An Interview with David Bromige

What follows is an excerpt from a long interview conducted with David Bromige by "Too Many Stars." "Too Many Stars" is a collaborative project between freelance writer Sean Durkin and poet and freelance writer Sam Witt.

TMS: You seem to have been in Berkeley at an interesting period. Maybe you could give us your perspective on what was happening, and especially as a Canadian, what you saw happening in general.

DB: Well I saw through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution right away, the first time I saw it on the TV news. It was the excuse to escalate the war in Vietnam. I couldn't believe the dumbness with which an overwhelming majority, apparently, of Americans went along with it. I just couldn't believe it. What was in it for them? I couldn't see that. I suppose a lot of them believed that communism would be coming under the Golden Gate Bridge if Vietnam weren't defended. It just seemed to show a woeful ignorance of the world, and how far away things are, and of other people wanting self-determination that was inconvenient to American interests. So I was ready to protest from the start. And I was so happy when others began to do that.

And then suddenly, everything started to gel. The world of poetry, the world of politics. There were a lot of people around who felt as I felt about matters. Most of them were considerably younger than I was. In the year when they were saying, 'Don't trust anyone over thirty,' I turned thirty. So I couldn't figure out if I was trustworthy or not. But most of them were twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty, eighteen, twenty-five. And they were my friends. And then I had the friends from the poetry world of the Bay Area then, people more my age, or considerably older, like Robert Duncan, who turned into a mentor to me, and a great friend.

TMS: Well, I really want to get you to talk about Duncan. Before you do that, could you speak a little bit about where you fell on the class spectrum when you were growing up in England?

DB: Yeah, my parents were both from the working class. My father got in on the ground floor of a new technology: the movie camera. He learned how to work a camera early on, just as someone's kid these days learns how to be a whiz on the computer, and then when they're twenty-three they've made a lot of money. Well my father didn't make a lot of money, but he certainly made some, and after he came back from World War I, he was hired on as a cameraman. He was a cameraman for something like fifteen years, and then they took him inside and made him news editor. For "Go One British Newsreels." It was like "Passé," "Movietone"…there were others. I can't remember them all. "Go One British," despite the French, I guess there was some French money in it, or had been at one point. But "Go One British News" was part of the J. Arthur Rank Organization. You know, the movie began before the movie begins; there was a strong man, stripped to the waist, hitting a huge gong. That was my father. No, no. But that's for whom he worked. So he was moving into the middle class. I would say he moved into the middle class.

TMS: Which dare I say was in some ways traumatic and wrenching?

DB: For him. [Sings] 'There's a man who leads a life of danger; to everyone he meets, he stays a stranger.' So I guess he had to do a lot of that British masking. He was thirteen when he left school. And then he made up his education best he could in night school. Polytechnics and the like. My mother didn't have to make the same kind of change, because she had to make her work in the house, which was considerable in those days, because we had no refrigerator. So she had to go shopping for food every day. And there were no Mod Cons. There was no washing machine; she did the laundry in a big copper, they called it, because it was lined with copper, I suppose. But you had to heat water for it in the kettle, in pans, on the stove, and pour it in to there, and you'd just stir everything around with a big stick. Just one notch above beating it on the stones of the riverbank. Then you'd put it through the mangle, you'd have to squeeze all the juice out of it, and then you hung it up on the line. And you had to do it on Monday.

TMS: Two brief sentences on the tennis club days. Or more. . .
DB: Okay. Well, I was born, basically, at the tennis club. My parents went there every Sunday. See, in those days my father worked—people worked—five and a half-day weeks. So he worked on Saturday morning, and by the time he got home it was usually two in the afternoon and he usually went to see a soccer match. But Sunday at the tennis club, that was sacrosanct. And my parents' friends that I remember, as I was growing up, had mostly been gleaned from the tennis club, which was just down West End Lane from where we lived, right by the West Hampstead tube station, Bakerloo Line. And these people, I guess, were the same kind of mix, rising into the middle class, rather than descending into it. And they were very good tennis players, my mother and father. It was something I took up in my teens and liked a lot. I only stopped playing when my feet went bad. So, on this particular Sunday, my mother wasn't going to play tennis, because she was nine months…you know, she was at term. She went down to see the game and apparently I started to appear. Rapidly. I was a rapid onset baby. A tennis baby. The first sound I heard, I mean, apart from all the squishing that must have been going on, was puck, puck.

