This piece was first published, in Portuguese, in
Sibilia magazine. It is
7,500 words or about 17 printed pages long
Making Things Difficult
¶ Charles Bernstein: Many of your poems are written, as you put it, “after” other poems. Can you talk about the ways you approach writing “after” poems both in English and also other languages?
Douglas Messerli: When I first began speaking about my poems being “after,” I was thinking of the method I use to create many of my poems, namely “collage.” In numerous works, sometimes just to get the poem started, I look at the writing of other poets, and play with their word combinations; the first two words of each line, odd word couplings I find particularly generative. By and large, I never use the work of just one poet, but numerous writers, some whom I’ve actually never read. The eye discovers what it wants to in each poem, and that, in turn, creates a series of associations, leaps, imaginations, narrative interpolations, that allow for the flow of my own poetry. As someone (Jen Hofer, I think) once described me, I’m sort like the “grand recycler” of poets, a kind of repository of bits and pieces of the thousands of poems by Americans that get published each year. I don’t know if I can really claim that role, but I don’t mind its implications — after all, I am one of the major publishers and anthologists of poetry in the US, and I probably read more poetry each year than anyone in this county — particularly given the demands of my grand (ultimately 50 volume) series of PIP (Project for Innovative Poetry) anthologies. So, in that sense, I encounter thousands of poems which, given the methods I’ve described, bring bits and pieces of a great many poems into a new kind of existence “after” the works of others.
When I came to write the book of poetry, After, however, the idea of that word had shifted. What I had begun to realize is that in reading so much poetry, and in working through many of those poems to stimulate my own writing, I had indeed been changed somehow by the very process. Particularly in relation to the so-called “translations” I had done, my poetry had been transformed, become richer and denser so I thought. Although I took high school Spanish, college French, and learned boarding-school Norwegian, along with a smattering of German, nonetheless, I don’t really have a command of any language except English. So I didn’t want to claim the role of being a “translator,” a figure I hold in high esteem. I called my “translations,” accordingly, writing after. The word was useful since it suggested both the effects of that poetry I had translated, and some of the methods I had used in bringing my own poetry to life. Accordingly, I alternated poems in that volume that were translated or written “after,” with poems of my own — whatever that might mean — that had been effected, in some respects, by my engagement with the poems in other languages.
[caution: I might conjecture — now that I’ve just recalled a specific incident — that my poetry may have always had a quality about it that linked it to translation. When I first began writing, I joined a group of Washington, D.C. poets (Doug Lang, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Lynne Dreyer, Tina Darragh, Peter Inman, Anselm Hollo [a great translator of the Finnish], Bernard Welt, Diane Ward, and Joan Retallack, among them) for weekly readings of our poetry. One evening, after hearing me read, Welt said of my work: “Your poetry sounds like you’ve written it in another language and then translated it into English.” At the time, I was reading very little poetry in translation.]
These poems, moreover, had also come after a long spell of what I think of as very American poems represented in Dinner on the Lawn, Some Distance, River to Rivet: A Manifesto and Maxims from My Mother’s Milk/ Hymns to Him — the last, given its highly imbedded American clichés, slang, puns, and other rhetorical expressions, is about as American as you can get. After was clearly more influenced by international work. So it represented a kind of new turn, “after” the heavy concentrations of wit and punning I had become known for. My next undertaking, Bow Down, went one step further, in that, since I knew I was writing for an Italian audience — the book was published by an Italian publisher and translated into Italian — I wanted to further push the idea of writing after. So this time, I chose the works of Italian poets in translation, and wrote “through” these writers (using many of processes I’ve described above) and, simultaneously, wrote with collages of the Los Angeles, American-Italian artist, John Baldessari in mind. Accordingly, there was a kind of layering in Bow Down, a combination of image and word, that, when put into the context of my own associations, became something very different, but was strongly influenced, nonetheless, by the Italian. It’s strange to think of these works — which had come out of Italian through English — as being translated “back” into Italian. I am sure that, to the Italian, it had very little relationship to the original language. But in English, the Italian came through. I’d again been influenced by another culture, had had the benefit of coming “after.”
