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David Bromige

in conversation with Doug Powell

Doug Powell: You once said that Anton Chekhov was your first literary hero. Did your first efforts towards being a writer try to emulate him? Were they poems or prose?

David Bromige: When I was an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, the poetry prize was worth fifty bucks. The playwriting prizes were worth $250 or more. Multiply by 7 to approximate today’s values. Penniless, I chose to write plays.
      I did win a poetry prize, though. That was a shot in the dark! The poem was written to charm the heart of a professor’s wife. But alas, she never quite would. Still, there was this poem, and so I sent it to RAVEN, the UBC literary journal. It won the poetry prize. Usually, though, I wrote plays. $250 back then would pay four months’ rent, or three months’ drinking expenses. That was until we made homebrew — both beer and sake. Not surprisingly, Eugene O’Neill was another early hero. In my plays, characters made long, denunciatory speeches past one another. At the same time, they were often very indirect, soft asides of self-recrimination. One play ran for four hours. I had some muscle in my butt back then.
      No. But that one, ‘Palace of Laments,’ had a reading. I was at the time married and my wife was a student at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. I had taken a year’s leave and returned to live in London. Some of my wife’s fellow-students were the cast.
      One other play, a half-hour sprint intended for broadcast over CBC, also won a prize and for some weeks I worked with a producer but in the end it wasn’t used. As autobiography, however, it had something to say. A poet notorious as womanizer and drunk has been invited to perform — in his literary function only, which he proves too thick to realize — at a university. At the end, he’s too pie-eyed to go on, so his professor-host, who loves his poetry but hates him, has to read the drunk’s poems in his place.

So when did you decide to let the drunken poet in you take over your life?

Never. Seldom. The chimes — they were a-clangin’. Had I written the play two years later, after we moved to Berkeley, the Dylan Thomas-figure would have smoked grass. But I had given up on writing plays by then. Grad school kept me too busy. I had met some poets by then, also, who took what I was writing seriously. As one of the many poets picked to read at the Berkeley Poetry Conference summer of ’65, I found myself before an unnervingly larger audience than hitherto. It was stimulating, not only dismaying.
      I was a late developer, but by 1965 I had decided on poetry. It paid quite well for a part-time job, I found. There were the several prizes available to UC students that I had won, for sums four times the size of the UBC prize. In another couple of years, I had a contract with Black Sparrow. This in turn helped me get a fulltime teaching job at Sonoma State University.
      To some extent, though, this was a case of mistaken identity. This poetry was still not what I wanted it to be, it was derivative. I don’t mean consciously so, as much as helplessly so. I’m an incurable mimic and there were times when that took over. Times when I could have done without it.
Tight Corners’ came out of the blue and was my first mature writing. Those pieces were so brief because I’d become a fulltime teacher and had so little time to write. They were notes on predicaments. I had meant to extend them, each of those what I later termed ‘corners’, but at some point I thought ‘why bother.’ I remember that the first issue of THIS had just come out, or was about to, and I sent some ur-corners for either #1 or #2. Bob Grenier, met in the Berkeley years, had asked me for something for THIS.
      I asked John Martin to do them on 3x5 cards, put them in a pink or gray plastic box, and sell them like that. The kind of box you could buy at a five and dime. John replied that that wasn’t Black Sparrow style. ñHey, John, think what we could sell ‘em for today! — I didn’t have time to fight him; it was done his way, with added material of a considerably different, earlier style. Too bad. After that, I avoided John as a publisher for the next 14 years. Except for three of his 12-page pamphlets — ‘3 Stories,’ ‘Out of My Hands,’ — both small books of prose, and the poetic sequence, ‘Credences of Winter.’

People seldom mention they have discerned a ‘Stevens’ quality in your poetry. The rhyme with his ‘Credences of Summer’ tipped me off. Is your sequence. to your mind, antithetical to his?

A poorly-paid college teacher, a weed-using shadow of a man, whose humble dwelling was pit-stop to all and sundry, in antithecal relation to a roly-poly, barrel-chested, manicured, well-shod, imposing Yalie who got plastered with other late-in-life Yalies and had fisticuffs with Hemingway but never invited anyone home? Perhaps. I should never have taken Hemingway on. It was my Yalies who urged me to do it. Let me say there’s no rousing assurances in my poems. Let the rich bury the rich. All I can do is destroy their language. I think the pill is wearing off. Got more?

I think it’s time to draw a veil over these proceedings. Temporarily. Picture a series of dots taking the place of our speaking. I’ll get a glass of water.

You have to pump the water whenever you’re thirsty?

Hey, I’m only staying in this farmhouse because you live nearby. An ordinary evening at New Haven beats this. Where were we?

