Interview/Conversation with Jake Berry & Chris Mansel
A new interview/conversation between Jake Berry and Chris Mansel.
Chris: Do you believe that the truth cannot be known it must be felt.
Jake: Forgive me if this seems rude, but before we address that question I think it might be a good idea to see if we can come to an agreement about what truth is and also try to clarify the distinction between knowing and feeling. If we take a step back and examine these terms together we might be able to get at something beyond the general assumptions. I hope this doesn't put a drag on the discussion.
Chris: Not at all. The question was asked and answered. I feel you cannot judge truth through knowing. You can't know the truth through perceptions or your five senses. Reality is not what you find it to be. The truth is only what you perceive it to be. The blue sky you see isn't blue at all. Much in the same way the ocean closes in on the center of a bowl and finds two things. It's running out of space and there is no way to separate the center. How could an artist approach this in a way that would not contradict his work or how his perception perceived it?
Jake: Maybe an artist should contradict his or her work and challenge his or her perceptions. As you say, "The blue sky isn't blue at all." That is the way most humans would perceive a cloudless sky, but even inside that statement there will be a difference in what the sky is, what blue is. Each person will feel and think about it in different ways. And in a radically different culture, or in a altered state of mind the sky might not even appear to be sky and it might have another color or an array of colors or all of it might vanish. So then, maybe the artist should allow for all these possibilities and many more. Paul Celan said, "Isn't poetry always a progression toward the Real, working amid what surrounds and seizes us?" Perhaps we constantly discover the Real in our work when we are surrounded and seized by it.
If we come to the work with preconception and the whole nest of assumptions about the world we carry around with us all the time all we are going to do is perpetuate the same consensus perspective. For most people the great joy in art comes when it confirms something
they already believe or assume. I understand that. I have that experience frequently. It's comforting to know that you are not alone in your experience. We all need that. But more fundamentally, we need to have experiences that challenge our assumptions, that shake everything loose and force us to experience without the mediation of our well trained perceptual apparatus. Our minds, even our senses, need to be washed clean fairly often so that we don't lapse so deeply into our assumptions that we mistake them for what is actually there, what is actually happening. One way to do this is to allow it to happen in our work. Another way is to seek out poetry, or any other art or experience that strips us of our assumptions. We constantly have to be reminded to wake up.
Chris: John Locke writes, "As nothing teaches, so nothing delights more than history." But is there nothing more fueling than the present? Or as David Hume said, The most perfect character
is supposed to lie between those extremes.
Jake: Hume's approach is possibly the wisest because his character would have to remain open and adaptable. Still, you are absolutely right, the present is the fuel we burn. We live in it like it or not. Locke was important for helping to develop an approach that removed the authority from religion to rationalism and detached inquiry. After the domination of religion and superstition in the west for so long an adjustment was required, inevitable even. To respond more specifically, time is always problematic - how we perceive it, how it effects our lives, how it enters our work. Most of what we understand as time is, like history, a human invention. This does not make it a bad thing at all, but we have to remember that it lies within the range of our capabilities and by no means is the ultimate expression of them. Time as an absolute is very questionable. We know we have the present because we are here, but when we connect the markers of the present that is now past we invent stories from the bits and we are back inside history again. Physics makes a good case for time across vast distances or within quantum connectivity. But there we run into a problem of measurement. The most reliable perspective may lie outside one's skin, which, contrary to popular belief, is neither difficult or fatal, but in order to so we must embrace the unexpected and the unknown. In other words, we must abandon the compulsion to control.
Chris: You have stretched language, creating your own words to fit your poetry. Along with your very original art there's a panoramic complexity to your work you don't usually find in poetry. Since the first book of Brambu Drezi was published has the reactions to the series surprised your were they expected? Are you still expecting a response you imagined?
Jake: It was so long ago that I started Brambu (1986) that I'm not sure how reliable my memory is. I had been publishing various kinds of short poems that resembled the work that would later appear in Brambu. The response to that had generally been good from the magazines and publishers who were interested in experimental work. The larger establishment publishers were lost somewhere in the late 50s or early 60s so what I was doing was completely off the board to them. I think I expected a favorable reaction from the experimental people, and either a negative reaction or nothing from everyone else. What I did not anticipate was the negative reaction I received to work to the second and third books from poets associated with Language poetry. There was also some positive reaction from others in the same camp. Some of the negative response was couched in the terminology of postmodern criticism. Most of the criticism that embraces that term seems alien to me. The term postmodern itself seems dead on arrival. Even Derrida thought of his work as a development of modernism. So it was hard for me to take the criticism seriously. But I don't really expect any particular kind of reaction. I hope that people will respond, but I can't anticipate what that response might be. If I were trying to produce work for a particular audience, or for anyone specifically, I might be able to provoke a desired response, but poetry isn't marketing.
