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Charles Bernstein

in conversation with Leonard Schwartz, 15 March 2004

Charles Bernstein, New York City, November 1997, photo John Tranter

Transcript by Zoe Ward, from a radio interview on Cross Cultural Poetics, KAOS 89.3FM Olympia

Charles Bernstein is a leading US poet and scholar. Read his interview with Douglas Messerli in Jacket 28, and Susan Schultz’s 25-page article in Jacket 14, and see the note at the foot of this page.

This interview is 4,500 words
or about 8 printed pages long

Setting the World on Fire

Leonard Schwartz: Welcome, Charles.

Charles Bernstein: Thanks for having me, Leonard.

LS: Thanks for spending some time with us. You have a new book out, entitled World On Fire, published by Nomados Press in Vancouver B.C. and I believe there’s a reprint coming out very soon of your famous book, The Sophist, originally published by Sun and Moon Press. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the new work in World On Fire.

CB: World on Fire is woven with 1940s standards (mostly 1940s, some of them go back a little earlier or come a little later). The title poems and also “A Flame in Your Heart” come from a 1941 hit by Eddie Seiler, Sol Marcus, Bennie Benjamin and Eddie Durham, called “I Don’t Want to Set The World on Fire,” which came out just before Pearl Harbor and is forever perfused with the darkness of the early war years. I was born in the 1950s, so the 1940s exists for me, always-already, as shadow in my mind. And I suppose a kind of war-consciousness that we experienced in the last few years in the U.S. set those songs into my mind, and I got to thinking how they could be opened up and rewoven. Also, an old theme of yours, the lyric poem, here a kind of sprung or critical lyric (if not, indeed, analytic lyric, to use your term) was much on my mind because they’re poems that certainly exist in the space behind or betwixt the lyric, if they’re not lyric poems themselves.

LS: There certainly is a need for a kind of lyric that is historical, for a history that is lyrical, or a way of trying to think about history and language in relationship to one another. Those have always been problems for us as Americans, but particularly so these days, don’t you think?

CB: Yes, and enunciation. How can you have enunciation, emphasis, and still have, you know, humor and detournement, drift. A lot of the material in World on Fire is distorted and reworked almost to the parodic, yet the overall tone of World On Fire is not satirical, even if some of its particular moments are. Maybe what I am moving toward is a negative or reverse lyric, an articulation and enunciation of and for and in a world in which nothing is what it seems to be, but neither is it the opposite. The poems negotiate between these two poles, plus and minus, to inhabit a space between, of relationship, connection, critique, resistance, and even some possible view of what history might be. Although the poems don’t address history — they are not historiographic but lyric — they suggest a way in which one can exist in history without being consumed by it.

LS: Indeed. The song lyrics, I suppose, take you away from the immediacy of the war — we’re talking about the war in the ’40s — but then you come back to those song lyrics and use them as a way of helping locate us in our own immediate circumstance. There was a poem that I was particularly attracted to entitled “Broken English.” I wonder if you could read us that.

CB: Sure.

            Broken English

What are you fighting for? The men move

decisively toward the execution chamber.
Joey takes aim but muffles his fire.

Overhead, the crescent moon cracks
the unbroken sky. A moth beats its wings
against the closed door — intransigence its

only lore. What are you fighting for? The sirens

cry wolf to the obedient masses who sway,
hysterical, in synch to the boys
on the back streets and the ladies of mourning.

Brushing up fate pixel by pixel, burnishing
dusk: the sum of entropy and elevation.

Tony takes it in his intestine, the sharp
pain in his body like ripples
in a sand dune, his face exquisitely detached

from any sign of the sensation. What are
you fighting for? The market plunges, savings

slip away like a greased pig in a taffy
pull. Sometimes the easiest thing is just to stop
thinking about it. Then it can just think you.

Depending on the angle of incline and the rate

of decomposition. Wives to each other, husbanding
the fear that feeds upon itself and its prey.
Doesn’t that count for something, even

in these pitched accommodations?

What are you fighting for?

What are you fighting for?

LS: It’s really a wonderful piece, Charles. Could you say a little bit about it, or around it, or behind it?

