I met the legendary poet and critic Bill Berkson as a bratty 19-year-old art student in his final class at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he is professor emeritus after teaching writing and art history for 25 years. Around that time I interviewed him about taste for a zine I made with my then boyfriend—one of the first in a format that has become a major part in my intellectual life. Shortly after, the artist Isabelle Sorrell and I began to compile a book as an homage to him. All these years later, the new volume For Bill, ANYTHING: Images and Text for Bill Berkson has just been published by Pressed Wafer, bringing together new and archival writing and art works by 75 contributors, covering aspects of Berkson’s work and life, including collaborations with friends like Joe Brainard, Philip Guston, Jim Carroll, and many others. To mark the occasion we met to talk again, discussing everything from humanness, prolonged adolescences, and the language of men.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): At the end of last year when we were in touch you were thinking about humanity and writing about Robert Arneson—
Bill Berkson: Well, I can’t think about humanity as in “what would be good for humanity,” or whether humanity, as in the Anthropocene, has caused all this trouble for the world—for flora, fauna, land, and water alike. What I have thought about is that particular people have humanity in their work, or exhibit humanity, which might be called humaneness. I guess that is a vague enough term, but it seems to hit home. When you say it to other people they seem to know what you mean. It is of course in the neighborhood of love, good will, and care, or even something like having a good heart, but also assumes rage, lust, and the beastliness of survival. Now I’ve been playing with it, I’m not sure if in Arneson’s case it’s his humanity or his humanities because he is so multiplicitous. I don’t think it’s inextricably linked to what is called Humanism with a capital H, which seems to be a can-of-worms term, because if you’re a Humanist in the late 20th century/early 21st century—at least in the academic cloister—you are, like lyric poetry, out to lunch.
Rail: We did an interview a few years ago that was one of the first I had ever done and since then I’ve come to think a lot about the interview as a form. I was 21 or 22. The distance from then to now feels like multiple incarnations of myself. That five years for me was an immense amount of time and I wanted to do something that marked or gauged that. When you think back to yourself in the interval between 21 and 27, what does that period of your life seem like?
Berkson: I was talking to Larry Fagin the other day, and he brought up his time—I think it was between 1962 – 65—of being in San Francisco and part of the Jack Spicer circle. He talked about how in his sense of who he was then and who he is now, it is disproportionate to the actual time span. I said, yes, that is very much like between 1960 and ’66 for me. Now you, Jarrett, have been through it, because you’re no longer in your early twenties. You’re in your later twenties. And your early twenties are really a continuation of the prolonged adolescence that American boys have. It’s an extension of your teen self, or anyway it was for me. I hadn’t learned any better by the time I was 20 than when I was 16. The assumption, or even the presumption, was that later I learned better. There are certain things that I did then, and I can’t say I regret doing anything because then I wouldn’t be here with you now enjoying my life in the way that I am. I was apparently some sort of beast as a really young boy, and as a pre-teen. I was horrid. My favorite cousin died at 96 a few weeks ago. I was reviewing our email exchanges over the past 10 years or so and there was one place where she said, “Everyone thought that the proper place for you was Alcatraz. You were a spoiled brat.” So when, if ever, did that change? I think I was displaced in some way for a while, I didn’t know what my place in the world was or who to look to. Anyway, in my twenties I was still teen-like, and there was a mass of conflicting directions to go to—identity confusion and all that. And I was acting way ahead of myself and my actual capabilities, ahead of what I actually knew. But I always had, as I’ve come to realize, some sort of stabilizer. Under the rubric of humanism there’s a term you don’t hear very much, which is common sense. I never really went crazy. I never really self-destructed, or was other-destructive either. The stabilizer that accompanies common sense I liken to those moments when driving and I might be on the verge of making a mistake, or somebody else is in the wrong lane, and my wrist just flicks, I’ve swerved into the appropriate place to avoid disaster. So it’s like a little compass within me that may be my guardian angel, because I didn’t cultivate it. I think biographically what happened in my later-twenties is that I shifted from being the protégé, or the plucky new kid on the block indulged by older artists, to being among my peers—people my own age, of a contemporary culture. It was there in some ways that I was socialized. I wasn’t so much a beast.
Rail: How old were you when you started hanging out with the older poets?
