Berry and Chris Mansel in Conversation
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.
Mansel is a writer, filmmaker, epileptic, musician,
photographer and a permanent outsider for some reason. He is the author of While
in Exile: The Savage Tale of Walter Seems, Soddoma: The Cantos of
Ulysses, Ashes of Thoreau, Interviews and two books of
photography entitled, No Burden and Ahisma. Along with Jake Berry,
he formed the band Impermanence who have released one album, Arito. He
releases music under the name Dilation Impromptu who have released four albums
and have just released a new CD, The Strange White Odor of Octaves Becoming
Animals. His writing has been published on the web in many sources.
If the Buddha were standing out in the rain would you invite him in, or go
outside and stand with him?
JB: I'd invite him in to help me tear the roof off my house.
CM: If your creativity is the medicine you are prescribed, then is the diagnosis
running parallel or controlling the ship on troubled seas?
JB: You know how to load a question. I think of how they found Nietzsche
mumbling to himself over his papers. He never said much after that though he
lived many years in silence. Or Holderlin pacing in circles all night, jotting
down notes, some of them brilliant fragments, and playing violin, or was it
flute, that according to some who heard it was quite beautiful. Yet it is
obvious from people who spent long periods in his company that he was suffering
greatly, quite mad, relative to the times anyway. He lived another 40 years
I know that working more or less every day at one creative pursuit or another
keeps me from going to Wal-Mart, buying a shotgun and shells and having a go at
the place with both barrels until the cops and media arrive and spoil my fun.
Some of us are afflicted with this thing. The nerves are calmed for a moment
after you write or speak/sing a poem, write a song, play a musical instrument,
paint, draw. It has been this way since I was a child. Artaud said no one ever
did any of these things except to get out of hell. He would know. He spent
enough time there.
At the same time it can be extremely hard work—grueling, obsessive day after
day. Insomnia from dwelling on a piece so intensely it won't leave you rest.
Knowing that even your most inspired effort is probably doomed to failure, even
by, perhaps especially by, your own standards. I know you suffer from migraines,
seizures and so forth that seem connected to your work, But then once you really
commit to this thing everything is connected to it. What I try to do, with
actually a small degree of success, is keep my ego out of it. Out of my feelings
about the work, out of how others react to it, and out of dominating the work as
the central voice.
Most creation tales begin in chaos, the void, or some similar unknown. So it is.
We stumble around in the dark. Those who practice any of the arts and believes
they know what they are doing are utter fools. If I have learned anything, it's
how to recognize a fool. I have a great deal of experience in the art of
foolishness, where practice does not make perfect, but only makes one more
CM: If destructiveness is in the chemical makeup, does it come from the same
component as creativity, or do they operate individually off of one another
further down the line?
JB: I don't see how they cannot be interwoven. Creation and destruction seem to
be part of the same process of change. Since nothing is permanent we can see the
change as either the destruction of what has disappeared or the creation of
something new. When we bring intent into consideration we can discuss whether
creation is the result of intention to make something new or destroy something
previously present. Further than this we can discuss particular instances of
creation and destruction.
Let me answer then with a question to you. Are your films a destruction of the
images from which they originally drive or are pure creations in which the
original image is merely the ore, the raw substance to be shaped in a particular
way? To what extent is the end result predetermined or left to chance?
CM: The images are deconstructed in such a way as to bring out the image beneath
the surface. What you refer to as pure creations is left to modifying or using
the software in such a way as to bring about a new surface of the canvas, a
painting over if you will. Everything was left to chance until I saw the image
and I would then go back and correct it or take the muddy approach and let the
muck fly where it lay. When I started working with your Brambu recording I began
a whole new process of working towards the text and an evolution began that as
you often say, ‘Developed delightfully stranger and newer life forms.’ In
other words I did things that I didn’t know I could do until I did them. My
latest film The Dead Illume is a perfect example of this.
blog Notes, Quotes, Ideas, Speculations hasn’t been posted on in three years
and this is a fascinating piece of work. I wonder if you have any plans to
expand it into a book length project in the future.
JB: There was a train of thought I was working with there and I still want to
develop it, but I have been distracted by other projects. I intended the site as
a place to post more or less random philosophical bits and pieces. So perhaps I
will return to it that way then pursue the longer piece by weaving it in and out
of the rest.
You say above, ‘I did things I didn't know I could do until I did them.’
That seems to be the most appropriate way to work. In my experience if I
understand where a piece of whatever kind is going before I start it doesn't
remain interesting for very long. The whole point of this kind of practice is
discovery. The thing that surprised me the most was the quality of the work you
were doing with a computer camera and free software. There are directors working
with budgets of millions of dollars who devour hours of our time and do not give
us anything. You on the other hand open entire worlds of imagination with no
budget and asking only two-five minutes of our time. Do you intend to continue
working with this approach or would you like to eventually use professional
cameras and software?
CM: Of course I would like to use more sophisticated equipment and turn it on
its side in the same manner. But I don’t foresee it happening. One reason is
funding. I just don’t see any way I would have access to the kind of equipment
you are talking about. Another reason I don’t think it will happen is because
it would be the natural progression of things and that just hasn’t been the
way my life has worked out.
