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.

 the course cov.jpg

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

 

Water sound
Jumps in
Mid sandals

 

Rippling under the hood

As a slipcase rewards

Looking elsewise

 

Relax throat

Around sound
A word means

Just about nothing
As if on a stroll
So many as ifs

 

Hold tongue

Stranger’s hand
Word for

 

In a manner of 
So who was

Insufficient unto

 

You ever
Siddown
Say anything

In the edge world

Curving behind

Goddamn big gulch

 

Didn’t say
Left elbow bend
Goes around

Fellow feeling

Say what? I’ve got

All the tin in the world

 

Could-it clouds

Easterly blues

Last seen

 

In dirigible

(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

 

Wait up

Nice out

Step up

 

Focus behind 

Feel what’s were

What’s when

 

Useless use-to

Name comes up

Way when

 

Leaning on left 

Hurts enumerating

Wisp of wish 

 

Flesh out

Curves in space

Sounds how

 

’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

Debauching dawn

In search of night

 

Monsoon ringtone

Deliver weave levels 

Heal thigh's danger range

 

Athwart a lack

Beside the hey

Amidst such rubble

 

Unrunging bell

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

 

Remains insoluble

At the door of 

Instinctual abhorrence

 

Is how treats

Unsigned be have

Kweep offering

 

Stuff, stuff, stuff

Stuff, stuff, stuff

Stuff, stuff, stuff

Charles Bernstein at MOMA, NYC Photo by Amit Chaudhuri 

Come to Think of It

 

Spits
Out
Real
Fall
High
Clouds
In
Which
Says
Spikey
Flutter
Curve
Away
This
Time
Early
Morning
Flight
Echoes
Echoing
Echo
Plot
About
About
Time
Insufficiency
Grating
Paper
Plate
Drone
In
My
Slowmation
Out 
In
On
Then

Of

Among

E

Follow

Cap

Along

Away

Aways

Don’t

Mention

It

Stuck

In

Place

Rude

Mopeist

Motes

Low

On

Floats

Didn’t

Oh!

Paint

You

Bet

(Yet)

Slip

Sure

Said

When

Got

This

Whatever

Appear

Knot

Armed

Or

Naught

Hover

Street

Sails

Spin

Splash

Speed

Knaw

How

No

Guessing

Passing

Mention

Consult

Cat

Stretch

Out

If

This

Blotter

Sky

Removal

Takes

Two

To

Screen

(The)

Article

Just

As

When

Face

Lit

Aperture

That

Them

There

Tow

Close

Case

Floating

By

As

The

Big

Picture

Only

Your

Just

Dog

Gone

Own

It

Sure

But

Hands

Kurds’

Way

Slakes

Sure

Thunder

Hidden

Willing

Fight

Then

Dodge

Which

Lift

The

Lid

On

Crocked

Bologna

Be

Up

On

Ever

Not

That

Blink

Voice

Tire

Ever

In

Cloud

Do

Say

Whomever

Pleased

Was

Slip

Clip

Sleeve

Swept

Forge

Gone

Dough

See

Dough

And

Away

You

Easy

How

Pretty

Go

Stay

Simply

Sip

Sofa

Roof

Back

Of

Mind

Or

For

Whom

Where

Snipers

Pay

In

What

Way

Say

Lots

Gains

Come-on

Heels

Mope

Steal

As

As

Don’t

Worry

Only

If

Or

Even

See

Arc

Rave

Down

Dim

Aisles

Careful

Service

Dimples

Gump

Up

Shimmies

Arrival

Window

Moon

Only

To

Recoil

Rainy

Patter

Heart

And

Then

And

A

Breezy

Mix

Under

Wandering

Sky

Wake

70s

Bleak

Murk

Chirps

Longing

Hi!

In

60s

Sludge

Makes

Music

Tonight’s

Some

Remembered

Chance

Less

Balance

Big

Eyes

Warmer

Glassy

Almost

Still

Of

That

Time

Drifts

In

Edge

Curl

Off

Brick

Anywhere

But

Up

Days

In

Weeks

Flap

Like

Geese

Ear

Toot

Roof

Smoothly

Sawing

Prime

The

Swell

Mome

Where

Swept

I

Own

Boat

Unknown

Til

Time

Can’t

Sh(o)w

(The)

R(oo)m

The Course  By Ted Greenwald and Charles Bernstein published by Roof Books is available from Small Press Distribution

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 GirouxThe 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