CB: I always think giving comments on a poem is more of an extension of a poem than an explanation. Not that I’m against explanation, but it’s more interesting to carry on in the spirit of that writing. That poem is an exception to what I’ve just framed as the standards, the ’30s and ’40s standards, that pervade the rest of the book because the title comes from the Marianne Faithfull song, “Broken English,” and I include the refrain in the poem. It breaks the frame of the series, pops it outside itself. As I read it here tonight and as I’ve read it in the last months, the poem specifically addresses the current situation with the war in Iraq. Insofar as the poem exists in a now, as you hear it now, the question raised and repeated is — How do we come to be in this war?, and Who chooses the terms of the war?

“Broken English” is also a poem about sensation, specifically the idea that martial power requires detachment from feeling. To be able to go beyond feeling — while sometimes heroic and perhaps necessary at times — is, in any case, an extreme form of dissociation and alienation that it makes a person prey to forces beyond themselves. So the poem grasps for elegy in its acknowledgement of how out-of-kilter are desire (in the sense of grim determination) and sensation, which are figured in terms of a split between articulation and meaning, where the connection of articulation and meaning is broken. Or how desire can be used toward ends that are unrelated to what one might actually want, if one was able to reflect on it. Desire, for example, to be brave and to do what’s right can often be subject to the worst type of abuse, when you have a government that abuses the trust of its citizens. That’s not what the poem says, but that is the field of thinking from which the poem emerges.

LS: Absolutely. I think there are two conversations that flow out of your poem, “Broken English,” that come to my mind. One is the way in which, on the one hand, in our shared poetics or sometimes our polemical relationship to one another in poetics, there is the necessity to break English in order for whatever it is we’re actually speaking to immerge from underneath it. So your title, or your gesture there, towards broken English is interesting at that level. At the same time, don’t we also feel that the language has been rendered almost obsolete on the basis of, let’s say, the Bush administration’s abuses of language: left is right, up is down and so on. English has been broken. Not in the way we would want to break it, but in the way that if we ever believed that it was a useful communicative tool, we can’t believe any longer. So I have those two readings that come out of “What are you fighting for?” Are you fighting for the necessary break and fracturing in English, or are we fighting to rescue the possibility of meanings in words at this particular moment in history?

CB: I couldn’t be more in tune with that reading of the poem. The third element of that would be the dissociation, at the heart of it, between the inner feeling and the outer expression. This is an old philosophical conundrum, how do you know that someone’s in pain if they don’t show the pain? That is another kind of brokenness between the inner subjectivity of a people or an individual and the outer actions, which also seem to be broken in the case of our country.

But yes, that “broken” in the double sense relates to what I was saying before, in that you can’t just break something and expect, in that ironic way, that this will make it better (“it’s better broken”?!); or just pretend that it’s not broken or that everything is always broken. You don’t have that choice. You have to operate in between, in the doubleness of the brokenness of the line and the enunciation. That’s where the lyric utterance comes in, in the breaking and in the expression that emerges as the lines break. In opening up each word and turning around the phrases so you hear them in different way. And then, at the same time, the collective language that we have ain’t working and is used for a terrible purpose. All the positive emotional words that we have at our disposal are manipulated and taken from us. Lyric utterance itself is taken from us. Subjective expression is taken from us and used for its opposite effect. So how to reclaim that is the task of poetry.

LS: A couple of things. I wonder if you could say a little bit on an issue you’ve written about very persuasively, very convincingly at times: the difference between representation and reference, or representationality and referentiality, and where you see your own poetics in relationship to those two disparate concepts.

CB: That’s an an important rhetorical point for me, though I realize that for a lot of people the terms conflate. But my interest in poetry is always to have a more charged field of reference, as you’ve just discussed in thinking about the phrase “broken English” and what that could mean. The phrase doesn’t refer to an entity in the world that’s broken, because “English” isn’t an entity quite in that sense. It means broken in a good sense, breaking something open, like a bottle of champagne, so that it can bubble up and over and outside its container, and also in the bad sense of something that’s not working in the way you want it to work. So the references are multiple, as the reference to the Marianne Faithfull song, and what that has to do with it, which also is a dialect within English and the struggle between standard English and alternative Englishes or vernaculars or dialects. All of those are references that hover around just that phrase. So any conception that a poetry like this is moving away from “reference” seems to me misguided and conceding the most important point, giving up the whole purpose of the poem or of poetry, at least from my conception of the purpose of poetry.

