Sonora Review

An Interview with Anselm Berrigan

Anselm Berrigan will be judging Sonora Review‘s 2017 Poetry Contest. Deadline 4/1.

His recent books of poetry include Come In Alone (Wave, 2016) and Primitive State (Edge, 2015). He is the editor of What Is Poetry? (Just kidding, I know you know): Interviews from the Poetry Project Newsletter 1983-2009, due this spring from Wave Books. He is the poetry editor for The Brooklyn Rail, a former Artistic Director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, and Co-Chair, Writing at The Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts. Degrets, a chapbook from an ongoing series of combine-like poems, is due out from Couch Press in Portland, OR.

Gabe Dozal: In doing research for this interview I re-read the interview you had in Poetry with Bethlehem Shoals.  This was an awesome conversation.  I wish we could just reprint that conversation for Sonora.

Anselm Berrigan: Well, I’ll tell you that it was little J.A. who compared me to Sarah Palin. Does that qualify as a scoop?

GD: Are you writing separate poems or one long poem? Like, do you see your work as separate entities or one long epic poem?

AB: I like the feeling that it’s all one long poem — not an epic, but some kind of ludicrously scaled quilt. But in the writing the separate poems take their specific shapes, usually with very particular attitudes, and that feeling isn’t really there. So the long quilt feeling is probably more like self-hypnosis, though I have a tendency to write a lot of poems that go together as individual poems while being parts of long works.

GD: When I hear the title of your book Primitive State I think of artists who have worked with paint on canvas primitively: The Fauves, William De Kooning , or Joaquin Torres Garcia (an Uruguayan Artist influenced by De Stilj).  My father is an artist, so I often find myself thinking about composition by field of images when I’m writing.

AB: There is this thing Edwin Denby, the poet and dance critic, wrote about de Kooning, that he “wanted everything in the picture out of equilibrium except, spontaneously, all of it.” Converting that as a compositional desire from looking into listening is what I’ve wanted for the past few years. Primitive State might have been a step in that direction without my knowing it exactly. But by writing that I was trying to teach myself how to know the space of sentences better, & the title is a joke on my brain. But I’m glad for the way you hear it — and I saw a big show of Garcia’s work last year, I think, at the Modern Museum in New York City, & thought it was fabulous. I was re-reading this interview with the painter Martin Wong the other day — he talked about wanting some of his paintings to have “no perspective,” & I think sometimes about what that might be in writing. Because it has that sense of impossibility that something can start with.

I was re-reading this interview with the painter Martin Wong the other day — he talked about wanting some of his paintings to have “no perspective,” & I think sometimes about what that might be in writing. Because it has that sense of impossibility that something can start with

GD: There’s a shift in register tone modalities in your work that is really exciting to me.

AB: An old friend from the Bay Area, a poet and musician named Alex Cory, got me thinking about tone very particularly in 1994. He made me see that you had to figure out what it does by talking about it, about how to identify it, and that it might always be sliding out away from you. & I thought later that I needed tone to be an open space, not closed.

GD: Tell me about your thoughts on singer/songwriter/troubadour Jonathan Richman.

AB: He’s the Gilligan of Lou Reed’s couch. My brother Eddie was interested in him for awhile, which is probably when I heard him the most, but I don’t have a good feel for his music. Someone should write a piece comparing his Picasso/asshole rhyme with LL Cool J’s Ayatollah/granola rhyme.

GD: Stephen Malkmus and Robert Pollard are in a song-writing contest.  They have one hour to see who can write the most/best songs.  At the end of the hour their songs will be judged on two criteria: amount of songs (1 points for each song) and then quality/merit of each songs (3 points for a great song, 2 points for a decent songs, 1 point for a shitty song). Who would have the most points at the end of the hour?

AB: Robert Pollard, and it’s not even close. He’s one of those people who knows how to write things fast. Somebody should have set up a recording session with him and the Wu-Tang Clan.

GD: High wire guy Karl Willenda said that “Life is on the wire, the rest is just waiting”.  When are poets on the wire?  And when are we waiting?

AB: We’re always on the wire. But it’s also nothing. & definitely better than waiting around for something to happen. Joanne Kyger just died, and I felt so bad about it yesterday, I couldn’t concentrate on anything. She just made the wire be part of the room, the atmosphere, something built in with everything else, with its own shrine that doesn’t take up much space.

GD: As a poet who has recently entered the conversation into poetry, I get a lot of my poetry news from twitter/blogs.  There’s a ton of polemical views on how poetry should be thought of, written or what’s wrong with poetry.  Help me parse this.

I like it when anyone’s trying to figure something out out loud and giving you a little room to go with them.

AB: I like it when anyone’s trying to figure something out out loud and giving you a little room to go with them. Otherwise it’s mostly static, & you take what’s useful when it’s useful and move on.

