(First Fifteen Minutes of) A Dialogue with Charles Bernstein

Frank Guan and Charles Bernstein

For at least the past four decades, Charles Bernstein (b. 1950) and his poetry have been notoriously difficult to pin down with an introduction. It's easy to type Widely known within the US poetry community as a leading exponent of Language poetry, a syndicalist collective of young postmodern poets active mostly in the Seventies and Eighties, Bernstein, a graduate of Harvard, re-entered the academy in 1989 as a professor and developer of the Poetics Program at the State University of New York Buffalo (one of the first of its kind) before moving to the University of Pennsylvania, where he presently teaches as the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature in lieu of saying something more incisive with regards to Bernstein and his creative work (contrary to “popular” belief, he's very much a poet first and a polemicist second), the effect of whose array of “wildly” disparate forms, contents, and tones, taken as a whole, can only (only?) be described as profoundly disturbing, though the sources of disturbance and profundity will vary drastically depending on the reader. Over a career of forty years with almost as many books to his name, Bernstein's themes have remained, I think, remarkably consistent: perhaps the one I best respond to deals with the question of containment in society and its relation, whether dissonant or consonant or something other yet to be determined, to the framing/forms of art.


I met Charles in what may well be the worst way possible to meet a writer (before his reading) but was pleasantly surprised to find him genial and receptive to the prospect of a conversation—initially about a poet we had both translated, but soon branching out in various directions. Despite being a terrifically busy man, he's never been anything less than thoroughly generous with his time and words. Our interview took place on Labor Day, 2013, at his new home in the west of Brooklyn and lasted over two hours, during which I was, I think, not bored in the least; very much the contrary. This transcription, which took four hours, covers the initial quarter-hour of our conversation; the remainder of the interview will be released at a future date.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Frank Guan


B: Three-oh-eight PM, interrogation.

G: Can you state your name and, serial number for the audience here?

B: I … I don't really eat cereal that much.

G: (laughs)

B: (partially inaudible sentence including the words “good” and “bagel”)

G: So, Charles Bernstein. You were born in 1950, is that correct?

B: That is correct! April 4th, 1950.

G: So you were a boomer child.

B: Well, that's the common term for those of us born in the immediate, aftermath of the Second World War.

G: And the atomic bomb that finished it off.

B: And the atomic bomb—

G: (quietly) What a boom!

B: Yeah, so that's a big, big thing for me, as for a, anyone of my age, so I'm on the slightly earlier side, and, uh, that, uh, systematic extermination process, and, uh, and, uh, (partially inaudible word halfway between “bomb” and “bong”), s, s—

G: But you were an ocean away, right?

B: What?

G: You were an ocean a, away from the events.

B: (pause) That's true. T, two oceans. There's the Atlantic and the Pacific. But I'm very much a person who comes of age in the Cold War and the Sixties and so my whole consciousness is very much formed by the Cold War and the Fifties and that itself is a kind of repression/reaction to not being in Europe and not being in Asia, I think that that's quite right and very significant because it tended to mute and repress the full impact and violence, of (pause) the Second War.

G: There is definitely a sense of latency that, you know, there's a kind of war that's not being fought, right, and so, I mean, they called it a cold war for a reason.

B: Right, it's um, (long pause) there's so much written about the Cold War, it's hard to say something that isn't, um …

G: Well, how did it like, impact your nerve endings, I guess, like, you're eight years old, like what is the Cold War to an eight-year-old. Or a nine-year-old, since that's when the Cuban Missile Crisis kicks off.
B: Um, I, I,
G: Or, no, that's … eleven.

B: I think that there's a kind of forced conviviality and sociality and complacency and conformism—

G: Even on the Upper West Side?

B: —around a sense of prosperity—sure! On the Upper West Side especially, yeah, prosperous people trying to go about their lives. The Upper West Side is not an island unto itself, nor is Manhattan Island … there's a lot of cultural and class, ethnic and racial ranges on the Upper West Side when I was growing up, so that's why Manhattan is not the same as it was then, but, I think that, uh, I watched TV, I was the first generation, one of the youngest people who grew up with a TV in my room, people older than me, five years older than me, wouldn't have had that as a possibility, so I very much absorbed the national culture.

G: Via television, which wasn't possible, you know, even ten years before.

B: That's right, or even five years before, so, and I, I, I loved TV, and I watched all the hit shows, and I read TV Guide and—so, I would say that I was very much absorbed in, and absorbed by, the Fifties culture I lived in, and then of course talking about the generational (long pause) question is that the Sixties then looms, looms very large for me, so … Martin Luther King was assassinated …

G: When you turned 18, right?

