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Interview with Jake Berry responding to criticism of his essay Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)  

 

(Responses to Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion) by poets and academics can be found here)

 

 

Jake Berry is a poet, musician and visual artist. The author of Brambu Drezi, Species of Abandoned Light, Drafts of the Sorcery, and numerous other books. He has been an active member of the global arts and literary community for more than 25 years. His poems, fiction, essays, reviews and other writings have been published widely in both print and electronic mediums. In 2010, Lavender Ink released a collaborative book, Cyclones In High Northern Latitudes, with poet Jeffrey Side and drawings by Rich Curtis; and Outside Voices: An Email  Correspondence (with Jeffrey Side) was released by Otoliths also in that year.


Berry's solo musical albums include, Liminal Blue, Strange Parlors, Naked as Rain and the Animal Beneath, Shadow Resolve and many others. With Bare Knuckles he has recorded four albums, Trouble In Your House, Alabama Dust, Doppelganger Blues and Root Bound. With the ambient experimental group Ascension Brothers he has recorded numerous albums including All Souls Banquet, The Wedding Ball and Pillar of Fire (which served as soundtrack for a series of plays by Ray Bradbury) and most recently Transfigurations Blues.

Ongoing projects include book four of Brambu Drezi (which will include a video for each section - the opening sections are available now at YouTube and Vimeo.com), a collection of short poems, an online and print biography of the poet and critic Jack Foley, an album of experimental ambient music with Chris Mansel under the name Impermanence, an album of acoustic songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry and Van Eaton under the name The Cahoots, and an album of alternative rock songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry, Ben Tanner, Max and Kirk Russell.

 

 

Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.

 

He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.

 

His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Slimvol, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here. Carrier of the Seed has had some excellent reviews, a sample of which can be found here.

 

 

 

 

JS: One of the recurring criticisms of your essay from those who responded to it for this feature was that you didn’t cite specific poets as examples of what you were referring to as Otherstream poets. What was your reasoning behind this?

   

JB: By citing specific poets I would have made them targets for criticism. I had several in mind and even wrote a bit on each of them, but I decided against it. Making specific cases out of them would have been unfair. The Otherstream is not a particular movement with a declared set of objectives. There is no manifesto, not even a general consensus as to who they are except that they create work that does not find its way into mainstream journals, anthologies and so on. Listing a half dozen, even two dozen, particular poets would not be representative.

 

JS: How important are institutions (such as those in academia and publishing) in the “filtering out” process that takes place to decide what is significant and insignificant in poetic taste?

 

JB: They are very important, at least in the short term. When poetry appears on the bookshelves in bookstores an impression is made. When one scans through the poetry sections of the heavily trafficked online booksellers and sees the names of particular poets again and again an impression is made. When poetry is published by a major university press or even a well-known small press an impression is made. The impression being that these are the poets that editors and editorial boards have decided are the poets that should be published rather than any of those that are not published. In the long term this may be advantageous to the poets because those books will sell a few copies at least and they will be archived in libraries. On the other hand if you look at a list of any of the big award winners over the last 100 years most of them will not be familiar. And some poets go in and out of favor. Ultimately, we can't know what poetry will be considered important 100 years or more from now. Gatekeepers serve the present not the future.

 

JS: In relation to what has been termed “Otherstream poetry”, do you think such poetry is beyond the sort of definite parameters that the academy tends to use in its classifications of poetry deemed significant?

 

JB: Any academy is an institution. In order to establish and maintain an institution there must be definite ideas about what it is and what its objectives are and how these ideas are to be implemented. It is impossible to include everything. It is impossible to be even broadly inclusive due to the limitations inherent in an institution—especially if we are talking about an institution for instruction. The heads of each academy decide what each school must teach. Then the deans, department chairs and teachers decide the content of the syllabi. By the time the students arrive for class on the first day they are by necessity walking into a limited arena. Most of the poetry that falls outside the mainstream will never even be considered.

 

A particular professor might try a different approach and rather than compose a syllabus with definite contents might require that the students go out after the first meeting and seek out what they believe to be important poetry. The poetry they bring into the second meeting may or may not be what the teacher decides to include, but this would be a more open approach—a way of finding out what the students know and what they want to learn. But most teachers will not be given this opportunity.

 

JS: Some of your critics have accused you of oversimplifying the current situation regarding the polarities between the Iowa and Language poetry schools. Do you see this as justified?

 

JB: Yes. I was oversimplifying to make a point and promote discussion. I'll quote a bit of Henry Weinfield's response here:

 

Berry will probably be criticized for oversimplifying the current situation—that is, for locating the poetry of the academic mainstream in terms of only two, diametrically opposed positions, those of the Iowa and Language Schools. I myself have no quarrel with this representation because it seems to me that contemporary poetry, cut off from its roots in the tradition, continues to oscillate between polarities of this kind, even if the Iowa and Language Schools have given way to other tendencies.