And so they called a taxi, because no one had a car then.

TMS: You were already out?

DB: I was half-way out. My mother wanted to go home and have me at home, which people did then, as they now, again, often do. So, someone from the tennis club, Mrs. New, went with her, and helped deliver me in this taxi. So I was born, actually, between a tennis club and a taxi. I wonder if that's why I'm writing As in T, as in Tether. My God, I never thought of that. So there I was, all newborn, and they carried me up the stairs to the flat. We lived in a two-story flat over a store, over "a little parade of shops," they'd call it in England, a little mini-mall. Then as time went by we get into the post-war years, these friends melted away, they moved out of town. Old friendships don't always last, when the tennis club wasn't a center for them anymore. My mother was the youngest of ten, so for a while she had brothers and sisters galore, and their children, to visit, or to visit us. They were a short-lifed family, and many of the siblings were dead, coming into the fifties. She never took up with my father's social life. She didn't want to get all dressed-up, and go down to the West End of London, and go to dinners, meeting in pubs, go to the theater. She'd go once in a while, but she didn't have her heart in it. She liked sitting around the house, reading novels by Maseau de la Roche, sort of soap operas. The Jonah and White Oaks heritage. She became more and more isolated.

There wasn't pressure on my mother to change classes. My impression between the two of them must be that she was more honest with herself, and comfortable with who she was, whereas he had always to be acting a part. It's not an unusual act. A lot of people have to do it, and I guess sometimes it seems like that's all there is. But my mother used to have long talks with me—I just want to mention her in my will here—and she was a great person. She was a great mother for a poet to have, I think. Because she would entertain ideas that other people would have found outrageous. She would talk to me at that level and pitch of understanding. She talked to me when I was quite young; how old must I have been…, maybe I was fourteen, I don't know. You've got to understand that back then fourteen was younger than it is now. People didn't reach puberty until they were thirteen or fourteen, and now they reach it at ten or eleven, especially girls.

TMS: Teenagers in general are a new group, because they have money, there's marketing. . .

DB: There were no teenagers in England. There was adolescence, but it wasn't teenaged at all. And we didn't have the upper hand like teenagers have here. So, what did she talk to me about? Well, she talked to me about sex.

TMS: Did she really? I find that strange. How did she go about it?

DB: Well it might have come up in discussing my father, who was away a lot at this time and who in fact at one point left home and went to live with a mistress for two years, in another part of London. My mother was pretty stern about it. I was not supposed to see him in this time; however, I did, because he worked out ways to see me. But the burden of my song right now is that she…I may well have asked her, because she encouraged this kind of openness. I might have said "Why are you and dad apart? What's it all about? Why does he prefer this other woman?" I don't know that she was leveling with me or even with herself, but she said, "Sex is very nice, if you're with someone you love, and you spend the day together, and it seems like when night comes it's a natural outcome of the whole day, and the relationship beyond that. But your father was always wanting it, and he was always coming up behind me when I was doing the dishes, and grabbing my breasts." And she said, "Even when my breasts were full of milk for you, and it was painful to have them handled, he was always manhandling them."

Perhaps in another way she did me as great a disservice as she did me a service. I don't know. But she certainly didn't encourage gender loyalty in me. Not up to scale, anyway. She was okay about pointing out my father's shortcomings to me, more than once. Whereas he seldom—not until I was grown up did he let loose, when he was angry once, with a string of negatives about my mother. I just have the notion now that those years I spent mostly alone with my mother were years in which I learned to talk to a muse. To talk to the feminine, however I perceived it. And to come to depend on that kind of understanding. Which might have as much to do with the tone of the voice as what the content of the words were.

TMS: Can you tell us at what point you had awareness that you were a "poet?"

DB: I had verbal facility from an early age. I just had a certain way of saying things that to me was the obvious thing, and not intended to be comic at all, but that the grown-ups found comic. And the first instance I can remember of this, I must have been about four. They asked me if I wanted another ham sandwich. And I said, "yes, I would like another hand sandwich, please. But without any bread and butter this time." You'll find things like that in my books I expect.

TMS: Do you want to talk a little bit about the sexual climate of, say, Berkeley in the sixties and the politics of that?

