Interview with Jake Berry, 2002
This was the first interview I conducted for this series. I began with jake Berry because of every writer I have known he has influenced me more and has been along with Hank Lazer a mentor to me. I asked the questions I wanted to know the answer to because first and foremost I am a fan.
How is your health?
Jake Berry: Physically, quite good, thank you. I've become a believer in exercise. Mentally, it varies; depression is a misnomer for a disease that seems to run in various kinds of cycles. But exercise is helpful there as well.
You told me once that if you thought someone would stage it you would
write a play? If this could come about what would your play be about?
Jake Berry: Recently Wayne Sides, hearing I was interested in writing a play, said if I'd write it he'd make sure it was performed. So I'll begin work on that in earnest soon. I think the play will begin as an adaptation of scenes and characters from a piece Jon, my brother, has been writing. I'd like to do something character and dialog driven.
You are a self-proclaimed hermit, how has this affected your
Jake Berry: For some reason unknown to me I have always been inclined toward a solitary existence. I regret this occasionally because it frustrates my friends. Still, one has to do what works best. Of course this means that I don't do that much collaborating. I'd never make it as a film maker. I have, however, written collaborative poems through the mail and e-mail and the Bare Knuckles recordings were very much a collaboration once we got into the studio, but this was in terms of production, the songs were already written. I also think that working alone might make one more inclined to go inward, and in my case the work became more visionary than it otherwise might have been.
At the Charles Olson festival in 1995 Vincent Ferrini stated that
Olson lived his body as a poem. Do you think you have done this?
Jake Berry: Well, one would like to reach a point where there is no longer any distinction between the poem and the poet. That would be the ultimate state of grace regardless of the emotional and mental complications. I'm not sure if I would say I live my body, perhaps my body lives me or that I am my body in this world, or that the word body could be a word that could be used to describe one's traceable existence in whatever world and whatever form. I'm not surprised that Vincent would say that about Olson, it makes sense given the way Olson wrote. It takes many years to get to the point where one vanishes into the work. I seem to be getting closer as I get older.
Speaking of Olson he has played quite a role in your writing, he
appeared to you in a dream once. How have your dreams been lately?
Jake Berry: Actually it wasn't a dream. I was not asleep. If you'd been in the room I could have heard anything you'd said though I might not have been able to respond. It's more one of those hypnogogic states. So Olson was actually there, that is to say, it was not an interior experience. Lately my dreams have been quite vivid and not always very pleasant. Nothing as profound as the Olson vision has happened recently, but poetry, at least in my case, so often proceeds from a condition that can not be said to be normal consciousness, whatever that might be.
When speaking of projective verse Charles Olson said, "One perception
must immediately and directly lead to a further perception", do you think
this can be said for any type of poetry?
Jake Berry: Probably not, but that is the ideal condition. One room opens into another and into another and so on. Poetry is so many things to so many different kinds of poets that it would be impossible to make any kind of blanket statement. I think it is definitely true of projective verse. That one essay covers so much ground it's staggering. The first time I read it I was astonished that Olson had mapped it so well. I rarely mark in a book. I tend to copy quotes into a notebook, but I've got about half that essay highlighted.
What to you is essential reading?
Jake Berry: Since we're talking about him, Olson's essay on Projective Verse, his Maximus and several of his shorter poems. "In Cold Hell, In Thicket" is a tremendous poem. One needs to go as far back as possible. I've read several translations of Gilgamesh, that's a vital work. Homer is fundamental. Also the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Of the Roman period Ovid is best, at least I enjoy him more than Virgil. For shorter poems Sappho is always great, and I like Catallus. The great spiritual books are important. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Mesopotamian songs to Inanna, the I Ching, the great Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist works. Among those I love the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tibetan Books of the Dead and Great Liberation, and nothing can take you to the threshold of oblivion better than the Diamond Sutra, Lao-Tzu is essential. There are tons of Chinese and Japanese poets I've been reading recently. Shinkichi Takahashi is extraordinary. I still read the Zohar quite often. Among more recent works I like Blake and Baudelaire, Dickinson, Rimbaud, Artaud, Apolinaire. Mallarmé is delicious. Stein is in a class by herself. Samuel Beckett is always good. Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Yeats. Of course there are the Beats, I'm especially fond of Kerouac and McClure. There are also people I'd call essential that I am also very fortunate to know. Among them is Jack Foley, Ivan Argüelles, Hank Lazer, yourself, Dan Raphael, and I mentioned the book my brother is working on that takes on continental theory and goes it one better. I also like the novels of Paul Auster and the fiction as well as theory of Blanchot, the philosophy of Levinas, Heraclitus, Heidegger. The ancient writings of the the alchemists. Well, it goes on forever obviously.
Do you think a school could be constructed today like Black Mountain
Jake Berry: Absolutely. Though perhaps with better management. There needs to be schools like that all over the world. Jefferson had the notion that one should attend school until one felt one was educated then leave. Also a kind of master-student apprenticeship form of education, especially in the arts would be much better than most of the art schools we now have.
