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Jake Berry and Chris Mansel in Conversation

 

 

Jake Berry is a poet, musician and visual artist. The author of Brambu Drezi, Species of Abandoned Light, Drafts of the Sorcery, and numerous other books. He has been an active member of the global arts and literary community for more than 25 years. His poems, fiction, essays, reviews and other writings have been published widely in both print and electronic mediums. In 2010, Lavender Ink released a collaborative book, Cyclones In High Northern Latitudes, with poet Jeffrey Side and drawings by Rich Curtis; and Outside Voices: An Email  Correspondence (with Jeffrey Side) was released by Otoliths also in that year.


Berry's solo musical albums include, Liminal Blue, Strange Parlors, Naked as Rain and the Animal Beneath, Shadow Resolve and many others. With Bare Knuckles he has recorded four albums, Trouble In Your House, Alabama Dust, Doppelganger Blues and Root Bound. With the ambient experimental group Ascension Brothers he has recorded numerous albums including All Souls Banquet, The Wedding Ball and Pillar of Fire (which served as soundtrack for a series of plays by Ray Bradbury) and most recently Transfigurations Blues.

Ongoing projects include book four of Brambu Drezi (which will include a video for each section - the opening sections are available now at YouTube and Vimeo.com), a collection of short poems, an online and print biography of the poet and critic Jack Foley, an album of experimental ambient music with Chris Mansel under the name Impermanence, an album of acoustic songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry and Van Eaton under the name The Cahoots, and an album of alternative rock songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry, Ben Tanner, Max and Kirk Russell.
  

 

 

Chris Mansel is a writer, filmmaker, epileptic, musician, photographer and a permanent outsider for some reason. He is the author of While in Exile: The Savage Tale of Walter Seems, Soddoma: The Cantos of Ulysses, Ashes of Thoreau, Interviews and two books of photography entitled, No Burden and Ahisma. Along with Jake Berry, he formed the band Impermanence who have released one album, Arito. He releases music under the name Dilation Impromptu who have released four albums and have just released a new CD, The Strange White Odor of Octaves Becoming Animals. His writing has been published on the web in many sources.
 

 

 

CM: If the Buddha were standing out in the rain would you invite him in, or go outside and stand with him?

JB: I'd invite him in to help me tear the roof off my house.

CM: If your creativity is the medicine you are prescribed, then is the diagnosis running parallel or controlling the ship on troubled seas?

JB: You know how to load a question. I think of how they found Nietzsche mumbling to himself over his papers. He never said much after that though he lived many years in silence. Or Holderlin pacing in circles all night, jotting down notes, some of them brilliant fragments, and playing violin, or was it flute, that according to some who heard it was quite beautiful. Yet it is obvious from people who spent long periods in his company that he was suffering greatly, quite mad, relative to the times anyway. He lived another 40 years deteriorating.

I know that working more or less every day at one creative pursuit or another keeps me from going to Wal-Mart, buying a shotgun and shells and having a go at the place with both barrels until the cops and media arrive and spoil my fun. Some of us are afflicted with this thing. The nerves are calmed for a moment after you write or speak/sing a poem, write a song, play a musical instrument, paint, draw. It has been this way since I was a child. Artaud said no one ever did any of these things except to get out of hell. He would know. He spent enough time there.

At the same time it can be extremely hard workgrueling, obsessive day after day. Insomnia from dwelling on a piece so intensely it won't leave you rest. Knowing that even your most inspired effort is probably doomed to failure, even by, perhaps especially by, your own standards. I know you suffer from migraines, seizures and so forth that seem connected to your work, But then once you really commit to this thing everything is connected to it. What I try to do, with actually a small degree of success, is keep my ego out of it. Out of my feelings about the work, out of how others react to it, and out of dominating the work as the central voice.

Most creation tales begin in chaos, the void, or some similar unknown. So it is. We stumble around in the dark. Those who practice any of the arts and believes they know what they are doing are utter fools. If I have learned anything, it's how to recognize a fool. I have a great deal of experience in the art of foolishness, where practice does not make perfect, but only makes one more foolish.

CM: If destructiveness is in the chemical makeup, does it come from the same component as creativity, or do they operate individually off of one another further down the line?

JB: I don't see how they cannot be interwoven. Creation and destruction seem to be part of the same process of change. Since nothing is permanent we can see the change as either the destruction of what has disappeared or the creation of something new. When we bring intent into consideration we can discuss whether creation is the result of intention to make something new or destroy something previously present. Further than this we can discuss particular instances of creation and destruction.

Let me answer then with a question to you. Are your films a destruction of the images from which they originally drive or are pure creations in which the original image is merely the ore, the raw substance to be shaped in a particular way? To what extent is the end result predetermined or left to chance?

CM: The images are deconstructed in such a way as to bring out the image beneath the surface. What you refer to as pure creations is left to modifying or using the software in such a way as to bring about a new surface of the canvas, a painting over if you will. Everything was left to chance until I saw the image and I would then go back and correct it or take the muddy approach and let the muck fly where it lay. When I started working with your Brambu recording I began a whole new process of working towards the text and an evolution began that as you often say, ‘Developed delightfully stranger and newer life forms.’ In other words I did things that I didn’t know I could do until I did them. My latest film The Dead Illume is a perfect example of this.

 

Your blog Notes, Quotes, Ideas, Speculations hasn’t been posted on in three years and this is a fascinating piece of work. I wonder if you have any plans to expand it into a book length project in the future.