 

Many who have been affiliated with Language poetry feel that it is still underrepresented. They feel as if what Ron Silliman (after Poe) is calling the "School of Quietude", and Hank Lazer called "plainverse", meaning poetry of plain direct speech, still dominate the syllabi. This is true, probably for the reason that Bill Friend mentions in his response to my essay; it's difficult to teach Language writing.

 

Yet he also helps me make my case by pointing out that Language writers have been included in recent faculty of the Iowa Writers workshop. Even though he may have trouble finding undergraduate syllabi that include Language writers, they have been taught on the postgraduate level for many years. And in the larger domain of literature in general, if you ask what was the most recent major avant-garde movement, Language writing would still be the majority response if only because no other movement has emerged to dominate under a single name. And I hope no other movement does emerge. The idea of literary movements and schools, etc. is part of a progressive framing even when the poetry and the movements themselves may oppose this kind of framing, or any frame at all.

 

JS: In his response to your essay, Henry Weinfield says:

 

The question that needs to be asked, however, is what Berry’s phrase “real advance” means in regard to the history of poetry. Wouldn’t a real advance be simply a “good” or “beautiful” or “memorable” poem, one that deserved to be read not only by one’s own time but by succeeding generations?’ He’s referring to this sentence in your essay: ‘If time has been compressed to points of collapse, if there is no real advance, no before or after, no origin or terminus, no space or absence, all that remains is something like an activity that compels us outward.

 

Can you elaborate on this?

 

JB: Yes, and the first way I'd like to do that is to agree with Weinfield, especially when he refers to a "memorable" poem. "Good" and "beautiful" are much more subjective, but we often find poems memorable without even trying to remember them. Some part of a poem, or the whole of it, will stay with us. We find it rising into consciousness for reasons unknown or in response to various situations. I'm not sure if this would be an advance since poems of all kinds have always done this, but it is much more important than whether or not a poem conforms to one theory or another.

 

One of the problems with poetry (and the arts in general) is that we have had so much conceptualizing, so much chatter and ideas about poetry that it gets in the way of simply reading or hearing a poem. How much do you really need to know about the latest theory in order to enjoy a poem? Does it matter if the poet belongs to one group or another or none?

 

The underlying problem is the dominance of the idea of progression. I have had younger poets, and a few older poets as well, ask where I thought the next movement, the next breakthrough, would come from, and what it might be. This is a way of thinking that is a matter of habit and it is as deadening as strict adherence to a tradition. In fact, with modernism and all the post-whatevers, the idea of advance, avant-garde, has become a tradition. We need not be so concerned with our place in the history of poetry as with writing poetry as an event, out of inspiration, beauty, pain or joy, conflict, disorder, serenity and so on. The poem is not concerned with preconceived notions, but with any activity that compels us outward. Isn't that what a poem is, a singing out, even if the singing is done with a pen or on a computer?

 

JS: In her response to your essay, Marjorie Perloff’s says:

 

Jake Berry’s contention that the university presses today publish only “Iowa” poetry or Language poetry, allowing no room for the newer experimental poetries, makes some curious assumptions. To begin with, Berry seems to equate Iowa with what Ron Silliman has dubbed “The School of Quietude”. But this category has become so large and diverse as to be meaningless.

 

She then says, as way of an example:

 

Cole Swensen has two recent Iowa books and teaches at Iowa—but who would call Cole an “Iowa poet”? Then again she isn’t a language poet either but she’s certainly “experimental”—perhaps closer to conceptual writing than to language poetry.

 

How do you respond to this?

 

JB: Perloff is one of our most highly esteemed scholars of poetry and for good reason. She knows her subject matter and is never short of original ideas. For that reason, I would be foolish not to defer to her regarding particulars. When she says ‘this category has become so large and diverse as to be meaningless’ referring to Iowa poetry or "The School of Quietude" I think she arrives at one of the fundamental issues of the moment. What I mean is, our terminology is always provisional. Terms like “experimental”, “postmodern”, etc. have been used in so many contexts to such diverse purposes that none of them have any intrinsic meaning. By using the terms “Iowa” and “Language” I was casting broad nets in two directions as a means of addressing the problem of the institutionalization of poetry. I think that poetry belongs in the academy and in books published by large publishers, but that is not where it originates or lives.

 

Yet, if one wants to study poetry (or almost anything else) one is encouraged to attend the academy. If one wants to publish poetry, self-publication and small press are all well and good, but the larger the press the better because of greater distribution and promotion and, therefore, the possible benefits in the future, including grants and awards. Obviously, these are not the only routes a poet can take, but it is far more likely that he or she will be able to teach poetry if one has the academic credentials, and those credentials are beneficial when it comes to being published as well. Beyond that, it helps if one knows people inside the institutions. Making a living in poetry as a teacher or an author is not so different in this respect from making a living in business—a certain set of credentials are required as well as good connections.