I brought out, or had brought out, a various batch of books in the later 70s. My friend Vic D’Or Coleman at Coach House in Toronto did BIRDS OF THE WEST. Stan Persky in the same year did a selected writings, TEN YEARS IN THE MAKING.
      Both those books were published in Canada: BIRDS by Coach House, TENURE’S IN THE MAY KING by New Star. I thought of the May King as my son, Cnris, born Mayday ‘64. But I did get tenure soon after that book came out. Then, let me see, there was a chapbook from Talonbooks, SPELLS & BLESSINGS, and then a book of songs written with Paul deBarros and Barry Gifford, mainly, which I got a small grant to publish through my Open Reading operation. Next, Bill Blais, who edited the magazine FALCON, asked for a ‘retrospective’, and I came up with the series ‘Six of One’ which I reprinted, slightly emended, in MY POETRY, that The Figures issued, end of ‘79.

One of those books you mentioned — the one done by Coach House Press. That was done more than 20 years before Coach House did your Cold War Secret-agent collaborative novel. What was the earlier book’s name? BIRDS OF THE WEST? I have a book of that title. It’s about birds.

So’s mine, largely. Sherril [Jaffe] and I had found a log cabin out on the hills towards the ocean, and become fascinated by the bird-life there. It was gloriously abundant. These poems explored that fascination. Fascination in various forms. Fascination with poetry, for example.

Did you use the same form as in TIGHT CORNERS?

No. It was much more like a notebook, notebook jottings. And one long poem. Which concerned a White-Tailed Kite that hunted in the field next to the house. The spare form of that reflected the form of the bird, a most elegant creature, and of its life as I saw it. David Hlynsky did a great job of designing the cover.

I’m interested to know what you thought of Language Writing at this point.

When the new neighbors moved in, they looked a lot like us. I borrowed a barbecue from them, and because they had a spare, I didn’t return it. Eventually. I broke it. By then, their kids had broken all the windows in our shed, so nothing was said about that, either. I read their friends’ poems, and some of them were where I was going, and it was an excitement then to have their company. At first I didn’t see the necessity for so much writing about, about, about. It was my understanding, shared, I thought, with Michael Palmer, that one’s primary writing was at once the vehicle of one’s poetics.
      Subsequently, in self-defense, I did some prose things, critically concerned, which I published hither and yon. To anticipate a question, I don’t mind being a Language Poet. By one definition, I am, because I’ve been attacked for being one. My God, have I ever! I hope some of those dolts who wrote to attack me in the hospitable pages of POETRY FLASH have seen the error of their ways, since 1990, I’m sure they mean to, because they’re doing their best to be LPs themselves nowadays.
      You may be old enough to recall that Language Poetry met with much hostility at the beginning. Robert Duncan, for instance, turned and rent it. Thus putting heart into some dozen Lilliputians to follow suit. I won’t bore you with their names, but will note that several of them have since switched sides, though without telling us what they heard on the road to Damascus.
      — Actually, I question myself my inclusion; my course was more-or-less set by 1972 — and ‘Tight Corners’ owed nothing to L-P, because they were written in 1971-2, and I hadn’t begun to delve into THIS at that point. Nor had my student, Tom Sharp, for whom I wrote the early corners. But then again, later I took a lot of twists from L-P. I enjoyed much of their poetry. I learned many devices in conversation with Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman, and Steve Benson. These conversations were of equal benefit to the interlocutors named.

You began writing in Vancouver. Can you say something about the literary scene there at that time? Can you say something about your circle of readers and your influences?