GD: You tweeted an alternative fact recently that Wowee Zowee is a wilder, stranger album than Crooked Rain Crooked Rain.  I agree with this alternative fact.

AB: I think Wowee Zowee is an amazing mess, and that those guys were doing everything they knew how to do & didn’t know how to do at the same time at that point. Like, “Grave Architecture” starts off with all this polish & then gradually comes apart, and then the next song really comes apart. But meanwhile a song like “Black Out” is a beautifully textured little song. It’s their Philip Guston album — everything is coming together or coming apart.

GD: My favorite poem of your mothers is “Congratulating Wedge”.  It really helped me think about what a poem could do when I was first starting to think about poetry as an art from.  It’s the name of a Star Wars trading card.  Was this your card?

AB: Mine or my brother’s. We both had all the cards. I was always worried Wedge would die.

GD: In the Volta Book of Poets your poetic statement is “No More Poetic Statement”.  Me and my cohort talk about this a lot for some reason.

AB: “No more poetics.” You know, it’s actually an allusion to something The Scarlet Witch said in House of M — she’s a comic book character with reality-warping power, and she got mad at all mutants and said “No more mutants” — and a few million mutants lost their mutations. I was mad at poetics and wanted to see if I could make it evaporate as a racket.

I was mad at poetics and wanted to see if I could make it evaporate as a racket.

GD: I like that your work is willing to meander and take its time. And it’s porous too, it allows subjects to come and go.  I feel like they aren’t afraid to wander around, I never feel there is fear in your poetic voice or the voice of your poems.  I’ve only read a few of the new rectangle poems in the BOMB and they’re exciting for their language and form.

AB: Thank you. The rectangle poems, writing them, was this really bizarre thing at first that became joyous. It was so illogical and unpressured a thing to be doing, and then at the same time the form was clear and demanding in its own way. I loved writing them. I wrote them all out in public in different places.

GD: I often try and skirt intention when I’m writing, like I don’t want to talk or write about myself directly. Ashbery said once, and I’m paraphrasing: “I wouldn’t want to bore people with my own life.” What role does intention play when you’re writing/drafting?

AB: An undefined role. I wrote some poems recently that are direct imitations of some of Jim Brodey’s work — specifically his “Panda Breath” poems, a lot of which are published in a book called Heart of the Breath, that came out posthumously. He’d name each poem after a friend, a hero or personal icon of some kind. So I wrote five poems in his form, which he chose to look like a kind of academic poem as he saw it maybe 30-35 years ago, but in which he’d try to explode the academic line, and I called them all “Jim Brodey”. So that’s a very specific set of intentions, right?

But I wanted to see what would happen, I wanted that possibility of change that comes with not being able to be somebody else but to try on some aspects as you’ve heard them, have them mingle with yours.

The intention to imitate so as to move, that’s my kind of intention at the moment. I showed them to my mom who said she liked them but that they didn’t have Jim’s slurpy quality — that he had this side to him where he just wanted to lick everybody. You know, I couldn’t deny that particular criticism.  But I wanted to see what would happen, I wanted that possibility of change that comes with not being able to be somebody else but to try on some aspects as you’ve heard them, have them mingle with yours. And then I had to talk about myself, because I had to address Jim at points and I had to take responsibility for being present — when he was alive, when I was a kid and he was coming over a lot and having a hard time in his life — and in the poems. So, you know, intention that way can get to be a frame or an opening or a glimpse, and not necessarily something commanding or prescriptive.

GD: There’s a lot of young international talent in the NBA right now: Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Porzingis. Have you seen Jokic play? And finally, next season would you be willing to be in a fantasy basketball league with myself and a few other MFA candidates?

AB: I haven’t really watched Jokic play — I’ve been hearing about him though — I listen to Zach Lowe’s NBA podcasts to sort of follow the season through hearing journalists talk about it, and Jokic keeps coming up. But I have watched Antetokounmpo a little bit —watching him run the court with the ball is the closest thing I can think of in basketball terms to visualizing a fifth dimension. Porzingis is fabulous too — these guys have really great senses of time when they’re on. But the Knicks are just such a demoralizing shitshow organizationally. They abuse their coaches, never have enough depth, and run-down their best players. It’s crazy, though it’s exactly what the Yankees were like in the 1980s under George Steinbrenner. He had to get banned from the game for a couple years for being a scumbag for the Yankees to turn things around, which is my way of saying the Knicks are screwed as long as James Dolan is in charge and unchanged.

I would be willing to consider being in that league. Let’s talk about it. The one time I was in a NBA fantasy league I was the only person who paid attention, which was too similar to being a poet. So you might have to convince me…


Gabe Dozal is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona.  From El Paso, TX, he writes about the code-switching, camouflage, and chameleon nature of the borderlands.