More recently, considering all the performative works I’ve written, and the long, soon-to-be published manuscript Between — for which I wrote through the works of poet friends and then, sending the pieces to them, asked them, in turn, to write through my work as a whole or back through the poem I’d just written — I began to realize that my writing was not only written “after” other works, but in collaboration with others and their writing, that collaboration had been the direction in which my whole writing activities had been moving. I am perhaps one of the most collaborative of writers in that I not only embrace other writers in my work, but include other genres, willingly mixing all sorts of forms of film, fiction, drama, art, dance, and slapstick with my poetry. And, of course, there is that aspect of collaborating with yet others — other selves. And, I now realize, that this is directly connected to my publishing activities as well — always a collaboration. I guess I now would describe my writing, instead of being something “after,” as being work written “with.”
¶ Bernstein: Well, then, perhaps you also collaborate with yourself. Can you explain how these work for you? Are they like the personae of Pessoa? If a different pseudonym was assigned to the “same” text, would it be the same work?
Messerli: First of all, I’ve always loved the idea of pseudonyms — even as a child. I still have a book that Isaac Singer signed for me in college, “to Peter Scott” — even though he knew me as his student, Douglas Messerli. He must of thought me a bit crazy! My first “real” pseudonym, however, arose out of a business necessity. Since I couldn’t afford a designer for my Sun & Moon Press books, I had to design the books myself. And yet I didn’t want the whole publishing enterprise to look like a one man show. On one of the earliest books, I collaborated (there’s that word again) with a local designer, Kevin Osborn. So did Katie Messborn (K for Kevin, D for Douglas, Mess for Messerli, born for Osborn) spring to life. She designed hundreds of Sun & Moon books throughout the years, and even became quite famous. I recall writer and radio personality Kenny Goldsmith wondering if he might alter a design of the one of the books for the Sun & Moon website, which I assured him would be no problem. “But I don’t want to offend your wonderful designer, Katie Messborn,” he replied. I assured him she wouldn’t mind.
My second pseudonym arose when I was teaching literature at Temple University in Philadelphia. I was irritated in those days with the near complete abandonment by many of my colleagues of literature and their embracement of theory or what I would like to call “philosophical” approaches to the arts. I didn’t find the theoretical writing itself to be valueless — I’d minored in philosophy and had written my PhD dissertation on narrative theory; but I did feel that using the ideas of writers such as Derrida as pedagogical “tools” in literature was a bit ridiculous. Much of it was so abstract in relation to fiction or poetry as to be nearly meaningless in a literature course. So I began to entertain one of my student-friends, Joe Ross, with the writing and sayings of my own favorite theorist, Claude Ricochet. Of course, with such a ridiculous name, it became immediately clear that Claude himself had adopted a pseudonym — his real name was Daniel Mayenne (can you believe I just had to look this up?). I had already published a manifesto under his name in a special of issue I edited for The Washington Review on manifestos a couple of years earlier. You were in that issue, if you recall?
¶ Bernstein: Ah, yes, I remember it well. Claude and I became such close friends!
Messerli: And with Joe’s encouragement (we both thought it all quite silly), I began to create more and more of his theory, and, since I was then working on my own theoretical work — an investigation into evil — titled
The Structure of Destruction, I began to import some of Ricochet’s statements into the three volumes. Indeed, I eventually claimed that the first two volumes were recreations of lost works (never before translated) by the author, works which I had encountered when young, one a film, the other the “incredible philosophical-historical murder mystery,”
The Cross of Madame Robert. These, moreover, were multi-genre works, allowing me to present Ricochet in all sorts of different contexts.
There as something oddly convincing about this figure. I recall when I gave poet Dennis Phillips a copy of the second volume, The Walls Come True, to read — it’s a long performative work made up of prose poetry, drama, film, vaudeville routines, and other forms, ending with a longish Afternote about the “source” — he suggested that there were other ways in which I might handle the information about such material, in a footnote, for example. Of course, the whole Afterword was a creation/ recreation of the story I’d just told in disjunctive pieces; like Faulkner’s chronology of characters at the end of The Sound and the Fury, it is an integral part of the work.
When I was about to publish the first volume, Along Without, I asked Marjorie Perloff to write a blurb for the back cover copy. This work, one of the strangest I have even written, is a hybrid of film, fiction and poetry which I described in the Introduction as having been an attempt to recreate a film I saw as a young man in Norway by Claude Ricochet. Marjorie sent me a very nice blurb, supporting the existence of the French theorist and his film. I had to remind her that Ricochet was a pseudonym. Abashed, she quickly rewrote the blurb.
