Interviews by Chris Mansel

This blog contains interviews with extraordinary writers, artists, and activists.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Interview with Jake Berry, 2006

For some time now you’ve been working on the third installment in the Brambu Drezzi trilogy. How is the work going and are you nearing the end?

Jake Berry: Actually I finished Book Three over a year and a half ago and about a year ago I sent a reformatted, revised file of all three books as one volume to Barrytown/Station Hill publishers. A number of people have contributed substantial amounts of money to fund the project. The holdup seems to be that the person who needs to examine the file for formatting problems before passing it on to the printer has been occupied with work for other presses. It is my understanding that once it goes to the printer it should be released very quickly, but I have no idea when that will be.

Has this edition taken you into new areas that the previous two did not?

Jake Berry: Yes and no. The third book begins in a form similar to the final pages of Book Two, though most of the visual elements were hand drawn and scanned instead of doing the work on a computer. The second section of the book has some sources in Chinese poetry, especially Tang dynasty and the Zen/Tao poets Stonehouse and Cold Mountain and a travel journal written by Lu Yu. I didn't imitate them so much as read their work and then let it work the cauldron where everything else was happening already. The final section is primarily long intuitive and scatological verses accompanied by pertinent visuals that happened either at the same time or that tie into the poem in other ways. To my mind and ear Book Three isn't as avant-garde or experimental, or whatever term you want to give it, as the first two books. This isn't because I was trying to avoid that, or retreat from it. I did the work that was there to be done just as I always have. Who knows, the next book of Brambu might be wildly experimental, utterly traditional, or a mix of everything and nothing.

You wrote, “Perhaps it is best in art (or any attempt to realize things as they actually are) not to place too much faith in time, space, particular sets of dimensions.” Does this mean that an artist should direct their work towards the eternal and not the present?

Jake Berry: Well, the present is already the past by the time you paint or write about it. I think the point I was trying to make was that description and narrative ultimately fail to do what we assume they are supposed to do, which is to relate a time or place to us so vividly as to make that time and place available to us in our present. What happens is the individual reading, hearing, seeing the work recreates the time and place subjectively. They re-imagine it. So the time and place is never restored only re-imagined. The idea of the eternal is still an idea about time. It is time that never ends. There is the old notion of eternal ideals and so forth, enlightenment, rationalist thinking. Life, liberty, fraternity, equality and so forth. These are held out to be eternal human values. They are certainly noble values, cherished values, but that doesn't mean they are ideas that have always and will always be held valuable. The same extends to the idea of eternal art. There have been many ideas of what was eternally valuable in art. We are most familiar with the Greek and Roman ideas of beauty and those ideas resurface with different nuance periodically, but there are many more ideas of beauty in the West alone, not to mention the rest of the world, from primitive cave art to the flat iconography of the middle ages to modern abstract art. Are any of these ideas of beauty eternal? Are all of them eternal? I'm not sure that it really matters. Ultimately, all we can do use all of our faculties when we perceive and/or create art. Art should not necessarily be involved in time or space at all other than the physical space of their presence. Hopefully any art made will have significance, value, or most importantly, create a unique experience for anyone that engages it. Art will always have subjective meaning, but it can never have a universal definition. I'm just repeating 20th century open aesthetics here, but what has happened in the past 200 years or so has allowed us to value many more kinds of art, to be receptive to multiple points of view from many different kinds of society and many different kinds of individual. Distinctions, boundaries and so forth are very useful. Time and space are valuable ways of breaking reality into discreet units so that we can image them as hours and days, protons and electrons, but their meaning is always provisional. Art should not disregard these dimensions, but it should not be limited by them either. There is always another, an elsewhere and an opening toward that which can only be experienced in art. With words like I am using now we can only say "opening toward." We can't say toward what because that is something that words like this cannot do because of the way they are designed to work. I can write coherently, but I cannot write coherently about something for which coherence is irrelevant.

Your work has an interesting way of blending theory, science, blues music and the simple desire to step a bit further ahead of yourself. Every writer is confronted daily with their own mortality, how do you combine all of your influences into the work you do with this in mind?