JB: There was a train of thought I was working with there and I still want to develop it, but I have been distracted by other projects. I intended the site as a place to post more or less random philosophical bits and pieces. So perhaps I will return to it that way then pursue the longer piece by weaving it in and out of the rest.

You say above, ‘I did things I didn't know I could do until I did them.’ That seems to be the most appropriate way to work. In my experience if I understand where a piece of whatever kind is going before I start it doesn't remain interesting for very long. The whole point of this kind of practice is discovery. The thing that surprised me the most was the quality of the work you were doing with a computer camera and free software. There are directors working with budgets of millions of dollars who devour hours of our time and do not give us anything. You on the other hand open entire worlds of imagination with no budget and asking only two-five minutes of our time. Do you intend to continue working with this approach or would you like to eventually use professional cameras and software?

CM: Of course I would like to use more sophisticated equipment and turn it on its side in the same manner. But I don’t foresee it happening. One reason is funding. I just don’t see any way I would have access to the kind of equipment you are talking about. Another reason I don’t think it will happen is because it would be the natural progression of things and that just hasn’t been the way my life has worked out. 

 

In Arthur Janov's book, Primal Scream, he writes, ‘E. H. Hess, investigating pupillary contraction and dilation in response to certain stimuli, found that the pupil dilates when the stimulus is pleasant and contracts when it is unpleasant.’ If this is true would not a nation be so seized in its view to generally accept any thing that was thrown at them?

JB: I suppose that's true if what was thrown at them was pleasant. At least that portion that was paying attention. I think the manipulation of a populace has to go further than the autonomic response. It has to strike at that level, but it also must engage the intellect in some way. And of course pleasure is only one response that can be manipulated. We have seen how populations respond to fear, and how fear can be used to coerce populations into believing things into believing things that would otherwise seem unreasonable. It's part of the way those in power convince the majority to conform.

 

The real power always lies with the majority. If the great majority of a population truly does not wish to do something, then it does not have to, but this requires a kind of solidarity we rarely see in large populations. Usually the struggle for resources and other divisions like ethnicity, religion, race, and so forth prevent solidarity, and that is exactly the way the most powerful individuals in any society would like to keep it. Only a few can be rich, otherwise having wealth would be pointless. In a capitalist society, wealth is power and those in power do not wish to lose it. So the manipulation begins. Where does art fall in all of this? We know that it can be used as a tool for manipulation, but we also see that people with no power at all the world over make art. If the populace in general becomes more concerned with aesthetics than with consumption, the facsimile of wealth, will that populace become less subject to manipulation? What I mean is concerned with making art, not just passively observing or consuming art products.

CM: Art becomes the transparency that can be lifted up and placed any where at will. Commercial art has taken upon itself to balance out the scales of madness to borrow a song title from you. Having no power you can still make commercial art, anything feeds the eye, it’s the pineal blues these days. The false Buddha is everywhere. It is more important now to be the bug than the botanist, to be the moth than the flame; to be seen is the new orgasm, the new sexual technique. Cesare Lombroso wrote in 1899, ‘The atavism of the criminal when he lacks absolutely every trace of shame and pity, may go back beyond the savage even to the brutes themselves.’

I would like to ask you about a song entitled, "So Many Birds". This is a very dramatic recording. Could you talk about the song and the writing and why you placed it as the last track on your album Liminal Blue?

JB: “So Many Birds” was I think the last song I wrote for the set. I think I wrote 15 songs during the period, 11 ended up on the album. I was about to change the tuning on the guitar when I hit a chord that felt like a door opening—one of those moments when you hear a whole song unfolding out of a single chord. The tuning is one I use often because it has so many possibilities. I never seem to fall into a rut with it. The low E string is tuned down to B and it goes on from there to F sharp, B, E, A, E. I found it a few years ago fooling around, looking for new tunings, then discovered later that Joni Mitchell had used it on several albums, including Turbulent Indigo, one of my favorites.

That's probably why it made sense to me. It's easy to get 13th and 11th chords in this tuning, so the harmonics are fairly broad. The first part of the song works out of an F sharp minor 13, so the melody is a minor modality, a darker, more dramatic feel. The second section of the song moves to A major, and F sharp minor is the relative minor to A, so you get what Leonard Cohen calls, in "Hallelujah", the ‘major lift.’ But it eventually resolves back to the minor. This was a case where the words flowed out of the music. They came to me as I was working out the chords and melody.

It happened fairly quickly. When I went to record it, all the parts seem to come quickly as well. There is one idea that I got from listening to the first Portishead album. I noticed in one of the songs the way they used vibrato on a guitar strumming the chord at the beginning of each measure. I liked the atmosphere that created, so I tried it with "So Many Birds" and it was very effective. The song doesn't sound anything like Portishead, but that's another reason to listen to all kinds of music, you get ideas you can bring into your own work to create something new. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were influenced by Ravel and Debussy, and Ravel was influenced by early blues. The reason it's the last song on the album is because it feels like a good way to finish it. It often happens that the album sequence is very close to the order in which the songs were written. There's also the last line—‘ride on, until you disappear, even from yourself.’ After that it felt like the story had been told.

