Steve Benson reading

February 11, 2003

For an MP3 recording of this event, and other Steve Benson recordings, see our Steve Benson PennSound page.


I was born in 1949 and brought up in and near Princeton, N.J., an Ivy League college town surrounded by small farms getting bought out by housing developments and R&D complexes. My father was a harried media executive in the ad business in New York, increasingly troubled by stress and alcohol. My mother took care of the house and four sons, of whom I was second - the artistic, cunning, discreetly oppositional one, who couldn't or wouldn't do sports.

Steve Benson

After four local public schools, I was a day student in a prestigious and heavily endowed private secondary school and then persuaded to go to college at Yale. At both settings I found refuge and encouragement among other oddballs and originals. Kit Robinson, Alan Bernheimer, Michael Waltuch, Alex Smith, Alexis Krasilovsky, Evan McHale, myself, and others developed a collective cultural enterprise, putting on readings, publishing mimeographed magazines, and staging plays. During high school and college years, I'd taken day trips into New York and discovered the Living Theater, the Filmmaker's Cooperative, C Magazine, the Park Place Gallery, and other resources. The surprising project of Susan Hollerhan, an adjunct faculty writing teacher, brought Ted Berrigan, Peter Schjeldahl, and Bill Berkson to teach writing at Yale during what became the semester of the Vietnam War moratorium, and we all became familiar in and out of seminars, also meeting other New York poets of their circle.

I moved to University of California at Irvine to get paid for a teaching assistantship, incidentally earning an MFA in poetry, with the help of teachers Charles Wright, James McMichael, and Robert Peters. At the end of this interlude, Carla Harryman, an undergraduate writing student who often came to graduate fiction-writing workshops, became my best friend and partner. While we lived together in Goleta and the Miracle Mile district of LA, I worked a year in the Santa Barbara Public Library and two years teaching English at Marymount High School on Sunset Strip.

By the time we moved to San Francisco in 1976, Kit and Alan had got to know other young poets there, such as Barrett Watten, Rae Armantrout, and Ron Silliman. Bob Perelman and Lyn Hejinian moved to the area about the same time. Quickly we were exchanging works in xerox, generating collaborative writing projects and reading series, presenting one another with improvised and scripted "talks" on areas of interest and investigation, and developing a Poets' Theater based in staging and performing works from our community. Despite quarrels and competition, there was a tremendous and relieving encouragement circulating among us to experiment and defy expectations, so we might learn all the more from each other. As this cluster of mutual interest and enthusiasm began to network with other innovative poets in New York and DC and to be recognized as constituting a collective enterprise within the Bay Area community, we began to be called "Language Poets," primarily with annoyance and in verbal attacks. It has never been clear exactly who was and wasn't in this group, and whether and when it ceased to exist, but some separating out and diffusion of effort transpired in the early 80s.

In 1983 I quit my job clerking and managing in a Berkeley used books store to travel in Europe and live a year teaching ESL and writing in Barcelona and Seville, without previous knowledge of Spanish. I came back and took the same job again for three years while getting involved in Al Anon and a Reichian therapy. I decided to train to do psychotherapy, so I could earn a living doing something meaningful, personally and intellectually challenging, skillful, and intimate for the next umpteen years, while also writing. I got a doctorate from the Wright Institute in Berkeley, with a dissertation on Herman Melville's adult developmental quandaries, while proofreading to partially meet living expenses. I had identified myself as gay since 1976, but I found my orientation changing unexpectedly and dramatically in 1992.

I moved to Belmont, near Cambridge, MS, for a year to intern at McLean Hospital, then to the Hudson River Valley in New York State to live with Caroline Sulzer, whom I met in psychology school and married a year later. I began working as a therapist with kids in a day treatment center outside Poughkeepsie. We had a first child in 1996 and a second in 1999. We moved to Downeast Maine at the end of 1996. I worked with kids and families in a nonprofit clinic in Ellsworth for three and a half years, then taught poetry writing one semester at UCSD, and returned to Maine to open a private practice in a small town.

Book publications

1978 As Is [The Figures, Berkeley, CA]
1981 The Busses [Tuumba, Berkeley, CA]
1981 Blindspots [Whale Cloth, Cambridge, MA]
1985 Dominance [The Coincidence, Oakland, CA]
1985 Briarcombe Paragraphs [Moving Letters, Paris, France]
1988 Blue Book [The Figures, Great Barrington, MA, and Roof, New York, NY]
1989 Reverse Order [Potes and Poets, Elmwood, CT]
1998 Roaring Spring [Zasterle, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain]

Anthology appearances that include poetry and essays

Coming Attractions, ed. Dennis Cooper, Little Caesar, 1980
The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, eds. Andrews and Bernstein, 1984
In the American Tree, ed. Silliman, National Poetry Foundation, 1985
On the Line in Contemporary American Poetry, eds. Frank and Sayre, U. Illinois, 1988
Beneath a Single Moon, eds. Johnson and Paulenich, Shambala, 1989
From the Other Side of the Century, ed. Messerli, Sun & Moon, 1994
Additional Apparitions, eds. David Kennedy and Keith Tuma, 2002

Poetry and essays have appeared in the following and other periodicals, over a period of the past thirty years

The Paris Review, o.blek, Raddle Moon, Ironwood, Sulfur, Sun & Moon, crayon, the Gig, Boot to Heel, Aerial, Boundary II, Delo, action poetique, Poetics Journal, Social Text, Mirage#4/Periodical, Talisman, Reality Studios, Writing, Avec, Hambone, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Roof, 100 Posters, This, and Hills.