B: On my 18th birthday.

G: Oh, wow. (partially inaudible words including the word “exactly”)

B: On my 18th birthday. Bobby Kennedy shortly thereafter. Also the time I graduated from high school. I graduated from high school just exactly at that time that King was assassinated and I turned 18, I met Susan [Charles' sweetheart, now also his wife] just a few months before, February, '68, and went to demonstrations in Chicago against the Democratic National Convention, antiwar stuff, hung around Columbia in those last years, '67, and then my college, '68, involved with the antiwar demonstrations, '69, '63, Kennedy is assassinated when I was thirteen, the year I was bar mitzvahed, so those are, you know, twin things, I mean the Sixties, which was often talked about in terms of my generation and the work that we were doing 'cause a lot of us (inaudible word[s]) involved with Language stuff were involved with the antiwar movement, civil rights movement, combined with the Fifties, you have the two things. I'm a little bit younger than the real pioneers of the Sixties, uh, were, um—

G: Do you mean the student leaders, or the—

B: Well, yeah, the student leaders, sure, because being 18 in 1968, I'm talking about the people who were in their early twenties or mid-twenties and so on, I've written a lot about this, especially in “The Second War and Postmodern Memory” [in A Poetics] where I talk about a half-generation slightly older than me which I consider more of the shock troops of the Sixties. So I benefited from the Sixties, I think, enormously, and that changed so much in terms of social attitudes, so much of what the Sixties imagined have become, are given now, and I think that so much hostility in a way to the Left of the Sixties, as there is to feminism, while in fact much of the cultural agenda is common sense, on the other hand, economic issues are as bad, or worse, as in the Sixties, and in the Fifties even more so, there was a real sense of upward social mobility, and that young people like yourself when I was your age could make a living for themself—

G: There were jobs waiting for them—

B: —there were jobs, also, me and my friends after graduate [sic] college, you know, we worked very erratically, I did work, I had an office job, but I took years off, I saved up money, (words, perhaps “can you”) imagine, I worked full-time in an office job for a few years and then I took a year off, (G: Wow.) that's not imaginable now. My rent on Amsterdam Avenue, where I moved in 1975, was like a hundred and sixty dollars, a little tiny apartment, four hundred square feet. But you couldn't even in the outer boroughs, where you are, or in Bushwick, you couldn't have anything that was comparable, I'm not talk—of course there's inflation—the economy just doesn't work in that way, so that sense of economic—and also, the, um, difference between, uh, the distribution of wealth, which to me is a most important economic indicator, was much better when I graduated from college than it is now, so it's a, you know, that's why I have my poem in Recalculating [B's most recent book, 2013, University of Chicago Press] called “The Sixties With Apologies.” I think that a lot of the cultural piece was transformative and that that was necessary but the economic transformation hasn't happened.

G: You have a liberalization on both sides, right? Like culturally, like, I think there's a kind of consensus that, like—a growing one—that this is—we're heading in the right direction. And then at the same time there's this like economic liberalization which is, you know, like, not making many people free, you know it's making like—

B: Well, I'd certainly call—N, n, n, n, neo-liberal is the term for that. Yeah, absolutely, and it's a devil's bargain. I remember in 1968 Nathan Pusey, the president of Harvard, when we were demonstrating about the disparity between women and men at Harvard, now this is not something that people think about so much in terms of the numbers, there were 400 Radcliffe admissions versus 1200 Harvard men, there were separate degrees, before that they merged, and Pusey said that we needed to keep those number of enrollments in Harvard College because Harvard had a responsibility to train the future leaders of America. (G: [brief, sharp exhalation]) Now, people wonder, we were so young and out of bounds in our criticism of these kinds of people who really operated, even after this time, with impunity—that this (phonemes including a k-sound) is unacceptable. Anybody hearing that now would just be outraged to say something like that and it was just as outrageous in 1968 as it is in 2013.

G: But it wasn't common sense.