As your film/video style develops I see how you move from very recognizable images of nature to pure abstraction, which is just as organic since it is derived from the original images. This movement takes me in two directions. It seems to make the film more spiritual, intuitive, more open to the imagination. It also makes me think of the films of Stan Brakhage. This is not because it looks like Brakhage but because you seem to allow the work to take its own course and move into those open areas. How does this work from the inside as you are working on the piece? Are you trying various techniques or experiments then going with what seems to work best or is it even more organic than that, does it seem to guide itself completely?

CM: The difference in Brakhage and me is his images would rush by you and constantly you found yourself inside a community reflecting off one another. In my defense I am alone without the benefit of community and working in a limited medium and without editable film. The software I use is limited to its creation. Film is strength in a society of weakened eyes searching for anything. Brakhage was a genius but then again so was Greg Toland and he never directed one picture but you can’t mention Citizen Kane without discussing his work.

As I am working on each piece the image, the initial image suggests everything and until I add any abstraction, for lack of a better term, it says nothing at all unless you count the surface or what light has down to it in the original photograph. Nietzsche’s last words were, ‘More light.’ He also suggested we listen to music with our muscles. If that is true then perhaps we look at film with our brain, each individual eye developing or editing the image separate from one another. Burroughs was right; life is a cut-up. The process is organic. Short of literally showing you how I make a film I can explain that separate filters in the software capture and distort light in different ways. It is back dated software to the year 2000 so there are more advanced processes out there on the market but I have been successful with what I have at hand. It is organic and it is a process of selecting the recipe per each individual image. There is no way to fully explore the depths of it because there are innumerable ways to take photographs and countless recipes.

Aaron Copland wrote, ‘When I speak of the gifted listener I am thinking of the non-musician primarily, of the listener who intends to retain his amateur status. It is the thought of just such a listener that excites the composer in me.’ Do you happen to agree with Copland or do you compose for whoever listens?

JB: My definition of a listener might be different from Copland. I probably don't draw as clear a distinction between amateur and professional. We live in very different times. In Copland's day professional musicians played classical music, with club or cabaret musicians considered a distant cousin, even though Copland based much of his music on very unprofessional American folk music. I do think that a trained musician or a musician who makes a living by performing and recording music will hear very differently from the music fan who does not play, or the casual listener who enjoys whatever is on the radio. However, I wouldn't say I have a particular type of listener in mind.

Writing a song is more intuitive than intellectual. I am following the feel of the music, contributing to it, toward something that seems real, something that connects with my experience of the world, and something that remains interesting as I develop the progression and melodies and so forth. I hope that if a song is true to my experience, has an authentic feel, and remains interesting over the process of writing and recording, it will also connect with other people, though on their own terms. Most of the time when someone responds to me about one song or another they discover things I never imagined. That's an affirmation as far as I'm concerned because it means that person found something of their own in the song. As a fan, my favorite music always has that quality, so that's a measure of success for me.

Wayne Sides pointed out the obvious to me one day when he said photography is light writing, writing with light. The great photographers, from Steiglietz to Weston to Minor White or Robert Frank all seem to have that in common. Just as drawing is a moving point, so photography is moving light. This is even more so with moving images with people like Toland or Sven Nykvist. You are a poet, novelist, songwriter, painter and sculptor/assemblage artist as well as a film maker. Do you see all these things as part of a whole, points along a continuum or do the demands of each discipline make them completely distinct from one another? If they are part of a whole how does each of the mediums in which you work inform your film and video work?

CM: It's a continuum of course but then again it's not. To make a mistake in a film is like making a mistake in any of the other fields you named. You simply have to start over or have to rethink the process. I can't reed it because the software is unable to do so. If I had to pick a discipline I would pick assemblage to mirror film making. I walk along the shore or though the woods or anywhere really and stop and look at a piece and wonder if I could make it work with something else. That takes a lot of thought. But as the Marquis De Sade wrote, ‘Any enjoyment is weakened when shared.’ But the Marquis was insane. Your writing has always been visual, now that I have given video to the audio recordings of your text, where do you go now with your written word? Is there a way to transcend the traditional form of delivering to the reader or listener?

JB: Doing Brambu Drezi  Book 4 with a moving image component has been my intention for a two years or so and the opening section of Brambu Book 4 was finished and posted at You Tube and the IFC Media Lab last fall. Since then I've done the video and some of the audio for the second section of Book 4, but I'm still working on the words and the visuals on the page. There is a tendency to want to put the words in the video, and I will do some of that (you've done that beautifully with some of your own poetry in video by the way), but the ideal situation is to have the book in hand at the same time the DVD will be playing. The book itself is both a score for performance and visual art. The video as you have added to excerpts from Books 1-3, and as I will continue with Book 4 is just another element. 

 

I don't think there is any need to transcend the traditional forms of poetry, just add to them. There are many films that I think are poetry based purely on the visual alone. We spoke about Brakhage before, and I think your work does this. Also, a little closer to the feature film, directors like Godard, Antonioni, Terrence Malick, et. al. create a kind of visual poetry. Godard also drops words into his films sometimes, right in the middle of scenes, at first inexplicably, but gradually you recognize it as a kind of cut-up poetry. Most of your film/video work so far has drawn from landscape, do you envision a time where you'll want to work with the human form?

CM: Yes I have thought of this but I would have to have a model who wouldn't mind the painful prostrations I would put her through. The shots I have in mind would also be in nature and in a studio setting. They would be called, Essays in the Passing Sciences. It would be a film about an hour long. I have already conceived some of it in my mind but I don't know if it will take place or not.

