Anselm Berrigan is standing behind a lectern in the parish hall of St. Mark’s, the 210-year-old church on the corner of East Tenth Street and Second Avenue that has been the venue for workshops, readings, and lectures sponsored by the Poetry Project, a nonprofit literary organization, founded by Paul Blackburn in 1966, that champions innovative, contemporary poetry. Tonight’s event is a party for The Selected Poems of Steve Carey, edited by Edmund Berrigan and released in June by Subpress, a publishing collective of which Anselm is a member. (Carey, who died in 1989, was one of the young poets who became close friends of the Berrigan family; he was a frequent visitor as Ted’s health declined in the early eighties.) Every seat in the hall is filled. At least a hundred people have turned out—some young, some old—to remember and celebrate the work of the late poet.
Berrigan is one of about a dozen scheduled readers. Despite his relatively quiet demeanor, he is a strong reader, a good performer no matter the venue. He’s quick with a joke and his timing is impeccable, lyrical lines rolling uninterrupted, just as they were intended, out of his mouth. But at St. Mark’s he seems especially confident. Not only was his father one of the Poetry Project’s principal organizers, having taught workshops here and stayed closely associated with it until his death, but he himself worked here during two separate stints in the past eleven years.
The first of these began after Berrigan received his MFA from Brooklyn College, in the fall of 1998. Having studied, albeit briefly, with Ginsberg before the famous poet died the previous April, Berrigan got a job as the program assistant at the Poetry Project, working in the office and hosting the Monday night reading series for two years. During the next three years he taught as an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, tutored management students at Baruch College, and did some freelance writing, most notably for Publishers Weekly. In 2003 he returned to the Poetry Project as artistic director, a job he held for four years.
Berrigan’s third book, Some Notes on My Programming, published by Edge in 2006, contains some thinly veiled responses to the job—its title a nod to the public programs he was responsible for scheduling. “I just want a beer and a day off / That’s it. The poems are out of my hands,” he writes in “The ambition of ahhhrrrr.” But many of the poems in the book were written about a much more public and sinister role that words played in the lives of everyone in the country at the time.
“Through the late nineties and into this decade, I was gradually becoming more aware of the really strange role of language in the shaping of the attempts to drive public consciousness,” Berrigan says. “Things were politically divided and economically the country was doing really well, but that was changing—the trade barriers were coming down and there were pockets of resistance to that—and celebrity culture was really amping up with cable TV and the Internet. So it seemed like the amount of language on a daily level was increasing, but the intelligence wasn’t, necessarily, and it was hard to sort out any direction in all of it. Then, when the Bush administration came in, the relationship between the political powers and the intentional use of language to direct public consciousness became much more concrete, especially after September 11. Suddenly you’re in this space where the government has an idea of what to do with language in order to respond to a situation and tell people what to do. And the news media openly caves in and says, ‘Okay, we’re all scared shitless and the president’s going to tell us what to do because we need a leader,’ because we’ve been trained that we need somebody in charge to tell us what to do and how to think. Whatever your politics, one way or another, that kind of situation should freak you out. It’s an incredible ceding of power.”
Berrigan says he wrote many of the poems in Some Notes on My Programming as an attempt to manage that situation, not only as a poet who was keenly aware of how language is used but also as someone who was living about two miles from where the terrorist attacks took place. In “Selected poses,” he writes:
a big fucking crater downtown
& I am inhaling corpse dust
at 3:22 pm on West Broadway
in the cotton candy mourning
suckered into anaesthetic
outrage to crash into a next poem
More than a hundred miles north of the city, Anselm Berrigan is again sitting on a patio, but this time it has a bright purple fence around it. He’s eating lunch at Taste Budd’s Chocolate and Coffee Café in Red Hook, New York, a small town of about ten thousand people near Bard College, where he has recently arrived to cochair the summer MFA program. Berrigan and his wife, the poet Karen Weiser, along with their twenty-one-month-old daughter, Sylvie, and twenty-one-year-old parrot, Pig, have relocated to the college, which is located on more than five hundred acres of fields and forested land bordering the Hudson River, for the summer months.
The difference between Lunasa in the East Village and Taste Budd’s in Red Hook is the collective energies and anxieties of about eight million people. Rather than apartment buildings overhead, there are clouds; instead of a droning generator, the idle chatter of an early afternoon college crowd. Berrigan is talking about Rod Smith, the publisher of Edge Books, whom he met in 1996. After Berrigan gave a reading in Washington, D.C., where Edge is based, Smith asked him for all the poems he had just read and subsequently published them as They Beat Me Over the Head With a Sack, Berrigan’s first chapbook. The two have had a productive friendship ever since. While Berrigan has had other short works published by different small presses—most recently Letter Machine Editions and Cy Press—Edge has published the bulk of Berrigan’s poetry. The recent move to City Lights at the invitation of series editor Garrett Caples seems something of a departure.