Sigmund Freud stated that, "A dream is the fulfillment of a wish." Do
you think in your case this is true?
Jake Berry: I have no idea. Freud seems to vacillate between brilliance and blindness. Of course a dream and a wish can be the same thing. What I've read of James Hillman seems to be more on the right track concerning dreams. Hmm, that statement is a conundrum to me.
You wrote in a poem entitled, Essay Empire Poets, "What a pitiful
destiny, singing with your tongue cut out." That's an interesting line
coming from someone who is both a singer and poet.
Jake Berry: Yes, well, one comes up against the limitations of language very quickly, especially in poetry. And for that reason poetry is a very pitiful calling. Yet, one must make words do what they are not inclined to do by their own nature, or rather, one must restore words to their original nature which is an embodiment of phenomena or noumena by way of the tongue. And the tongue lives in the written character and makes the characters vital and sacred.
Harry Polkinhorn described you as the "preeminent experimentalist of
your generation." Hank Lazer called you "William Blake in Alabama." Also,
Bob Grumman put it best I think when he called you a "paleo-neurologist."
Are there words to describe your writing or is there any need at all?
Jake Berry: These words are quite accurate to what each of these writers were saying at the time. They make their point. And that is the use of terms like these. The problem arises when people take them too literally, as absolutes, or that these are goals that I have tried to acheive. That is the problem with categories, and Bob Grumman and I have argued about this through the years, that catagories are too rigid and too legalistic to have anything other than transitory use, especially when applied to the arts.
The more experimental music you have recorded has it roots in many
places. Have you been fascinated by some of the places it has taken you? Did
you gain the same satisfaction when you performed this music as you did
Jake Berry: Answering the first question: yes, I am fascinated by where it leads, that's the beauty of it, the reason for it. Which leads to the second question: the music is written on the spot. We usually set a key or a scale but everything else is completely improvised. it's ironic, performing a fully written piece isn't very exciting. it's almost a chore because you have to conform to the song enough to at least resemble the original. yet, to perform while you compose, though it would seem to add pressure to the situation, I find it completely liberating. at any rate, it's the creative moment that drives me. there's not much joy in repeating yourself.
You mentioned that by working in a solitary work ethic you are
inclined to work inward, in my own writing I have tried to limit myself to
the human body, yet there is no limit there. There is enough room there to
move around and never explore it all. Have you ever considered publishing
your journal or more personal writings?
Jake Berry: You're right about the human body. And you're work is the best example
I know of that kind of infinity. John M. Bennett does it too, but in a
completely different way, so that's apples and oranges. and the fact that
the human body allows such breadth and depth is testimony to it's richness. But no, I don't think I'd care to publish my journals because they wouldn't add anything significant. The work I publish is more personal than my journals and notebooks, and I often take sections from my notebooks and modify it somewhat for publication. If by personal you mean things one might write in a diary, I've never been able to do that, though I've tried many times. I think there are places in my songs that I touch on those emotions enough to allow them voice. otherwise my personal life is of little consequence. After all, I am trying to live the poetry. There's art and there's love, everything else is just waiting.
One song of yours I especially wanted to ask about is Maggie's
Soldier/Tom Clark. This is in my opinion the most ambitious song you have
written. Where did you draw the influence?
Jake Berry: Tom Clark was a notorious outlaw in north Alabama and south central Tennessee during the late Civil War early reconstruction period. When we began to write material for the first Bare Knuckles CD I thought it made sense to have a song about him. I looked around for a while, thinking that surely there was an old folk song about him, but nothing. So, I had to write one. I drew the song from a book called Bugger Saga by Wade Pruitt. The things that happen in the song actually happened. Then I wrote another song, "Maggie's Soldier", from the point of view of a young soldier on the battlefield discovering the girl he loved had been killed by outlaws and placed it before "Tom Clark" to lend perspective to it.
Do the creative forces that drive you to create ever try and disable you to prevent you from writing something you should or shouldn't? Is there a filter?
Jake Berry: Oh yes, I argue with the muse all the time. Sometimes I don't want to write something she is telling me, but she insists. Later, I usually discover what she was doing. There is a filter. I mean that the work is a kind of collaboration. Of course the line between muse and poet vanishes as one goes along. I heard Jean Cocteau say something recently in a documentary, that the muse or the god devours the poet. I think he's right about that.
Gerard Depardieu was asked why he became an actor and he replied that
he had always had a need to communicate. Why did you become a writer, or did the writing become you?
Jake Berry: When I first wrote poems, I think I was fourteen, I felt for the first time that I'd found something that I could do. It felt completely natural to me. So the choice was made. Poetry found me and I submitted gladly. I don't think communication really entered into it because I had no concept at the time about publishing, or that anyone would see it. It was only much later, when I was twenty-one that someone asked me if I'd published and it seemed like something I should do. One wants to give the work away, to make the work available to anyone who might find something in it. One wants to contribute something to the world, something beautiful. Perhaps it is a very strange beauty, but given that mediocrity seems to be the rule, perhaps all genuine beauty is strange.