DB: From some women I've heard one kind of story about it, and from other women I've heard another story. One set of opinions and testimony feels that it was really a big rip-off to women. They were expected to have sex the way men will have casual sex. Whereas most of them will say now that they didn't really want that, that they didn't really know what else to do, that that's what you had to do. And I guess that could be the case even if they enjoyed themselves thoroughly at the time. But others say, no, I thought it was a good thing, it was a liberation. Whatever the prohibitions on sex had been, they no longer seemed to have any function now. Of course, we had the birth control pill. And I take my pleasure where I find it, and I like living that way. So there's two feminist responses to it, sketched in.

I think the women in the various resistance movements were expected to do everything. They were supposed to be barefoot in the kitchen and the barricades. And the men were the ones who were doing the headwork for it.

I'm reading Barry Miles' book about Ginsberg that came out quite a few years back, but I hadn't read it before. There was certainly no shortage of sex if you were Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg, even in the late forties and fifties. They went out and picked people up, men or women—

TMS: Were they discreet about it?

DB: Discreet? Well I don't know if they told the landlord that's what they were doing. Because I know in Vancouver, which was like a little Presbyterian Scottish city when I first got there, my wife-to-be and I got thrown out of her place because I was cohabiting there with her without benefit of clergy. Also we had a lot of parties down there. A lot of people came and went, and we made homebrew, and on Sunday — Sunday was a blue laws day in those days, and we had no want of visitors, because everybody wanted to come and score some homebrew.

TMS: Talk a little bit about Robert Duncan.

DB: It must have been to my taste already. I liked the openness. He had the things that were hitherto thought shameful, at least by a number of people. That a writer should not be copying other people's stuff.

The thing about Duncan, at least in my first years of knowing him, is that he seemed to be enabling. He was very encouraging; he encouraged me to take pains where I wasn't inclined to, and he would encourage me to let go and be loose where I was inclined to take pains, and so he, like, stood me on my head and gave me a good shaking.

TMS: He was a great teacher. . .

DB: He was a wonderful teacher. He was a great inspiration. He was a lovely man. I loved him. He was one of those people that I always felt great to be around. Good to be with. You looked like a hero walking into a room with Robert Duncan.

TMS: How did you come to know him?

DB: Well, because, at the University of British Columbia in my time there was an American teaching whose name was Warren Tallman. And Warren had married a woman called Ellen King who had been at Berkeley with Robert Duncan. So Ellen knew Duncan, and Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer in her Berkeley days. Now she was living in Vancouver. She was a large-boned, hospitable woman, a psychoanalyst I think, or psychotherapist. Very welcoming. Warren was lean and nervous. My friend Mike Matthews, later to be a collaborator on that novel [ Piccolo Mondo, Coach House Books, 1998 ], said "you gotta come to this poetry class, and see this—" he didn't say dude, we didn't say that then.

TMS: Let's pretend that he did say dude.

DB: Yeah, yeah, he said ". . .and see this dude, from the states, Warren Tallman. He's such an idiosyncratic teacher. He's teaching poetry, and you're interested in poetry." So I went, but he made me so nervous because he shook all the time, and he was smoking while teaching. Of course we were smoking while sitting there, I suppose.

TMS: Why did he shake?

DB: Can't say. At some point he started to put the chalk in his mouth and write on the board with his cigarette. I swear it happened. And I thought, this guy—I'm not ready for this yet. I don't know why he shook. Perhaps he was hungover. I think it was the intensity. He was explaining how a poem by Denise Levertov worked, what the best way to read it would be.

TMS: Was he well-known at this point?