In Arthur Janov's book, Primal Scream, he
writes, ‘E. H. Hess, investigating pupillary contraction and dilation in
response to certain stimuli, found that the pupil dilates when the stimulus is
pleasant and contracts when it is unpleasant.’ If this is true would not a
nation be so seized in its view to generally accept any thing that was thrown at
JB: I suppose that's true if what was thrown at them was pleasant. At least that
portion that was paying attention. I think the manipulation of a populace has to
go further than the autonomic response. It has to strike at that level, but it
also must engage the intellect in some way. And of course pleasure is only one
response that can be manipulated. We have seen how populations respond to fear,
and how fear can be used to coerce populations into believing things into
believing things that would otherwise seem unreasonable. It's part of the way
those in power convince the majority to conform.
real power always lies with the majority. If the great majority of a population
truly does not wish to do something, then it does not have to, but this requires
a kind of solidarity we rarely see in large populations. Usually the struggle
for resources and other divisions like ethnicity, religion, race, and so forth
prevent solidarity, and that is exactly the way the most powerful individuals in
any society would like to keep it. Only a few can be rich, otherwise having
wealth would be pointless. In a capitalist society, wealth is power and those in
power do not wish to lose it. So the manipulation begins. Where does art fall in all of this? We know that it can be used as a tool
for manipulation, but we also see that people with no power at all the world
over make art. If the populace in general becomes more concerned with aesthetics
than with consumption, the facsimile of wealth, will that populace become less
subject to manipulation? What I mean is concerned with making art, not just
passively observing or consuming art products.
CM: Art becomes the transparency that can be lifted up and placed any where at
will. Commercial art has taken upon itself to balance out the scales of madness
to borrow a song title from you. Having no power you can still make commercial
art, anything feeds the eye, it’s the pineal blues these days. The false
Buddha is everywhere. It is more important now to be the bug than the botanist,
to be the moth than the flame; to be seen is the new orgasm, the new sexual
technique. Cesare Lombroso wrote in 1899, ‘The atavism of the criminal when he
lacks absolutely every trace of shame and pity, may go back beyond the savage
even to the brutes themselves.’
I would like to ask you about a song entitled, "So Many Birds". This is a
very dramatic recording. Could you talk about the song and the writing and why
you placed it as the last track on your album Liminal Blue?
JB: “So Many Birds” was I think the last song I wrote for the set. I think I
wrote 15 songs during the period, 11 ended up on the album. I was about to
change the tuning on the guitar when I hit a chord that felt like a door
opening—one of those moments when you hear a whole song unfolding out of a
single chord. The tuning is one I use often because it has so many
possibilities. I never seem to fall into a rut with it. The low E string is
tuned down to B and it goes on from there to F sharp, B, E, A, E. I found it a
few years ago fooling around, looking for new tunings, then discovered later
that Joni Mitchell had used it on several albums, including Turbulent Indigo,
one of my favorites.
That's probably why it made sense to me. It's easy to get 13th and 11th chords
in this tuning, so the harmonics are fairly broad. The first part of the song
works out of an F sharp minor 13, so the melody is a minor modality, a darker,
more dramatic feel. The second section of the song moves to A major, and F sharp
minor is the relative minor to A, so you get what Leonard Cohen calls, in
"Hallelujah", the ‘major lift.’ But it eventually resolves back to
the minor. This was a case where the words flowed out of the music. They came to
me as I was working out the chords and melody.
It happened fairly quickly. When I went to record it, all the parts seem to come
quickly as well. There is one idea that I got from listening to the first
Portishead album. I noticed in one of the songs the way they used vibrato on a
guitar strumming the chord at the beginning of each measure. I liked the
atmosphere that created, so I tried it with "So Many Birds" and it was
very effective. The song doesn't sound anything like Portishead, but that's
another reason to listen to all kinds of music, you get ideas you can bring into
your own work to create something new. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were
influenced by Ravel and Debussy, and Ravel was influenced by early blues. The
reason it's the last song on the album is because it feels like a good way to
finish it. It often happens that the album sequence is very close to the order
in which the songs were written. There's also the last line—‘ride on, until
you disappear, even from yourself.’ After that it felt like the story had been
As your film/video style develops I see how you move from very recognizable
images of nature to pure abstraction, which is just as organic since it is
derived from the original images. This movement takes me in two directions. It
seems to make the film more spiritual, intuitive, more open to the imagination.
It also makes me think of the films of Stan Brakhage. This is not because it
looks like Brakhage but because you seem to allow the work to take its own
course and move into those open areas. How does this work from the inside as you
are working on the piece? Are you trying various techniques or experiments then
going with what seems to work best or is it even more organic than that, does it
seem to guide itself completely?
CM: The difference in Brakhage and me is his images would rush by you and
constantly you found yourself inside a community reflecting off one another. In
my defense I am alone without the benefit of community and working in a limited
medium and without editable film. The software I use is limited to its creation.
Film is strength in a society of weakened eyes searching for anything. Brakhage
was a genius but then again so was Greg Toland and he never directed one picture
but you can’t mention Citizen Kane without discussing his work.
As I am working on each piece the image, the initial image suggests everything
and until I add any abstraction, for lack of a better term, it says nothing at
all unless you count the surface or what light has down to it in the original
photograph. Nietzsche’s last words were, ‘More light.’ He also suggested
we listen to music with our muscles. If that is true then perhaps we look at
film with our brain, each individual eye developing or editing the image
separate from one another. Burroughs was right; life is a cut-up. The process is
organic. Short of literally showing you how I make a film I can explain that
separate filters in the software capture and distort light in different ways. It
is back dated software to the year 2000 so there are more advanced processes out
there on the market but I have been successful with what I have at hand. It is
organic and it is a process of selecting the recipe per each individual image.