The National Endowment for the Arts took an early selection from the third volume, Letters from Hanusse, out of the fiction category for which I had submitted it, and put it into prose writing — on the basis, I suppose, of my quotes from Ricochet and, one might guess, the epistolary tone of the work as a whole.
These “readings” of the books highly intrigue me. For, despite the fact that I made no attempt to write at all realistically, the fact that I had used certain unexpected genres — an Introduction, an Afterword, a text peppered with seemingly academic quotes — my character had become real. The word had become flesh, so to speak. Perhaps that’s why I killed him off; as the biography reports, born in 1947 — the year in which I was born — Ricochet died of AIDS in 1984 (which, had I not met my companion Howard Fox in 1980, might have been my own fate). During his short life, however, Ricochet wrote a great deal, and I have been working, and shall continue to work, to bring those pieces, in one form or another, to life. So in this one instance, my pseudonym is very close to a Pessoa heteronym, a figure locked within the author, but who exists, metaphorically speaking, in his own space. My favorite incident which confirms Ricochet’s existence is the time I was greeted, having flown into the Providence, Rhode Island airport, by poet Forrest Gander (whom I had not previously met) with a large sign reading CLAUDE RICOCHET.
My dramatic pseudonym, Kier Peters, is not at all like Claude. I once wrote on the back cover of one of his books that he was born in Germany, but I now doubt it, and certainly I know nothing else about him — except that “he” is the name I use to write my dramatic works. Peters came into being when I returned to drama (I wrote plays as a child). I didn’t want to have to carry with me the luggage of being a so-called “experimental” poet connected with “Language” writing. I needed to (re)discover the craft and wanted to be able to imitate, in part, the plays of Albee, Pinter, Ionesco and others in order to find what worked best. Douglas Messerli, I was afraid, wouldn’t be able to accomplish that; he’d have to write a much more disjunctive play if I was being true to myself. Today I completely reject that idea — since I write so many different things. But then I needed to work outside, so to speak, of my skin. So Peters freed me to write plays that Messerli might not have wanted to.
That too is how Per Bregne was born, his name being Peter Fern in English. I’ve always loved the name Peter (it turns out it was my great-grandfather’s name; and it’s also the name of one of my nephews). My grandmother’s maiden name (on my mother’s side) was Fahrni (meaning Fern), and her father, back in Switzerland, was a close friend of Peter Messerli. When in a Copenhagen bookstore I decided to create Green Integer books, I thought it best to keep this new publishing activity — particularly given the numerous commitments of Sun & Moon Press — away from Douglas Messerli. Per Bregne was named as editor. And I’ve kept him on since, even though I’ve (Douglas) obviously taken on a more active role in the press.
Joshua Haigh came into being because I wanted to use a sort of 19th century trope of a manuscript delivered to my door, and to distance the difficult subjects of Letters from Hanusse from myself. Joshua and I, moreover, shared one close tie: we were both great admirers of Claude Ricochet. Haigh, incidentally, was my grandmother’s (on my father’s side) maiden name, Joshua the name of a bartender at the Cedar Bar in New York, where I wrote some of the final pages of the book.
There are others. I’ve actually forgotten some of them. But by and large, they’re just stand-ins, beings behind whom I write. In the end, I think pseudonyms are extremely useful, almost necessary. First of all, I believe we are all many people, with many different voices possible — if we are open to them. Instead of a concept of a unified being, I much prefer a kind of Babel of existence, a body made up of all sorts of different folk speaking even sometimes contradictory statements. How much richer is this existence to the one-voice mentality! Writers, confuse yourself!, I want to shout. Make life difficult! I have always had a way of doing that.
¶ Bernstein: One way you do this, as you mentioned, is through the use of multiple genres. Indeed, much of your work is written as poetry, but also as scripts (for film, theater, and opera), and also as essays. What are the qualities of each of those genres that are of particular interest to you? How does the work of each of the genres connect?
Messerli: I’ll start with the last part of your question: there are no differences in the sense that they constitute one activity — writing or making art. And that is what I do in nearly all my life, including publishing.
I don’t know when my fascination with various genres began; I’m sure it started before reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. For I have, as long as I remember, been fascinated with genre, not just the larger genres of fiction, poetry, essay, drama, etc., but with genres within each category; my PhD dissertation focused on genres of fiction, for example, such as the anatomy, the picaresque, encyclopedic fictions, epistolary fictions, fantasy and others — I am least interested in the psychologically-based, character driven genre of the novel or “roman.”