DB: He had published an article on Kerouac's sound. And he had written an article on Robert Creeley's work, but he wasn't widely published. Later he got to be known better, because he co-edited with Creeley The New American Story, that was a companion piece, a spin-off from The New American Poetry. But he was a watershed teacher at the University of British Columbia. Because of Warren's engagement with the new writing, a number of people at UBC who might at that impressionable age have been siphoned off to…you know, what later might have been a workshop poem, instead wrote avante garde poetry. Like it or not, whether it was any good or not at that stage is much less important, than that they were taught to think for themselves more, and to challenge conventions. One way Tallman encouraged us to do this was that he got Duncan to come to stay with him for two or three weeks. If you paid some money toward Duncan's Greyhound bus fare, you were invited to come to Tallman's every evening, after dinner, and talk with the poet. Well, I mean you listened to Robert Duncan because he talked and talked. But he did take questions too. It was just where he'd go with a question. He'd go for a long time. Now I was being very standoffish and British at this stage, and suspicious of things American, although of course very intrigued by them. Perhaps a bit like the person who flirts by, squeezing the stuff in your face. Anyway, I went only to the last of his sessions, and then to the party, because I went to a lot of parties back then. Everyone I knew did. And he just floored me with his talking. For one thing, there was no censorship discernible. So all topics were equal, as long as they were interesting to Robert at the time, in whatever context he took himself to be operating. And he spoke very freely about sex, and jacking off, and Egyptian mythology.

TMS: Did he speak about his homosexuality?

DB: Yes he did. That was up front. And of course he had published an article about that as early as the 1940s: "The Poet as Homosexual." And one immediate result of it was that…who was it, one of those Southern agrarians with three names—

TMS: John. Crowe. Ransom?

DB: Maybe that was him. He was doing a magazine, a prestigious magazine, and whoever it was had accepted three poems by Duncan, and now this article appeared in another prestigious magazine, and he refused to publish these poems. Isn't that amazing? They had completely lost poetic value because the person who wrote them was a confessed homosexual. Incredible to our minds today. And that's only—well, that's 55 years ago, I guess that's quite a haul. ["Long before it was safe to do so, Duncan 'came out' in both his personal and public lives. In 1944, Dwight Macdonald's Politics published Duncan's still-controversial article, 'The Homosexual in Society.' This caused John Crowe Ransom to withdraw Duncan's 'African Elegy' from its scheduled publication in the Kenyon Review.—Michael Palmer, "Robert Duncan and Romantic Synthesis: A Few Notes"]

So I was intrigued by Duncan, yes, it's true. By the following summer, I had developed a passion for Creeley's poetry. And he came and gave a reading at UBC. And then in the summer, Tallman and Ellen had him up to stay at their place. And we went there every night for two weeks and talked to him. And I said, "I'm off to Berkeley in a couple of months," and Creeley said, "Oh, well here's Robert Duncan's address. Look him up." And I took it. But I didn't see myself as a real poet yet. I'd published in a couple of magazines. I ran the campus magazine of literature, but that was easy. That was an easy coup. That was a bloodless coup. I came to Berkeley and I didn't look Duncan up. But Creeley came to campus that Fall, Fall '62. And I went to his reading, and the next day, he came into a poetry class that Thom Gunn was teaching, and Duncan came along with him. And he sat down next to me, and we had general class discussion, and he talked with me afterwards. Four or five of us, Creeley, Duncan and me and two other people went off to a place on Telegraph Avenue, Robby's, now no longer there. A little beer joint. And that was great. That was one of those big afternoons.

TMS: Duncan drank?

DB: Yes. I think just to be companionable. I'm just trying to think if I ever saw him drunk. I saw him very high one night, not on drugs, and perhaps he had been drinking as a lot of us had been drinking, and not only drinking. It was at Mark Shorer's house, which Tallman and Ellen had rented.

TMS: Duncan had the portals open whether or not he was—

DB: Underwater or on the surface. Yeah, he had the portals open. I'm trying to think where Duncan got his wardrobe. He must have gone into Ellen's wardrobe, and he came out in drag. He looked great in drag. Oh, he had some makeup on, too, and a veil. And Gary Snyder who was there, going through a sort of Russian Cossack phase of costume, danced with Duncan. They were doing a sort of Cossack dance, arm-in-arm like that. That was quite a spectacle. There were people there who blanched at this sight. So he was a far-out fellow, although with a strong domestic bent. He was just great, because he was just an incitement to riot in writing. He encouraged people to go over their top. And that was really useful. The first big parcel of poems I had in a magazine was because Duncan went to Albuquerque where this magazine Sum was being issued then, edited by Fred Wah, who had been a colleague of mine at UBC, and who was now studying with Creeley at New Mexico. And Duncan went down there to give a reading and hang out with the Wahs, and he sold them on what I was doing, and they published a big swatch of poetry called "The Cliff and the Lighthouse." Also Duncan suggested to Fred that he start a series of books, Sum Books, and he said, "I'll give you a book and you do the first one by me, and that'll sell, and then you can do the next one by an unknown, and alternate in this way." So Fred said "which unknown?" And Duncan said, "Well, what about David Bromige? Do David Bromige." And so he did. And that's the book The Gathering. 1965. It actually came out of Buffalo, because by then Creeley had gone to Buffalo, and Fred Wah and his wife Pauline had followed there, and another poet with whom I had become friends, Victor Coleman from Toronto, helped do the paste-up on the cover of that book. Toronto and Buffalo are pretty close together. Well that's a bit about Duncan, anyway. One could talk about Duncan for the rest of one's life.

