All That Glitters Is not Costume Jewelry: Alan Gilbert Interviews Charles Bernstein
ALAN GILBERT: You’re the author of over a dozen books of poetry containing a wide variety of styles—from rigorous avant-garde techniques, to a form of disjunctive lyricism, to rhymed doggerel. How did you go about selecting the work for All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems, which stretches across more than thirty years, beginning with a poem from 1975?
CHARLES BERNSTEIN: Jackson Mac Low called his 1986 selected poems from Roof Books Representative Works: 1938–1985. The idea was that each included piece represented a particular structure or form he used. I think of All the Whiskey in Heaven as a sampler or array. It’s a constellation of approaches to poetry. Beyond the experience of the poems themselves, I hope the book brings to mind the possibilities of poetry. I’ve done only one other collection of otherwise published work, Sun & Moon’s 2000 book, Republics of Reality: 1975–1995, which brought together the full texts of a number of out-of-print books and pamphlets, plus one new series, “Residual Rubbernecking.” Rubbernecking is when you slow your car to peer at an accident; residual rubbernecking is when you stop and stare at the site of an accident no longer present. So I guess you could say that All the Whiskey in Heaven is a product of my residual rubbernecking.
AG: In the poem “Let’s Just Say” from 2001, you write, “Let’s just say that the truth is somewhere between us.” Ignoring for a moment the rhetorical equivocation of “Let’s just say,” I’m wondering if you can expand upon the idea of the “truth” being “somewhere between us,” both in terms of your own poetry and poetry more generally.
CB: Some people say poems are about truth; but I say you can bring a reader to water, but you can’t make ’em drink. I could just as well have said truth is neither here nor there; but I say that about love in the same poem. I am tempted to say I don’t know much about truth but I know what I like, but I am tired of being a smart aleck. So I guess I will just say: it’s a manner of speaking. Poems are neither true nor false, but they can reflect on the difference between truth and truthfulness, saying and meaning, listening and hearing. My poems are neither monologues nor soliloquies; they initiate a dialogue. You don’t extract the meanings but find them, not by figuring them out (like puzzles) but by responding to what’s been said. It’s right before your ears.
AG: You titled a book of poems from 1987 The Sophist, and in interviews and talks you proudly declare yourself a sophist. Given the somewhat negative connotations this word tends to have, can you explain your embrace of it?
CB: I’m not proud of it, Alan, just realistic. But I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself, for ourselves. It took me awhile to realize that all that glitters is not costume jewelry. But then again, the only kind of gold I ever cared about is fool’s gold (buyer’s remorse). It’s the liar’s paradox all over again (the poet is liar, I am poet . . .). Jerome McGann has a great phrase for this: “Truth in the body of falsehood.” Or as I put it elsewhere, “Beware a sincere man selling fish.” My fish are fresh, but don’t take my word for it, try them. And they’re not exactly mine anyway. (Beware a sincere fish-selling man.) Truth is not singular, but that doesn’t mean there is no truth; but truth is trampled by those who take its name as their own badge of valor. I’ve taken to contrasting morality with ethics. Morality tells you what to think, what’s right to think; ethics asks what makes us think it’s right and right for whom? right in what way? I’m not telling you what you can’t do but what you can do. My poems are selling you on the fact that they are not selling you on anything. I’ve often argued (till bluish in the face) that poems are rhetorical, that this is where the pleasure of poetry lies. Could it be that the Orphic power of poetry is rhetorical? That it’s all in selling you a bill of goods? Can we talk? How about another drink?
All the whiskey in heaven is still not enough.
AG: T. S. Eliot’s original working title for “The Waste Land” was “He Do the Police in Different Voices.” When I read your work, and especially when I hear you perform it, Eliot’s discarded title occasionally pops into my mind. Can you talk about the use of different voices in your poems? At times your employment of these voices borders on ventriloquism. In Eliot’s provisional title, I can’t help but notice the reference to the police. Is there a relationship between ventriloquism and a wrestling with authority—whether one’s own or other versions of it?
CB: I often think of Eliot’s great “do the police” in voices. Controlling Interests—a book of mine from 1980—plays with that idea in the title: how the language that surrounds us (I’m thinking of Robert Creeley’s “the darkness [that] surrounds us”) informs and often controls. My idea was that poems might weave together such “hidden persuaders” (as Vance Packard put it at the height of the cold war), bouncing “controlling interests” off one another and creating woofs and warps of ideological display. And you’re right that these controlling voices are not just, or even primarily, heard from outside; one of my obsessions is that the distinction between outside and inside is topsy-turvy. The polyvocal texture of my work is one of the main things that goes through All the Whiskey in Heaven from beginning to end. When I was writing Controlling Interests (there are several poems from that collection in the selected), I was going to a lot of Verdi and verismo operas, listening to the arias (which provided a model for my early poetry performances), but also the chordal arrangements with multiple overlapping voices. Of course the voices in my poems are not contrapuntal but serial; there is recurrence but more often echoes of recurrence (via distortion and extension) and asymmetric scoring, fragging, eight types of enjambment, “distressed” citation. In this sense, Bakhtin got it wrong when he wrote that poetry is monologic and the novel dialogic; the kind of poetry I want (one kind of it) is polylogical and contradictory.
So I was ready, some years later, when I got the chance to write libretti, first for Ben Yarmolinsky, now collected in Blind Witness: Three American Operas (Factory School, 2008); then for Dean Drummond, Café Buffé (which was performed for the fist time this fall at Montclair State University); as well as Brian Ferneyhough, Shadowtime (Green Integer, 2005); and Anne LeBaron, Breathtales (Anne is still working on this one).
This brings me back to the problem with the old—and sometimes unfairly maligned—workshop shibboleth about finding your own voice: unfair because voice was never the issue, the problem was the univocal insistence that a particular rhetorical and stylistic construction of the voice was true or natural. So is the task of the poet finding your own voices? A lot of those voices are neither yours nor mine. They come from somewhere between us.
A biographical sketch of Charles Bernstein, prepared to accompany All the Whiskey in Heaven, can be found here.
Alan Gilbert is a poet, critic, and independent scholar living in Brooklyn.