Representation is very different. What I’m interested in is providing different representations of often similar kinds of things and even competing representations. Representations are always versions. You always create one version and exclude other versions. And the more coherent they are, the more they seem to be authoritative and accurate, often the more deceptive they can be. That seemed to me an urgent matter when I first started to write poetry and it seems to me an equally urgent matter now. So one activity that you can be involved with in poetry is to think of representations as part of the surface play of the language, to contrast different representations so that they clash, to allow the paradoxes to have a rhythmic quality to them. It’s actually quite pleasurable because you’re playing with the stuff, actual word stuff, that engenders the world. But the poetic work can also be a process of attunement to the social world, which necessarily entails clashing representations, clashing claims, and so on. Not to produce some single representation (which would be an idea of truth I reject, an idealized truth that’s outside the world and so truthless), but to allow the unfolding of these different forms of representation, styles of representation, and for that conflict to be a music that doesn’t end. You could almost call me a sophist.

LS: Indeed, I think I will call you a sophist, in the best sense of the word. You have a book, The Sophist, which I want to turn to in a moment. Just quickly on that question of representation and reference, and also the earlier discussion of the place or possible function of poetry as a means of subversion in a political moment such as our own. Michael Palmer was on Cross-Cultural Poetics a few months back and asked the question, “At what point does Poets Against the War,” which is a very laudable and important movement, Sam Hammill and so on, “at what point does Poets Against the War turn into the war against poetry?” That is to say, once we start believing in our representations, as opposed to continually participating in the play you just described, do we end up, no matter what positive content we put into the framework, once that framework is frozen as truth, do we not end up betraying ourselves?

CB: This is an old issue in respect to anti-war poetry. I think Michael and I probably share a perspective on this. I’m not against other conceptions of poetry or rhetorics or essays or articles or interventions that have a more positive, affirmative view of representation than mine. For example, that hold out for a political language that presents a clear, cogent, authoritative view. Sometimes you need to do that and that’s certainly an important function. But within poetry I think a possibility which is quite political is the questioning aspect itself, the questioning of aspects, the questioning of authority. And not just the questioning as if that’s where you leave it, but the revelation of a space you can live in that doesn’t have authority, certainty, final versions. We need to have that — let’s call it — poetic or transitional space, of reality coming into being and disappearing and morphing, in order to come up with whatever provisional political views we might take at a given time, that we might express in a political platform, for example.

I think of poetry as being quite different than the creation of political platforms. I don’t think that it’s starting from the point of view in which I know what I’m going to say and I’m going to make some particular argument for it, as in an editorial or an article. For me, the poem explores and finds out what it’s going to say in the process of its composition. So it’s a different imagination of what poetry is. Poetry as an act of the imagination rather than an expression of an opinion.

LS: Indeed, as an act of the imagination. It is something we share as well, that sense that the poem should continually question and refuse to resolve itself in a certain way...

CB: And when you say that, it’s important to keep in mind, as I know you do, that it isn’t just subversion and questioning, but that an actual palpable, sensual, material reality opens up. That that is the experience of being in the world. And that this idea of reducing things to one authoritative perspective is actually a distortion of the flow of experience, let’s say. So it’s not that poetry is more unreal. On the contrary, poetry is the constant grappling with the real. And it’s that grappling with the real that makes it the basis for political judgment.

LS: So you’re saying that there is, after all, a production of a text. This is not programmatic skepticism that tears everything down. There is, through this process of questioning, a text and a texture and a work, a production, at stake.

CB: A return to the senses. The senses of sound and language, being more in touch with how sounds and shapes, torsions and distortions, actually come into being and engender what it is that we think.

LS: You spoke of the sophist earlier and you have an important work of yours, The Sophist, which is about to be reprinted. Often times the sophist gets the bad name. Socrates is the good guy and the sophist is the bad guy. You reverse that, I think, in this book. I wondered if you could read to us a little bit from The Sophist.

CB: Okay. A lot of the poems in The Sophist are quite long, but this one is not. It’s called “MicMac Mall: Sunset at Inverness” and it has a little epigraph: “We travelled the oceans to see the world. But what did we see, we saw the sea.”


