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.
¶ 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.
¶ 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.
¶ 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.
¶ 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.
¶ 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?
¶ 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.
¶ 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.
¶ Thanks, David.
Thank you, Doug.
Jacket 22 — May 2003
This material is copyright © Doug Powell and David Bromige
and Jacket magazine 2003