TMS: I would like you—since it is Easter Sunday—to talk about—

DB: Oh, the Church of England—

TMS: No. What I'm interested in is Duncan's death, how it affected you, if you were close to him when he died, if you were with him when he died.

DB: We had become estranged. This is not all that uncommon in Duncan's history. There'd been some notable estrangements, one with Jack Spicer, then the one with Robin Blaser. There were others earlier, if you read his biography. It's not entirely unknown in my life for me to just drop someone and just go on elsewhere, and not go back to pick up any pieces. Although, that's more a matter of youth for me and not of middle age. He didn't like the crowd I had gotten in with.

TMS: And that crowd was—

DB: I guess the Language Poets would be the shorthand for saying that.

TMS: Silliman?

DB: Silliman . . . .Well, how Robert would have perceived it, I'm not sure whether he would have named Silliman first, but probably Watten. He was the arch villain in Robert's eyes. Barrett Watten.

TMS: And Bernstein was there?

DB: No, Robert always had a soft spot for Bernstein. As he always had a soft spot for Michael Palmer. But then Michael Palmer might not be a Language Poet. We won't know until he dies and they cut his heart open and see if L=A can be found there.

TMS: What didn't Duncan like about the Language Poets?

DB: I think he thought it was the New Criticism come again. It was everything he, Robert and his gang, had defeated, at least to their satisfaction, and now it was going to come back again.

TMS: Which was?

DB: Poetry written by critics, and a very buttoned down kind of poetry too, it might have been perceived. This is where matters came to a head. It was at the Art Institute, I think 1979, and Barrett Watten and Robert Duncan were going to speak about the work of Louis Zukofsky. It was a full house in there, and Robert appeared in his full, Romantic poet regalia, the Spanish cape, the Spanish hat.

TMS: For effect.

DB: Yes I would say it was for effect. But it was also the effect on him too. He had his manna when he was in that garb. He could fight off evil magic. And he certainly did believe in magic, but that's another story. Anyway, he spoke about Zukofsky, and of course it was Robert Duncan's Zukofsky. It was a lyrical and mystical Zukofsky, not impossible to find. I know Robert used to say: "Why Zukofsky picked Catullus, I'll never know. There were never two poets less alike, than Louis Zukofsky and Catullus." That's not the only reason—Robert would have at another time admitted—for working with a poet. You don't just pick the poets you have a pre-existing affinity for, right? So anyway, Robert did what he could with Zukofsky. And now it was Barrett Watten's turn. And Barrett got up, and Barrett was wearing, maybe a sports coat, and maybe khaki pants, maybe sensible shoes. He wouldn't have been wearing tennis shoes. He could have been a junior professor somewhere. Although, to those of us who knew Barrett, we knew he was far too intelligent to be the average junior professor image that he was projecting that day. Barrett did almost immediately make use of the blackboard. And he diagrammed a stanza of Zukofsky's. And although I have seen Robert do equally painstaking work at other times, on this occasion, he took exception to it. It was making him impatient. He jumped up and he said, "Oh for Pete's sake, we might at least have a little fun." And Barrett, quite unphased, said, "but Robert, this is the way I get my fun." It seemed to me unanswerable. And quite unforgivable of Robert to try to swan it like that, and lord it over. And he did form a deep—maybe a shallow anti-thesis is a better phrase—to the Language Poets. He tended to reject them out of hand. I remember when I told him how glad I was at the friendship of Bob Perelman and his wife Francie, who had come out about 1977 and looked me up here in the country. And then when I moved to the city I saw a great deal of them. And I think Perelman is a brilliant poet, and he was certainly just as brilliant then as he is now. And Robert said, "Oh, well we all like pretty people."