What about you? I have read and heard a wide variety of reactions to your work. Did you expect any of that, whether positive or negative, or were you simply working and thinking about the reaction afterward?
Chris: At the moment when I am writing I am just struggling to get the words down on the page. I know what I write is unlike a lot of what is out there so any reaction is going to be extreme either way. Especially my fiction. I appreciate any response whether it be positive or negative. At least they took they time to read it. They might not have understood my intention, or the poem's meaning but they did take the time. Any writer wants to be read. I'm getting to a point where I am less concerned with being read, which has changed from years before. I am now focusing now on just being able to write. Without going into it, my health has prevented me from being as productive as I once was. I no longer read five or six books a week.
Do you believe the old line that goes something like, You write what you read? I know you read a wide assortment of material, especially early texts, does what you read influence your writing? How much comes directly from within?
Jake: First, I want to agree with you about the moment of writing. When you're actually doing it, you're just trying to get it down. There is no thought about anyone out there, or even anyone "in here." The process is open, but complete.
What we read has to effect what we write, whether we intend it or not. Writers have told me that the way they get the process of writing started is by reading. That approach obviously works. When I am reading I might jot a note in the book in response to what I am reading, but I rarely move away from it and write an original work. The influence comes later, often without my being aware of it. Everything we experience shapes what we will do in the future, so everything that happens, whether it be reading, talking to someone, going for a walk, whatever, it plays into what happens when those first sounds rise and strike you as part of a poem or any other type of composition. That sound is at first a sound only. It has not yet become a word or a note. Usually several sounds happen in sequence and that begins the process. The sounds can come from inside, but also from outside. It might be something you hear in the physical world or a sound that seems to be outside, but has no outside source. All of this happens so quickly that the process is well underway before there is time to pause and take notice of what is happening.
Let me turn the question back to you. Even if you aren't able to read as much as you used to you still probably read much more than most. You have also mentioned before how listening to music helps you write. How does it happen for you? What is it like when the process begins and where does it originate?
Chris: The writing doesn't set the mood it follows the material. Music is freeing. It can help stir up emotions, some music should come in prescription form. Like you I have have an intensely varied listening tastes and I explore it often. It doesn't matter what I am listening to, or sometimes it does. The work seems to come easier when this way. I will begin listening to music and after a short while the words will come and it pours out and I have to try and get it down as best I can. Other times I sit with my face in my hands with the light of the computer screen illuminating the room.
I have epilepsy so when I shake it slows the writing down but the inspiration is there. I find that when I am writing truly inspired I shake more. The hands fall back down to where they were and go right back to the work. I think it originates from somewhere in my unconscious. Because when it comes it comes fully formed. It scares me sometimes the way it is. I don't think I have explained this very well.
Is it true that if you write for an audience you will always find yourself alone on the stage waiting for them to arrive?
Jake: (laughing) Yes, or you will get there after they have left. If you try to write for an audience you will always be looking at the past. What is appealing to an audience today will be old news tomorrow. You can waste your life trying to anticipate what an audience may want to read or hear, and that is part of the job of publishers, but you will find that even publishers prefer to go with something reliable. Why take a chance on a new author when you can bring out a new piece by a proven seller? New authors tend to rise through the small presses. Occasionally one will become popular enough to land a deal with a big publisher. It really has nothing to do with quality or originality. If it draws dollars it goes to press.
What you are describing when you talk abut your hands shaking is the intensity of the moment. For some it is a very cool, almost calculated, experience. They work at a distance. For others, like yourself, the entire being is so involved that it is possible to overheat. Holderlin seems to have been that way and Kerouac was obviously on fire when he wrote.
You are right, it is difficult to explain what happens. That's one of the many things that is often misunderstood, even by poets. The reason poetry exists is because no other mode of being is sufficient. Poetry allows things to happen that would not happen otherwise.
Do you find that the intensity of the process has changed for you over the years? Have you been able to adapt the elements of your life so that you don't have to struggle so much just to do the work?