JB: I do what I can to support the work of others, but I never feel like I have done nearly enough. It would be nice to have the resources to start a publishing and recording company so that I could promote and distribute the work of all the artists of whatever kind who are now often ignored. I don't think it's a continuation of my art necessarily, but one wants to give something back, and give something to the world beyond your self. When you love the arts and you see great work not getting the recognition it deserves you want to do something about it. At the same time, whenever I get a few extra dollars I spend it getting my own work out there or buying instruments or equipment that will help me create and promote my own art as well as others. So I feel selfish as well. Essays in Passing Sciences sounds like a wonderful project. You might be surprised. There might be people willing to do the work because they are interested in being a part of a project beyond the ordinary film. Could you go into a little more detail about what you have in mind?

CM: Specifically in nature, there would be those parts of the body I find interesting that would either coalesce with the environment or protrude. In a studio it would be more close-up. There are many things I find interesting about the human body. The idea is to photograph in both setting the form in a new and interesting way. Say for instance the arm from the shoulder to the elbow against a broken limb both hanging from a tree and a broken limb on the ground. In a studio setting the arm would take on a different meaning when it was up against a light bulb that was turned off to signify the idea is there but it is nothing new. Another idea is have the body submerged in leaves with only the hair emerging. These are essays and who is to say if is it science or not? One thing your writing is known for, particularly your Brambu writings is the art. A book of your art, drawings, sculpture would be a monumental task but well worth the under taking. Do you think such a book would free you to create more art and distance you from what you have already created?

JB: I'm not sure what the result would be. But if there is a publisher willing to give me the opportunity I'd leap at it. In the past when I've been confronted with similar situations I tended to add it to the things I did rather than subtract it from the activities in which I was already engaged. So I would probably assemble a collection of work that had not been associated with any previous project and spend a period of time obsessed with creating new work. Your written work, whether prose fiction, non-fiction political writing, or poetry is so diverse that it is almost impossible to imagine it as the product of a single mind. Do you have as many selves, as many souls, as you have approaches to work? Are we by nature singular or plural or both?

CM: I have often wondered this myself. When I write, from start to finish, unless it is a long piece I usually finish it in just a few minutes. A poem will sometimes take two minutes or more. The words come out so quick I am lucky to get it down in a cohesive piece. Since I have seizures I can hardly write legible any more creatively. So like most these days I write at the computer. As far as approaches to work I have a select library I pull from. I won’t try and list them but Dante plays a major role. Non-fiction mostly, personal experience is where I glean. Pete Townshend quoted Elvis Costello once and said, ‘Each writer must be a thief and a magpie.’ I adhere to that philosophy a great deal.


We are by nature singular though most might disagree. I have said many times your creativity is the medicine you are prescribed. You are prescribed not anyone else. You are the one writing even if someone else is editing. You are the one faced with the blank screen or piece of paper, you and you alone. I can’t think of a better place to be, though I have felt different many times. This evening alone I had a seizure and spent five hours in the emergency room. It was my seizure and it was my pain. I had my wife and daughter with me but it was my instance that brought me there. We are a singular being adrift in a tidal pool. Back and forth we go through life but you can never get away from the fact that we are alone. 

 

Do you foresee a day when the writing of Charles Olson will be taught alongside Mark Twain and Washington Irving in our education system?

JB: The thought of Charles Olson being taught in our education system troubles my sleep. I can foresee a time when Olson will be taught at various levels of secondary education and that time is now. He just isn't being taught very widely. There's also a backlash in some quarters against modernism right now. Part of this is justified because in some places modernism and post-modernism (whatever the fuck that is) eclipsed everything else for a while. It makes sense that we keep modernism in perspective. It's only a small part of the story. On the other hand there are those that want to toss it completely in favor of a return to some imagined period when poetry was held in high esteem and was relatively easy to understand. That was before audio recordings, certainly before audio recordings and films became so popular. Even without new formalism or other poetries that shun the apparent difficulties of modernism there are still forms of poetry that are easy to understand and are extremely popular. It just hides under the name “popular music.”

 

While much in that area is pure product, candy—there is still great poetry sneaking out as pop music because that's the medium in which it is performed. It's a long list and everyone that really loves popular music and devotes time to listening to it will know immediately what I'm talking about. When I use the term popular music, I mean all the music that has been popular in terms of a large audience (compared to other forms like classical, avant-garde, art song and so forth) over the last century as recording technology has made music available to everyone.

There's no small amount of modernism in pop music either. But you rarely hear people complain about the difficulty of a Radiohead lyric for instance, or the obscurity of Beck's references. People talk about the words. They recognize them as being more abstract, but that isn't a problem. There are millions of people walking around singing lyrics that are open to as many interpretations as there are listeners and few have a problem with this.

Does the fact that you can sing an obscure bit of poetry make it better somehow than reading it in a book? Maybe it does. Maybe someone should set The Maximus Poems to a nice backbeat, mix in a heavy bass line and some nice guitar licks. I bet if a successful artist did that and didn't call any attention to the fact, beyond the essential permission notice buried in the credits, we'd have people all over the world singing Olson.