Almost as soon as I started writing poetry, it became apparent that I would have to mix genres, to put narrative together with poetry and poetry with film, to imbed film within a letter. I wrote a book of poetry as a “manifesto,” and in another book alternated “maxims” with “hymns.” It is no accident that I claim Gertrude Stein to be my mentor, for she is a writer who single-handedly attempted nearly every literary genre, from drama, and essay, to the picaresque ( The Making of Americans), a pastoral fiction ( Lucy Church Amiably), dialogue fiction ( Brewsie and Willie), alphabetical fictions ( To Do), fictions based on birthdays ( Alphabets and Birthdays), autobiography, narrative poetry, metaphysical poetry, and numerous others — as well as psychologically-driven short tales in the Flaubertian manner ( Three Lives). She tried everything. If one ever wanted to have a clearer understanding of genre, he should just read the total output of Stein — something very few readers have accomplished. It’s an amazing outpouring of voices. A model for my own work.
In the beginning, however, I didn’t know that. I just did what came naturally. Every time I had tried something and felt I succeeded, I wanted to move away from that and try something else. You know, that makes if very difficult for a writer. Readers tend to concentrate: they read only fiction or only poetry, etc. So one who writes as I do, or as Stein does, is always disappointing or at least confusing a portion of one’s possible audience. Even my dearest friends have said, “Well, I like your poetry, but why do you write fiction?” or “Hey, those are great plays, but I just don’t get poetry.” That’s a problem I’ve never comprehended. I guess I’m just an artistic whore, but I’ve always loved all the arts: visual art, dance, music, drama — all kinds of writing. You know I studied dance for a while at the Joffrey Ballet Company; I was offered a small college scholarship for voice. If I could still dance and sing, I would! In fact, I’ve just written a musical! At least, Kier Peters has.
¶ Bernstein: Speaking of the musical, why is sound so important to your poetry (at the risk of asking the most elemental poetry question of all)? Are there musical or metrical or other structures that underlie the sound patterning of your work? I wonder if you can address this, because it is to some degree a subliminal dimension, but are there particular sound patterns that you are especially drawn to, that you keep coming back to?
Messerli: Those are very difficult — if important — questions, and I’m not sure that I can completely answer them. You are correct, despite all the issues of genre and form that characterize my writing, it
is sound that dominates. I suppose it began, in part, with my early musical training. Although I was not a very outstanding baritone saxophonist nor a great tenor, both activities — singing and playing in the school bands — were extremely important to me. And then, there was my great love of the Broadway musical: I would purchase original Broadway cast recordings, despite the fact that we had no record player at home! I just assimilated the importance of music and rhythm in writing. This may sound very strange to some readers, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a sentence that doesn’t have something to do with sound and rhythm — at least to my ear. Although I am always concerned with meaning, I have to admit I’d give it up in a minute if something
It is not, however, just something I do in writing; I try to accomplish that “sounding,” that musicality, in my everyday speech — which is probably why some people find me entertaining and others (most I admit) perceive me as a bit daff. I remember when I was teaching at Temple University, a fellow professor stopping me in the hall to give me a piece of advice: “You know, your essays sound just as if you’re speaking,” he observed. “Yes?” I queried. “Well, essays shouldn’t sound like that. Perhaps you should read The Yale Review, that’s what I do.” I was so stunned that I must have just stammered, but I attempted to say, “Yes, you’ve got it. That is what I try to do in my essays: create a voice.”
You see the problem is that what I hear as music, others don’t. Many people simply can’t or won’t hear the rhythms and music of the voice. I just realized as I was writing this, that my closest friends — you included — all have marvelously original and musical voices. I can hear you speak, even if I haven’t seen you for months!
Of course, one has to be careful in saying this, because (again we have different ears) what most people mean by voice is what they would describe as a sort of “every day, everyman” voice: the rhythms of “ordinary speech” — whatever that might mean. And that concept has allowed the very worst of American poetry to be adulated. No, I’m talking about voices that incorporate all the richness and denseness of language, that create a kind of complex syntax that can be expressed in no other manner. No voices of The Yale Review or even a New England hired hand in my ears! One day, for instance, I just said out loud (to myself) “the thicket’s in the thick of what / the civet cat & krait snake have / in common,” and a whole poem “Scared Cows,” rolled out before me. In many of my poems (those not generated by the words of other poets), I just hear a sentence in my head, a rhythm, a rhyme that I have to resist or to pun against, and that ringing brings yet another thing to mind, and another, and so on.