There is no way to fully explore the depths of it because there are innumerable
ways to take photographs and countless recipes.
Aaron Copland wrote, ‘When I speak of the gifted listener I am thinking of
the non-musician primarily, of the listener who intends to retain his amateur
status. It is the thought of just such a listener that excites the composer in
me.’ Do you happen to agree with Copland or do you compose for whoever
JB: My definition of a listener might be different from Copland. I probably
don't draw as clear a distinction between amateur and professional. We live in
very different times. In Copland's day professional musicians played classical
music, with club or cabaret musicians considered a distant cousin, even though
Copland based much of his music on very unprofessional American folk music. I do
think that a trained musician or a musician who makes a living by performing and
recording music will hear very differently from the music fan who does not play,
or the casual listener who enjoys whatever is on the radio. However, I wouldn't
say I have a particular type of listener in mind.
Writing a song is more intuitive than intellectual. I am following the feel of
the music, contributing to it, toward something that seems real, something that
connects with my experience of the world, and something that remains interesting
as I develop the progression and melodies and so forth. I hope that if a song is
true to my experience, has an authentic feel, and remains interesting over the
process of writing and recording, it will also connect with other people, though
on their own terms. Most of the time when someone responds to me about one song
or another they discover things I never imagined. That's an affirmation as far
as I'm concerned because it means that person found something of their own in
the song. As a fan, my favorite music always has that quality, so that's a
measure of success for me.
Wayne Sides pointed out the obvious to me one day when he said photography
is light writing, writing with light. The great photographers, from Steiglietz
to Weston to Minor White or Robert Frank all seem to have that in common. Just
as drawing is a moving point, so photography is moving light. This is even more
so with moving images with people like Toland or Sven Nykvist. You are a poet,
novelist, songwriter, painter and sculptor/assemblage artist as well as a film
maker. Do you see all these things as part of a whole, points along a continuum
or do the demands of each discipline make them completely distinct from one
another? If they are part of a whole how does each of the mediums in which you
work inform your film and video work?
CM: It's a continuum of course but then again it's not. To make a mistake in a
film is like making a mistake in any of the other fields you named. You simply
have to start over or have to rethink the process. I can't reed it because the
software is unable to do so. If I had to pick a discipline I would pick
assemblage to mirror film making. I walk along the shore or though the woods or
anywhere really and stop and look at a piece and wonder if I could make it work
with something else. That takes a lot of thought. But as the Marquis De Sade
wrote, ‘Any enjoyment is weakened when shared.’ But the Marquis was insane.
Your writing has always been visual, now that I have given video to the audio
recordings of your text, where do you go now with your written word? Is there a
way to transcend the traditional form of delivering to the reader or listener?
JB: Doing Brambu Drezi Book
4 with a moving image component has been my intention for a two years or so and
the opening section of Brambu Book 4 was finished and posted at You Tube
and the IFC Media Lab last fall. Since then I've done the video and some of the
audio for the second section of Book 4, but I'm still working on the words and
the visuals on the page. There is a tendency to want to put the words in the
video, and I will do some of that (you've done that beautifully with some of
your own poetry in video by the way), but the ideal situation is to have the
book in hand at the same time the DVD will be playing. The book itself is both a
score for performance and visual art. The video as you have added to excerpts
from Books 1-3, and as I will continue with Book 4 is just another element.
don't think there is any need to transcend the traditional forms of poetry, just
add to them. There are many films that I think are poetry based purely on the
visual alone. We spoke about Brakhage before, and I think your work does this.
Also, a little closer to the feature film, directors like Godard, Antonioni,
Terrence Malick, et. al. create a kind of visual poetry. Godard also drops words
into his films sometimes, right in the middle of scenes, at first inexplicably,
but gradually you recognize it as a kind of cut-up poetry. Most of your
film/video work so far has drawn from landscape, do you envision a time where
you'll want to work with the human form?
CM: Yes I have thought of this but I would have to have a model who wouldn't
mind the painful prostrations I would put her through. The shots I have in mind
would also be in nature and in a studio setting. They would be called, Essays
in the Passing Sciences. It would be a film about an hour long. I have
already conceived some of it in my mind but I don't know if it will take place
JB: I do what I can to support the work of others, but I never feel like I have
done nearly enough. It would be nice to have the resources to start a publishing
and recording company so that I could promote and distribute the work of all the
artists of whatever kind who are now often ignored. I don't think it's a
continuation of my art necessarily, but one wants to give something back, and
give something to the world beyond your self. When you love the arts and you see
great work not getting the recognition it deserves you want to do something
about it. At the same time, whenever I get a few extra dollars I spend it
getting my own work out there or buying instruments or equipment that will help
me create and promote my own art as well as others. So I feel selfish as well. Essays
in Passing Sciences sounds like a wonderful project. You might be surprised.
There might be people willing to do the work because they are interested in
being a part of a project beyond the ordinary film. Could you go into a little
more detail about what you have in mind?