‘Creative Writing’ had just been declared a course in the English Department when my college education began. This was thanks to the Great Canadian Poet, Earle Birney. An expat Anglo shared the job, Tony Friedson. Oh, and I nearly forgot, Jake Zilber. After Creeley had wowed the campus, Jake went around saying ‘in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ His were open wide, but I can’t recall anything else he said.
      Earle’s most famous Great Canadian Poem was ‘David’. David was a friend of his youth who suffered terrible injury during a fall while mountain-climbing. The poet has to decide: push him over the edge — or let him live, a cripple? As a CW teacher, Earle appeared to favor the ‘let-’em-live’ approach. Of course, he had instituted the program, so enrollment was a concern. Not only did he neglect to toss me back, he spared the necks of George Bowering, Maxine Gadd, Frank Davey, Daphne Marlatt, Jamie Reid and others who went on to become their own versions of the Gt Canuck Poet. And in each case, their achievement is remarkable.
      Earle was scrupulously open-minded — that, or he didn’t give a damn. And young Friedson helped us to stir up as much trouble as we could. We were hampered, of course, compared with the downtown poets, who hadn’t to pass any courses. We squabbled over everything. In fact, I had to leave Vancouver for several years before I could put up with any of them. I believe this is common in youth. These years, when I can get together with George, my heart fills with gratitude. We still trade insults. He knows the greatest jokes. When we were young, I wanted him to be different — to change so that the attributes I saw in him, hidden there, would come into his poetry. Today, I see how successful he’s been, how hard he’s worked, and I think he’s blessed. It’s the same with those others I mentioned. I must have been an unbearable little bastard. But I wrote some good travesties. ‘A rockpile, Jocko, there might be a snake.’ Jocko was Irving Layton’s nickname. We had a saying then, coincidentally, that so-and-so would fuck a rockpile if he thought there was a snake in it. A Gt Canadian Saying.
      It’s strange to think of that time in my life. It’s like I was powered by the wrong engine. I hardly knew what was under my hood. I’m glad indeed for the friends I was given . I’m sure I should have treated them better. Once I became diabetic, I started to come to my senses. That was in the spring of 1964. That forced me to stand back and pay attention. I couldn’t be a party boy anymore sans evident consequence. That was hard. The poem of that, by the way, is ‘The Cliff and the Lighthouse.’ That’s a half-baked title, and so is a good deal of the poem. But it’s where I began to watch what went on while I was writing.
      I’m not saying the process is ever complete in a linear sense. There are moments, that’s all. Lovely moments. Get stuck in one, there’s great pain.
      Now let’s skip thirty years and answer part of your question: I think of a half-dozen West Coast Canadians doing world-class writing. Three of my favorite poets, Vancouverites all: Lissa Wolsak, Deanna Ferguson, Lisa Robertson. Like thousands, I love ‘ˆebbie, an Epic.’ I went on tour, and that brouught me to Toronto. Lisa and I were to read together that evening, so I spent the afternoon weaving a crown from the maple leaves on the lawn of my b-and-b. I can’t say she was delighted when I crowned her, but others were. I know I was. Those three women, so different in their poetry each from each, gladden my heart whenever they cross my mind. Took what they could gather from Langpo-incidence to some other place toute neuf... Their various selves, ultimately. Their twenty-first-century selves.
      That must have been in 1997, that Maple-leaf incident. Five years later, we finally got a Poet Laureate in Canada. Of course, it has to be age before beauty, so George [Bowering] got the nod. Lisa, by the way, had been his student.

Over the years, you have tended to change styles with each book. Some reviewers remark this as an annoyance, most ignore it (if they even notice it). A handful, e.g., Gary Sullivan, see it as the strength of your poetry, as being what you write to make visible. Could you please explain, apologize for, expound upon, or kick shyly away, this factor?

I’m with Sullivan. And yes, I think he was the first to remark it, in print. I have a lifelong horror of the same way twice. I haven’t always been able to keep it on aesthetic grounds. I’ve lived in the U.K., Sweden, Canada, now the States. I’ve three times divorced. But my marriage to Cecelia Belle has lasted 24 years .And, except for 78–79, spent in SF, I’ve lived in west Sonoma County for 30 years.But all that aside, I deny personal style. Yes, it exists but why make a habit of it? It is accorded paramount place in the work of so many poets, as if they were helpless before it. Helpless for a spell, yes, but for the rest of one’s life? I think that’s merely a matter of product-recognition. Sells more books. Many critics work to keep style paramount, too. Which is the death of style. It becomes a noxious tic.

You must have hated it when students imitated you.

I could never recognize it.

Maybe they were poor imitations. I’m sure there’ll be some, now you’re the local Laureate. Congratulations. You’ve done a lot to help a poetic audience form up here.

Thank you. But the poetic community here is subject to considerable dispersion. Most poets are drawn to a handful of cities. Building an audience for poetry in Sonoma County is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. Before you’ve done it once, you need to begin again.

Why have you done this — chosen a kind of exile? You did live in San Francisco for a while.