I’m sure there are particular sound patterns that dominate my work. When composing the opera based on my play, “Past Present Future Tense,” Michael Kowlski charted out three basic syntactical and rhythmic patterns that I had used throughout. One form (again you might describe it as a kind of mini-genre) I’m very attracted to is the sort of solemn, singsong sound of old wives’ tales or maxims — anything that proposes to be filled with wisdom while actually revealing complete nonsense on the part of the speaker: “An apple, a day.” I share that with Stein, whose American English is always on target: “A war is a thing where there is a man and a house and practices and was always on target.” All of those marvelous unconnected conjunctions that, alas, do connect up to become the target of any war in the end. I remember reading of the great soprano Eleanor Steber’s attempt to explain to a German friend the lyrics of Samuel Barber’s “Summer of 1915,” based on the preface to James Agee’s A Death in the Family. “We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there... .” Her German friend, understandably, found the English to be absolutely ridiculous — all of those uselessly repeated pronouns. Robert Frost without a net! In English — to my ear at least — it sounds delicious!
¶ Bernstein: Do you write poetry with any pre-conceived sense of an audience, an ideal reader, or specific readers in mind?
Messerli: Yes, I do — me! Or Per Bregne at least. I personally have to like a poem and come to, at least a temporary understanding of it, or I’ll just throw it away, which I often do. In having myself for an audience, moreover, I have become very interested in the reader, any reader. I often find myself working against the reader, playing with the reader’s expectations, moving the poem in one direction, but allowing it to go in another. I like the surprise of that shift and the complexity it creates — and, of course, I hope my (other) readers enjoy it as well.
More recently, however, I’ve become a bit less conscious of an audience — including me as the audience. The newer work, since it comes from a kind of emotional abstraction, doesn’t really depend as much on the audience or the reader for me. I mean, I want readers. I guess, I’m just less worried about them. Perhaps it’s because one finally recognizes that there are so few! When poets begin to worry about their readers — and it happens every day — I get nervous: either they have nothing else to say or they have been writing poetry for all the wrong reasons. I feel that I have to write. I have no choice in the matter. So, in that sense, well who gives a damn if I have legions of loyal admirers? Or that everyone understands what I have been trying to express? It’s not that I don’t seek out a response, but if that is really what one’s after, one should immediately stop writing and find a easier way of expression.
¶ Bernstein: Through Sun & Moon Press and now Green Integer, you have been one of the most, possibly the most active publishers of literary translations in the United States. At a time when most other American publishers are backing away from literary translations, and translations of poetry are the most rare item of all, can you discuss the motivations for this aspect of your publishing and editing and also your overall plans in this are, including the PIP series?
Messerli: Oh my, that sounds so apocalyptic! I hope it’s not just up to me! But, yes I probably do publish more translation — particularly poetry — than any other American publisher. I have come to have an absolute passion for it — publishing international writing. In a time when we Americans seem to be further insulating ourselves from the rest of the world (perhaps one should say “alienating” ourselves), it just seems more and more important that we share the languages, ideas, and emotions of people from other cultures and countries. I have to admit that when I began publishing — although I have always loved international writing and read a good deal of it — I was pretty smug about American poetry and fiction. I thought it was some of the very best writing that had ever been done. I don’t recall when things began to change — it happened long before Jerome Rothenberg’s and Pierre Joris’s voluminous double-volume anthology of world poetry,
Poems for the Millennium — but I began to discover that there were not just a few great writers from nearly every country, but dozens of important figures. Turkey, for example, did not just have the two poets represented by the Rothenberg-Joris anthology (Nazim Hikmet and Ece Ayhan), but a number of truly innovative poets, including Oktay Rifat, Orhan Veli, Ilhan Berk, Edip Cansever, Cemal Sureya, and Melih Cevdet Anday. Luigi Ballerini and Paul Vangelisti introduced me to a large group of brilliant Italian poets, an anthology of which I published for Sun & Moon Press. My friend Peter Glassgold showed me through his
Living Space anthology that 20th century Dutch poetry had been stunningly originally through the works of Lucebert, Bert Shierbeek, Jan Elburg, Gerrit Kouwenaar, Remco Campert, Hugo Claus and others. People like Régis Bonvicino (along with Elizabeth Bishop’s early Brazilian anthology) showed me the writings of outstanding Brazilians such as João Cabral de Melo Neto, Murilo Mendes, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, José Oswald de Souza Andrade, and Raul Bopp — to name just a few. The more I read, the more I discovered, until I realized that almost every country had had exciting poets throughout the century, poets just as adventurous, often
more adventurous than Pound, Williams or Stevens. I’m still in awe, years later. Americans need to discover that, far from being at the center of things, they are just as often at the fringes; instead of their self-proclaimed role as leaders, they are just as often followers — at least in literature; and I suspect if I were to investigate other fields of knowledge that I’d discover that we Americans often live in a vacuum when it comes to knowing what else exists.