Chris: It has changed over the years. Very much so in fact. One thing I didn't mention previously about music. I will quite often choose one song or one piece of music to write to and listen to it over and over for an hour or two at a time. This builds intensity in and of itself. It's funny but I took inspiration for this from Albert Einstein. The story was that Einstein's closet was full of the same type of clothing so he never had to decide what to wear. I thought if I found something to listen to that inspired me I wouldn't have to worry about the music changing and interrupting the flow.
Adapting the elements of my life is quite a task just to make it through the day much less writing. The work is a struggle, always. The words come so fast and often is disjointed ways. Often tumbling through and over one another in such a way that its a wonder I am able to capture any of it. But I do. I don't seem able to write poems of any great length anymore like I used to. It is difficult to maintain the attention to detail I once could. If that is the correct way of expressing that. To take your writing seriously I believe you have to be desperate. Desperate to hold onto the things around you and to your sanity if you want to take it to an extreme. I have no time or sympathy for those that approach writing as a hobby.
As you continue work on Brambu Drezi, as the epic continues, do you feel the work itself pulling you onward? Each volume seems to pull the title from its origin and allow the reader a look within. Will the final installment reveal all?
Jake: Answering the first question: Yes, the work pulls me onward, or pulls itself onward. Whatever I am, persona, ego, concept, is one of many contributors and any use of personal pronouns is more likely to be some other self, either a fictional one or one that presents itself through some other medium. The whole thing is a process that I allowed to happen or maybe opened the door on something that was already happening. I try to get out of the way and allow it happen. I am the one putting it all down so there is a sense of collaboration and argument, but the sources are elsewhere.
There used to be a lot of discussion about the inward life of writing, or the outer life, Hemingway for instance, running around the world for experiences he could use in his fiction. That dichotomy, inner and outer, probably has more to do with analysis of writing than actual writing. I don't know where those boundaries are. The pull seems to be outward. The outside calls us into being, into doing. We have a sense of being inside our bodies or minds, but that is just a sense of self preservation. One has to find shelter. One has to project outward in order to kill or plant or harvest to keep the body alive, but everything that I call myself was once outside and I am constantly, right now even, moving outward toward you. Reality seems to be less about some solid, singular self than about change, relation, impression and response. Perhaps there are no nouns, only activities that have a particular shape often enough for us to give them a name that will work temporarily.
The final installment of Brambu Drezi will be wherever I am with it when I die. That was the idea, to step into it and allow the shape be determined by forces beyond my control. And before anyone leaps up and says 'surrealism' or 'the unconscious' I would ask them to remember that surrealism became a self-conscious movement almost immediately and has particular stylistic qualities. The unconscious is a concept. It is a useful one, but it is just a tool we use to get at what lies beyond obvious consciousness. And like so many good concepts it has been so co-opted by pseudo philosophies, charlatans and the market that it can stand in the way of genuinely approaching what it was originally intended to describe.
I hope Brambu reveals, but I hope it reveals openly, not all or everything, but opens toward infinity - which is only a way of saying we are always moving into the something we cannot hold or name. That is one of the things poetry can do - the opposite of the way language is conventionally used. It can make the world available without giving it absolutes or closing it into individuated spaces.
Does all of this make sense to you? Your own work, whether poetry or prose, seems to always leave things unresolved. There may be final events in it - a character may die or transform into something else - but the door never seems to close. I don't get the sense that we are ever arriving at some final truth or a point where we know everything about what is happening in the work or in the world generally. Are you seeking something absolute? Will we arrive at some end point, like a unified field theory, within which everything can be understood?
Chris: Yes, it makes perfect sense. Our boundaries, those we project and those we will only see in the work, the suppression's that we miscalculate, the different levels we manage to extract are at best only temporarily held at bay. The tessellation of these things commit to occur whether we are in control or not. The destructive influence of our identity is what sometimes holds us back. You mention that language can grant individuated spaces, I agree. By breaking apart the space, the language you move into the areas every writer was meant to travel to. You become an expatriate. William Burroughs was right. Writing is dangerous work.
I think we are always seeking to resolve the unresolvable. I've always felt like an exile. I've always felt that I was going about my work in a way different from every one else. I think in some way perhaps I unconsciously left things unresolved so that they would continue. You make a good point, that is in my work. One definition of absolute is free from restriction. That I have always sought. I can't imagine anyone not seeking this. I don't know if we will reach a point where everything will be understood. Ezra Pound said, "The body is inside the soul." Perhaps the work, the finished work will be discovered and understood when we're dead. But I doubt it in my case. I don't think I'll be read after my death. I didn't come to this earth to be read I came here to write.