TMS: Sounds like Robert Duncan, for all his beauty and kindness, had a mean streak.

DB: He had a big mean streak. Yeah, sure. And of course it's true that Bob Perelman is pretty, and his wife Francie is even prettier, but I really don't think that it was just for that reason that I hung out with them that much. It was much more because Bob Perelman is so smart and witty, and fast, quick, like Mozart. Plays the piano that way too. So that was Robert at his worst, making judgment on something about which he knew too little, or nothing. I felt that I had every right to have Bob Perelman for a friend, Ron Silliman for a friend, and Robert Duncan for a friend. And I didn't see why I had to pick sides. It may be from the point of view of Language Poets I had too much of an "in" with Duncan for them to feel comfortable; but I can't help it, that's how I thought.

TMS: Well you've never been pigeon-holeable.

DB: I've tried not to be, although I've allowed it too much. But Duncan, I don't know, he just was pissing me off then. I was pissed off with him, and I moved back to the country and so it wasn't possible, so easy to see him. And then Margaret was born, so there we were, both Cecilia and I were working, we had an infant, and I got to the city far less often, and I just lost touch with Robert. We'd had a good run. We'd had, oh, fifteen years of close friendship. He used to like to come up here and sit in the orchards in the summer.

So that's the big war in San Francisco. Poetry starts right there. Then Robert Duncan goes off and helps start the poetics program at New College, and that's his counter-attack. And the politics of it all is fascinating, but there are people who are much better equipped to speak about it than I am. You might want to go and talk to some of them about it, if you're interested. So, I did see Robert once more, before he died. He was already sick with the kidney disease that killed him, but he was in no imminent danger at this time as far as we knew. I took him along and I had Margaret with me. She was then maybe four. And we went to a cafe in Noe Valley that had an outside so she could come and go. But Robert, who had been always very aware of my son Chris, had always brought him gifts and engaged with him when he was there, didn't notice Margaret. It was like he couldn't see her. He was turning his blind eye to her. And so what that was…whether he disapproved of my union with Cecilia, because he had enjoyed it when I was married to Sherill Jaffe, or whether he didn't like girl infants as much as he liked boy infants, or whether he was just old and sick… Well he wasn't so old. He was 69, wasn't he, when he died. But he was sick. I mean he was on kidney home dialysis, and so he was poisoned a lot of the time. Poisoned a lot of the time. So we met anyway, and he seemed a little—I'd heard tales that he was a little dotty now. Whether he was or not, I really can't tell you. But I'll tell you this anecdote, since you wanted an anecdote or two, I'll tell you this. I'd just brought out my book Red Hats. You know that it has a cut-up feel to it, although it wasn't done through physical cut-up, but through mental cut-up, where I went back through a lot of old poems of mine and turned them into other work. It's a rough-edged work. And I spoke earlier of the poet and friend Lana Costantina. Through her I met her brother Michael, who's an artist and sculptor. Michael's done several covers for my books, and he provided the cover for Red Hats, which is abstract, like they say. It's not representational, but the reason I picked it is that there's a slight representational feel about it. There's a slight sense of perspective in it, like you're looking into another room, like a gallery. And there's a certain light there. It's the cover art. So anyway, Robert and I talked amicably, though it wasn't the euphoria of the old days for either of us. I got Margaret in the car, and Robert in the car, and drove them back down to 20th Street there, to his house. And then I remembered that I wanted to give him a copy of Red Hats. So I took it out, and I gave it to him; and he was going up the steps to his home, and he put it down on the step, and he looked down at it, for a quite a time. And then he said, "Oh, it's little Davie Bromige! It's little Davie Bromige! I'd know him anywhere!" And he picked it up and went into the house. And whether that was a poetic act of saying, "you can give me all the abstraction you want, but I'd always know you, and you should too." Or whether it was just dottiness, I don't know.

TMS: Or was it condescending?

DB: Well you can bet I tried it that way, since I like to read around and around something. But he was so sweet when he said it, so I thought, "winning sarcasm cannot include so great an outlay of sweetness, or it loses." So that's how I comforted myself.

TMS: Maybe he was loving you as a sort of child.

