Published in the major Finnish daily, Helsingin Sanomat, Jan.17, 1993
“I like interruptions”, says Charles Bernstein, 42 years, when Felix, eight months, wants to climb into his lap in the midst of an interview.
Bernstein is the Aronpuro and Pellinen of Manhattan and Buffalo, a poet of discontinuity, marginality, and insurgence. He is also a well-known essayist and activist in the alternative poetry scene.
Bernstein has published some twenty collections of poetry, and from 1978 to 1981, he co-edited, with Bruce Andrew, the important L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine.
His essays have been collected in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Politics (1990) and A Poetics (1990). He used to earn his living as an editor of medical texts; today, he teaches poetry and poetics at the State University of New York, Buffalo.
“I want no paradise only to be / drenched in the downpour of words”, begins the first poem in his most recent collection, Rough Trades. Abounding with strange nouns, his texts combine lyricism with irony, parody with an endearingly serious utopianism.
On The Joy Of Writing
Bernstein likes to underline that poetry does not strive to the immediate, “transparent” expression of experience. Rather, it is medium centered, even artificial language. This turns out to be his original experience of writing.
“I began writing in High School where I worked as an editor to the school magazine. I was fascinated with the possibility of creating non-common ways of articulation, probably because I felt the behavior patterns imposed on us (the patterns of speech, the formal politeness.) to be distressing and restrictive.”
“I had had similar experiences as a child. Learning to read was easy for me, but spelling. that was another matter altogether”, Bernstein says.
“Then, in Mid-Sixties, came the movements for Civil Rights and against the War in Vietnam. They made me realize that it was possible to develop alternative grammars and ways of expression.”
“It was important for me to realize that there was an esthetic dimension to all that: that it gave pleasure”, he stresses.
American sociability, stereotyped behavior, the uniform education and the one-dimensionality of mass culture are some of the standing targets for Charles Bernstein’s texts.
“Although there is a strong formalistic tendency in my poems – as in those by many others like me – disjunction and contradiction are not a value in itself to me”, Bernstein says.
“There’s a genuine and authentic social experience behind all that. Instead, I often feel the so called mainstream poetry that foregrounds the personal voice to be devoid of expression – just because it uses such given forms.”
“The same applies to voice, sound, and music in poetry. Foregrounding the ‘artificiality’ of language does not mean abandoning the sound. Rather, it is an attempt to return to it, to recover it behind the deafening rhyme and rhythm patterns of traditional poetry.”
“In fact, underneath the normalized, ‘accepted’ way of speaking there is all the time a vast amount of rejected, discriminated, and despised ones: stutterings and mutterings that are continuously audible in all our everyday speech.”
Felix gives a belch. “I wonder if you’ll be able to include this in your text”, Bernstein comments.
“These – rather than the hysteric attempts by the right, the center, and the left to standardize all expression – represent normalcy, in spite of their strangeness in the eyes of the dominant culture.”
The Value Of Worthlessness
Bernstein stresses the social function of poetry by comparing it to the corporate research and development work – something that also is valuable in itself.
But why should poetry ask for a right to existence? “A good question”, Charles replies. “I too think that poetry has a right to exist in itself. It does not need the crutches of good and righteous purposes.”
“But having got involved with the administrative side of writing – publishing, editing – I have learned to see things a bit differently. I enjoy ‘campaigning’, especially for things that are not defendable or sellable in themselves.”
“Even here, it is a question of a kind of a poetic gesture. The same applies to essays and lectures. I’ve always been interested in rhetoric. Especially when younger, I used to enjoy turning over of the clichés of dominant politics – i.e. that we need to destroy the city in order to save it. Laying bare of them, turning them against themselves.”
“I still do the same: my essays and lectures are also studies on the essay form, a laying bare of various hypocritical ways of expression.”
“This kind of wiping off the windshield – in order to see clearly – is just one part of my work. A funny and necessary one, but only a part. What gives me real pleasure is finding new expressions and ways of sayings, the creative and innovative side of writing.”
“Incomprehensible Even To Oneself”
So, how do you write?
“In various ways. Normally a poem at a time. By hand, preferably lying on my back on the sofa. And I love writing under stress.”
Emma, 8 years, comes to record her opinion on the tape. “Excuse me, an interruption”, she begins. “As you see, she already knows how the system works”, Bernstein remarks.
And whom do you write to?
“Normally, I don’t think of the audience at all. Or the only audience is myself. And I’m always trying to push the text beyond my own understanding.”
You mean a good poem needs to have something to it that even you cannot understand?
“Not even, but especially. I’ve often noted that something that is incomprehensible to me can be quite obvious to someone else.”
Charles and Felix Bernstein, October 1992. Photo: Kari Sarkkinen