The troubled sleep was a paraphrasing of Ezra Pound who said the same thing about the classics being taught. I have certainly had my share of troubled sleep, but I am as likely to have it troubled by something I am working on as anything else. I'll be so intensely focused on a poem or song that some part of me can't let it go long enough to rest. I wish I was romanticizing this, and I never used to have this problem, but it definitely happens now. Also, I have often found sleep to be a source of creativity. I was trying to catch up on missed sleep from last night with a nap this afternoon and woke up with the phrase along the lines of "the devil is going to get his." I don't know what this means, but for some reason I attached it to the conflict between Russia and Georgia. Sleep can indeed be an escape. In times of most intense stress from the world at large I seem to be able to sleep. I think perhaps my mind is trying to escape the stress.

I hope you don't mind if I keep hammering away at this idea of the singular. My experience is that we are in a state of constant change. My self, what "I" am seems to change to adapt constantly to circumstances. So, I find it difficult it locate a singular self. I have an ego of course, an inflated one too much of the time, but I think of that as something like a device for asserting one's presence in the world, and a very crude one at that. It's necessary, but temporal and shouldn't be taken too seriously. I think that one of the origins of our idea of self lies in monotheism.

When Moses asks who is speaking form the burning bush the voice comes back "I am." There's that singular I. As western culture developed around monotheism we also see popes, kings, and so on represent themselves as the presence of God on earth. The presence of the God. Your work seems so varied—you write poetry and songs of all kinds, you do all manner of visual art. Even your recent series of films seems the product of many selves, not a single individual. So I'm puzzled. Can you help me to understand how all of this happens from a singular identity?

CM: I keep going back to Georges Bataille, he wrote, 'Me, I exist.' It is pounded into us that we are all good and evil, but we are all singular, just one man or woman. My story, The Savage Tale of Walter Seems tells the tale of a journalist who has multiple personalities. One is a journalist, one is a killer, and yet another is a holy man. Perhaps that role of monotheism is in all of us and that is where it comes from. Perhaps the burning bush was talking back to Moses in his mind. Maybe we hear what we want to hear. It would account for the many readings of the same text and the many different versions of worship. We understand more about the chemicals in the brain now than we did then.  How this happens from a singular identity is in my opinion is like The Neophyte by Durer. Maybe we are like the fresh young scholar surrounded by the more experienced and as we get older we learn to how to utilize them. But again we are all one mind. As I get older my writing and my films will become better and other artistic endeavors will become apparent. I'd like to ask you a question I asked Neeli Cherkovski in my interview with him. I wonder if you have a favorite artist or painter and what brought about this opinion?

JB: It would be impossible to single out anything like a favorite artist. I'm reading, listening, learning all the time from new artists. There's a list at here. If you mean painters only the list is just as long. The earliest art yet unearthed is every bit the equal to the "great masters," though I love DaVinci, all the Renaissance north and south, art from all the ancients, everything that isn't just pure commercial crap. I can't get enough of art of whatever kind. I feel the same way about philosophy, history and science. There's so much to see, hear and learn that it's frustrating knowing there will not be enough time to see it all. Recent developments in the cognitive sciences reveal that our behavior, our emotions and thoughts, are associated with electrochemical activity in the brain. This leads back into the old debates about self-determination. To what extent are we able to make individual decisions? Or is everything we can feel or know or do the result of chemicals in the brain, their transmitters and receptors, responding to external stimulus and biological predispositions?

CM: Any mapping of the human mind surely would include a descent into hell. As for individual decisions we must prey upon ourselves like rapid dogs and weigh the consequences but finally whether we receive council from others or not we are the Emperor in his new clothes draped in the blood of the designer and his minions. We are the final word unless we are someone without honor or purpose. A dog will follow a bone only as long as the scent or the desire allows unless you beat him to do so. As someone who suffers unimaginable headaches I can hereby say that the chemical imbalance is that descent into hell with no poet's way out, no guide to soften the rough waters. The transmitters click off and on I believe but in a situation of intense pain I believe that like a damage nerve they simply shut down. I can only speak for myself and truthfully in the ways of science, just my belief but I tend towards the belief that hell and its torments are in the m
ind and its pain I feel on an occasional basis. 

 

Do you believe that the truth cannot be known, it must be felt.


JB: Forgive me if this seems rude, but before we address that question I think it might be a good idea to see if we can come to an agreement about what truth is and also try to clarify the distinction between knowing and feeling. If we take a step back and examine these terms together we might be able to get at something beyond the general assumptions. I hope this doesn't put a drag on the discussion.


CM: Not at all. The question was asked and answered. I feel you cannot judge truth through knowing. You can't know the truth through perceptions or your five senses. Reality is not what you find it to be. The truth is only what you perceive it to be. The blue sky you see isn't blue at all. Much in the same way the ocean closes in on the center of a bowl and finds two things. It's running out of space and there is no way to separate the center. How could an artist approach this in a way that would not contradict his work or how his perception perceived it?


JB: Maybe an artist should contradict his or her work and challenge his or her perceptions. As you say, "The blue sky isn't blue at all." That is the way most humans would perceive a cloudless sky, but even inside that statement there will be a difference in what the sky is, what blue is. Each person will feel and think about it in different ways. And in a radically different culture, or in a altered state of mind the sky might not even appear to be sky and it might have another color or an array of colors or all of it might vanish. So then, maybe the artist should allow for all these possibilities and many more. Paul Celan said, "Isn't poetry always a progression toward the Real, working amid what surrounds and seizes us?" Perhaps we constantly discover the Real in our work when we are surrounded and seized by it.


