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Simon Pettet
in conversation with Anselm Berrigan

This piece is 1,500 words or about four printed pages long.

Simon Pettet: Poetry, I believe, has a relationship to magic. Poetry meaning “what?”, magic meaning “what?” The more and more I get to know about poetry, the more I continue to revere it as evidence of, testament, if you will, to a numinous state. Thus, every time, when and if I make a poem, I am amazed. Just like I am amazed we get to hang out here. It’s a great pleasure; a great honor and responsibility. I wonder if it will ever happen again! (laughs) And I look retrospectively at its multiple instances, and they fascinate me, and even when I am about to...

Anselm Berrigan: Do you edit?

You bet!

How long, off the top of your head, might you work on a three-line poem?

Well, of course, I don’t, pre-arranged, think of it as a “three-line poem”. My typical practice is to write without being too self-conscious of the fact that I’m writing, and then squirrel it away. Sometimes, though, I am aware of what I have written and I can actually edit and play with it, work with it and engage with it, finesse it, all the rest.
Usually, I’ll re-discover, flipping through old scribbled notes I’ve taken.
Then, I will realize that its either really bad (maudlin, often) or think, hmm, perhaps there’s something interesting here — perhaps.

A three-line poem will sometimes be the first three lines of five lines but it actually should stop there, at the end of line three.
And sometimes it will be as many as three lines taken out of a much longer poem.

Can you talk about or speak to what it is about a line or lines that calls on you to keep it/ them?

Why keep a line? Why keep a poem? Why keep anything?
Well, if it works, if it, literally, does the work.
Like, I say, perhaps, you see something “interesting”.

I’m not so sure that I do write strictly with the line, per se
(tho’ I do love line-breaks!)
rather, it’s the accretion of words and phrases, building up, as good ol’ Doc (William Carlos) Williams has it — poem as machine, machine as in interconnection

It’s hard to ask a question about process without getting a kind of layered answer.

..which is good..

Yeah, it reflects the nature of writing poems. Because asking what seems like a simple question can be about as reasonable as saying, “So, what are the five (count ’em) ways that you wrote that one poem?”

Each poem is a unique experience. There’s a certain sense of work to be done. How one goes about that, I think, essentially has to do with communicating.

I am also interested in the idea of some kind of (divine?) responsibility — that it “behooves the poet to speak”, as they say.

(Behoove an English original from Old English behofian from a Germanic compound *bi-hof, “which binds: obligation.” The same root gave us “heavy” from Germanic *hafigaz “containing something, having weight.”)

So the interface between global politics and our daily living, what’s happening right now with this Bush oligarchy/ oilgarchy — what’s happening to the world — makes for us a very heavy necessity. A poet has to speak out. It “comes with the territory”. The difficulty, then, is one of imperative. I’ve been thinking a lot about this of late — you know, what is a valid, the valid, poetic response? how hard it is to write an active poetry, work that goes beyond merely stating the obvious — “Bush sucks.” (vampiric oil metaphor) — “War bad”, “We’re all gonna die”, etcetera, etcetera.

To get the statement to possess some real (useful) meaning, to transmit, in some way.
And for a long time I was very troubled. You know, thinking “I don’t have the requisite address” and “this is a crucial time.”, and... and, then I discovered I’d written this (reaches into a pile of papers) — a few short lines. — (a seven-line lyric) — may I read it?


Like so many of my poems, it’s untitled! —

There is a cruel messianic, dim tribal intransigence

that gains you nothing.

There’s is a bull-headed childish baby tantrum

that can unleash untold consequences.

I am appalled by the darkening of the sky

I watch my love

It is always my love that I watch

(Simon characteristically reads the poem again, varying on the second occasion, the poem’s cadence)

What brought you to giving multiple readings of individual poems?

Self-discovery? Re-discovery of the poem? Boredom? (with performance) The desire to communicate? See, if you get the ghost, the gist of it (at the very least) the first time around....

The second time around can reframe that gist/ ghost. It is not the same poem the second time around. It occupies a new instance of time and space, for one thing, and a listener will hear it differently, however subtly, just because of that fact. But at the same time you usually flow right into the next reading, which makes the doubling, so to speak, of the poem a continuation of the initial act of reading rather than a “separate” reading. And that gives me the sense that an aural structure is being built as I’m listening.

On a performative level, it also provides a rather unusual experience for the audience, particularly because you aren’t repeating a poem because you didn’t think the audience “got it” or anything condescending like that. It’s an approach to the work as a work.

Well, yes. — that’s an acute ear you’ve got! (that we’ve all got, if we bother to use them, to exercise them) — I do think of repetition (which of course can never be merely repetition) as a powerful tool. I love how Bob Dylan always reframes and torpedos his songs.

Speaking of framing, do you consider the poem you’ve just read a political poem?

The single point I was making there, I guess, was “for love” — “It is always my love that I watch” .

There is a dangerously solipsistic aspect to it there tho’ I’m aware of that.
I mean, I think of Thoreau — Thoreau’s “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine” (from his famous 1849 essay, on Civil Disobedience).
In Thoreau it’s very much this one (solitary) guy speaking. Protective New Englander. Defensive. Maybe I’ve got a little bit of that in me too? Protective Old England?!
I’m not sure I find that too reassuring!
No, if we pay attention to what we love (to the beloved).
And, ah, but what else can we do?

One of the things that I get interested in while reading a lot of your poems is how much you can do inhabiting this tiny space, or relatively tiny space. It’s one of the great mysteries of the short poem, speaking generally. You’re constantly feeling out the parameters or the boundaries of the space you’re working in, and I don’t want to simplify it to economy, because that’s the sort of generic term, but it seems to me it’s more about handling a space and figuring out how broadly you can transmit within this room you are given.

The short poem I think is a register of its relationship to the space around it. To this day, always, as a matter of fact, anybody who’s asking to print a poem of mine, if they ask — and even if they don’t ask! — I’ll request them to, if they could, please, center the poem on the page? And I guess what I am requiring is an understanding, or an imagination, of the rest of the page and its relation to this little bunch of words.

What the short poem is, is, finally, not so many words on the page, in that most banal reduction of it. It’s a short poem — it’s not a long poem! The rest of that page is —
in a design sense — and in a spiritual sense! — absolutely, integrally, part of the poem
The poem inhabits the page.

Now, of course different (but not entirely dissimilar) design issues arise if we’re talking
about “the page” as it appears on the internet.

It’s always this interesting moment to point out to somebody that you do (one does) have this page to work with. Why not make use of all of the page? Or at least think about making use of all the space.

Well, just to think of design is to think of space.

Much of the poetry I initially encountered was open-field, running all over the page, shifting I may be drawn to it. I’ve talked with a number of people who are very uncomfortable with any work that floats away from a standard, flush-left margin, and I wonder once in a while if design as a function of poetry isn’t broadly considered a pain in the ass to deal with!

Oh boy, I think the design of poetry is profound and almost one of those essentials, getting into the structure of poetry itself.

I am deeply fascinated by say, George Herbert’s pattern poems (George Herbert 1593–1633) — or Apollinaire’s Calligrams (Guillaume Apollinaire) — or (Pablo) Picasso’s poems, just recently rendered into English, I love their protean all-over-ness)

The multiple possibilities of the design of words, words — on a sheet of paper is truly delightful. I like all those shapes.

Anselm Berrigan is the author of Zero Star Hotel and Integrity & Dramatic Life, both published by Edge Books. A new book titled Some Notes On My Programming is forthcoming from Edge in late 2005.

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