Micmac Mall (Sunset at Inverness)

          We travelled the oceans
          To see the world
          But what did we see
          We saw the sea

The winter of
prepositions falls
on the Jew’s
benighted brow


You’re barking up
the wrong tree
when you ask me


No these note the


Why not erase the start and begin again to trace the phase.


And what the rain
by the tears
of the Law’d
weeping for our having turned


The body itself a kind of psychic accident.


Error of
of unessential


Yet what were Paris’ secrets compared to London’s and what
London’s to the gargantuan underbelly of Halifax’s dark
commode of brooding silence.


No Moose


“I got here but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get back.”


The crowd to her, so
many marks




“Fabulous, fabulous”


If smoothness is to be a criteria
Then you’re definitely inferior


Ectophobia: fear of the without, the external, the outside.
Cf: heterophobia: fear of others, otherness. ((Ectomancy.))


“nobody to forgo my bail...”


Over Cross
Cannot I wide
Is neither carry
Or water shall
Wings row shall both
To fly in tow
My give and boat
My boat and give


“I could eat a truck.”


& so the time
passes until
they die
ignoble & obscure

LS: Charles, it’s such a funny piece and such a sharp piece. For you, can you say a little about the relationship between poetry and speech?

CB: It’s hard to say... (Laughs)

LS: (Also laughs) That was a loaded question, but the poem does...

CB: It’s good question. No, no, it’s funny because it relates to the question of reference and odd syntax and so on. For me, there’s a kind of spectrum between slang, made-up language or syntax, and standard language. And I’m interested in moving between those different registers. So in that poem, which is from 20 years ago (and I haven’t read it much in the past 20 years either), I remember that I wrote it in Nova Scotia, so there are a lot of Canadian references...

LS: “No Moose.” No moose?! There must have been plenty of moose in Nova Scotia.

CB: Moose, right, moose.

LS: You can’t go far without seeing...

CB: Moose beer, Moosehead beer. But, there’s the double again, the beer and its namesake. But also, MicMac itself struck me with the power of those Indian names that almost sound like they could be something completely else when you’re not aware of their origin. So that’s not exactly speech, but it’s some kind of ... almost turning into a nonsense word, in a Lewis Carroll kind of way, something that has this actual, specific, other linguistic base. The short hits format of the poem allows such modulations from one kind of language to another.

LS: That’s what incited my question. You have bits like, “Fabulous, fabulous” in quotation marks, coming out of speech, juxtaposed against rhythms more traditionally associated with the poetic next to dictionary definitions, next to forms of speech that play with our anticipation of what they should be. For example, “and what the rain/ by the tears/ of the law’d”. It’s printed as “L-A-W-’-D.” That kind of playfulness.

CB: Right, there’s an example of a double or overlay between a gospel-like vernacluar for the Lord and a pun on the “law,” which is more Judaic, and this kind of thing runs through the rest of the poem. The quick hits, separated by asterisks, interested me because it allows for a collection (or collocation) of discrepent pieces of language or observations. And while the poem suggests found language, the material is not simply lifted from a source, it's been reworked.  I like the sense of a sampler or a catalog, the citational (or "in quotes") quality. You can read it for what it was saying directly but you inevtiably also look at it and have a kind of distance from it, read it for the double entendres and the like. And then, there is the music of it: how to make those different parts come together as a mosaic or constellation, or let's just say the musical relation of one part to the next, which is a harder part to talk about but which is also crucial.

So, literally, you were talking about subversion before, it’s a word I both like and dislike, each one is a different version or a sub-version of the other and you have a kind of flickering, or a mobius, Mobius strip is a good way to think about it in terms of its seriality. It constantly flips around in a set of related motifs, but you can’t exactly state what the motif is that is at the center of it, although hopefully it feels like it’s there.

LS: I think so. I think it feels like it’s something there that you can’t quite touch. Charles, you spoke of the poem as an older poem from 20 years ago, we’ve spoken of World On Fire, your newest book. What’s coming up, what other projects are you working on?

CB: As far as essays go, I’m continuing to work on a project that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, certainly since the late ’80s, which has to do with this question you asked, the relation of speech to writing, which is why I laughed. I’m quite interested in the writing of the ’20s and ’30s, the second-wave modernists and how they used colloquial speech or vernacular to mark a lack of assimilation into the mainstream melting-pot America, and how that dialect or non-standard language can be read in terms of assimilation and cultural specificity and particularity. And across a whole range of different examples, from Charlie Patton’s blues, to Louis Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The’, to Paul Robeson singing the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein.