Jake Berry: Sometimes I wonder how often other people think about their own mortality. I just heard about someone in apparently good health dying suddenly. I didn't know her, but she was close to some of my friends. At any point during her last day did she think about her own death? Does it matter? Would it have helped her? You and I have spoken about this before, that death is always near and you always need to be aware of its presence. There must be a way to be comfortable with death without lying to yourself about it (believing literally in myths and so on), but it is so easy to get caught up in the things you are doing that you tend to postpone that confrontation. It leads to thinking on the order of, "I know I will die. But I won't die today, and I probably won't die for several, maybe many, years." When you are young or middle-aged you can think like that and the odds are in your favor. Still, last week alone, over 30 people died in Tennessee as the result of tornadoes. Most of them probably weren't thinking about dying until they heard the sirens, heard the storms. Perhaps they had no time to think about anything. It is important to bring this awareness into the work. I don't mean that I'm despondent about it, or fearful. Death is one of the realities from which we can't escape and it is reality that I want to engage. Death is one of the presences in what I do. There is also joy, humor (most people miss that), ek-stasis, intuition, and a million other levels of experience. All of it involves the im-mediate, the un-mediated experience of the world.

Years before the Internet you received letters from those who had read your work, now with the Internet your work is readily available. Were the letters you received before the accessibility that exists more inquisitive than those you receive now?

Jake Berry: There are limitations on the web that can be frustrating. Every poet I post at the 9th St. Blog that has a poem that requires something other than left justified text finds his or her poetry published in a form different from what they intended. Books have similar limitations. I have had to reformat pages of Brambu for journals smaller than 8 1/2 x 11 inches several times and I had to reformat the combined edition of all three volumes of Brambu to a smaller size so that bookstores would be able to easily stock it on their shelves. So what people see of my work on the web is sometimes different than the way I originally designed it. The good thing is that the web can include color. With a book that is almost impossible for a book of poetry unless you have a large audience willing to pay $30 or more for a book of poetry and I know very few living poets in that situation. After all that complaining though, the answer to your question is: No, I don't think that the letters I received then are any different from the e-mail and letters I receive now. The difference is that now the pace of correspondence has increased dramatically. I have discussions with people over the course of a week that would have taken more than a month back then, or longer. That is an improvement as far as I'm concerned. The downside is that you can do nothing but spend all your time exchanging e-mail if you aren't careful. You have to pace yourself and weave the e-mail in with the time you spend working on poems or writing and recording songs and poems, painting, etc.

Religion, science, politics all of the problems of the world are a part of every artist’s work. Is it necessary to justify your work in a manner of a scientist and mathematician, a thesis if you will.

Jake Berry: The short answer is: No, absolutely not. I don't think art needs to justify itself, or that the artist is required to explain his or her work. However, if one is inclined to aesthetic discussion, then it can be very helpful to anyone approaching work that may appear difficult or inaccessible on the surface. Sometimes it helps people just to know that the difficulty of a work is primarily the result of what they have been taught to expect from words, a painting, a film…. The only requirement is to be patient with yourself and with the work, give it time and see what happens. I don't mind breaking a work down for someone that has questions, or even writing a thesis when one is requested. It is very enjoyable to exercise one's mind in that way, just as reading books of philosophy or science can be enjoyable. And when you are the reader you are in a position to only learn. A difficult book can be thoroughly entertaining because of what it requires of you mentally, the intense focus and perhaps the need to resort to other books to understand what you are reading. If I allowed myself to drift into it I'd be perfectly content to do nothing but read books that challenged me for the rest of my life. This is off the point a little, but I want to address it in the context of your question. I may be wrong about this, but it seems that the general idea of entertainment is something that you receive passively – it doesn't require anything more than your attention. If my day involved spending most of my hours engaged in work I didn't like doing in order to survive and then tending to chores around the house, pleasures would be few. Assuming that most parents enjoy spending time with their children or with their mates there would be some reward in that. When it came time for entertainment you would want to do as little as possible, you wouldn't want to have to work at it. So when we talk about art and words about art we are talking about something that most people don't have time for, don't understand and don't want to understand. We are (all that are reading this) on the margins of society simply because we find this kind of discussion interesting. That does not mean that I feel like we should try to create work that would be entertaining to people who find the arts, philosophy, or science boring, or alienating. What it does mean is that we shouldn't exaggerate the importance of what we do. It may be like the cliché of dropping a stone in a pool, but it probably takes a century of the combined efforts of all the arts and sciences to create one stone. So why get caught up in the minutiae of trying to explain every gesture? If someone asks, okay, or if you enjoy working in that way, okay, otherwise, just make art. Anyone that likes art will figure out a way to engage it or they'll ask questions. It isn't an obligation that comes with being an artist of whatever kind.

When I interviewed you in 2002 I didn’t ask you about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. As deeply troubling as it was many writers like your self responded by writing poetry. How has it changed your political views or how you express them creatively or personally?