I have been associated with other poets often referred to as language writers, particularly during the period of my residence in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1976 and 1992. In the course of that time I frequently participated in collaborations with fellow writers and helped organize and perform Poets' Theater events. I presented at least three public "talks" in a series curated by Bob Perelman during that period.

Live collaborations involving rehearsed and improvised verbal and other behaviors have been performed in poetry reading contexts with Jean Day, Jackson Mac Low, Carla Harryman, Leslie Scalapino, Stephen Rodefer, and others. Published collaborations in writing have been done with Carla Harryman, David Bromige, Barrett Watten, and others. Around 1990 to 1992, I frequently collaborated using my speaking voice as a fifth instrument in conjunction with the Splatter Quartet, in the Bay Area

My public presentations have frequently included significant and crucial factors of spontaneous verbal improvisation to varying degrees. Readings and talks also frequently involved use of one or more media in addition to live spoken voice, including costume changes, tape playback, projections of slides and/or film, lighting adjustments, and props. Media were not used in a professional high-tech style but with respect for their material specificity and potential for interaction with spoken words.

Public readings, talks, or performances have been presented at many venues in the San Francisco Bay Area including the University of California, the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, Intersection for the Arts, Small Press Distribution, and Cody's Bookstore, as well as numerous fugitive series. Other presentations have been made at University of Pennsylvania, UC San Diego, University of Maine at Orono, Ear Inn, Segue Foundation, Bowery Poetry Club and Poetry Project in New York City, the Cambridge England CCCP conference in 1995, Tassajara Hot Springs, the Nancy Fuller Gallery in Chicago, SUNY Buffalo, Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee, and elsewhere.

Commentary on aspects of my work as a writer and performer have appeared in the following books

Total Syntax, Barrett Watten, Roof, 1980 [approx.]
Candor, Alan Davies, O Books, 1990
Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, Michael Davidson, University of California, 1997
The Marginalization of Poetry, Bob Perelman, Princeton University Press, 1996
"Speech Effects: The Talk as a Genre," Bob Perelman, in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein, Oxford University Press, 1998
"Poetry and Performance," by Tony Lopez, in Performing Processes: Creating Live Performance, ed. Roberta Mock, intellect books, 2000

I recently wrote a long essay on how I've tended to work with poetry reading situations and published it in Additional Apparitions, eds. David Kennedy and Keith Tuma, 2002, a special issue of The Reader.


Looking through a journal to see if I can find a record of the inception of the idea for this reading, an extended oral improvisation entirely in the form of questions, I do not find one, but I notice that I was recording a few of my children's questions at about that time. Jasper, at five: "How can I be in myself? Walking around in myself?" Iris, at two: "Where daddy go?" and, seeing any profile in a picture book, "Where one eye go?"

What I remember is that I was sitting in the warm heat of the zendo, meditating among crashing swirls of thought, when a little train of almost nonsensical questions occurred to me, something like "What color is that cat? Did that cat scratch? Can you scratch my back? Will the car run backwards? Is that car black? Can you say that again? Is it the same? Is the cat sane?" and on like that.

I remember feeling surprised and pleased, realizing how much I'd like to do that if I were able to give a reading with Alan Davies in New York somewhere, a possibility we'd briefly spoken of (but hasn't taken form). Part of the pleasure was in his fantasized reception of these questions. Part of the pleasure was in my fantasized reception of these questions, while making them up and saying them, and later, finding out what they were and what kinds of form and theme they might generate together.

Without seeing an opportunity to improvise these questions publicly, wanting to write, I began to write questions, one page at a time, as one sitting, in a small notebook I carried in my left front pants pocket every day for the next seventeen months, until one side of every page was filled, a few weeks ago now. A few times I wrote longer sequences of questions, spontaneously, on the computer or on a scrap of paper. This was my only poetry writing during this time.

In the summer of 2002 I decided to see if I could arrange to give two readings, in New York and Philadelphia, on a one week trip from my family and home in Downeast coastal Maine. I had not read in New York for six years, and never in Philadelphia. I had grown up equidistant from the two cities, which had been my family's culture capitols then. I had never taken so long a trip away from my new family.

I prepared primarily by silently speaking a series of questions anytime I found myself able to-while driving, going to sleep, or occasionally taking a walk-dilating moments when I had no other responsibilities on my attention. I didn't try to record them.