Berkson: 19 or 20—I would have been 19 in the spring of ’59 when I came back to New York, took Kenneth Koch’s workshop, and that was pretty much it. Then I met the New York School, so to speak, in the persons of Frank O’ Hara, Jimmy Schuyler, and artists like Larry Rivers, de Kooning, Johns, Rauschenberg and so on. Then in 1960 I was working for ARTnews.
Rail: Why do you think those older artists took you up?
Berkson: For one thing I had committed myself to poetry, much under Kenneth Koch’s encouragement, because he made it seem like a perfectly normal thing to do, not something glamorous and not something that you had to dress up or dress down for. He was really quite reasonable about it. Plus, he seemed to think I was good at it, or that I could be. Then I met Frank O’Hara and became friends with him, and Frank O’Hara thought that if you were his friend then you must be a great artist of one kind or another—either a poet or painter or dancer or what have you. It had to do with his will to be present and accounted for; as Morton Feldman said, “One remarkable thing about Frank O’Hara is that he really wanted you to be great.” I think he had a sense of his own glory, and he wanted, further, to bask in your glory. It was exciting and a pleasure for him to declare how marvelous somebody was, so he could just about convince you that you were. But there were a lot of people whom Frank wanted to believe were glorious who just weren’t, even though he liked the idea that they were. I don’t know that I was all that marvelous then; I mean, I had two or three years of writing poems that were striking in some way that went into my first book. Then I got mixed up trying to be everything at once in my mid-twenties and I didn’t really write that much poetry, and what I did write is interesting in its way—there are one or two things I really like—but I think that there was a three or four year period where I was involved more with a fancy social life, and kind of a wild sex life, than with writing poems. At a certain point my flick-of-the-wrist trick worked; I had been in a quasi-nose dive but snapped out of it. In the meantime, I got to know a lot of the artists—I got to know Alex Katz and Edwin Denby, and Frank very well but then he died and for a year or two I knew the artists better than the poets. I was writing a lot of art criticism then, and when I started teaching at the New School, increasingly poets my own age were coming to those classes, and that is how I met Anne Waldman and various other people. That was terrific because I was supposed to be teaching these people, my exact contemporaries, who at the same time were teaching me.
Rail: How old were you when you started teaching that class?
Rail: So many of the artists that I think of in that scene, that I’m very interested in, are these big overwhelmingly gay personalities. I wondered what that was like for you?
Berkson: I liken it, and I think appropriately, to my and other people’s experience of black music: you encounter it and say, “Gee, this has fantastic energy.” So there was this great expansive camp sensibility and also with it was that kind of expansive sex—sex was right out front. The reason it was so attractive to me is I was coming from a rather repressed environment—it wasn’t like where you came from, a Southern church-going repressed—it was tidy urban
upper/middle class, a somewhat complacent, if stylish, culture, full of advantage, as I was. Except that certain things nagged at me, like “What is going on here?” and “What do I do here?” and realizing that I had all this energy in me and didn’t know what to do with it. I wasn’t money hungry—I knew very early on I was not going into business. So, encountering people who were just interested in literature and writing poetry and going to concerts, jazz clubs, the ballet, and watching all sorts of sublime old movies was exciting. You didn’t think of it as the gay community—probably, if everybody was going to John Button’s house to watch a Busby Berkeley movie on late night TV, I might have been the only so-called straight guy there. There might have been one or two women. I’m there because Frank had said, “Lets go to John’s and watch this movie,” and I’m already into those movies, which were then beginning to be released at the New Yorker, Bleecker Street Cinema, and other places. 1930s movies carried this fantastic energy and a lot of that energy was the energy of talk—those are pictures that really talk and talk fast; they have great lines. I was as responsive to that as anybody. And there is this whole business of song and dance, which really led straight to what Andy Warhol did in the Factory, where you have these people who are not really all that good—Ruby Keeler as a dancer or Dick Powell as a singer—but they’ve got this idea of: Lets put on a show! I’m going to get out here and dance! It was so charming, but also encouraging to people like Jackie Curtiss who must have thought, oh I can be a star too! That was terrific. I couldn’t have defined black music or camp behavior—in the way that Frank or John Bernard Myers behaved, or John Ashbery when he permits himself—as exercising what really, at least in some respect, is compensatory culture. In other words, these are people who are, as they would say now, oppressed, who are pushed aside, punished or otherwise brutalized, and dehumanized—and in order to assert their humanity they act out, or they develop these routines, one of which is jazz, to express their pain, although there is also the joy of doing it, in itself. In my earliest experiences of both black music and gay culture, I knew nothing about their pain. I was innocent of their pain, so I just enjoyed it, and that gave me a lot of leeway in my behavior, as I adopted a lot of those mannerisms. I delighted in shocking people with how outrageous and how unpredictable my behavior could be.
