Meaning Stirrer–An Interview with Bill Berkson

Photos: Johanna Lenski

A poet, art critic, and professor emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, Bill Berkson is the kind of debonair gentleman that one expects to find in an old Hollywood movie, but almost never encounters in real life – at least not during this century. Born in New York City in 1939, he grew up in the Upper East Side (“the last generation with immediate (grandparent) Victorian forebears,” he writes in his poem November 23  from his new book of poetry, ‘Expect Delays’. “can tip my cap, and you can’t, not self-consciously anyway!”)

I had the fortunate experience of studying under him as an undergraduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute during his lengthy tenure there. Arriving at SFAI from a small town in the mountains of Northern California, I was immensely impressed by the breath of his knowledge, his spot-on, no-nonsense comments during critiques, and foremost, his generosity and sincere interest in his students’ work.

I sat down with him while he was in New York this fall to read at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church from ‘Expect Delays,’ which has just been released by Coffee House Press.

Bill Berkson

CS:  There is a scene in “The Punk Singer,” a recent documentary about Kathleen Hanna, where she recounts meeting an idol of hers, Kathy Acker (who once taught at SFAI), and asking her for advice.  She told her she was writing and doing spoken word performance. Kathy asked what compelled her, and she replied that she wanted people to hear what she had to say. Kathy told her that no one goes to hear spoken word, but people go to hear bands, so she should join one.  I remember you once saying that you had stopped teaching poetry at SFAI because the students were only interested in saying things in their poems, not in language or form, so you had nothing to teach them.  Am I remembering this correctly?

BB:  Yes, it was pretty much that way. It was not that students wanted to say something, as it was that they were interested only in expressing themselves without any interest at all in reading other people’s poetry or trying out forms and writing ideas and then seeing some result that might satisfy both their need for self-expression and poetry’s requirement to exist in its own terms, as an event in words.

CS:  But then there was a group of us that happened to be at SFAI at the same time that were interested in language and the form of poetry that you were hugely influential to as teacher and mentor. I remember a class poetry reading in the school library where Devendra Banhart sang and played guitar, and I was impressed, but not blown away. And then a couple of years later he was famous!  Did you encourage him, as I’ve heard, to drop out to pursue his music?

BB:  No. Devendra, bless his pointed head, has told many stories about how important that class was for him, and how I convinced him he could be himself. As you know, he didn’t participate in the class very much and, as you say, when he did it was mostly to perform the songs he had written. The songs were good. He’s a very good musician. He’s also a very fine visual artist. I guess I helped by not coming down on him for not doing assignments and showing up on time.

CS: For someone with little or no musical abilities, what kind of advice would you give to a young person today who wants to be a poet?

BB:  Don’t take poetry classes unless they inspire you. But trust to good models, as Ben Jonson would say. Cultivate your love of words. Also, you have to figure out your own economy. Investment consultant, roofer, fireman, nurse, bartender, writing software manuals––those are some of the options today’s smart poets have gone for. I advise against trying art criticism on for size at this point.

CS: Is there still support or even an audience for poetry?

BB:  Well, obviously, that’s the $24,000 question in your local billionaire’s side pocket. Poets read poetry, professors who aren’t poets, and some who are, write about it in ways that make the poems seem teachable as object of either rational or therapeutic discourse. Be that as it may, there is still the lone wanderer who will stumble into Spoonbill or Green Apple or their hometown bookstore and pick up some scruffy, flat-stapled book or magazine to her heart’s delight.

CS:  You grew up in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and your parents were prominent in the publishing and fashion worlds. Did they help cultivate your love of art and writing?

BB:  They helped mainly by not hindering, and sort of unconsciously providing an atmosphere in which my becoming a poet, or anyway a writer, which is what I thought of fairly early on, could seem plausible.

CS:  Did they influence or support your decision to pursue writing seriously?

BB:  One day a high school report card arrived showing a very low grade, a D maybe, in chemistry, and when my father asked about it, I said something to the effect that I didn’t that knowing chemistry was going to be of much use to me as a writer. My father said this wonderful thing: “If you’re going to be a writer, you need to know everything.” Of course it took me another twenty years to know how spot-on that was.