On the bus to New York, I read Ron Silliman's Sunset Debris, a very long prose poem in the form of a series of questions, originally published as a chapbook, which I had not looked at for twenty years or more. Most of my own library has been boxed in the attic for years, but I didn't think I had a copy of this work anyway, and I didn't know if I would ever see it again, until I discovered by coincidence Brian Kim Stefans' website, which had republished it for download. I was delighted and bowled over by the range, imagination, lucidity, social significance, and wit of this writing. I had to work with the reaction of feeling humbled and abject and the expectation of blame and rejection when I presented a series of questions off the top of my head to an audience many of whose members would have been long familiar with this work. But I had no other idea what to do, aside from reading aloud from my questions notebook or from long-published works. Rather than presume the consequences, I would go ahead and see what would happen when I followed through my plan.

The New York reading was set for the Bowery Poetry Club, a storefront bar on the wide long street known as the Bowery, between the East Village and SoHo. A couple nights before the reading, after the new Richard Foreman play, I found myself walking by and looked in for the first time-a dense, dark clustering and crowding of drinkers and talkers, with a strikingly well-lit, large square platform at the far end, on which a young man was moving very dynamically, maybe aggressively, as he spoke. I couldn't tell if it was poetry, standup, or theater, but it looked intimidatingly intense and bold.

I had a plan to keep from getting too nervous the day of the reading. I would go to Film Forum to see a thirty-year old Jean-Pierre Melville film several blocks away. It succeeded in absorbing and anesthetizing me through the three hours before the reading. Fortunately my friend Jude Ornstein came with me and helped orient me to race by foot to the reading, so I'd arrive on time. Many old friends and old and acquaintances were there. The atmosphere was relaxed, warm, and convivial, with people moving around or sitting at little tables. Andrew Levy read first, from a book and from manuscript, then after a short break I took my water bottle up to the microphone stand.

I could hold the mike and put in back in the stand. I could move around, stoop, gesture, look into darkness at the dimly visible audience and up at the concrete wall to my side, and speak one question after another. At first I forgot how to do it, and I had to wrench sentences that had begun with chronic declarative structures like "I am" into interrogatives. My nervous energy and the simplicity of my bottom-line requirement made it possible to keep on going, but I felt very doubtful this was proceeding well. I felt embarrassed, and sorry to have disappointed so many people, known and unknown, whom I would have liked to interest and please. I had forgotten to touch the alarm I had set on my watch, so I had to read its face intermittently to allow time for a brief collaborative improvisation between Andy and me before they needed to begin to clear the hall for the next show.

When I had told Jasper, a couple months before, that I'd be reading with Andy Levy, the living poet whose writing he had heard the most, because he enjoyed it, often bemused and laughing, he had asked, "You mean you'll be reading at the same time?" Andy and I agreed to make notes while listening to one another's readings, and then to read from these for a few minutes at the same time, voices overlapping, as a coda to our joint presentation, which we did.

The reading three afternoons later in Philadelphia, at Kelly Writers House, was a solo reading, but otherwise I followed the same plan, this time with a question-and-answer period at the end. However, conditions were different. I was far more confident, after many strong, warm responses to the New York reading. I had only two old friends in the Philadelphia audience and had met no other attendees before that afternoon. The room, fully illumined by natural light, had rows of folding chairs on the same level as I spoke, and the microphone was fixed in place to record from, as there was no need for amplification. After a sound check, I went for a walk, then came back and sipped hot coffee in the kitchen near the back end of the house till it was time to start, trying not to talk to anyone much.

While I was sitting in the front row listening to the announcements and introduction, I formulated a first sentence, but I had no idea what I would say after that. I had neither intention nor memory enough to recycle questions I had asked in the New York reading. The rhythms, tones, formal properties, and thematic concerns that developed seemed to me completely different. The discussion that followed was remarkable for the thoughtfulness and clarity of the participants' statements and interests.

Two external developments deeply affected me throughout the period of preparing and presenting these two readings. An un-elected President's outrageous, hypocritical, oligarchically driven war against Iraq was impending and would begin a month later; the night before the reading in New York I was able to hear Paul Chan talk at Emilie Clark and Lytle Shaw's apartment about spending January in Baghdad as a witness. At home, I was recently separated, in the first months of grief over the loss of my marriage of eight years.

When I present work through oral improvisation, I do not know what I will be saying, how it will affect others, or myself, or what kind of relationship one moment will have with another. In fact, I often deliberately shift the sentence structure or sense of an utterance if I find I am aware of it in advance. A silence or neologism may be either fully intended or awkward and helpless. The lyric values of the work are up for reconsideration at every moment, and only intermittently accessible to my attention. I am not shaping a total semantic event consciously, as I have little recollection of what's been said and little perspective on the sporadic echoes and reminders that I notice. Considering what to say now, I haven't much chance to reflect on what's been said already. I'm no genius. These differences from a written or revised work are integral to the specific and unforeseeable coordination of values that can be discovered in an improvised work.

The poem orally improvised in public space focuses a relatively unusual degree of immediate attention on the here and now. We are all investigating the dynamics of the speaker's relationship to the physical space and its other occupants, exploring the relations between our internal thoughts and the words spoken out loud, and identifying and wondering about other factors of a live, improvisational performance event. Documentation does not reproduce the work itself but stands as a record of its having occurred and serves as an invitation to imagining it. At its best, it will compose another, compromised work, with its own complex of values and potential satisfactions, alongside the original but now necessarily fantasized work.

Steve Benson, July 13,2003