Arthur Rimbaud said, “The first study for a man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, complete.” If we as writers are to know ourselves complete is there any sense in pursuing writing once you have gained this wisdom?
Jake: If we define the absolute in those terms - free from restriction - then we are working toward the same experience, each in his own way. And I would agree with Pound as well. We don't have a soul. Humans aren't that smart. A soul (or souls) has us. There is also the idea of making or building a soul, as in Michael McClure's poetry. That is what is happening. That is the making a poet does.
Following in the context of the absolute as free from restriction we could interpret Rimbaud's "complete" in the same way. If the knowledge of himself was to free himself from restriction then it is certainly reflected in his poetry, and in his life. I'm not sure if he ever acquired that level of knowledge. One gets the sense from reading his letters and bits of his history from other sources that he abandoned poetry out of exasperation. He opted for a rough, direct experience that apparently did not inspire or require poetry.
I'm really not sure what Rimbaud meant by that statement. He's also writing about deranging the senses. Are those two things part of the same process? I think it was for him and I think it has been for many poets after him. Perhaps in order to know oneself one must escape oneself - losing one's mind in order to find it. Poetry feels that way to me as it happens. In some sense I am not myself or any particular self. I am not in my mind, not contained by the identity or persona I might call myself otherwise. Can we ever reach that point where the process is complete? If I want to know myself as a person, an ego, that won't take long since the ego is always provisional and reactionary. It's merely an interface. But if we step beyond ourselves, inside or out or both, and it may amount to the same thing, then what we can experience has no boundaries, there is no end. Ultimately, I'm not trying to know anything by means of writing, I'm allowing something to happen that can never be completely defined or known. It's a movement into the open beyond the pain of being a self.
Regarding whether or not we are read now or after we are dead. I feel like what is happening is that the our area of experience is expanding by way of the work and in that way we are making some small contribution to the development of our species and maybe to awareness generally. Do you feel the same way or do you think of your work as being the expression of the self, of making a personal mark?
Chris: From the very beginning I have always described my writing as literally attempting to empty my head. The thoughts that hounded me and would not go away I tried to get down on paper. Along with this are the bits of words flashing about. To me its a troubling process. It is I suppose an expression of self. A never-ending sculpture that you can walk around in and explore. No matter how horrific it may be.
The first poem I ever wrote was of a dream I had just experienced. In the dream I am watching myself kill myself. I woke up and wrote down the dream in the form of a poem. To me this was more journalism than poetry. Whether or not this aid in the development of the species, my suffering or the contents of my head being emptied out for others to read I don't know. You can learn as much from the scene of the crime as you can the condition of the body.
In the film Examined Life, Cornel West calls himself a blues man in the life of the mind, a jazz man in the world of ideas. How would you describe your place in the world?
Jake: Those are good descriptions of Cornel West. He is definitely riffing and improvising, and lays down some serious lines.
My place in the world? Do I have one? If we are defined by what we do then I am a poet, some of those poems are sung more abstractly than others, including visual poetry. I also play musical instruments - the guitar first, but also piano, banjo, mandolin and a little flute. I write the occasional review and bits of prose that might be called philosophical. I draw and paint, work with clay and wood. I have had books and CDs published. I don't know if this places me in the world. I don't know if any of it has had any impact. I try to be a reliable companion to my wife, a reliable human to the cats in our home and tend house - all in what most people would consider a very eccentric fashion. I also try to be a good friend and usually fail by anyone's standards, including my own. Where does all this place one in relation to the world?
There are a couple of things others have said that come to mind. My brother Jeff and I were together at his house a few days ago. We were playing guitar and stumbled into writing a song, as these things often happen. He said, "Some people fish, some people hunt or golf. I write songs." Also because we saw a Steely Dan concert that evening I remembered some lines by Donald Fagan from his song "What I Do" in which he dreams Ray Charles tells him, referring to his music, "It's not a game I play. It's in my DNA. It's what I do." That's a fair assessment of it as far as I'm concerned. All this poetry and music is what I do. It's as natural to me as leaves are to trees and singing is to birds. That's the world I am certain I have a place in. The world of human ideas, aspirations, etc. I don't know if it comes to much. I suppose it's what humans do and matters no more or less than what other species do.