CM: Specifically in nature, there would be those parts of the body I find
interesting that would either coalesce with the environment or protrude. In a
studio it would be more close-up. There are many things I find interesting about
the human body. The idea is to photograph in both setting the form in a new and
interesting way. Say for instance the arm from the shoulder to the elbow against
a broken limb both hanging from a tree and a broken limb on the ground. In a
studio setting the arm would take on a different meaning when it was up against
a light bulb that was turned off to signify the idea is there but it is nothing
new. Another idea is have the body submerged in leaves with only the hair
emerging. These are essays and who is to say if is it science or not? One thing
your writing is known for, particularly your Brambu writings is the art.
A book of your art, drawings, sculpture would be a monumental task but well
worth the under taking. Do you think such a book would free you to create more
art and distance you from what you have already created?
JB: I'm not sure what the result would be. But if there is a publisher willing
to give me the opportunity I'd leap at it. In the past when I've been confronted
with similar situations I tended to add it to the things I did rather than
subtract it from the activities in which I was already engaged. So I would
probably assemble a collection of work that had not been associated with any
previous project and spend a period of time obsessed with creating new work.
Your written work, whether prose fiction, non-fiction political writing, or
poetry is so diverse that it is almost impossible to imagine it as the product
of a single mind. Do you have as many selves, as many souls, as you have
approaches to work? Are we by nature singular or plural or both?
CM: I have often wondered this myself. When I write, from start to finish,
unless it is a long piece I usually finish it in just a few minutes. A poem will
sometimes take two minutes or more. The words come out so quick I am lucky to
get it down in a cohesive piece. Since I have seizures I can hardly write
legible any more creatively. So like most these days I write at the computer. As
far as approaches to work I have a select library I pull from. I won’t try and
list them but Dante plays a major role. Non-fiction mostly, personal experience
is where I glean. Pete Townshend quoted Elvis Costello once and said, ‘Each
writer must be a thief and a magpie.’ I adhere to that philosophy a great
We are by nature singular though most might disagree. I have said many times
your creativity is the medicine you are prescribed. You are prescribed not
anyone else. You are the one writing even if someone else is editing. You are
the one faced with the blank screen or piece of paper, you and you alone. I
can’t think of a better place to be, though I have felt different many times.
This evening alone I had a seizure and spent five hours in the emergency room.
It was my seizure and it was my pain. I had my wife and daughter with me but it
was my instance that brought me there. We are a singular being adrift in a tidal
pool. Back and forth we go through life but you can never get away from the fact
that we are alone.
Do you foresee a day when the writing of Charles Olson will
be taught alongside Mark Twain and Washington Irving in our education system?
JB: The thought of Charles Olson being taught in our education system troubles
my sleep. I can foresee a time when Olson will be taught at various levels of
secondary education and that time is now. He just isn't being taught very
widely. There's also a backlash in some quarters against modernism right now.
Part of this is justified because in some places modernism and post-modernism
(whatever the fuck that is) eclipsed everything else for a while. It makes sense
that we keep modernism in perspective. It's only a small part of the story. On
the other hand there are those that want to toss it completely in favor of a
return to some imagined period when poetry was held in high esteem and was
relatively easy to understand. That was before audio recordings, certainly
before audio recordings and films became so popular. Even without new formalism
or other poetries that shun the apparent difficulties of modernism there are
still forms of poetry that are easy to understand and are extremely popular. It
just hides under the name “popular music.”
much in that area is pure product, candy—there is still great poetry sneaking
out as pop music because that's the medium in which it is performed. It's a long
list and everyone that really loves popular music and devotes time to listening
to it will know immediately what I'm talking about. When I use the term popular
music, I mean all the music that has been popular in terms of a large audience
(compared to other forms like classical, avant-garde, art song and so forth)
over the last century as recording technology has made music available to
There's no small amount of modernism in pop music either. But you rarely hear
people complain about the difficulty of a Radiohead lyric for instance, or the
obscurity of Beck's references. People talk about the words. They recognize them
as being more abstract, but that isn't a problem. There are millions of people
walking around singing lyrics that are open to as many interpretations as there
are listeners and few have a problem with this.
Does the fact that you can sing an obscure bit of poetry make it better somehow
than reading it in a book? Maybe it does. Maybe someone should set The
Maximus Poems to a nice backbeat, mix in a heavy bass line and some nice
guitar licks. I bet if a successful artist did that and didn't call any
attention to the fact, beyond the essential permission notice buried in the
credits, we'd have people all over the world singing Olson.
The troubled sleep was a paraphrasing of Ezra Pound who said the same thing
about the classics being taught. I have certainly had my share of troubled
sleep, but I am as likely to have it troubled by something I am working on as
anything else. I'll be so intensely focused on a poem or song that some part of
me can't let it go long enough to rest. I wish I was romanticizing this, and I
never used to have this problem, but it definitely happens now. Also, I have
often found sleep to be a source of creativity. I was trying to catch up on
missed sleep from last night with a nap this afternoon and woke up with the
phrase along the lines of "the devil is going to get his." I don't
know what this means, but for some reason I attached it to the conflict
between Russia and Georgia. Sleep can indeed be an escape. In times of most
intense stress from the world at large I seem to be able to sleep. I think
perhaps my mind is trying to escape the stress.
I hope you don't mind if I keep hammering away at this idea of the singular. My
experience is that we are in a state of constant change. My self, what
"I" am seems to change to adapt constantly to circumstances. So, I
find it difficult it locate a singular self. I have an ego of course, an
inflated one too much of the time, but I think of that as something like a
device for asserting one's presence in the world, and a very crude one at that.