You know, it’s interesting, having this knowledge about world poetry doesn’t simply make me feel a bit humbled and embarrassed for my own countrymen’s limitations, but has helped me to be a richer and more complex American writer — and I think it would help all American poets. It was that which Pound was trying to explain to Williams, get to know the world! Williams mistakenly thought Pound was asking him to write like the Europeans (or perhaps Asians). As great a poet as he is — and I do think Williams is a great poet — imagine what he might have written had he been able to read the works of Huidobro or Girondo or Xul Solar, Andrade! Would he still have written Asphodel, That Greeny Flower?
I’m truly intoxicated with all the variety of poetry I’ve discovered. I know this can sound a bit like worst kind of American tourist, someone bitten by the exotic, fascinated with the difference of things. But I truly don’t think that that’s the issue. More often, in fact, one can see grand similarities, different cultures, each in their own, coming to perceptions at the very same moment, or discover important connections, influences.
I’m so lucky, I think, to be able to help American readers discover this work. It would be wonderful to think it might somehow even change us, but that’s the missionary in me. Even if we just accept it at its surface value, and take in the pleasure of reading these poets, what a wonderful task I’ve set for myself.
As I said previously, however, I have a way of making things difficult, and my grand plans for the publication of this work is more than a bit insane. I plan for at least 50 volumes of the PIP Anthology of International Poetry of the 20th Century — and we’re just on volume five. I’ve also just begun a fiction series, 1001 Great Stories, of which I hope to publish two volumes of ten stories each in every season. You understand that, given my current age, I would have to live to at least 82 to accomplish this? I’ll do want I can.
¶ Bernstein: How did you come to publish Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain — the important anthology of Brazilian poetry, edited by Régis Bonvicino and Nelson Ascher? What was the reception of the book?
Messerli: Actually, I don’t completely recall. I don’t know if then San Francisco consul João Almino first contacted me, or Michael Palmer, who was working with João to see this book published in English. But one or the other sent me the manuscript, and, since I had just finished my own huge American anthology, and was planning the Italian one, I immediately accepted it. It was published by Sun & Moon Press in 1997, and it quite quickly sold out of its first printing. It wasn’t until I traveled to Brazil, however, that I came to really understand just how important such an anthology of younger poets can be. This was the first anthology of its kind since Elizabeth Bishop’s An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry of 1972, and accordingly, it was enormously important in Brazil. Suddenly, I wished I’d been more active in the actual editing of it. Michael and Régis, the primary editors, had done a splendid job. But I quickly realized that we could have used more information on each poet and a more careful editorial eye. So instead of rushing to reprint it on Sun & Moon Press — which was having its financial problems — I worked with Régis over a couple of years to bring it into the format of the PIP series, which included more extensive biographies, complete listings of the author books, and a more careful presentation of the poems; we also added one poet, deleting another. I’m very proud of the new edition.
¶ Bernstein: Would you speak of your own relation to Brazilian poetry? Have you any particular affinity for, or difficulty with, Portuguese, a language that for many Americans is the least familiar of the colonial languages of the Americas (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese)?
Messerli: I think I’ve already made it clear that my ability with languages other than English is limited. I would have to live in Brazil for several months before the language might reach my brain. I do not find it impossible to read articles in the newspapers, particularly if I have the context, since Spanish does help. Hearing it, on the other hand — although it’s a wonderful sounding language — it’s impossible for me to understand. The Brazilians also make it quite clear that they do not speak the Portuguese of Portugal. So... what can I say? What I know of Brazilian literature is from translation.