If we come to the work with preconception and the whole nest of assumptions about the world we carry around with us all the time all we are going to do is perpetuate the same consensus perspective. For most people the great joy in art comes when it confirms something they already believe or assume. I understand that. I have that experience frequently. It's comforting to know that you are not alone in your experience. We all need that. But more fundamentally, we need to have experiences that challenge our assumptions, that shake everything loose and force us to experience without the mediation of our well trained perceptual apparatus. Our minds, even our senses, need to be washed clean fairly often so that we don't lapse so deeply into our assumptions that we mistake them for what is actually there, what is actually happening. One way to do this is to allow it to happen in our work. Another way is to seek out poetry, or any other art or experience that strips us of our assumptions. We constantly have to be reminded to wake up.


CM: John Locke writes, "As nothing teaches, so nothing delights more than history." But is there nothing more fueling than the present? Or as David Hume said, the most perfect character is supposed to lie between those extremes.


JB: Hume's approach is possibly the wisest because his character would have to remain open and adaptable. Still, you are absolutely right, the present is the fuel we burn. We live in it like it or not. Locke was important for helping to develop an approach that removed the authority from religion to rationalism and detached inquiry. After the domination of religion and superstition in the west for so long an adjustment was required, inevitable even. To respond more specifically, time is always problematic—how we perceive it, how it effects our lives, how it enters our work. Most of what we understand as time is, like history, a human invention. This does not make it a bad thing at all, but we have to remember that it lies within the range of our capabilities and by no means is the ultimate expression of them. Time as an absolute is very questionable. We know we have the present because we are here, but when we connect the markers of the present that is now past we invent stories from the bits and we are back inside history again. Physics makes a good case for time across vast distances or within quantum connectivity. But there we run into a problem of measurement. The most reliable perspective may lie outside one's skin, which, contrary to popular belief, is neither difficult or fatal, but in order to do so we must embrace the unexpected and the unknown. In other words, we must abandon the compulsion to control.


CM: You have stretched language, creating your own words to fit your poetry. Along with your very original art there's a panoramic complexity to your work you don't usually find in poetry. Since the first book of Brambu Drezi was published has the reactions to the series surprised you, were they expected? Are you still expecting a response you imagined?


JB: It was so long ago that I started Brambu (1986) that I'm not sure how reliable my memory is. I had been publishing various kinds of short poems that resembled the work that would later appear in Brambu. The response to that had generally been good from the magazines and publishers who were interested in experimental work. The larger establishment publishers were lost somewhere in the late 50s or early 60s so what I was doing was completely off the board to them. I think I expected a favorable reaction from the experimental people, and either a negative reaction or nothing from everyone else. What I did not anticipate was the negative reaction I received to the second and third books from poets associated with Language poetry. There was also some positive reaction from others in the same camp. Some of the negative response was couched in the terminology of postmodern criticism. Most of the criticism that embraces that term seems alien to me. The term postmodern itself seems dead on arrival. Even Derrida thought of his work as a development of modernism. So it was hard for me to take the criticism seriously. But I don't really expect any particular kind of reaction. I hope that people will respond, but I can't anticipate what that response might be. If I were trying to produce work for a particular audience, or for anyone specifically, I might be able to provoke a desired response, but poetry isn't marketing.


What about you? I have read and heard a wide variety of reactions to your work. Did you expect any of that, whether positive or negative, or were you simply working and thinking about the reaction afterward?


CM: At the moment when I am writing I am just struggling to get the words down on the page. I know what I write is unlike a lot of what is out there so any reaction is going to be extreme either way. Especially my fiction. I appreciate any response whether it be positive or negative. At least they took the time to read it. They might not have understood my intention, or the poem's meaning but they did take the time. Any writer wants to be read. I'm getting to a point where I am less concerned with being read, which has changed from years before. I am now focusing now on just being able to write. Without going into it, my health has prevented me from being as productive as I once was. I no longer read five or six books a week.


Do you believe the old line that goes something like, You write what you read? I know you read a wide assortment of material, especially early texts, does what you read influence your writing? How much comes directly from within?


JB: First, I want to agree with you about the moment of writing. When you're actually doing it, you're just trying to get it down. There is no thought about anyone out there, or even anyone "in here." The process is open, but complete.


What we read has to effect what we write, whether we intend it or not. Writers have told me that the way they get the process of writing started is by reading. That approach obviously works. When I am reading I might jot a note in the book in response to what I am reading, but I rarely move away from it and write an original work. The influence comes later, often without my being aware of it. Everything we experience shapes what we will do in the future, so everything that happens, whether it be reading, talking to someone, going for a walk, whatever, it plays into what happens when those first sounds rise and strike you as part of a poem or any other type of composition. That sound is at first a sound only. It has not yet become a word or a note. Usually several sounds happen in sequence and that begins the process. The sounds can come from inside, but also from outside. It might be something you hear in the physical world or a sound that seems to be outside, but has no outside source. All of this happens so quickly that the process is well underway before there is time to pause and take notice of what is happening.


Let me turn the question back to you. Even if you aren't able to read as much as you used to you still probably read much more than most. You have also mentioned before how listening to music helps you write. How does it happen for you? What is it like when the process begins and where does it originate?