Jake Berry: That's a broad question for someone who already answers questions too broadly. The events of that horrible day haven't changed my political views. I was shocked, but not because the U.S. was attacked by terrorists. The U.S. had been attacked before, though no one paid much attention to the previous attacks after the initial news cycle. The first attack on the World Trade Center was intended to bring it down. That should have been enough to wake us up. At the very least it should have been enough to alert the government, the intelligence community in particular, to any and all vulnerabilities. I think there was a substantial portion of the intelligence community that did wake up, and there were scholars of politics and history that had been warning about the U.S. vulnerability to terrorism since long before the end of the Cold War. Many people felt that since these people were thinking about terrorism, and talking about it publicly at every opportunity, that preparations had been made, that precautions had been taken. To some extent I was one of them. This country always seems to need an enemy, so I felt that given the absence of the Soviets, the possibility of Soviet nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, and the fact that the U.S. was attacked by terrorists repeatedly abroad, and at home in 1993, that the government would be aggressively pursuing this new enemy. That was why I was initially shocked by 9/11. I was naive. Even after Vietnam, Watergate, and scandal after scandal at some level I felt the government would do its job, at least where seeking out and destroying enemies was concerned. The U.S. never backed away from a fight and often went looking for one. However, corruption has become such an intrinsic element of the government that even people who are trying to do their job, even an overzealous job, are often muted by the weight of politics for its own ends – for the attainment and maintenance of power, nothing more. Get elected and stay in office. That's the rule. This is only beneficial when public opinion is so strongly shifted in one direction or another over an issue that the politicians respond in order to remain in office. Unfortunately, this is increasingly unlikely when we are bombarded with so many distractions that it is easier to shift your attention to something amusing than to worry about what the government is doing, or not doing. As you noted, I have written poems and songs that express opposition to this general state of affairs. I didn't really expect to have an impact, but I feel that one way to keep your freedom is to exercise it. So I exercise my freedom of speech and all the other freedoms granted citizens of this country in the constitution, as I deem necessary. I wish everyone in this country exercised their freedoms vigorously, openly and constantly. That would be a revolution in itself. The events of 9/11 didn't change my politics so much as the events that followed it. I think the actions taken by both parties that control the government have been irresponsible and reckless. As cynical as this sounds, I believe the only hope we have may be that the system as we now have it collapses. That series of events might be enough to trigger a response from the public that would result in reconstructing the government in such a way that it would at least attempt to live up to its constitutional and moral obligations.

I want to thank you for agreeing to speak with me again. Thus far I have interviewed you and Hank Lazer, both mentors of mine. I have learned so much from both of you. Who have you learned from in a similar situation? Who are your mentors?

Jake Berry: It's always my pleasure to speak to you regardless of the circumstances. I think we should perhaps have a conversation next time. One that I could post on the Conversari blog. I'm happy to answer your questions, but I'd rather have a call and response. A conversation where we both speak at length. The only person I ever remember interviewing straight on was Malok. As you know Malok is from another planet, literally. He says he is from Mars. So that was exhilarating, strange and illuminating. Everything you get from Malok's work. I have had long conversations by e-mail, letter and phone with a number of people. You, Jack Foley, Mike Miskowski, Jim Leftwich, Wayne Sides, Karl Young, Hank Lazer, Michael McClure, James Wisniewski, Jon Berry, Lissa Wolsak and many more. These conversations have always been educational experiences for me. Any time I have a conversation with someone who is devoted to his or her work it's a learning experience. It always takes hours, maybe days, to get my feet on the ground after conversations like that. As for mentors, I'd be honored to list any of the above. They have all been mentors, plus many people that were dead before I ever got here. But I have called Jack Foley a mentor in print, at the beginning of Brambu Drezi Book Two. That is still very much the case. We have been close friends for many years, but there has been, in a very informal way, a student-teacher relationship. I think that relationship has been based on mutual admiration for one another's work, but Jack is a few years older, far more intelligent than I am, deeply involved with a vital poetry scene in the Bay Area, and perhaps most importantly, writes poetry that turns me inside out. It's no surprise to anyone that I'd call him a mentor. Also, Michael McClure, even before I came to know him, exercised a powerful influence by way of his poetry. Once we corresponded a bit and spoke on the phone it only intensified that influence. And Ivan Argüelles has been a kind of mentor as well. We have exchanged letters, met, had intense phone conversations, but Ivan's influence has been almost totally by way of his work. Ivan has been categorized as a surrealist, and I think that's true enough, but NO ONE writes poetry like Ivan, regardless of the genre. I asked Ivan to write a blub for my first book The Pandemonium Spirit even though I didn't really know him then. I learned as much about my work from what he wrote as I had by doing the work. As I said, all of the above and many others have been mentors, but these three seem to have had the biggest impact.


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