It's necessary, but temporal and shouldn't be taken too seriously. I think that
one of the origins of our idea of self lies in monotheism.
When Moses asks who is speaking form the burning bush the voice comes back
"I am." There's that singular I. As western culture developed around
monotheism we also see popes, kings, and so on represent themselves as the
presence of God on earth. The presence of the God. Your work seems so
varied—you write poetry and songs of all kinds, you do all manner of visual
art. Even your recent series of films seems the product of many selves, not a
single individual. So I'm puzzled. Can you help me to understand how all of this
happens from a singular identity?
CM: I keep going back to Georges Bataille, he wrote, 'Me, I exist.' It
is pounded into us that we are all good and evil, but we are all singular, just
one man or woman. My story, The Savage Tale of Walter Seems tells the
tale of a journalist who has multiple personalities. One is a journalist, one is
a killer, and yet another is a holy man. Perhaps that role of monotheism is in
all of us and that is where it comes from. Perhaps the burning bush was talking
back to Moses in his mind. Maybe we hear what we want to hear. It would account
for the many readings of the same text and the many different versions of
worship. We understand more about the chemicals in the brain now than we did
then. How this happens from a
singular identity is in my opinion is like The Neophyte by Durer. Maybe we are
like the fresh young scholar surrounded by the more experienced and as we get
older we learn to how to utilize them. But again we are all one mind. As I get
older my writing and my films will become better and other artistic endeavors
will become apparent. I'd like to ask you a question I asked Neeli Cherkovski in
my interview with him. I wonder if you have a favorite artist or painter and
what brought about this opinion?
JB: It would be impossible to single out anything like a favorite artist. I'm
reading, listening, learning all the time from new artists. There's a list at here.
If you mean painters only the list is just as long. The earliest art yet
unearthed is every bit the equal to the "great masters," though I love
DaVinci, all the Renaissance north and south, art from all the ancients,
everything that isn't just pure commercial crap. I can't get enough of art of
whatever kind. I feel the same way about philosophy, history and science.
There's so much to see, hear and learn that it's frustrating knowing there will
not be enough time to see it all. Recent developments in the cognitive sciences
reveal that our behavior, our emotions and thoughts, are associated with
electrochemical activity in the brain. This leads back into the old debates
about self-determination. To what extent are we able to make individual
decisions? Or is everything we can feel or know or do the result of chemicals in
the brain, their transmitters and receptors, responding to external stimulus and
CM: Any mapping of the human mind surely would include a descent into hell. As
for individual decisions we must prey upon ourselves like rapid dogs and weigh
the consequences but finally whether we receive council from others or not we
are the Emperor in his new clothes draped in the blood of the designer and his
minions. We are the final word unless we are someone without honor or purpose. A
dog will follow a bone only as long as the scent or the desire allows unless you
beat him to do so. As someone who suffers unimaginable headaches I can hereby
say that the chemical imbalance is that descent into hell with no poet's way
out, no guide to soften the rough waters. The transmitters click off and on I
believe but in a situation of intense pain I believe that like a damage nerve
they simply shut down. I can only speak for myself and truthfully in the ways of
science, just my belief but I tend towards the belief that hell and its torments
are in the mind and its pain I feel on an
you believe that the truth cannot be known, it must be felt.
JB: Forgive me if this seems rude, but before we address that question I
think it might be a good idea to see if we can come to an agreement about what
truth is and also try to clarify the distinction between knowing and feeling. If
we take a step back and examine these terms together we might be able to get at
something beyond the general assumptions. I hope this doesn't put a drag on the
CM: Not at all. The question was asked and answered. I feel you cannot
judge truth through knowing. You can't know the truth through perceptions or
your five senses. Reality is not what you find it to be. The truth is only what
you perceive it to be. The blue sky you see isn't blue at all. Much in the same
way the ocean closes in on the center of a bowl and finds two things. It's
running out of space and there is no way to separate the center. How could an
artist approach this in a way that would not contradict his work or how his
perception perceived it?
JB: Maybe an artist should contradict his or her work and challenge his
or her perceptions. As you say, "The blue sky isn't blue at all." That
is the way most humans would perceive a cloudless sky, but even inside that
statement there will be a difference in what the sky is, what blue is. Each
person will feel and think about it in different ways. And in a radically
different culture, or in a altered state of mind the sky might not even appear
to be sky and it might have another color or an array of colors or all of it
might vanish. So then, maybe the artist should allow for all these possibilities
and many more. Paul Celan said, "Isn't poetry always a progression toward
the Real, working amid what surrounds and seizes us?" Perhaps we constantly
discover the Real in our work when we are surrounded and seized by it.
If we come to the work with preconception and the whole nest of assumptions
about the world we carry around with us all the time all we are going to do is
perpetuate the same consensus perspective. For most people the great joy in art
comes when it confirms something they already believe or assume. I understand
that. I have that experience frequently. It's comforting to know that you are
not alone in your experience. We all need that. But more fundamentally, we need
to have experiences that challenge our assumptions, that shake everything loose
and force us to experience without the mediation of our well trained perceptual
apparatus. Our minds, even our senses, need to be washed clean fairly often so
that we don't lapse so deeply into our assumptions that we mistake them for what
is actually there, what is actually happening. One way to do this is to allow it
to happen in our work. Another way is to seek out poetry, or any other art or
experience that strips us of our assumptions. We constantly have to be reminded
to wake up.
