Author photo by Star Black, October 7, 2008
The Course by Ted Greenwald and Charles Bernstein
with Nicolette Reim
The Course, a collaboration between poets Ted Greenwald and Charles Bernstein, began on July 2, 2015. Bernstein and Greenwald interchanged daily, sometimes many times - up to six days before Greenwald died from cancer, June 11, 2016. Bernstein has described how ego disappeared in their back and forth process; poems stand on their own. The Course, a disarmingly straightforward title, offers endless possibilities of meaning - i.e. a normal action, a chosen manner, an ordered succession of acts and events, a series of lectures, doses of medications administered over a period of time, an expected allotted time, origins of friendship/relationship. Bernstein and Greenwald are founding members of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, a poetics that emerged 1970-1980 among writers primarily from the San Francisco Bay area, New York, and Washington, DC. They rebelled against an aesthetic they felt was dominant that emphasized expressive, subjective poetry focusing on self-enquiry, self-disclosure, inwardness and subconscious introspection. Bernstein and Greenwald embrace the arbitrariness of understanding and its complicated, constructive nature. Language is to be looked at, taken apart and reunited again. Emotion occurs unexpectedly through strangeness or a formalism that stops one’s attention, giving room for spontaneous feeling. The poems of The Course reflect Bernstein’s term, “echopoetics,” a poetry of call and response.
Nicolette Reim: I am thinking of early Japanese collaborative poetry, supported by strong poetic traditions and emperors and the collaborative work among the Surrealists. However, it seems collaborative poetry as a subject in itself is relatively rare. It is not mentioned in the most recent edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, or Language poets, the movement you co-founded in the late 1970s, seems to have incorporated collaborative work from its very beginning. What sparked and sustained that direction?
Charles Bernstein: Those of us who came together in the mid-1970s shared a sense that poetry was collaborative and that individual poems were part of an interactive social field that includes readings, conversations, letters, editing presses and magazines, critical and essay writing, talks, not to mention the larger context of other poets’ work, historical and contemporary. This was an urban, cosmopolitan poetry—not a poet alone in his head (!) but poets in conversation. (But the truth is, I am quite a bit “alone in my head.”)
Three new books from the University of New Mexico’s Recencies series, edited by Matt Hofer and Michael Golston, document this sense of collaboration: The Language Letters: Selected 1970s Correspondence of Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Ron Silliman; L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: The Complete Facsimile, and LEGEND: The Complete Facsimile in Context. The letters are taken from the voluminous correspondence Bruce, Ron and I had (though still close, we hardly exchange letters at all these days). Those letters trace our collaborative approach to what became L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, our newsletter that brought a couple of hundred voices into conversation. Key to what was included was who was interested in joining in, or who we could cajole to join us. It was a way of meeting and finding people beyond who we already knew. A start to something still in process.
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was a very small-scale publication that we produced ourselves: typing the pages on a Selectric, offset printing with a side-staple binding, and mailing out. LEGEND was a collaboration by Bruce, Ray DiPalma, and me in New York, Ron in San Francisco, and Steve McCaffery in Toronto. Done in the mail (and yes all male too). Maybe we were like an indy band, but we didn’t think of it that way. We worked on the collaboration for years, doing solos, duets, trios, and one with all five; plus we did one final new one, a couple of years ago, just before Ray died. Legend clocks in at around 300 pages. It has a startling range of forms, styles, tones, and structures. My favorite comment came in a postcard Robert Creeley (well before I got to know him): “Legend is a blast.”
NR: How did you and Ted Greenwald meet and decide to work together? How did his poetic ideas evolve? In particular, he embraced collaboration often in his distinguished career as a poet. Was this primarily from his affiliation with Language poets; what were other significant influences, e.g., The New York School?
CB: I met Ted Greenwald in the mid-1970s. Being eight years older than me, he introduced both the world of poetry as he knew it and also many of his poet friends. Ted’s contribution to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was a piece called “Spoken” that I recorded and transcribed. Ted’s insistence on vernacular in his essay was a crucial intervention. It countered the misconception that we were all against “speech.” As I often say, Robert Grenier’s famous “I HATE SPEECH,” is itself a speech act. In those days, Ted and I talked a lot. Shortly after he died, I wrote about my relation to him, publishing it on my commentary page at Jacket 2.