DB: Well, to you I'm an older man, but to me I'm still that child. There's a guy I met up here and he said, "Oh, I used to see you walking over the Berkeley campus. You always had a young boy with you." And I said, "that's my son Chris." And he said, "No, when you were alone too."

TMS: [ Laughter ] Well, that's maybe what Duncan was trying to say to you.

DB: It's not so much the meaning of it; I just took it as a nice thing.

TMS: Or maybe that's strangely how he was acknowledging your daughter in some weird way.

DB: Yeah, in some weird way. I don't know. Anyway, that's the last thing he said to me.

TMS: What beautiful last words. Now that I think about it I don't think it's mean at all.

DB: Later he died. He died when I was in Mexico, the only time I'd been in Mexico. We had left Margaret with her grandparents and we'd gone on down there, down to Baja. It's not really Mexico.

TMS: Was he in pain when he died, a great deal of pain?

DB: Oh yeah. His heart conked out, I guess, because of the poisons. And he shrugged, sort of like, "this is it. There's nothing more can be done for me." And he was dead I think, two days later. Then he was gone. ..

TMS: The web has been a big tool for you recently. Speak a little bit about that.

DB: It has. Well, I'd like to say that in the history of community in writing, for me, that I felt very strongly that I was a member of such a community from the middle sixties on, really, way into the seventies. My removal up to here meant that I was now in the Sonoma County community of poets, but a true community is where you feel a great deal of equivalence, that you are on equal footing with other members of the community. I didn't necessarily feel that up here because I was the teacher and a lot of them were students. So I had to rein myself in one way or another there. But then I felt it breaking out again in San Francisco in the late seventies. And that's one reason I wanted to move to San Francisco then, when Cecilia and I moved down and lived in the Haight, just down the street from the Grand Piano Coffee House where the best series in town was running for two years. And that community I withdrew from, to the extent that in 1980 we moved back up here and lived in Santa Rosa, because we wanted to have a kid and we couldn't see how we could afford to in the city. But then that community broke up anyway. There was a diaspora. Those people couldn't find jobs out here, and they've gone elsewhere. There were some eighty or ninety people—I was talking about it with David Highsmith the other week because he started coming to poetry readings again, and he used to run a lot of them back in the seventies. There's some eighty people who've left town who were really instrumental in having a live poetry community in San Francisco. Bob Perelman went to Philadelphia. Ron Silliman's gone to Philadelphia. Barrett Watten and Carla Harryman are in Detroit…

TMS: And maybe the Ron Silliman of tomorrow can't afford to come to San Francisco and be a part of a community.

DB: Well this is another reason people moved away, because they were having families, they wanted larger homes. You can't afford them in the Bay Area. But they're a lot cheaper in Paoli, which is sort of the Sebastopol of Philadelphia, where Ron and Krishna and their twins live now. So people moved away because they couldn't live in tiny, cheap dwelling in city anymore. They had to spread their wings and nest. So they went to places where the rent's cheaper. A lot of that happened. And there's also the suck of New York. People go there because if you can make it there, well, you can make it anywhere. And so that broke up. And I've only found little bits of community here and there since then, as far as the poetry community goes. When Johnny Otis had his music club here and we had poetry readings there on Monday nights, that was a good couple of years. We got good turn-outs of poetry then. We had a great sound system for one thing. And then I found the internet, and the Buffalo Poetics List. That was a virtual community. Still is. I guess that's been six years now, five years, maybe, since I've been trained to get on the internet. It was livelier for the first two years I was on there, and then I don't know what happened. There was some flaming going on. There was basically some heavy misunderstandings. People being very rude on there, as far as I could see. And things had to be more closely monitored, was the decision of the list master, and that slowed things down. Now today, the liveliest poetics list I'm on is the Brit List, the British Poetics List, where there wasn't a whole lot of activity for the first couple of years I was on it. Lately there's been a lot more, and they're bearing down more on issues that they wish to debate.

TMS: What are the dangers of these lists and of the influence of the internet on poetry?