“Rod is not a possessive publisher,” Berrigan says between bites of a chicken sandwich. “He always told me if something really good came along that I should take it. So I checked in with Rod and he was completely fluid and cool with it, so I was like, ‘Okay.’ And City Lights? It was a total honor to be asked to do something with them.”
Berrigan’s new book, Free Cell, is composed of two long poems bridged by a forty-three-line poem titled “Let Us Sample Protection Together.” The first poem is a series of ninety-six short pieces, all of which have the same title: “Have a Good One.” This serial poem, which fills the majority of the new book, uses the repetition of the common phrase as a continual exit point as well as entry point into the text. The short pieces within “Have a Good One” range in length from one line (“Tell it what it is”) to more than a page, all of them utilizing the full expanse of wide margins.
“I was having trouble writing anything that seemed to work,” Berrigan says of the summer of 2006, when he started the poem. “I was really frustrated, so I just wrote ‘Have a good one’ on the page and looked at it. I almost wrote it out of spite, as a message to myself of the futility I was feeling. And this odd thing happened where I realized that it was such a common phrase, to the point of being banal, that you could write almost anything underneath it and the reference to the title would be available in some odd way. It was freeing.” At the time, Berrigan was in the middle of his third summer at Bard, still working the rest of the year as artistic director at the Poetry Project, becoming more and more disillusioned with balancing the real work of writing poetry and his day job.
This tension between work that pays the bills—even when it’s done at a place with “Poetry” in the title—and work that fills the page is a recurring theme in Berrigan’s writing, stretching back to the poems he wrote after standing behind the counter all day at Copy Central. “You’re spending all this time in this place, so there’s obvious material there, and you’re giving so much time over to it,” he says. “So the fact of work—especially when you’re trying to figure out how to make your way and the reality of the work life and your own artistic pursuits—that clash is something you have to think through very heavily, and sometimes in a monolithic way, because you’re thinking about it all the time.” He pauses, then adds, “Especially if you can’t stand your job.”
These days, however, Berrigan isn’t writing much about his job. That’s because, in addition to his summer gig at Bard College, his workaday life consists mainly of another part-time teaching job at Pratt Institute, a private college in New York City, and teaching isn’t something that fuels his poetry. In fact, he makes a concerted effort to make sure it doesn’t. “The problem with teaching, I find, is that it draws a certain amount of the same concentration as writing itself,” he says. “I don’t want to have a closed system going, where there’s teaching and then there’s writing and they’re feeding each other and that’s that. I think that can work for other people, but I need a lot more unknown in there.”
While the unknown is something Berrigan seeks in his poetry, it hasn’t been something he’s encountered in publishing for over ten years. His relationship with Smith has been a collaborative one that, as any writer who has had experience in independent publishing will attest, is unique to small presses. “Rod designed the books around the work. He gave me big pages and let me do things with the artwork that made sense,” Berrigan says. “It was a really one-to-one relationship, and that’s one thing that made me a little nervous about going with City Lights: I wasn’t going to have a say in the cover, and the design was out of my hands a little bit. And, with no offense to City Lights, to what end? What’s the big difference for me between City Lights and Edge Books? City Lights obviously has the reputation, the history, the distribution, but Edge has this recent work and I have this relationship, so it wasn’t a no-brainer. I had to think about it. A little bit.”
If such a cautious response to a solicitation from City Lights sounds suspicious (who balks when asked for work by the house of Ferlinghetti, publisher of Ginsberg’s Howl, O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, Corso’s Gasoline?), consider that it is coming from a thirty-seven-year-old poet who very rarely submits his work for publication. Back when he was in his early twenties and concerned about giving work only to editors of magazines or presses who were interested in him for his work, not for who his parents were, he got in the habit of not sending his material out. “I don’t ever send poems out to journals unless I’m asked,” he says.
Which isn’t entirely true. As he finishes a large coffee at Taste Budd’s before heading back to Bard, he comes clean about sending “Let Us Sample Protection Together” to the New Yorker, of all places. “My stepfather always said that if you want to criticize a place for the types of poetry that it runs, you have to send your work to them. He wasn’t saying you do it to criticize them, but don’t bitch about a place unless you’ve had some experience and you can attest in some way to their preferences.”
So Berrigan looked through his recent work and found a poem he thought might be right for the magazine, and sent it off. The answer he got—the form response so many other poets have received—was not wholly unexpected. “Actually, I enjoyed sending it in and getting the response and thinking, ‘Well, it’s not really up their alley anyway.’ They tend to publish things that are narrative driven. I don’t think my poems aren’t narrative driven, I just think the initial narrative sometimes only takes a sentence or two and then another narrative starts,” he says. “There are a lot of narratives going on.”
Kevin Larimer is the editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.