There is an instructive set of ways in which the vernacular enters into and becomes mass culture in America, and therefore unmarked as vernacular, so it becomes just a kind of informal speech that’s accepted as part of the dominant speech. And then there's the counter to that: the way a whole other set of writers and lyricists actually push the vernacular to be even more refractory, more odd, more dense, less assimilated. It’s hard for me the describe what I’m doing in poetry in that respect, but I’ll let World On Fire set the tone for my present thinking in poetry.

LS: Fair enough. I think that you’re right again to suggest that to begin to describe what a poem does is to kind of defeat the poem. No need to write the poem if you could have described it. Description isn’t a very exciting mode of rhetoric anyhow, at least in poetic terms. So, I know what you mean there.

Charles, it’s been really nice to spend this time together. Quick question, you used to do your own radio program, LINEbreak, is that a continuing project, has that become a historical document, or some other third possibility I haven’t listed?

CB: Actually, you reminded me of what I didn’t say in answering that question. I went off on the more scholarly part of it, the essayistic part of the research there. But the other thing is that I’ve become obsessed with is sound recording of the unaccompanied voice. Just as with this telephone hook-up I’m listening to your voice and you’re listening to mine, something that really has only been available for 125 years. The earliest recordings are from just a hundred years ago, and I have been thinking about the impact that has for poetry. Most significantly, sound recording provides an alternative to the alphabet, which is a very thin system of representing speech, although a very economic one, indeed one of the great technologies that human beings have invented. But magnetic recording, sound recording, early cylinder recordings, allowed for a thickness of voice transcription that I think is still very new in its implications for poetry and for human culture more generally. And one thing I’m doing is to think about that and speculate on it as I like to do, speculate through poetry, essays, and also production.

At Penn (the University of Pennsylvania) we started a project called PennSound. We’re trying to put together a collection of MP3s that will be available for free, an archive of poetry readings of the 20th century. We’re producing a whole range of new recordings as well, breaking poetry readings down by the individual poem, so that when our site is all up you’ll be able to go to the particular poem by the particular person and click on it and you’ll get a fully copyrighted work that you can listen to, in a way that would have been very hard without the internet and without the new compression technologies.

Visit PennSound at


LS: Interesting. Well, we’ll certainly have to talk more about our overlap on Cross-Cultural Poetics and this University of Pennsylvania project that you’re describing. It sounds intriguing, Charles.

CB: It’s also consuming in that archive fever way. Because it’s a whole other aspect, or version, of what poetry is. The spoken word, the spoken voice part of it. And it’s so central to what we do as poets, this radio show being an example, the readings that poets do and so on. And yet it’s been very elusive. Even radio shows like this have disappeared into the ether, but now, your show can be archived and heard over time, available more like books. And it’s that aspect that interests me. The retrievability of the recording makes it more like writing and books, as opposed to something that’s transient and in the air as a live performance, which also is great, but different. Archived recordings are more like writing.

LS: Charles, this has been great.

CB: It’s been my pleasure.

Charles Bernstein, New York City, November 1997, photo John Tranter

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
Charles Bernstein teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

Leonard Schwartz

Leonard Schwartz

Leonard Schwartz is the author of several collections of poetry, including Ear And Ethos (Talisman House, 2005) The Tower of Diverse Shores (Talisman House, 2003), Words Before The Articulate: New and Selected Poems, (Talisman House), Gnostic Blessing (Goats and Compasses), Meditation (Cloud House), Objects of Thought, Attempts At Speech (Gnosis Press) and Exiles: Ends (Red Dust Press). He is also the author of a collection of essays A Flicker At The Edge Of Things: Essays on Poetics 1987–1997 (Spuyten Duyvil). In recent years he has read from his work at international festivals, conferences, and universities in China, Turkey, France, Belgium, Portugal, Russia, Argentina, and Peru, as well as at numerous venues in the U.S., ranging from the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle, to the University of Hawaii, The College of Santa Fe, The University of Utah, Stephens Institute of Technology, and the St. Marks Poetry Project in New York. In 1997 he received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.

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