Intervistare la voce: Charles Bernstein

By and | 1 September 2013

EM: Of all the times you speak of ‘multiform’ or ‘plurality’ in a live performance of poetry, exactly what do you mean?

CB: Just this kind of discrepancy of the alphabetic script and its multiple realisations or versions in performance. I also think reading the script is a kind of performance that creates variations. There is no one ideal form of poem, that is an abstraction based on the reification of alphabetic script as ideally invariant. I imagine poems as having multiple versions articulated in conflicting performances. This goes back to your question about religion – because the idea of a true and invariant text comes from ideas about the Torah – and the practice of rooting out textual corruptions based on transmission, performance, and interpretation. I am a midrashic antinominan.

EM: We met in Leicester in December 2000, and I saw you performing at De Montfort University where both of us had been invited to take part to a festival-symposium set up by Nicholas Zurbrugg. How would you define the performance you developed there? Can you discuss it?

CB: Ah, Nick! Who died just after that conference. And who was so deeply engaged with those issues. In fact think of the poets who have died since: Emmet Williams – that was the only time I have seen him, and he did a beautiful performance, with the text projected onto his body. Bob Cobbing and Henry Chopin too – in a sense the opposite end of the dichotomy in your first question. Of course a few others are still around, including Steve McCaffery and Maggie O’Sullivan. I remember the banquet, which took place after my reading from Shadowtime, Geraldine Monk expressed her extravagant dislike for my reading, saying, in effect, that I had gone over to the other side, maybe because of its apparent ‘depth’ or even a certain liturgical feeling she didn’t like. In Shadowtime, I was interested in resonance and echo, in a kind of 4-D sonic overlay. But the work is also an elegy and the greatest risk for me was that it would rely on the darkness of the subject to give a high seriousness to the poem. But it was a risk worth taking.

EM: To me, John Cage’s Empty words performance I saw in Milan at Teatro Lirico, 2nd December 1977, or the 62 Mesostics Re Merce Cunningham, 1971, are among the best examples of sound poetry in the sense of vocality. What do you think? If you would mention some American sound poets, who would you say?

CB: l love Cage’s performances, the way he fills up the room but does it with a slow, understated tone. His command is astonishing: he has a perspicuous sense of sound shape, as you would expect from a composer, and he can articulate this with a highly modulated voice and even tempo that minimises the sensation of pulsing rhythm. Comparable to Cage, but much more varied in performance style, is Jackson Mac Low. In the following generations, as far as works that push beyond the limits of the poetry reading, I think especially of Steve McCaffery, Caroline Bergvall and Christian Bök. Then again, thinking less beyond and more deep inside the poetry reading, I’d commend to our attention Leslie Scalapino and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge.

EM: Recently, I heard Dark City on an album called Live at the Ear (1994). You obviously pursue qualities of tonality in this reading. Did this require many rehearsals?

CB: Live at the Ear is now on PennSound. I recently read a similar poem from Dark City, ‘Lives of the Toll Takers’ (Jan. 7, 2012), which has some of the same performance qualities. These two longer poems have multiple voices and multiple voicings, and something like an operatic scale. Even when I came back to ‘Lives of the Toll Takers’ after two decades, and without looking over the text first, I remembered how it went when I started performing. I was surprised how vivid was my sense of the poem’s sound shape. I remembered how I had performed the poem before, much the way I remember the tune for a song, it just comes back when you start singing. I do a lot of readings and I prefer to keep fresh, so I don’t rehearse. I probably (intuitively) work out a performance score when I write the poem, because when I read a work, even for the first time, I have strong sense of how it goes. And if I repeat a poem, I often try to work against previous readings: changing the pace or emphasis or intonation.

Decades ago, I would mark a pause in the script, or write SLOW DOWN, or I would mark a line for emphasis. Sometimes I did that based on listening to a practice recording of the poem; and I have closely listened to recordings of many performances, making mental notes. For now, I rely on my experience, reading from unmarked texts and letting improvisation take me where it will. In that same vein, while I work out a general order of what poems to read, I leave plenty of room to skip and jump, to move with the feeling in the room, to go where my ear leads me.

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