CM: The writing doesn't set the mood, it follows the material. Music is freeing. It can help stir up emotions; some music should come in prescription form. Like you, I have have an intensely varied listening taste and I explore it often. It doesn't matter what I am listening to, or sometimes it does. The work seems to come easier when it is this way. I will begin listening to music, and after a short while, the words will come, and it pours out, and I have to try and get it down as best I can. Other times I sit with my face in my hands, with the light of the computer screen illuminating the room.


I have epilepsy, so when I shake it slows the writing down, but the inspiration is there. I find that when I am writing, truly inspired, I shake more. The hands fall back down to where they were, and go right back to the work. I think it originates from somewhere in my unconscious. Because when it comes it comes fully formed. It scares me sometimes, the way it is. I don't think I have explained this very well.


Is it true that if you write for an audience, you will always find yourself alone on the stage, waiting for them to arrive?


JB
: (laughing) Yes, or you will get there after they have left. If you try to write for an audience you will always be looking at the past. What is appealing to an audience today will be old news tomorrow. You can waste your life trying to anticipate what an audience may want to read or hear, and that is part of the job of publishers, but you will find that even publishers prefer to go with something reliable. Why take a chance on a new author when you can bring out a new piece by a proven seller? New authors tend to rise through the small presses. Occasionally one will become popular enough to land a deal with a big publisher. It really has nothing to do with quality or originality. If it draws dollars it goes to press.


What you are describing when you talk abut your hands shaking is the intensity of the moment. For some it is a very cool, almost calculated, experience. They work at a distance. For others, like yourself, the entire being is so involved that it is possible to overheat. Holderlin seems to have been that way and Kerouac was obviously on fire when he wrote.


You are right, it is difficult to explain what happens. That's one of the many things that is often misunderstood, even by poets. The reason poetry exists is because no other mode of being is sufficient. Poetry allows things to happen that would not happen otherwise.


Do you find that the intensity of the process has changed for you over the years? Have you been able to adapt the elements of your life so that you don't have to struggle so much just to do the work?


CM: It has changed over the years. Very much so in fact. One thing I didn't mention previously about music. I will quite often choose one song or one piece of music to write to and listen to it over and over for an hour or two at a time. This builds intensity in and of itself. It's funny but I took inspiration for this from Albert Einstein. The story was that Einstein's closet was full of the same type of clothing so he never had to decide what to wear. I thought if I found something to listen to that inspired me I wouldn't have to worry about the music changing and interrupting the flow.


Adapting the elements of my life is quite a task, just to make it through the day much less writing. The work is a struggle, always. The words come so fast and often in disjointed ways. Often tumbling through and over one another in such a way that its a wonder I am able to capture any of it. But I do. I don't seem able to write poems of any great length, anymore, like I used to. It is difficult to maintain the attention to detail I once could. If that is the correct way of expressing that. To take your writing seriously, I believe you have to be desperate. Desperate to hold onto the things around you and to your sanity, if you want to take it to an extreme. I have no time or sympathy for those that approach writing as a hobby.


As you continue work on Brambu Drezi, as the epic continues, do you feel the work itself pulling you onward? Each volume seems to pull the title from its origin and allow the reader a look within. Will the final installment reveal all?


JB: Answering the first question: Yes, the work pulls me onward, or pulls itself onward. Whatever I am, persona, ego, concept, is one of many contributors and any use of personal pronouns is more likely to be some other self, either a fictional one or one that presents itself through some other medium. The whole thing is a process that I allowed to happen or maybe opened the door on something that was already happening. I try to get out of the way and allow it happen. I am the one putting it all down so there is a sense of collaboration and argument, but the sources are elsewhere.


There used to be a lot of discussion about the inward life of writing, or the outer life, Hemingway for instance, running around the world for experiences he could use in his fiction. That dichotomy, inner and outer, probably has more to do with analysis of writing than actual writing. I don't know where those boundaries are. The pull seems to be outward. The outside calls us into being, into doing. We have a sense of being inside our bodies or minds, but that is just a sense of self preservation. One has to find shelter. One has to project outward in order to kill or plant or harvest to keep the body alive, but everything that I call myself was once outside and I am constantly, right now even, moving outward toward you. Reality seems to be less about some solid, singular self than about change, relation, impression and response. Perhaps there are no nouns, only activities that have a particular shape often enough for us to give them a name that will work temporarily.

 
The final installment of Brambu Drezi will be wherever I am with it when I die. That was the idea, to step into it and allow the shape be determined by forces beyond my control. And before anyone leaps up and says 'surrealism' or 'the unconscious' I would ask them to remember that surrealism became a self-conscious movement almost immediately and has particular stylistic qualities. The unconscious is a concept. It is a useful one, but it is just a tool we use to get at what lies beyond obvious consciousness. And like so many good concepts it has been so co-opted by pseudo philosophies, charlatans and the market that it can stand in the way of genuinely approaching what it was originally intended to describe.


I hope Brambu reveals, but I hope it reveals openly, not all or everything, but opens toward infinity—which is only a way of saying we are always moving into the something we cannot hold or name. That is one of the things poetry can do—the opposite of the way language is conventionally used. It can make the world available without giving it absolutes or closing it into individuated spaces.


Does all of this make sense to you? Your own work, whether poetry or prose, seems to always leave things unresolved. There may be final events in it—a character may die or transform into something else—but the door never seems to close. I don't get the sense that we are ever arriving at some final truth or a point where we know everything about what is happening in the work or in the world generally. Are you seeking something absolute? Will we arrive at some end point, like a unified field theory, within which everything can be understood?