DB: Well, they take time. I don't know about dangers. There's dangers everywhere. I might have been struck by an automobile crossing Main Street if I hadn't been in my study on my computer. So it may have prolonged my life. I don't know. One thing is, you're writing, and it's taking writing energy. And writing time from you. Absolutely. And I can only think, as I have tried to do all my life, "well then, that's the writing that I'm doing." You see what I'm saying? If people wanted poems, period, from me, well, there's plenty out there. I've got several books I haven't got round to publishing yet. But if they more generally want to read my writing, well then they can read the archives of these lists. I always try to make it a good one; of course, I don't always. And once you hit the send button there's that awful gulp sometimes. But I think it's improved my writing, because I've done a lot more writing on a daily basis than I had done for 20-30 years.

TMS: What purpose has poetry served in your life, other than as a career.

DB: It's given me my life. It's given me being. It was my entry to being. I didn't know what else to do with my life. I had no idea what to do with my life. It seemed like there wasn't anything to do, with a life, and that in itself is a poetic recognition, I think. I didn't get there as soon as I might have, but I had a very strong "get a job" ethic instilled into me, so I guess I felt the purpose of life was to find a job, and do it as well as you could, and then have all the fun you could fit in, around the edges of it. But when I started to write, then I realized that there was something else that I could do that filled me and was a space I could keep filling with myself. And also that it was something to be obedient to. It was a reason to have conscience, for me, because I really didn't have much reason to have a conscience. I believe this is often an affliction of the young. So that I wouldn't consider other people's feelings. But as a poet, I felt like I had to. Now I'm sure you can meet plenty of people who will tell you I didn't consider their feelings, thanks very much, but at least I was trying. It's an incentive to consciousness. It's an incentive to be conscious, because if you can notice things, you never know when the next thing that you can join with is going to appear. So it was an instigation of consciousness. And that's what I welcomed about it. Although of course there's a lot of other stuff. There's the beauty of the sounds, there's the beauty of a Wallace Stevens poem, and then there's the different beauty of a D.H. Lawrence poem where he can't be bothered to write a poem, and just wants to sound off. And then, bit by bit, there's such variety to look at. I was interested in the theatre always, always, from childhood on up. So I always liked the display. And I liked the display in poetry—it's subtler, in a way, you don't usually have to hire a hall for it. It's there on the page. But there's all kinds of fireworks that happen on the page. So let that be my answer. It gave me someone to be, or something to do.

TMS: Any regrets that you chose poetry?

DB: I'd be crazy to have regrets now. It's too late to do anything else. Now if you'd asked me that fifteen years ago, well…you got something else I could do?

TMS: But what did you really want to be when you were growing up? Was it a poet?

DB: I wanted to write from an early age. I wanted to record things. I wanted to save people, that's what I remember. I wanted to preserve them. I remember my grandmother—I must have been about eleven—my grandmother was coming to visit, my mother's mother. She lived into her nineties. But I had heard that she was getting frail, so this worried me. As children do take these sort of irrational worries on. I don't know that I felt that close to my grandmother, although she was quite frequently a visitor. I did like having her around, although it did cause trouble between my parents. So having been told that I wrote good essays at school, and having been told that my grandmother might not be around much longer, and this being before the time of the tape recorder, I took it into my head that I would record everything she said in the course of this visit.

TMS: How did she feel about it?

DB: I didn't tell her. In that world then you couldn't have told anyone you were going to do anything that personal. I knew that. I pretended that I was doing my homework or drawing pictures, and I wrote down everything she said. But, she was given much to laughter, long peals of laughter. And I hadn't figured out any shorthand. So I was writing "ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha." And of course I very quickly got behind. I realized there was no catching up. But I remember very much how sad I was that I couldn't preserve her. As my father, who was a photographer, preserved a lot of us on film, I wanted to be able to preserve people and times I had known. And preserve them in words somehow. And I still think of a poem like that. It's like print in the old days. I worked in a printing shop for a while, many years ago. And you have to get all the print in the right order, lock it in, and then, because it can make imprint, it will preserve that shape, forever. Or however long the paper will last. Or however long goes by until the next time when everyone turns into barbarians and burns libraries. Which is always going to happen. A poem to me is like that. I try to have sufficient variety of type in it, in such form that it feels to me like I've locked it up, and I can go away, and it still keeps moving. There's something still moving in there, like a perpetual motion machine. As dull as that sounds. I didn't want to say it, because there's so many cartoons about the perpetual motion machine. But I wanted something that would still keep movement in it, as a sign of life, long after everything had had to go away.


Home |  EPR #1 | About EPR


© 2001 Electronic Poetry Review