In truth, although I love many of the great 20th century Brazilian writers and many of younger poets we published in Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain I’ve not really been influenced (yet) by the poetry. Certainly São Paulo, the city, got under my blood, particularly on my second visit. What an incredible place! And I wrote a play in São Paulo (having witnessed one of my own plays performed there). So perhaps Kier Peters was influenced. I think a third visit will be necessary... And I haven’t even seen Rio! The important thing, however, is that I truly feel I have friends there, particularly in Régis and Horácio Costa (who took me on marvelous tours of the city where some are afraid to go), and Claudia Roquette-Pinto.
¶ Bernstein: Now to broaden the question just a bit, have the poetries and poetics of the Americas — Brazil, South and Central America, the Caribbean — been a significant frame of reference to you? In what way does this figure differently for you than your connection to European poetries?
Messerli: That’s a very interesting question that I haven’t really thought carefully enough about. I’d begin by saying that there are figures, important figures, Neruda, Huidobro, Girondo, Bopp, Asturias, Cortázar, Donoso, Bioy-Casares, Borges, and Fuentes, who have meant a great deal to me. But I don’t know if their being South or Central Americans or Mexicans makes that influence different from the European — or Middle Eastern or Asian influences I’ve felt. I guess, in part, it’s simply because I’ve traveled less in South and Central America than in Europe. You know, I’ve only been to Brazil — not even to Mexico!! In that sense, I’m as isolated as I’ve described most Americans. I haven’t yet assimilated or, perhaps we should say, even experienced what the Caribbean or South or Central America is all about. I will say that of the region of which you’re speaking, I find the Cuban authors — authors that, coincidentally, are also mostly gay — Sarduy, Lezama Lima, Cabrera Infante, Piñera most simpatico. But, then, I’ve never been to Cuba either. The literature of the Caribbean, Central and South America, however, moves me, and leads me into desiring a closer relationship, a deeper comprehension.
¶ Bernstein: At the time I am writing this question, the U.S. is struggling through a most important Presidential election (and by the time this is published, the results of that election will be known). Speaking specifically from your perspective as a poet, how do you view the current political climate in the U.S.? How does the work of poetry affect the political sphere?
Messerli: I’ve already expressed some of my fears in a previous conversation with Régis Bonvicino in the pages of Sibilia magazine. Along with many of my friends, I am, quite frankly terrified by the current political climate, and am afraid by what might happen if President Bush is reelected. I believe — even if it’s just symbolic — we have lost a great many of our personal freedoms since 9/ 11 and the war in Iraq. And I don’t forsee that some of these freedoms — including our ability to travel to certain countries like Cuba — is going to improve. I just published a translation of a wonderful Cuban poet, Reina María Rodríguez; however The Patriot Act seems to suggest that, as a publisher, I might be subject to a fine or imprisonment for having “improved” (which the government appears to consider “translation” as accomplishing) her writing. I can’t believe that our government would be so insane as to actually act on such a provision, but... there it is. This is a real fear which we all must face. I think it has had a terribly stultifying effect on American poetry and the arts in general. In today’s Los Angeles Times, for example, there was a congratulatory piece on how wonderfully the current head of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, was getting along with the conservatives in congress. Meanwhile, he has created two new programs at the National Endowment, one to bring Shakespearian productions to American communities, and the other, titled “Operation Homecoming,” to bring poets and novelists to military installations to conduct writing workshops for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. I have severe doubts about the artistic integrity of both of these programs; but, more importantly, he has set a dangerous precedent in defining what artistic projects should be supported by the government. While other projects, less specifically aimed at one constituency, are certain to be supported by the NEA, I see this as a terribly frightening development. Upon being sworn into his position, Gioia was asked if he had any specific agenda: he answered, “I’m a Republican but I’m not political.” It’s hard to imagine how to say anything profound in the context of such doublespeak. And then, there’s the country at large, the American press...
¶ Bernstein: Exactly a decade ago, you edited and published the most comprehensive collection of innovative and exploratory American poetry of the period, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960–1990. If you were to extend that anthology forward to the next decade, to the present, what would be the most significant changes and additions you would make — not only in terms of the names of poets you might add or subtract, but of new directions and how they may now affect your view of the entire period after 1960?
Messerli: Has it really been a decade? Yes, I guess it has. We are definitely now on “the other side of the century.”