CM: John Locke writes, "As nothing teaches, so nothing delights more
than history." But is there nothing more fueling than the present? Or as
David Hume said, the most perfect character is supposed to lie between those
JB: Hume's approach is possibly the wisest because his character would
have to remain open and adaptable. Still, you are absolutely right, the present
is the fuel we burn. We live in it like it or not. Locke was important for
helping to develop an approach that removed the authority from religion to
rationalism and detached inquiry. After the domination of religion and
superstition in the west for so long an adjustment was required, inevitable
even. To respond more specifically, time is always problematic—how we perceive
it, how it effects our lives, how it enters our work. Most of what we understand
as time is, like history, a human invention. This does not make it a bad thing
at all, but we have to remember that it lies within the range of our
capabilities and by no means is the ultimate expression of them. Time as an
absolute is very questionable. We know we have the present because we are here,
but when we connect the markers of the present that is now past we invent
stories from the bits and we are back inside history again. Physics makes a good
case for time across vast distances or within quantum connectivity. But there we
run into a problem of measurement. The most reliable perspective may lie outside
one's skin, which, contrary to popular belief, is neither difficult or fatal,
but in order to do so we must embrace the unexpected and the unknown. In other
words, we must abandon the compulsion to control.
CM: You have stretched language, creating your own words to fit your
poetry. Along with your very original art there's a panoramic complexity to your
work you don't usually find in poetry. Since the first book of Brambu Drezi
was published has the reactions to the series surprised you, were they expected?
Are you still expecting a response you imagined?
JB: It was so long ago that I started Brambu (1986) that I'm not
sure how reliable my memory is. I had been publishing various kinds of short
poems that resembled the work that would later appear in Brambu. The
response to that had generally been good from the magazines and publishers who
were interested in experimental work. The larger establishment publishers were
lost somewhere in the late 50s or early 60s so what I was doing was completely
off the board to them. I think I expected a favorable reaction from the
experimental people, and either a negative reaction or nothing from everyone
else. What I did not anticipate was the negative reaction I received to the
second and third books from poets associated with Language poetry. There was
also some positive reaction from others in the same camp. Some of the negative
response was couched in the terminology of postmodern criticism. Most of the
criticism that embraces that term seems alien to me. The term postmodern itself
seems dead on arrival. Even Derrida thought of his work as a development of
modernism. So it was hard for me to take the criticism seriously. But I don't
really expect any particular kind of reaction. I hope that people will respond,
but I can't anticipate what that response might be. If I were trying to produce
work for a particular audience, or for anyone specifically, I might be able to
provoke a desired response, but poetry isn't marketing.
What about you? I have read and heard a wide variety of reactions to your work.
Did you expect any of that, whether positive or negative, or were you simply
working and thinking about the reaction afterward?
CM: At the moment when I am writing I am just struggling to get the words
down on the page. I know what I write is unlike a lot of what is out there so
any reaction is going to be extreme either way. Especially my fiction. I
appreciate any response whether it be positive or negative. At least they took
the time to read it. They might not have understood my intention, or the poem's
meaning but they did take the time. Any writer wants to be read. I'm getting to
a point where I am less concerned with being read, which has changed from years
before. I am now focusing now on just being able to write. Without going into
it, my health has prevented me from being as productive as I once was. I no
longer read five or six books a week.
Do you believe the old line that goes something like, You write what you read? I
know you read a wide assortment of material, especially early texts, does what
you read influence your writing? How much comes directly from within?
JB: First, I want to agree with you about the moment of writing. When
you're actually doing it, you're just trying to get it down. There is no thought
about anyone out there, or even anyone "in here." The process is open,
What we read has to effect what we write, whether we intend it or not. Writers
have told me that the way they get the process of writing started is by reading.
That approach obviously works. When I am reading I might jot a note in the book
in response to what I am reading, but I rarely move away from it and write an
original work. The influence comes later, often without my being aware of it.
Everything we experience shapes what we will do in the future, so everything
that happens, whether it be reading, talking to someone, going for a walk,
whatever, it plays into what happens when those first sounds rise and strike you
as part of a poem or any other type of composition. That sound is at first a
sound only. It has not yet become a word or a note. Usually several sounds
happen in sequence and that begins the process. The sounds can come from inside,
but also from outside. It might be something you hear in the physical world or a
sound that seems to be outside, but has no outside source. All of this happens
so quickly that the process is well underway before there is time to pause and
take notice of what is happening.
Let me turn the question back to you. Even if you aren't able to read as much as
you used to you still probably read much more than most. You have also mentioned
before how listening to music helps you write. How does it happen for you? What
is it like when the process begins and where does it originate?
CM: The writing doesn't set the mood, it follows the material. Music is
freeing. It can help stir up emotions; some music should come in prescription
form. Like you, I have have an intensely varied listening taste and I explore it
often. It doesn't matter what I am listening to, or sometimes it does. The work
seems to come easier when it is this way. I will begin listening to music, and
after a short while, the words will come, and it pours out, and I have to try
and get it down as best I can. Other times I sit with my face in my hands, with
the light of the computer screen illuminating the room.