Rail: Like what?
Berkson: Suddenly doing “Frank,” his voice or a flip gesture. When I first met John Ashbery in Paris we were sitting at a table, maybe Café de Flore, just Frank, John, and me, and John sort of leaned in and said, “What really is going on with you two?” And in my best Greta Garbo imitation, I said, “I am a woman in love!” That is something I could do. Actually, I can still do it, because I still think, why not! I like to put all those divisions into question, because most of them are stupid divisions. But back then it was more for the shock of it.
I think that John Ashbery, for instance, thought that, unlike Frank or Ginsberg even, the lines of identity should be clearly defined. But somehow or other, early on, whether it was aimlessness or just a multitude of possible selves, something in me knew that I could play among the selves. That was also probably where I misled myself in my early 20s because I was trying to live this downtown life as a serious poet, writing about art and working for ARTnews, knowing the artists and seeing the shows. The typical thing was, to go to a painter’s show and then the New York City Ballet, and the next night a Cage or Morton Feldman concert, or the Five Spot to hear Ornette Coleman, this could all happen in a day. I have appointment calendars from that time, and it’s amazing to look at them. Still, my sexuality stayed uptown. I didn’t like downtown girls, I didn’t like sullen girls in leotards and berets, and I wasn’t gay, so at a certain point of the night I left downtown, hopped in a cab and went to some bar or club uptown, where the girls are. That was a lot of fun, but it was also sort of dissolute. And sometimes the two would get mixed up, but life was compartmentalized, largely.
Rail: When did the compartments get deconstructed or merged?
Berkson: I thought I was building something like a straight version of Cocteau, I was taking on a role, something of a dandy. I had great suits. There was no merger, just at a certain point I was spending more and more time with the poets who mostly lived on the lower east side, this was ’66 or ’67, and finding that we had a lot of shared culture. See, the older New York poets were into classical music. Frank wasn’t really interested in jazz. He would go along because his friends were going to the Five Spot. I remember when Bob Dylan hit and Frank wasn’t interested in that at all, not the way that Allen Ginsberg was. I was really seeing more and more of Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh. It was more a rock ‘n’ roll culture, pot and psychedelics instead of alcohol. That was a big change—so at that point, in ’67 or so, this uptown life was no more. It didn’t go with poetry, not one bit.
Rail: It’s interesting to think of you as a young terror because when I read you, I think about you as the lightest, the most graceful. I’ve always been much more emotionally volatile. I have these big feelings and I like art that has them too—
Berkson: You haven’t stopped really, but when you first appeared in my class the first thing that struck me was, gee, he behaves like the gay guys I knew at the end of the ’50s and early ’60s, and nobody behaves like that anymore—how terrific! The other thing, and probably why I reacted to you, was your arrogance. Because somebody should have taken me aside, Frank or somebody should have said to me—come off it—when I was acting excessively intolerant, rude, or somehow above or below my station. So I recognized that in you, and if I was hard on you, it was because I thought better to nip that right now, so that you have the chance to let it go. It might save some time.
The thing is, you behave as though it matters, if something is either good or occupies or doesn’t occupy what you see as a good social space. If you look at those Richters we looked at once and say, as you did, “This is just meant for corporate lobbies,” I know what you mean. There is something deep in me that responds the same way, but at the same time at the Art Institute I was likely to say, well, okay, but painting, in particular, has to be somewhere, and the place where it will be traditionally is in some locus of power, which usually means where the money is. The thing is, all those things that we talked about and that I’ve written about in the Rail are tantamount to saying that art is not just a social proposition, but an ethical proposition that involves ethical choices, therefore the proper response to the work of art—whether it’s any good or not, or whether you like it—has to do with whether you think it is right or not. It’s really weird to me that my saying so gets blank stares, or rings up censorial to some people, as though you were going to put the art in jail—no, nor do I put someone in jail because they behaved badly at a party. You just say, fuck that, I think I’ll go talk to somebody else. The upside is: Great, tell me more! That’s marvelous! Or, nobody ever said that before, in that way!