 

Is Cole Swensen "experimental"? From some points of view yes, but there are many poets who think of themselves as experimental who would not think so. There are elements of her poetry that are anecdotal, after the manner of some of what is taught in poetry workshops. On the other hand, there are places where she juxtaposes words and phrases in a way that is distinctively her own yet not too dissimilar from some Language writing. It really doesn't matter how the poetry is labeled or analyzed. The real question is a very old one: do we enjoy it? In this case my personal answer would be yes. But how much poetry is out there that we also enjoy, but will be excluded? I don't think anyone can know, or that any attempt to be comprehensive can be successful.

 

This is the problem with institutions. They are granted more authority than they merit. They are very like museums—places were beautiful work can be seen, but also entombed. In some sense, when we study poetry in a formal way, or accept the plausibility of major presses and big awards, we are worshipping the dead. This is because once something becomes the formal object of study or high regard it is frozen in place for everyone to observe, as if the work stopped at that point. In reality poetry engages us through the eyes and ears and other senses, and it makes an impression or it does not. If the impression is deep enough, the poetry remains with us, becomes a part of us and continues to live and change. This has nothing to do with academic credentials, publishing or awards. It is entirely subjective. So I return, poetry taught in the academy and distributed broadly by major presses is fine, but this is not the means by which poetry lives. My concern is that many people do not seem to know this.

 

JS: John Bradley, in his response, asks a series of questions concerning the definition of Otherstream. Rather than for me to attempt to inadequately paraphrase these, I’ll quote him. He writes:

 

Aren’t we defining “otherstream” poetry—which Berry seems to suggest includes Blake, Dickinson, and Rimbaud—with the “otherness” of the poets themselves? Perhaps it’s impossible to separate the life of the poet from the poem? Or are there some specific qualities of poetry that determine works in this “otherstream” category? I’m curious what list of literary elements can incorporate the work of Blake, Dickinson, and Rimbaud, as well as “otherstream” poets whose poetry we have yet to see.

 

JB: There are no specific qualities that would determine Otherstream. Yet, poets such as Blake, Dickinson, and Rimbaud would be Otherstream, at least in the context of their times. I was thinking about their poetry, not their lives, though I wouldn't draw any line there. Blake was known and respected as a printer and an illustrator—the means by which he made his living—while his poetry and visual art (again, no clear line between them) were ignored for the most part. Very few people even knew that Dickinson wrote poetry, and those that did tried to edit a few poems to conform to the mainstream of the time. And although she was reclusive, her life was not that uncommon for women at that place and time. Rimbaud was known briefly, more for the disturbance he created than his poetry, which only began to become accepted once he died, after a career as a trader in Africa. It is their poetry that was otherwise, Otherstream: outside the mainstream. And there is little in today's mainstream that takes the same kind of risks that these poets took in their work. They are just three that came to mind. We could all make a long list of such cases.

 

The only way to define Otherstream is by Bob Grumman's extended definition. It is poetry, or any art, that doesn't fit into the established institutions. Occasionally, there is a class or a symposium or whatever on "outsider art”. But this has come to mean art of the uneducated, various forms of folk art, and so on. It is not unlike "world music" which is a western culturally biased way of saying "music from somewhere else”. Otherstream is simply: otherwise, outside. The beauty of it is that most of it is unconcerned with institutions. Again, I might compare it to the current situation with music. Musicians, songwriters and recording artists are doing quite well without the support of record companies. This may be the primary direction for art in this century and beyond. The contemporary equivalents to Blake, Dickinson and Rimbaud might be just as obscure relative to mainstream culture, yet their work is available to all those who want it. One might call it a noisy obscurity.

 

JS: The majority of avant-garde poetry seems to have abandoned, in favour of formal dexterity and novelty, an emotional element. Part of the reason for this might be due to the influence of a poststructuralist aesthetic that seems to have penetrated much avant-garde poetry; an influence which regards any sort of emotion as unsuitable for poetic purposes. What is your view on this?

 

JB: It is interesting that the avant-garde that used to be associated with passion, sometimes to the detriment of intellect, has now turned the other way around. One might find passion there, but even that seems to be calculated. Some of the poetry categorized as avant-garde has fallen under the spell of specialization. One must read a certain group of theorists and be able to provide a theoretical basis for one's poetry even before writing a line of "serious" poetry. That may not be the intention, but that is the way it manifests—very intellectual and infused with just enough irony to remind the audience that one is self-critical. Maybe this has more to do with the politics of career or ambition for status than it does the actual poetry. Then again, so much poetry, regardless of the label, is terribly dry. Perhaps this is due to the notion that passion and sentiment are careless and unsophisticated. Nonetheless, poetry without passion is lacking an essential element. It might be intellectually stimulating, but poetry should involve the entire range of our capacities..

 

 

 

 

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