I have epilepsy, so when I shake it slows the writing down, but the inspiration
is there. I find that when I am writing, truly inspired, I shake more. The hands
fall back down to where they were, and go right back to the work. I think it
originates from somewhere in my unconscious. Because when it comes it comes
fully formed. It scares me sometimes, the way it is. I don't think I have
explained this very well.
Is it true that if you write for an audience, you will always find yourself
alone on the stage, waiting for them to arrive?
JB: (laughing) Yes,
or you will get there after they have left. If you try to write for an audience
you will always be looking at the past. What is appealing to an audience today
will be old news tomorrow. You can waste your life trying to anticipate what an
audience may want to read or hear, and that is part of the job of publishers,
but you will find that even publishers prefer to go with something reliable. Why
take a chance on a new author when you can bring out a new piece by a proven
seller? New authors tend to rise through the small presses. Occasionally one
will become popular enough to land a deal with a big publisher. It really has
nothing to do with quality or originality. If it draws dollars it goes to press.
What you are describing when you talk abut your hands shaking is the intensity
of the moment. For some it is a very cool, almost calculated, experience. They
work at a distance. For others, like yourself, the entire being is so involved
that it is possible to overheat. Holderlin seems to have been that way and
Kerouac was obviously on fire when he wrote.
You are right, it is difficult to explain what happens. That's one of the many
things that is often misunderstood, even by poets. The reason poetry exists is
because no other mode of being is sufficient. Poetry allows things to happen
that would not happen otherwise.
Do you find that the intensity of the process has changed for you over the
years? Have you been able to adapt the elements of your life so that you don't
have to struggle so much just to do the work?
CM: It has changed over the years. Very much so in fact. One thing I
didn't mention previously about music. I will quite often choose one song or one
piece of music to write to and listen to it over and over for an hour or two at
a time. This builds intensity in and of itself. It's funny but I took
inspiration for this from Albert Einstein. The story was that Einstein's closet
was full of the same type of clothing so he never had to decide what to wear. I
thought if I found something to listen to that inspired me I wouldn't have to
worry about the music changing and interrupting the flow.
Adapting the elements of my life is quite a task, just to make it through the
day much less writing. The work is a struggle, always. The words come so fast
and often in disjointed ways. Often tumbling through and over one another in
such a way that its a wonder I am able to capture any of it. But I do. I don't
seem able to write poems of any great length, anymore, like I used to. It is
difficult to maintain the attention to detail I once could. If that is the
correct way of expressing that. To take your writing seriously, I believe you
have to be desperate. Desperate to hold onto the things around you and to your
sanity, if you want to take it to an extreme. I have no time or sympathy for
those that approach writing as a hobby.
As you continue work on Brambu Drezi, as the epic continues, do you feel
the work itself pulling you onward? Each volume seems to pull the title from its
origin and allow the reader a look within. Will the final installment reveal
JB: Answering the first question: Yes, the work pulls me onward, or pulls
itself onward. Whatever I am, persona, ego, concept, is one of many contributors
and any use of personal pronouns is more likely to be some other self, either a
fictional one or one that presents itself through some other medium. The whole
thing is a process that I allowed to happen or maybe opened the door on
something that was already happening. I try to get out of the way and allow it
happen. I am the one putting it all down so there is a sense of collaboration
and argument, but the sources are elsewhere.
There used to be a lot of discussion about the inward life of writing, or the
outer life, Hemingway for instance, running around the world for experiences he
could use in his fiction. That dichotomy, inner and outer, probably has more to
do with analysis of writing than actual writing. I don't know where those
boundaries are. The pull seems to be outward. The outside calls us into being,
into doing. We have a sense of being inside our bodies or minds, but that is
just a sense of self preservation. One has to find shelter. One has to project
outward in order to kill or plant or harvest to keep the body alive, but
everything that I call myself was once outside and I am constantly, right now
even, moving outward toward you. Reality seems to be less about some solid,
singular self than about change, relation, impression and response. Perhaps
there are no nouns, only activities that have a particular shape often enough
for us to give them a name that will work temporarily.
The final installment of Brambu Drezi will be wherever I am with it when
I die. That was the idea, to step into it and allow the shape be determined by
forces beyond my control. And before anyone leaps up and says 'surrealism' or
'the unconscious' I would ask them to remember that surrealism became a
self-conscious movement almost immediately and has particular stylistic
qualities. The unconscious is a concept. It is a useful one, but it is just a
tool we use to get at what lies beyond obvious consciousness. And like so many
good concepts it has been so co-opted by pseudo philosophies, charlatans and the
market that it can stand in the way of genuinely approaching what it was
originally intended to describe.
I hope Brambu reveals, but I hope it reveals openly, not all or
everything, but opens toward infinity—which is only a way of saying we are
always moving into the something we cannot hold or name. That is one of the
things poetry can do—the opposite of the way language is conventionally used.
It can make the world available without giving it absolutes or closing it into
Does all of this make sense to you? Your own work, whether poetry or prose,
seems to always leave things unresolved. There may be final events in it—a
character may die or transform into something else—but the door never seems to
close. I don't get the sense that we are ever arriving at some final truth or a
point where we know everything about what is happening in the work or in the
world generally. Are you seeking something absolute? Will we arrive at some end
point, like a unified field theory, within which everything can be understood?
CM: Yes, it makes perfect sense. Our boundaries, those we project and
those we will only see in the work, the suppression's that we miscalculate, the
different levels we manage to extract are at best only temporarily held at bay.
