you about your collaborations with Kiki Smith on Endocrinology and other projects. What's the valence of the visual in those works?

Berssenbrugge: I like to think of this necessity between us in poetry.

I'm a person who strives for directness, but I have difficulty actually naming things and am uncomfortable with expository writing. I was trained in poetry that achieved emotion through images, and I've loved images, although not lately. I try to make language into a net for my meaning which tends to be emotion in continuum with some perceptual or conceptual slant. Net, grid, sieve, appear often. My voice is given to me. I try to use it without strain. My only conscious intention with voice is to deliver the words. With words I consciously make the net. Lately I've been trying a new sound, so as not to get in the habit of a sound that sounds intimate. Agnes Martin once said, "I have everything I ever wanted and still when I wake up, I feel depressed. That proves emotions are abstract." I'm experimenting with emotion that doesn't sound emotional.

My initial hope with Endocrinology, was to learn from Kiki how to express emotion as a direct narrative. She was working with the body, tears. milk, blood flow, dead loved ones. When asked to describe our process, Kiki said, "It was great. Mei-mei asked me questions and I cried." Text and visuals were generated by our conversations. It was also part of a long term exploration I started with Richard, to try and align the visual and verbal mental planes, a separation you referred to as channel separation. Kiki and I treated visual and verbal as a continuum of material, and the valence was the energy of our interaction, for which her visual power was a marvelous given. The resulting book is like a body, transparent, layered with blue organs and ligaments of text. This dialogue continues, for example, she coincidentally bought her first statue of Kuan Yin on the same day I bought mine.

For me, the visual, in landscape and art, has always been a vital and liberating location from which to work in language.

I find the poems in Residual Rubbernecking beautiful, full of pathos and extremely elegant. To me, they represent a connection with early work, and also a flowering. I want to ask what you want to write next in poetry. Also, what you imagine would be the best poem you could read, that's just been written?

I'm curious about the source of this elegance. It's not a style elegance. I feel it's something internally generated by the kind of language you need, as well as your literary sources. Is that accurate? I know you also have a great deal of experience in philosophy and the visual arts.

Bernstein: Whatever elegance there may be in my work is implausible, not unlike the charm of a top as it wends its way to a warble. Over time, a wobble may become song. Elegance is part delusion, part self-composed, part glass. This is the aspiration I have for poetry, an activity that achieves nothing by conventional measure. The aversion of efficacy is the most elusive necessity of poetry, just that it's easy to lose faith in so refractory a medium. It's not that failure is becoming but that loss is acknowledged without bluster, played out on the fields of the untenable. The poem begins in doubt and ends in something that transforms doubt into a fricative certainty. I keep returning to Jobim's song "Desafinado" ("Offkey"). This isn't syncopation or stressing the offbeat. The acoustic pattern is out of tune; the offnote sounds off. Thelonious Monk knows that score.

A lot of this has to do with nonstandard language, second language speakers. Give me solecisms or else death by asphyxiation. I don't know any other language than English (know in the Biblical sense). And yet, doesn't Jabès almost say?, the poet is only at home when she or he makes their own language foreign, the better to converse with it. All of which is my way of asking you about "Nest," about the echo of Chinese ("mothertongue") as it enters the resolute "American" homestead of your imagination. "But some lives [it could just as well be lines] veer off the straight path to community." That's always the hope for American poetry, dangling in front of us, until we realize our ceiling really is made of glass but if you stoop down low enough so you don't bang your head, why you can see way on up to big top, which is painted with stars (or is it stairs? or stares?).

In "Nest," Chinese and Kuan Yin are both female presences and, as you've said, Kuan Yin is the "she" of "Hearing"; also, "Nest" is, finally, addressed to Martha, the no-longer "four year old girl," your daughter. "Nest" invokes a matrilineal inheritance of language and/as compassion, something the last line suggests you had to find for yourself. What can you say about the gender narratives in these poems?

Berssenbrugge: We have symmetry, since I seek elegance and efficacy, any balance, any firm ground in poetry. I imagine an ideal that is, the bird opens its mouth and sings. I suppose that would be innate communicativeness of the species. (Is it the evolutionary equivalent of your wobble?) I'm not committed to loss as an ethos. I'm very interested in comedy in your poems as a place of loss. (Your comedy appears to me as sudden convexity, opaque areas.) I don't correlate elegance and convention. Perhaps your statement is your fricative, refractory route to a "characteristic" elegance of form and diction?

Being born into Chinese, then changing my language very young, gave me an experience of relativity that led me to poetry, which I often think of as systems of relations or proportions, like math, trying to make an equivalent world. One tries to recreate a starting point, but that is not a whole world, so one is potential. It's loss, but I don't want to be committed to it.

It's hard to separate my idea of myself as feminine and feminist with what's expressed in these two poems. (Even though Martha, a fourth-generation feminist, has given me a substance of girl, the "Four Year Old Girl" is myself.) In "Nest" I was reading the writings of women from poor countries, and I tried to write about homelessness (no home, loss of your home language) as powerlessness. I suppose I also ask again if women's giving necessitates the loss of power. If being able to "see" your mother (home, mother-tongue) gives enough/more power. These issues are complex, because I came to English from the empowered position of having a highly educated mother and an American father.

"Hearing" moves to the wider arena of compassion, transcendent and particular giving expressed by hearing, as a source of power. There's a synapse between hearing a cry and understanding its meaning, a synapse where all fragments occur. This is explicitly a feminine, if not feminist power.

Bernstein: If the criteria for elegance are refinement, tastefulness, clarity, grace, then it is bound to a range of socially inflected values regarding gender, class and ethnicity, among other things, which are reflected in poetic diction. Who gets to be elegant? Perhaps what we are talking about is the aesthetic, which, in a poetics of invention, is often disruptive of received models of clarity and refinement. In my own experience, much that is regarded as tasteful in poetry is rather insipid: it's not that I object to the aestheticism but find the work not aesthetic enough. In the American context, an excess of aestheticism in a male poet may be negatively regarded as effeminate or patrician or both, while for women poets "of sensibility" (to use Jerome McGann's term, which also has a relation to the emotionalism we have been talking about), aestheticism has often been the justification for dismissal as decorative or minor. Aesthetics is always implicated in politics and vice versa. Any shortcut to aesthetic correctness is treacherous because aesthetics is not something to overcome but to acknowledge. Now this gets me to one last question I wanted to ask you - about the use of the language of information and science in your poems, since such language is commonly seen as "unpoetic" (despite a number of influential precedents in the history of modern poetry).

Beressenbrugge: I persist in complimenting these poems as elegant "enough," if I think of elegance as grace or pleasure of parts to a whole and to intention. I first used scientific concepts, because it seemed interesting to try and feminize scientific language by altering its context and tone. This was in the late 70's. Later, I appropriated texts from philosophy, Buddhism and contemporary art as well. A self encompassing or embodying what it interacts with was more articulate than trying to speak for myself . This is the literal situation of our bodies which are porous and continuous with the world. Tom White told me, after a few days in the Sierras one's internal flora has more in common with the surrounding pine trees than with people back in Berkeley. I feel that my unconscious has more freedom choosing from language that isn't personal. I prefer to move and change words that are in the world, rather than in myself. I like the plasticity. I like texts of "information" as a counterweight to personal experience, which is so dynamic.