Two years — at the end of the 70s. There was such an excitement in the city then. In the poetry scene. Though there were many poets who hated what one of them had called ‘Language Poetry.’ There was quite a stir going on. A bunch of rocket scientists had come to rescue poetry, to the dismay of a number who having changed poetry a generation before, now thought it had achieved perfection or rather, that they had, and should be left undisturbed to continue their epics and epistles. Fair enough. But why the hostility?
      I had dear friends among this band. Some heard the new music, some dismissed it as a savage din... or for NOT being one. Well, you can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make him pee.
      But Cecelia and I moved back to this county because she still had an M.A. to earn, and we couldn’t afford SF rent on my salary alone. Then, by the time she began her practice, a child was due and the extra space we needed was cheaper in Santa Rosa. And so it went — city rents always rose faster than our earning power.
      Some weeks I twice drove to SF or the East Bay to hear poetry, sometimes with Cecelia, and we’d stay over, for instance, with Bob Grenier and Kathleen Frumkin in Berkeley, where they took care of Larry Eigner. Once,I recall, I got there just at sundown. There was a shadowy figure exercising on the railing of the porch. Was it Larry? As I got closer, my question was answered. ‘Larry, I thought that was you,’ I told him. Larry said, ‘Oh yeah, so did I.’
      In 1988, I won the Western States Poetry Prize, for DESIRE, which Black Sparrow had just brought out. I was invited to take part in conferences or to read, and traveled a lot for a couple of years. I retired early, in ‘93, in part because there were other kinds of writing I wanted to explore. For instance, the novel PICCOLO MONDO on which I collaborated with Mike Matthews and the Bowerings — we had been students together at the University of British Columbia, had kept in touch, and Coach House published it in ‘98. It’s masked as a Cold War thriller, but it’s really a love story. In ‘93, I wrote and published a novella, THEY ATE. I wrote on several other novels, not yet finished or, if finished, not yet published.

Vancouver, where PICCOLO MONDO takes place, has become a regular venue for you to visit each year. Your son Chris and his wife and children live there? Would you like to retire there?

Yes. No. Yes. No. And, of course, I’m already retired. When I was spending a lot of time on the road, I always wanted to keep going. Miss home and Cecelia as I might, there’s a lot of the world to see. Now, if we could travel together. The day before leaving on most trips, though, I want to chicken out and wrap home around me like a blanket, but once the plane takes off, it’s an adventure.
      Otherwise, I draw things on the walls of my monkish nest. Bits of speech that fall out of our mouths. Dyslexia fascinates me. My son was/ is. I’m not sure my daughter isn’t. I had a student once who was severely dyslectic. I loved her writing, though she had been made to feel ashamed of it. ‘She surfered with minstrel tramps.’ In that she felt oppressed by her condition, yet had to manifest it, I thought her poet-like. In that her errors troubled her, but were a welcome read for me, we were the ideal poet-and-reader combo.I would like to drive a larger wedge of the unconscious into poetry. After all, we all know what we know, and who cares? Without mistakes, there’d be no roast pork.
      For 18 months following my stroke, during which time I was fairly heavily medicated, I didn’t recall a single dream. I thought Hmm, they made me Laureate, what else would I expect? And still I wrote no poems. This last month, I’m dreaming again and it makes me happy. ‘I grieved as a great empire died. It was really interesting.’ We need some heart put into us. These are our times. No-one comes again. Be real. And so forth. Actually, I’ve fallen into the hands of Buddhists. They’ll tell me what to say.

That’s a change in style from your new book [AS IN ‘T’ AS IN ‘TETHER’], but not in message.

Yeah.... I can’t engage in densely packed argument this month, my thinking is far simpler . ‘The topiary is off-center. I wasn’t here when Abel came.’

Hmm. Simpler thinking equals wider meaning. But you’ve worked with two-liners before, in THE HARBORMASTER OF HONG KONG.

True. I do circle back to earlier forms. But these new poems are used differently... the second sentence doesn’t undercut the first, it grows out of it differently. But you asked me to talk about AS IN ‘T’ AS IN ‘TETHER’. It’s a simple construct. The first section, ‘Network’, is just five poems in which established order is collapsed, after trying as with teeth gritted, to hang on.
      Part Two, ‘Initializing,’ is various versions of what occurs upon first meeting a person of some interest to you — the many brief impressions crowding one another out.
      Part Three, ‘Establishing,’ has more cohering poems, to suggest the establishing of a relationship.
      Part Four, ‘Authenticizing,’ suggests what happens when a relationship is taken for granted, until one or the other or both get a nasty shock.
      Each of these stages is essential.
      I wrote those poems years since — it began in 1996. Then I got distracted by the novel. Then I had the stroke. It’s a great relief, to know it’s coming out shortly. Chax Press makes good books. I like that it’s coming out in Arizona, in Tucson. That’s about as far south as you can go, and still be on U.S. soil. There are references in the poems to being in the ‘‘Green Desert’, as they term the cactus-crowded countryside down there. I found that landscape sexy, in an S-M way. There are poems in this book that used that desert, it impressed me as a kind of falling-in-love chamber in a museum of contemporary manners. Being so beautiful, so lovely, and so dangerous. Like the times. Good luck!

Thanks, David.

Thank you, Doug.

Sebastopol, California
August, 2002

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