Writing Matters: In conversation with Charles Bernstein
By Runa Bandyopadhyay
What is a poem? “A poem is a constant transformation of itself and every poem is a model of a possible world that only comes into being when reading is active, activated,” will be Charles’s answer. What is the relation between poetry and poetics? “Poetics is an extension of the practise of poetry, and poetry is an extension of thinking with the poems and also the reflection of poetics,” will be his answer. Bernstein doesn’t believe in any conventional poeticism, but his own Pataquericalism, as he explains in this interview, taken during the creation of the anthology, Bridgeable Lines: an Anthology of Borderless World Poetry in Bengali with American poets.
Charles Bernstein’s poetic idea is similar to the “Notun Kobita (New Poetry)” movement of Bengal, which was started in the ’70s by a group of Kaurab poets – Barin Ghosal, Swadesh Sen, Kamal Chakraborty, etc. in Bengal.
Charles Bernstein lives in Brooklyn, New York and is the Donald T. Regan professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as co-editor of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978-1981), the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound and co-founder of SUNY- Buffalo poetics program. He was awarded both the Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry and the Muenster International Poetry Prize. Bernstein is the author of Pitch of Poetry (University of Chicago, 2016) and Recalculating (Chicago, 2013), among many other books. In 2010, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems. More information at writing.upenn.edu/authors/bernstein
Runa Bandyopadhyay: Tell us something about how you started your journey in poetry.
Charles Bernstein: The journey never started and so doesn’t end. It feels like it is an active presence. A river of words flowing through me, which I tap into, or perhaps which taps into me (which traps me).
Runa: Is there a relation between the poetic language and the body language of the word? Is a poetic idea revealed in the physical body of the poem?
Charles: Yes. Yes. I am interested in the body of the poem. This is not “material” body but as Blake says, “Spiritual Body”. That is to say, the poem is symbolic space, an imaginary space, where the value lies in not “representing” the world but exploring the “real” in and as language.
Runa: Poetry is form, or process, or [de-]construction or idol-making –– which one of these is closer to your way of writing and why?
Charles: I am interested in intensifying metonymy and iconicity. Not fragments but constellations of particulars. Not de-construction but re-constructions as a process without endpoint. In the Jewish tradition there is a prohibition of “graven images,” which is to say, images of idols. In my secular mutation of this idea, I would say –– in place of images are actions and processes that allow the readers/listeners a space to project their phantasies/desires/anxieties. But I do this not by minimalism or abstraction but by rhythm and association.
Runa: Poetry requires space, where the reader participates in the poem while at the same time remains outside it. What is your opinion on this dichotomy?
Charles: It’s possible to try to break down the divide between viewer/viewed, that is break down the voyeurism by eliding word and object. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is a key work in this respect, part of a “dialogic” space opened up also (in American poetry) by Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, and H.D. and also such second-wave modernists as Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff. I explore this issue in Artifice of Absorption (http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/bernstein/books/artifice/), in particular the possibility for rhythmic oscillation between inside/outside.
Runa: Is poetry a search for “reality” and existence, or a search for mystery? Or none of those? Then what is it?
Charles: Poetry isn’t one thing, even for an individual poet. “Reality” is perhaps always at issue, but whose reality, what aspect of the real? I don’t accept the “realities” imposed upon me by family, state, literary history, and convention; but then I can’t fully reject them either. In poems, I explore these “controlling interests,” to use the title of an early book.
Runa: Is Poetry more than resonance of ideas in the mind? If so, if more, what is it? Is poetry to be understood?
Charles: Understanding is to stand under whereas I want to be inside. Clarity, coherence, and expression are often shibboleths that stand in the way of the poetic transformation of those values: clarity as a means of imposing a rationalized order and standing in the way of a (let’s call it) pluriversity. Coherence, then, is a form of repressing what David Antin calls “radical coherence” by imposing plot lines in place of transformative narrative. Expression doesn’t have to mean rejecting anything other than conventional literary styles as significant. Blake speaks of “Mental Fight” and this fight is aesthetic, to not accept that conventional poetry styles have a monopoly on meaning of emotion. I was going to title my forthcoming collection (which I called Near/Miss) Against Feeling, in the sense of up against, touching.
Runa: Untraditional poetry or the poetry outside the heritage – what, in your view, will be the mark of new poetic language?
Charles: The history of poetry is pockmarked by innovation and invention, by the struggle for the new not as novelty but as necessity. Over the past two centuries, this pataquerical imperative has become Western poetry’s activist center (my word for the combination of inquiry and querulousness and Alfred Jarry’s pataphyics, the poetics of exception). We never know what the new is until we encounter it in a “now” where it seems as strange, yet intensely familiar, as the dawn.
Runa: Is poetry a fully conscious construction? Construction and de-construction – in your opinion, which one for the poet is the more ‘conscious’ important process?
Charles: Rhythmic oscillation: known/unknown, here/gone, speech/noise, familiar/foreign.
Runa: What is the relevance of daily incidents, the “indecisiveness” of contingencies in poetry? Does a poem follow its “flow” or does it look for something static?
Charles: To give material form to indecisiveness, ambivalence (wanting many conflicting things); to cycle through different moods and tones; to have a language of everyday life that is, as if, never before heard; to weep with laughter . . .
Runa: In your view, does the poem or the poet have a social responsibility? Is the poet responsible to society or him or her own self? What is the function of poetry in society?
Charles: All that I am is also my society. I am neither here nor there. Poetry has no purpose — and that is not its purpose.
Runa: What is the relationship among texts –– through appropriations or translations or (re)(de)constructions, etc. –– in poetry? When a poem triggers a reader and the latter assimilates the original poem into her/his own vision, can s/he rewrite it through expansion or commentary or meta-poems, etc., yet always retaining the original inside itself? What is your attitude toward “ownership” of a poem? What is an original poem?
Charles: The poem is a like an architectural space that the reader, or listener, traverses. The end of the poem is not a meaning or content conveyed but is rather a temporary (provisional) space. The end of the poem is what the reader perceives — and the greatest poems are those that allow for the greatest imaginative projections.
Ms. Runa Bandyopadhyay is an innovative bilingual poet, translator, essayist and critic from West Bengal, India. She is a scientist at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai. She focuses on alternative literary pursuits and engages herself in the innovative process with contemporary poetics in Bengali language. She is associated with various Bengali Little Magazines. Runa is in the process of innovation of a new stream of ‘recurring poetry’ in both Bengali and English language with her extraordinary work to reach the potential creation level against traditional literary criticism. The collection of these creations has been published by Kaurab in Antarbarty Pangkti (Between the Lines) and Tamaser Alokbhromon (Light-Travel of Dark) in the year of 2012 and 2017 respectively. Apart from that she is the author of 4 poetry books, two story books and a collection of hybrid essays in Bengali language. She co-edited the anthology, Hardcore Kaurab-2 with poet Barin Ghosal, published by Kaurab in 2013.
Runa has translated numerous international poets bidirectional between English and Bengali, including Charles Bernstein, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Eileen Tabios, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Barin Ghosal, Swadesh Sen, Alok Sarkar etc. She has also worked as contributing editor for the American magazine Dispatches from the Poetry Wars. At present, she is working as editor and translator of Bridgeable Lines, an Anthology of Borderless World Poetry in Bengali with American poets.
More information at https://runabandyopadhyay.wordpress.com/