The tessellation of these things commit to occur whether we are in control or
not. The destructive influence of our identity is what sometimes holds us back.
You mention that language can grant individuated spaces, I agree. By breaking
apart the space, the language you move into the areas every writer was meant to
travel to. You become an expatriate. William Burroughs was right. Writing is
I think we are always seeking to resolve the unresolvable. I've always felt like
an exile. I've always felt that I was going about my work in a way different
from every one else. I think in some way perhaps I unconsciously left things
unresolved so that they would continue. You make a good point, that is in my
work. One definition of absolute is free from restriction. That I have always
sought. I can't imagine anyone not seeking this. I don't know if we will reach a
point where everything will be understood. Ezra Pound said, "The body is
inside the soul." Perhaps the work, the finished work will be discovered
and understood when we're dead. But I doubt it in my case. I don't think I'll be
read after my death. I didn't come to this earth to be read, I came here to
Arthur Rimbaud said, “The first study for a man who wants to be a poet is the
knowledge of himself, complete.” If we as writers are to know ourselves
complete is there any sense in pursuing writing once you have gained this
JB: If we define the absolute in those terms—free from
restriction—then we are working toward the same experience, each in his own
way. And I would agree with Pound as well. We don't have a soul. Humans aren't
that smart. A soul (or souls) has us. There is also the idea of making or
building a soul, as in Michael McClure's poetry. That is what is happening. That
is the making a poet does.
Following in the context of the absolute as free from restriction we could
interpret Rimbaud's "complete" in the same way. If the knowledge of
himself was to free himself from restriction then it is certainly reflected in
his poetry, and in his life. I'm not sure if he ever acquired that level of
knowledge. One gets the sense from reading his letters and bits of his history
from other sources that he abandoned poetry out of exasperation. He opted for a
rough, direct experience that apparently did not inspire or require poetry.
I'm really not sure what Rimbaud meant by that statement. He's also writing
about deranging the senses. Are those two things part of the same process? I
think it was for him and I think it has been for many poets after him. Perhaps
in order to know oneself one must escape oneself—losing one's mind in order to
find it. Poetry feels that way to me as it happens. In some sense I am not
myself or any particular self. I am not in my mind, not contained by the
identity or persona I might call myself otherwise. Can we ever reach that point
where the process is complete? If I want to know myself as a person, an ego,
that won't take long since the ego is always provisional and reactionary. It's
merely an interface. But if we step beyond ourselves, inside or out or both, and
it may amount to the same thing, then what we can experience has no boundaries,
there is no end. Ultimately, I'm not trying to know anything by means of
writing, I'm allowing something to happen that can never be completely defined
or known. It's a movement into the open beyond the pain of being a self.
Regarding whether or not we are read now or after we are dead. I feel like what
is happening is that the our area of experience is expanding by way of the work
and in that way we are making some small contribution to the development of our
species and maybe to awareness generally. Do you feel the same way or do you
think of your work as being the expression of the self, of making a personal
CM: From the very beginning I have always described my writing as
literally attempting to empty my head. The thoughts that hounded me and would
not go away, I tried to get down on paper. Along with this are the bits of words
flashing about. To me it’s a troubling process. It is I suppose an expression
of self. A never-ending sculpture that you can walk around in and explore. No
matter how horrific it may be.
The first poem I ever wrote was of a dream I had just experienced. In the dream
I am watching myself kill myself. I woke up and wrote down the dream in the form
of a poem. To me this was more journalism than poetry. Whether or not this aids
in the development of the species, my suffering or the contents of my head being
emptied out for others to read, I don't know. You can learn as much from the
scene of the crime as you can the condition of the body.
In the film Examined Life, Cornel West calls himself a blues man in the
life of the mind, a jazz man in the world of ideas. How would you describe your
place in the world?
JB: Those are good descriptions of Cornel West. He is definitely riffing
and improvising, and lays down some serious lines.
My place in the world? Do I have one? If we are defined by what we do then I am
a poet, some of those poems are sung more abstractly than others, including
visual poetry. I also play musical instruments—the guitar first, but also
piano, banjo, mandolin and a little flute. I write the occasional review and
bits of prose that might be called philosophical. I draw and paint, work with
clay and wood. I have had books and CDs published. I don't know if this places
me in the world. I don't know if any of it has had any impact. I try to be a
reliable companion to my wife, a reliable human to the cats in our home and tend
house—all in what most people would consider a very eccentric fashion. I also
try to be a good friend and usually fail by anyone's standards, including my
own. Where does all this place one in relation to the world?
There are a couple of things others have said that come to mind. My brother Jeff
and I were together at his house a few days ago. We were playing guitar and
stumbled into writing a song, as these things often happen. He said, "Some
people fish, some people hunt or golf. I write songs." Also because we saw
a Steely Dan concert that evening I remembered some lines by Donald Fagan from
his song "What I Do" in which he dreams that Ray Charles tells him,
referring to his music, "It's not a game I play. It's in my DNA. It's what
I do." That's a fair assessment of it as far as I'm concerned. All this
poetry and music is what I do. It's as natural to me as leaves are to trees and
singing is to birds. That's the world I am certain I have a place in. The world
of human ideas, aspirations, etc. I don't know if it comes to much. I suppose
it's what humans do and matters no more or less than what other species do.
Berry & Chris Mansel