People like Tom Hess or Harold Rosenberg or Frank O’Hara understood art as a kind of behavior, that art was some sort of social gesture. But boy, there are rooms full of people who don’t get it, won’t get it, and think art is about something they learned in school.
Rail: In one of the early lectures in Sudden Address, you talked about how when you were a young writer Guston’s process related to your way of writing—as opposed to de Kooning’s—and I wonder how that changed over time. Do you still write that way?
Berkson: In a way, yes. I met Claudia LaRocco at the Edwin Denby evening she organized, and she told me she began as a journalist working for the Associated Press and was called into the editor’s office and told offhandedly, you’re the dance critic now. I always think that’s a great way for any critic to begin—on assignment, as it were. At Associated Press she exercised her skills as a fast writer. The reason that I didn’t become a journalist like my father, after four summers working at International News Service and then at Newsweek, was that I realized that I would never be really fast at writing a story. I just had to work it out, still do. With poetry, if I have a story to tell, if I have a narrative, I can get right on it and pretty much get at least a fair first draft. If it’s one of these more or less abstract poems, it doesn’t get any easier. Art writing never got any easier, really—
Rail: I’m glad to hear that! (Laughter.)
Berkson: So that business of being an inchworm, and recognizing a fellow inchworm in Guston, was true for a long time. I finally got to some degree of fluency. I was just talking about this with Musa Mayer looking at the Gustons in her apartment, and talking about how for Guston in the 1950s there are very few paintings. It is probable that he did 10 or 20 times as many paintings in his last decade as he did in all the previous decades. I guess it was you who asked me, how many books have you done since 2000? Meaning, mainly in the years since I had a lung transplant. It wasn’t as if I made some sort of resolution to be productive, but I’ve had 14 books come out since then, including some little chapbooks, and I’ll bet that I’ve written lots more poetry than in all of the ’60s and ’70s. I started to roll really in the ’80s—more confidence, more commitment, more clear-sighted. Then there was a moment when I had been doing so much art writing and so little poetry that I put the question to myself: Am I even interested in writing poetry? It wasn’t any sort of a test, but I had that spring semester off, and then the whole summer, and I just started writing poems. In the midst of that I thought, oh, this is the most interesting thing to do, and there is tremendous pleasure in it. I had that revelation and then just didn’t look back.
Rail: How did your relation to the language change when there was more of a sense of physical urgency?
Berkson: I don’t think it was a matter of urgency, not in the sense of facing mortality and needing to achieve something before I die. If there’s any urgency, it’s just that the vistas have opened up so widely, there’s so much to do.
Rail: Was your first awareness of language—as language to be aware of—from talking and from the radio?
Berkson: Yes. It’s interesting, there certainly was a lot of talk around the house, and we listened to the radio and went to the movies, my parents and I. I remember I had these moments, I think it was my Saint Augustine moment, because somewhere in Saint Augustine is a passage where he says, “I heard the language of men.” He was just a boy, and it was as if the speech around him was a foreign language. And I remember that feeling, whether it was my parents talking or older people talking, sometimes I would feel like, why are they talking like that? Or, how can you say those things? I had a kid’s cynicism about my elders and their talk. At the same time, I was capable of talking grown-up talk—discussing politics and such—at quite an early age. Still, I was in another space, observing and hearing human talk as if I wasn’t really connected to it, almost as if it was something for me to listen in on. I think that my poetry has to do with that to a certain extent. John Ashbery’s does too—that is where I feel a kinship with him, that early on, at one time or another, each of us felt a distance from ordinary communication, or even from the sense that anything really was being communicated. But there were all these words and all these phrases. In a certain way, that foreignness, the alien quality, became beautiful, and elicited, elicits still, a kind of sympathy. At first, the strangeness was framed as a language—spoken or written—that is beautiful even though I don’t really know what it’s about; I don’t know what it means, or what it’s for. Then it became an attractive proposition that it is not for anything, it's just there, to be assembled and re-assembled and out of that assembling you feel a connection with the words, for the way they are put together, that seems to ring bells, and that one can give back out as something everyone knows as both strange and real. I guess that is the humanity of the situation. And that is the real stuff, in poetry, to me. When I get a sense of that in a poem, whether it’s one of my own or someone else’s, that is poetry.