So the fact is, Ted and I had been talking for forty years before we started on The Course.
You are right to locate Ted in the context of the New York School, so-called second generation, along with Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, Joseph Ceravolo, Ann Lauterbach, Charles North, Michael Lally, and John Godfrey. But like Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge, his work also was central to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. I love all these poets and there are ways my own work fits into that New York context: I have a New York state of mind. Ted and I are both New York Jews; Ted grew up in Queens and I’m from the Upper West Side.
But also, I especially associate Ted with Tom Raworth and Lorenzo Thomas; he felt a deep connection to both, personally and in poetry.
Ted’s innovations are many, including the mind-boggling-single-word-a-line long poem from 1975, Makes Sense, a form we pick up in The Course. His later work also uses elaborated repetitions, not of words but of full lines, to create complex, fugal structures. And yet, through it all, there is that demotic, down-to-earth “common sense,” that rejects anything highfallutin’ or religious, so that the poems can sing of the everyday and the real, infused with the warmth, and bittersweet, of a life lived viscerally.
Ted collaborated with a number of visual artists, but the only other poetry collaboration he did was with Kit Robinson, A Mammal of Style (2013). We put together a good page for Ted at the Electronic Poetry Center.
NR: You have been called “The Bard” of current American social movements, an outspoken, strong spokesperson for social change, such as wealth redistribution. You were a public figure during the Occupy Wall Street Movement, emphasizing that poetry and politics are different; a poet’s role is to “connect the dots” to clarify the big picture. You spoke of the language used to focus and define movements. In the 2017 Women’s March, NYC, there were (surprising to me) a number of references to poetry on signage, including one that read, “TAKING YOU DOWN WILL MEAN MORE THAN ALL THE POEMS.” How do you view Black Lives Matter in the context of our country’s long march of social protests? After lootings, I noticed in my NYC neighborhood poems from Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes sprayed on boarded up stores as well as words by Obama and Martin Luther King. You speak of how innovation responds to crisis around us. How do you see language being used in these protests?
CB: To see America lurching toward the extreme right with the full-throated support of one of the two major political parties is frightening for someone who came of age in 1968. Not that things were better in 1968. But we had hope, or maybe that was just being young. The Republican Party’s platform is voter suppression, racism, xenophobia (virulent denunciation of immigrants, demonizing of China), unchecked police violence, state control of women’s bodies, child poverty, environmental catastrophe, nuclear proliferation, wealth transfer to the one percent through the tax system, health care for profits not people, supporting global tyrants, and attacks on free speech, the free press, and sexual and gender freedom.
But, hey, sounds like the Republicans in 1968 (and a lot of the Democrats of the time).
As far as language goes, like many of my friends, I think there is a cynical (or in some cases naïve) signing on to a patina of progressive catchphrases without following through to policies. So much is couched in feelings and empathy, which is all well and good; but that needs to connect to raising the minimum wages and supporting unionization (including unionizing graduate students), providing universal healthcare, stopping a system of incarceration of young Black men that approaches genocide, providing equal access to legal protection with massively more funds for legal aid, demilitarizing the police, blocking the takeover of the courts by racist and corporatist judges, contesting voter suppression.
Sentimental “humanistic” language convinces me of nothing, in a poem or in politics.
I embrace the idea of the artwork imaging other orders of the possible, rather than simply being “complicit” in the ideological regime of their own time, which they can’t help but be if they are made of social flesh. The kind of poetry I want acknowledges that freedom is contextual: never uniform, always a site of struggle. Freedom in poetry is made in and through words with rhythm, gesture, performance, and thought, making an aesthetic space for multifoliate, even incompatible, bodies, voices, and worldviews. Poetry won’t pay the rent, or win the election, but neither (to echo Audre Lorde) is it a luxury.