Expect Delays

CS:  What did they think when you moved to California in the 70’s to live in the little hippie Northern California town of Bolinas?  It seems about as far away geographically and culturally as one can get from the Upper East Side without leaving the country.

BB:  When I called my mother to tell her that I had decided to go to California, I went on and on about the feelings I had that led to this decision. My mother, being a very practical woman, said, “I don’t care how you feel, I think it would be good for your work.” She was right, I suppose. But when I got there, Bolinas wasn’t as you describe it; it was a sleepy little coastal village with a few writers who had come there because the rents were cheap and the surroundings very pretty. The influx of more writers––poets, mostly, from New York, like myself––and also all sorts of trippy individuals, brainy environmentalists, musicians, all that happened a year or two after I got there. Eventually, I saw that my mother was dismayed because I had chosen to live in this basically dinky small town of the kind that she had fled when she was twenty, to go to New York.

CS:  There is a description about the work of Bay Area Figurative painter Elmer Bischoff, that I particularly love, from your essay “The Searcher” collected in “The Sweet Singer of Modernism,” where you wrote, “Bishchoff could make white soft and gritty like air landing on an inner-city windowsill or else piercing, with a quartzlike brilliance. I can’t imagine anyone but a poet writing that line.  Do you think there is something innate in poets that makes them good writers about art?

BB:  Poets like to describe things, and if they can manage to write decent prose as well as poetry, and also maintain their interest in art amidst all the shenanigans of the art world and the art press, then they can be good art writers.

CS:  In that same collection, describing why anyone would want to write art criticism, you wrote “[our] job is to respond to what is visually and conceptually there, to continue the conversation that making and looking at art both propose.  To the extent that art says anything, the critic devises what can be said next.” Can you name a few contemporary artists whose art you thinks “says something” that can be responded to, or do you think all of it says something if one looks hard enough?

BB:  Well, it’s not a matter of having something to say so much as that anything anyone does is a kind of statement, which will then argue for something further along the lines of this imaginary conversation that history consists of. On the other hand, some artists speak to you and others don’t. The ones that don’t might be described as “dumb,” or simply what they do is not for you, or for me.

CS:  You’ve written and spoken about in prior interviews about art being “a social behavior and less a specialized mode.”  What do you mean by that?

BB:  That’s the point. Art occurs in the realm of human behavior. It’s something people do, if they do it. It’s social, or sociable, if it’s meant for people other than the artist or writer to look at or read. To that extent, it’s a social gesture like any another, and not exempt from the sorts of reactions that other forms of behavior are open to.

CS:  Doesn’t it seem that a lot of painting today doesn’t even reflect the artist’s character?  Rather it’s just carefully contrived to appeal to art buyers, based on what is the currently popular style? It seems some artists have decided trying to create something that looks new or responds to anything current is passé. Or am I being too cynical?

BB:  Purposes vary, no? I’m sure that a lot of the people who went to the Art Institute with propose to continue as artists as best they could in terms of making a living or being famous; what they had was curiosity about what would happen if they made this or that image or devised a certain kind of performance. Another sort of artist is the one who makes the market and/or fame the subject matter of the art. For better or worse, everybody’s purposes are pretty obvious these days. The masks are off.

CS:  In 2004 was it, you received a lung transplant?  How are you feeling now, ten years later?

BB:  I’ve been extremely lucky. Lung transplant patients normally have a fifty-fifty chance of living five years, what with the likelihood of rejection, infections due to immune suppression, and so on. I’ve had some difficulties with superficial skin cancers, but nothing so far that has incapacitated me. “So far, so great” became my motto after two or three years out. I’ve written quite a number of books in the past ten years and am still working, traveling, living. Connie and I went to Iceland this summer and continued on to London, Paris, Brittany and the castles of the Loire.


CS:  Do you think that experience changed your writing or its impetus in any way?  

BB:  Hard to say. Getting this so-called “second wind” certainly increased my appreciation of “each day’s light,” as a Frank O’Hara poem has it. The year after transplant I took a sabbatical from the Art Institute. I had been doing such art writing I had lost track of poetry: where was it? was it there at all? did I or anyone care if I wrote another poem? The sabbatical gave me the opportunity to discover that for me writing poetry was the most interesting thing, and I’ve kept at it.