B: Well, that's right. Many people didn't accept it, but it was just as outrageous, believe me, I remember, it struck me just as unacceptable then because, uh, you know, you could see, you know, just the, the, the, the, the incredible misogyny and sexism, that was by no means a, uh, uh, my feminist consciousness, uh—or my consciousness raised by feminism was, was not as great then as it was even a few years later—but it was apparent to me the other issue was what they now call uh, um, affirmative action, now everybody says this, but I, I believe that the year I went into college something like fff—the, the, the, the c—like forty or fifty percent of the people who went to Andover—I'd never even heard of these places but then I learned about them: Andover, Exeter, S (G: Choate.), Choate, Saint Mark's—went, were accepted into Harvard, I don't know it's like maybe like there was forty percent of the whole school—of the future leaders of America—you know Rona, Rona, Ro, uh, Dahl's book Who Rules [perhaps referring to Yale Sterling Professor emeritus Robert A. Dahl (1915-), author of Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (1961) but actually intending to indicate UC Santa Cruz Research Professor G. William (“Bill”) Dornhoff (1936-), author of Who Rules America? (1st ed. 1967, 7th ed. 2013)] seemed very good as far as reductive Marxism goes, and then at the public schools, like Bronx Science, we had a few people, in Chicago, only J [sound cuts out?], who is now an art historian, was the only person accepted from all the public school system in Chicago, my year. Forty percent of the people from these schools, and by and large, my impression of the people from those prep schools was very poor. They seemed not well prepared, not that interested in what I thought—I didn't really understand what a place like Harvard would be like but I thought it would be like what you and I are interested in, talking about Baudelaire—little did I know that that was a mistake, but I learned quickly, but … you know, I don't want to be—to stereotype these prep school people but many of them seemed like they were ill-equipped for a serious education and uninterested in it. So you talk about affirmative action: again, the kind of thing that's, it's i, i, it's outrageous of the Supreme Court—

G: It was affirmative action for WASPs back then, right?

B: And there still is, it's built in, because that's my generation I'm talking about, I mean, I'm, we're, we're perhaps dying out, but still, what's in place, the people with the jobs, you know, and, and in the positions that benefited from that are still pulling those levers in the financial firms and all the rest. So, you would have to have a hundred years of, of compensation for that, to have an admissions policy … and, by the way, of course, you know, there's the whole Jewish issue, now more an Asian issue, the, the, the, the meritocracy—

G: You had a lot of anti-Semitism back then, yeah.

B: Well you had—funny thing was that the meritocracy, the Jewish kids, did well on those tests, and they took the test preparation classes, they did even better. So that created a problem for the concept of meritocracy, as you see now. Meritocracy is good, but if it doesn't have the right “balance” then we have to say no, no, no, … because the meritocracy, if it's favoring these groups, may, maybe, maybe that's a problem with it, when it was favoring the, the, the dominant groups, I mean it's a, it's all recalibrated in, in, in, in curious ways. But I think nowadays there's certainly more, a greater recognition, as, you know, of the common sense of these kinds of views of, of, of, of, of fairness and opportunity as it's said not in a neo-liberal way, uh, but then everything changes, so you have those kinds of, you know, certain kinds of freedoms which are crucial but you don't have the economic, you have, you know, greater concentration of wealth in a smaller and smaller number of people. The one percent. Or let's just say the five percent.

G: Cultural, cultural freedom. And financial scarcity. (C: Yeah.) It's, it's truly … it's a horrible deal, but—

C: Let them eat lifestyle.

G: (laughs) That's great.

C: And Brooklyn here is great, I love Carroll Gardens, the, the, the fantastic, hyper-expensive espresso

one block away—very good espresso, by the way—very elegant surroundings, and then across the street there's the old-time bagel store where the coffee is one-quarter the price, you have the, the two Brooklyns.

G: Mmm, two Brooklyns—there may be three or more.

C: It's, it's really—I'm sure that there's more, but it's, it's interesting to—well not, of course, it's a more European in one sense, that people spend, especially the young people, spend much more of their disposable income on (G: Designer [words garbled]) restaurants and food, I don't know about clothes cause I don't have statistics, but obviously on, on, on certain kinds of consumption, which, actually, is, I think, a good thing as far as, you know, in that European sense, people, spend money on their everyday life …

G: They're more aesthetically interested (B: They're more aesthetically inclined.) than, than they were in the Fifties, right? (B: That's right.) Like in the Fifties the point was not to stand out, was to wear beige.

B: That's right, that's r—of course, (phoneme) I like beige now (G: [laughs]), cause you stand out by dressing in a conformist way now. I don't even own any jeans, you know, so. (laughs)

G: I have no words with, I have no shirts with words on them. (sound of water intake) Mmm. Interesting. So can you tell me—

B: But you didn't come here to talk to me about, (two brief laughs), sociology.

G: Well? Ki, I kinda did, actually, because I'm actually kind of interested in your generation…