CM: Yes, it makes perfect sense. Our boundaries, those we project and those we will only see in the work, the suppression's that we miscalculate, the different levels we manage to extract are at best only temporarily held at bay. The tessellation of these things commit to occur whether we are in control or not. The destructive influence of our identity is what sometimes holds us back. You mention that language can grant individuated spaces, I agree. By breaking apart the space, the language you move into the areas every writer was meant to travel to. You become an expatriate. William Burroughs was right. Writing is dangerous work

 
I think we are always seeking to resolve the unresolvable. I've always felt like an exile. I've always felt that I was going about my work in a way different from every one else. I think in some way perhaps I unconsciously left things unresolved so that they would continue. You make a good point, that is in my work. One definition of absolute is free from restriction. That I have always sought. I can't imagine anyone not seeking this. I don't know if we will reach a point where everything will be understood. Ezra Pound said, "The body is inside the soul." Perhaps the work, the finished work will be discovered and understood when we're dead. But I doubt it in my case. I don't think I'll be read after my death. I didn't come to this earth to be read, I came here to write.


Arthur Rimbaud said, “The first study for a man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, complete.” If we as writers are to know ourselves complete is there any sense in pursuing writing once you have gained this wisdom?


JB: If we define the absolute in those terms—free from restriction—then we are working toward the same experience, each in his own way. And I would agree with Pound as well. We don't have a soul. Humans aren't that smart. A soul (or souls) has us. There is also the idea of making or building a soul, as in Michael McClure's poetry. That is what is happening. That is the making a poet does.


Following in the context of the absolute as free from restriction we could interpret Rimbaud's "complete" in the same way. If the knowledge of himself was to free himself from restriction then it is certainly reflected in his poetry, and in his life. I'm not sure if he ever acquired that level of knowledge. One gets the sense from reading his letters and bits of his history from other sources that he abandoned poetry out of exasperation. He opted for a rough, direct experience that apparently did not inspire or require poetry.


I'm really not sure what Rimbaud meant by that statement. He's also writing about deranging the senses. Are those two things part of the same process? I think it was for him and I think it has been for many poets after him. Perhaps in order to know oneself one must escape oneself—losing one's mind in order to find it. Poetry feels that way to me as it happens. In some sense I am not myself or any particular self. I am not in my mind, not contained by the identity or persona I might call myself otherwise. Can we ever reach that point where the process is complete? If I want to know myself as a person, an ego, that won't take long since the ego is always provisional and reactionary. It's merely an interface. But if we step beyond ourselves, inside or out or both, and it may amount to the same thing, then what we can experience has no boundaries, there is no end. Ultimately, I'm not trying to know anything by means of writing, I'm allowing something to happen that can never be completely defined or known. It's a movement into the open beyond the pain of being a self.

Regarding whether or not we are read now or after we are dead. I feel like what is happening is that the our area of experience is expanding by way of the work and in that way we are making some small contribution to the development of our species and maybe to awareness generally. Do you feel the same way or do you think of your work as being the expression of the self, of making a personal mark?


CM: From the very beginning I have always described my writing as literally attempting to empty my head. The thoughts that hounded me and would not go away, I tried to get down on paper. Along with this are the bits of words flashing about. To me it’s a troubling process. It is I suppose an expression of self. A never-ending sculpture that you can walk around in and explore. No matter how horrific it may be.


The first poem I ever wrote was of a dream I had just experienced. In the dream I am watching myself kill myself. I woke up and wrote down the dream in the form of a poem. To me this was more journalism than poetry. Whether or not this aids in the development of the species, my suffering or the contents of my head being emptied out for others to read, I don't know. You can learn as much from the scene of the crime as you can the condition of the body.


In the film Examined Life, Cornel West calls himself a blues man in the life of the mind, a jazz man in the world of ideas. How would you describe your place in the world?


JB: Those are good descriptions of Cornel West. He is definitely riffing and improvising, and lays down some serious lines.


My place in the world? Do I have one? If we are defined by what we do then I am a poet, some of those poems are sung more abstractly than others, including visual poetry. I also play musical instruments—the guitar first, but also piano, banjo, mandolin and a little flute. I write the occasional review and bits of prose that might be called philosophical. I draw and paint, work with clay and wood. I have had books and CDs published. I don't know if this places me in the world. I don't know if any of it has had any impact. I try to be a reliable companion to my wife, a reliable human to the cats in our home and tend house—all in what most people would consider a very eccentric fashion. I also try to be a good friend and usually fail by anyone's standards, including my own. Where does all this place one in relation to the world?


There are a couple of things others have said that come to mind. My brother Jeff and I were together at his house a few days ago. We were playing guitar and stumbled into writing a song, as these things often happen. He said, "Some people fish, some people hunt or golf. I write songs." Also because we saw a Steely Dan concert that evening I remembered some lines by Donald Fagan from his song "What I Do" in which he dreams that Ray Charles tells him, referring to his music, "It's not a game I play. It's in my DNA. It's what I do." That's a fair assessment of it as far as I'm concerned. All this poetry and music is what I do. It's as natural to me as leaves are to trees and singing is to birds. That's the world I am certain I have a place in. The world of human ideas, aspirations, etc. I don't know if it comes to much. I suppose it's what humans do and matters no more or less than what other species do.

 

 

copyright Jake Berry & Chris Mansel