NR: You are an enthusiastic advocate and innovator of ways new technology can make poetry more democratic and accessible. The Electronic Poetry Center (EPC) you co-founded in 1994 at SUNY Buffalo, is one of the oldest resources for poetry on the Internet. By 2000, the site was receiving 10 million visits a year. You co-direct PennSound, the largest collection of poetry sound-files on The Web, available for free (you call it “iTunes for poetry”). Thinking of hacking, false/potentially harmful postings, information overload and the rapid evolution of technology that for so many, there is no access, do you see a point where the technology could do more harm than good?
CB:Digital spaces are as treacherous as any other social space. I have never been a technological optimist. I don’t believe in progress. But I am pragmatist and I saw the necessity of working with the new web and digital environments in order to make a space for the approaches to poetry to which I was committed. With PennSound we were able to archive an enormous number of audio recordings and make them available free and downloadable, without ads. Here are our stats as of two years ago (the last time we checked):
2,700,000 downloads per year
1,000,000 unique visitors per year
55,000 mp3 files
1,000 video files
~6,000 hours of audio
Much of this material would certainly have been privatized and paywalled if we hadn’t intervened. Making all this poetry available for free is certainly as important a feature of PennSound as the contents of the archive. And it is this radical democratizing of access, which has allowed folks all over the world to hear these recordings, that also lead the NEH to refuse to fund us, since they claimed our focus on distribution negated our claim to be an archive, even though we are the most significant archive of poetry recordings. The NEH opposed using the public’s money to make poetry available to the public.
NR: How is the idea of a “poem of the Americas” evolving? I’m assuming the Emerson call, which Whitman answered, is different in this case with your use of “Americas” in the plural. Have we made any movement in our “stuck in transition” position? Are there responses to the idea we should be studying the details of our indigenous people rather than turning to Greece? Do you see Black Lives Matter significant in these issues, or does it have enough to take on?
CB:Langston Hughes writes, in his epigraph to Montage of a Dream Deferred that Harlem is a “community in transition,” which I have taken to also register the fact that Americans are a people in transition. My Emersonian spin is that we never arrive. We can become “more perfect” but never perfect. Though I often don’t feel so optimistic, still, there is nowhere to go but on, as I once put it in a poem. While Hughes is specifically talking about “jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop,” what he says is, nonetheless, foundational for a poetics of the Americas “marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and distortions of the music of a community in transition.”
While it’s necessary for Americans to know American history, good and bad, we are also part of other far more complex histories, and it’s necessary also to think South/North, as difficult, and unfamiliar, as that can sometimes be. There are the four major European languages of the Americas but also innumerable, mostly lost, indigenous languages. We live with the ghosts of those languages, but there are also many still vibrant, but precarious, non-European languages in the Americas. Jerome Rothenberg’s and Dennis Tedlock’s injunction that we should study the Popul Vuh and not just The Iliad remains true—but it also remains rhetorical. My writing is deeply embedded in a tradition that goes go back to the Ancient Greeks and the Hebrew Bible. I don’t have that kind of relation to indigenous works, and, moreover, such works were mostly not part of a culture of writing—and it is alphabetic writing technology that makes the Greeks and Hebrews feel closer to me than they are. But, to come back to it, what I feel and $3 will buy me a Latte at the Americas Café. The Amazon is currently being subjected to an unprecedented assault, likely to bring catastrophe to the world environment as well as the people who live in it. I don’t know the language or art of those people, and that may be out of my reach, but I do know they are there and that our so-called civilization, based on avarice, based on not acknowledging these people and their unalienable rights, is killing them and destroying the planet.
Before the Europeans came, that is before 1500, there were 2000 tribes in what is today Brazil, including the Tupi. So let me give the last word in this dilemma to Oswald de Andrade in his savage (!) 1928 “Manifesto Antropófago” (Cannibalist Manifesto):
“Tupi or not Tupi: that is the question.”