In part, I am having to consider some of those of those choices, since I am now republishing that volume (1,135 pages in its original form), in four PIP anthology volumes, each with a new introduction. But since I do not want to have to repurchase the rights, which if I substantially changed it, making it another edition, I’d have to do, I am leaving it basically intact. Since its original publication, moreover, the book has become something of an icon, a beloved statement in its own right — on the internet it’s even been proclaimed as one of the “best books of the century!” So, I want to leave it as its own statement in time and place.
Looking at it as objectively as I can, moreover, I wouldn’t suggest that there are any new major developments. A few younger figures certainly might be added to one section or another, but I don’t have the feeling that a new “grouping” or poetic expression has yet developed. Perhaps it is just the time in which we live, but — while younger poets have demonstrated interest in their own generation — no ideological force has seemed to bring them together, to help them to cohere. There’s certainly a lot of poetic writing today in the U.S. — and some of it quite competent — but I can’t yet perceive it as coming out of any generational need or desire. I do see a few poets moving toward what I might describe as a poetry imbedded with the language and ideas of technology and other scientific terminology, which is somewhat interesting. And, occasionally, as in the work of Joe Ross or Mark Wallace, I see increasingly a political subtext. But overall, much of the writing is lyrically quite stunning, but basically centered upon self and perception — concerns which might be equally at home in the New York School.
In short, I don’t see the need yet to alter or revise my anthology. But I hope I’m wrong, and that someone will edit a new anthology of younger writers which will show me what I was missing. Isn’t that why new anthologies are published?
¶ Bernstein: Finally, one of your largest-scale projects at the moment is called Being American. Please talk about this work.
Messerli: Actually, it’s escalated into two volumes,
Being American and
Being UnAmerican, so it’s rather appropriate for this discussion.
For years friends (even enemies for that matter) have tried to get me to write a memoir. I certainly have known a lot of literary and other major figures of our time, and I guess they think I have something say about them and need to explain what I have been up to. But you know, I just am not the type of person who is comfortable with writing a memoir centered, as memoirs are, on the self. As I said early in this interview, I’m a collaborator.
Also, I think you have to have a sense of a somewhat coherent life to want to sit down and write about it. I have had no such experience. I’ve lived in dozens of different houses in numerous towns in the US and overseas. The longest period in one place has been my last 18 years here in Los Angeles. My life, accordingly, is broken up into episodes, bit and pieces, with large gaping holes where I can’t remember events or individuals.
What I have done over the years is to write a great deal about other writers, artists, dancers, musicians, etc. Moreover, as I expressed it earlier, my life is, in a sense, art — at least I understand my life through art. So, I began to gather some of these essays and reviews written long ago, clearing them and reediting to correct errors. I have also worked to make these pieces more personal, as if there were an actual “voice” speaking behind them. To these, I have added shorter pieces, sort of an ongoing commentary about my experience with different films, poems, fiction, dances, works of art, etc: Why, when I was 12 years old did I so thoroughly enjoy Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for example, and yet at 13, hate North by Northwest — a movie I now love? Why is it that no one talks about the obvious (to me at least) gay subtext of Cary Grant’s performance in Bringing Up Baby? Why I feel that, far from being, as many see it, a paean to the American innocence, the musical Oklahoma is filled with the violence and disregard for justice that characterizes much of contemporary American life. I just wrote an essay, for example, on “Three Children of the Fifties: Holden, Lolita, Malcolm.” I have also included other information, my personal memories of some of the figures I’m writing about, etc. So it has become a kind of memoir, one centered on my cultural experiences as opposed to events in my life.
Of course, as I’ve established, I also have done just as much writing and thinking about other cultures, about the art of other countries. So I had to create the second volume, Being UnAmerican, to talk about the other half of my cultural life. I guess if I include this interview, it would appear in the second volume.
In any event, I’m thoroughly enjoying this, which I imagine, should take a number of years — making it, ultimately, too ungainly and voluminous to ever be published. I repeat: I have a way of making things difficult.
Douglas Messerli is the author of several books of poetry, drama, and fiction, including the forthcoming 2005 book Between (by Salt Publishers, UK). He edits Green Integer.
Charles Bernstein, New York City, November 1997, photo John Tranter
Charles Bernstein’s libretto
Shadowtime was published by Green Integer in late Spring 2005. He is the author of
With Strings (University of Chicago Press, 2001),
Republics of Reality: Poems 1975–1995 (Sun and Moon Press, 2000), and
My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago, 1999) and co-director of PennSound at http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/
Charles Bernstein teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
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