NR: Music has always been a big factor in your creative life. I think of your wonderfully descriptive jazz reference in The Course:“After a while neither one of us could fully separate what each had done, we were blowing together, back and forth.” Through collaborations, you have also produced numerous libretti. Do you plan future musical works? Or, do you, since your poetry is so highly musical- words bouncing like jazz riffs, no longer think of containing music in a separate box?
CB:I’ve loved my collaborations with Brian Ferneyhough, Ben Yarmolinksy, Dean Drummond, and Anne LeBaron. I am also happy when a composer sets one of my poems, as George Lewis did for “Last Words,” and several composers for “All the Whiskey in Heaven”—Rich Campbell’s setting was performed by the Dordt College choir. A couple of times I’ve also read with live musical accompaniment by John Zorn and friends as well as Marc Ribot (in a program arranged by Marty Ehrlich). If there was a chance to do something like that, well, sure, I’m ready. But, as you say, music for me is mostly a way of pointing to the rhythmic and sound dimensions of my poems, both in the writing and performance (two different things). Every poem gives me the chance to try out a different rhythm, different sound pattern, different shift in tone, diction, or reverb, bouncing off bits of language like a skateboarder bounces off a ramp, and trying to land on my feet, or maybe a different foot every time, which inevitably means sometimes falling on my face.
From The Course by Ted Greenwald and Charles Bernstein, read by Bernstein.
Sen Sen Cha Cha
Rippling under the hood
As a slipcase rewards
A word means
Just about nothing
As if on a stroll
So many as ifs
In a manner of
So who was
In the edge world
Goddamn big gulch
Left elbow bend
Say what? I’ve got
All the tin in the world
(How do you spell that?)
Come on, come clean
Door as portal
Postal a (gum and) go
A-game (with me) outrigger
Longing for longing
But banking on next stop
’ll be the next one
Feel what’s were
Name comes up
Leaning on left
Wisp of wish
Curves in space
’bout that, she, it
Flying without trespass
On my so-called lawn
A new word a day
A new day
Word for word
Inebriate of sound
In search of night
Deliver weave levels
Heal thigh's danger range
Athwart a lack
Beside the hey
Amidst such rubble
Beyond cloud U
Funny cater feel
Absent any honor
Fear gnawing at heart
Then back again
Swingline same line
Bread and without pause
Butter up emboss
As in: it’s all a toss
Count me out
’til the melody
Going on behind
Getting off and on
Note for note train
At the door of
Is how treats
Unsigned be have
Stuff, stuff, stuff
Stuff, stuff, stuff
Stuff, stuff, stuff
Charles Bernstein at MOMA, NYC Photo by Amit Chaudhuri
Come to Think of It
Ted Greenwald (1942-2016) lived his whole life in New York City. He earned a B.A. from Queens College, CUNY worked as an art dealer but also delivering The Village Voice. He published over thirty poetic collections spanning fifty years and received grants from The National Endowment of the Arts, the Fund for Poetry, the Kulcher Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. His work is associated with the the New York School and the Language poets. He is described as being able to think with his ear, hear words as fresh sounds or shapes and able to create patterns of multiple layers, similar to talents of musicians. With Charles Bernstein, he co-founded the Ear Inn Reading Series. His most recent books ––Common Sense and The Age of Reasons –– are from Wesleyan University Press.
photo © 2007 Charles Bernstein
Charles Bernstein is an American poet, essayist, editor, and literary scholar. Bernstein is the Donald T. Regan Professor, Emeritus, Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania.He is one of the most prominent members of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or Language poets. In 2006 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2019 he was awarded the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, the premiere American prize for lifetime achievement, given on the occasion of the publication of Near/Miss. Bernstein was David Gray Professor of Poetry and Poetics at SUNY-Buffalo from 1990-2003, where he co-founded the Poetics Program. A volume of Bernstein's selected poetry from the past thirty years, All the Whiskey in Heaven, was published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. The Salt Companion to Charles Bernstein was published in 2012 by Salt Publishing.
photo © Susan Bee
Nicolette Reim is a visual artist, poet, and writer, who lives and works in New York and Atlanta.
photo © Elias Maus