Flyer Profile: Anselm Berrigan

Anselm Berrigan


This is the second in a series of interviews profiling authors and poets scheduled to appear at The Burning Chair Readings’ Ozark Small Press Poetry Festival set for April 26-27 at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville.

The festival is a celebration of newly-released issues of two Fayetteville-based, hand-bound poetry magazines – Cannibal and Bestoned: The New Metaphysick – and will include readings from 21 poets, eight from the Ozark region and 13 from as far away as New York City and Denver.

Cannibal, edited by Katy and Matthew Henriksen, originated in a Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment in 2007 and moved with them to their current apartment behind Nightbird Books. Bestoned is a new magazine edited by C. Violet Eaton, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop who currently lives in north Fayetteville.

Anselm Berrigan, one of the featured readers, answered a few questions via email for Matthew Henriksen. Berrigan is the author of several books, including “Notes from Irrelevance” (Wave), “Free Cell” (City Lights), and “Zero Star Hotel” (Edge). He is the Poetry Editor for The Brooklyn Rail, former Artistic Director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, and co-editor of “The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan.” He lives in New York City.

Plenty of poets spend a few years living in New York City, but you grew up there and seem unlikely ever to leave. What aspects of the city matter to you most as a poet?

Ozark Small-Press Poetry Festival

When: April 26-27, 7-10 p.m.
Where: Nightbird Books, 205 W. Dickson Street
Admission: Free
More info: Facebook event page

These days the kind of crowded anonymity I can have in the city is appealing. With small kids in a relatively small apartment there’s not a lot of space-time to get consistent work done at home, so I do a lot of work outside. I look for places where I can be alone but in a crowd, with lines of sensation/input available when I need them. I’ve lived in Buffalo and San Francisco, and I’ve spent regular time in the Mojave Valley, Paris, France, & north of New York on the Hudson River, where I work every summer. So I have a sense of other locations, and I’ve gotten different senses of the scale of nature from all of them. The thing that really comes through for me in New York though is the range of voices all around, and the spread of diction, tone, and paces of speech. There’s never a lack of materials, which means I don’t have to think too much to get things going.

I think we see lots of poets now reigning in some of their intelligence, deflected with irony or submerged in metaphor or dense language. You don’t hold back with your brain, and you go straight after some of the grittier aspects of survival. Do you think poems have an obligation to confront social conflicts or to help people sort out their problems? Or is it more personal?

I don’t think poems have any obligations. An individual might feel obligated to speak to or through what’s putting the heaviest pressure on their existence – and the work by others I tend to be most interested in is work that takes on the world in its present motions and doesn’t look to simplify those conditions, including the joyful ones (which is not the same thing as working minimally or honing in on something momentary or looking inward, for me; those are instances of amplification). While I feel some allegiance to the Lawrence Ferlingetti notion of the poet as a gadfly to the state (any state of power might qualify as a state, say, to keep that notion expansive), I don’t think subject matter and/or concept or righteousness alone provide any guarantee for writing to take a poetic shape. I’m drawn to work that finds its limits with some liveliness and prosody and either makes those limits useful or blows through them.

Your poems involve seemingly anything that might cross your mind in the course of a day, from fantasy baseball to philosophy, and your word choice takes surprising leaps from street talk to dense cerebral abstractions. And the pacing is fast. Nevertheless, the delivery feels natural. Could you talk a little about how you compose?

I’ve tried a lot of different methods of composition in the past twenty years. Sometimes I can find a formal vehicle to ride out for awhile, and a long poem might come from the practice of reentering a space that’s repeating on the level of form. I get to these points where I start to feel dumb, and I try to find a way to rebuild my writing routine and force myself to break up whatever patterns I think I’ve fallen into. That happens about once a year. The long poem Notes from Irrelevance was written out of writing fast every day, feeling desperate to get anything done at all, but also pushing the material through longer articulations. Extending lines of thought by refusing to stop where I might have stopped before, and adding a few more clauses instead. I have two daughters, who are two and five right now. In order to keep working at a steady pace I found myself writing by hand more often, and typing much less. Filling a notebook over the course of weeks and months before typing any of it up. This has made generating material quickly become something I’ve been practicing for several years, and I feel much freer right now, compositionally, than I have in a long time. I wait longer to type up and edit the material I have, and somewhat surprisingly I have discovered that I’m too hard on the work when I go to “finish” it too quickly. This also has to do with the fact that I try to clear my head out when I start to write – to not have an idea, or to only have something like a title or a phrase at the top of a page that suggests a tonal space to begin from, unless I’ve worked myself into a state of formal extension (a longer piece). While I look for a range of things to respond to in the writing and through it, I am not interested in having a project or pushing a style or being part of an aesthetic group. I lose purchase on those surfaces.

You have published books with Edge, City Lights, and Wave Books, and Letter Machine Editions, and you have worked with worked with countless poets as the former Director of the Poetry Project, as the Poetry Editor for The Brooklyn Rail, and as a guy who shows up at lots of readings. Why does engaging in a larger poetic community matter to you?

“The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan”


Partly out of the pleasures and idiosyncrasies of experiencing other people’s work live; partly because I need to give readings to find out what my work is doing, so it has seemed reasonably fair to be available to others as a body in the room when possible, or as an organizer when I was doing that heavily; & partly because I grew up with the reality and fairly transparent complexity of an active poetic/artistic community around me, and I felt some responsibility to it when I moved back to New York City in 1996 after having been away for seven years. It also seemed, at that time, like the various poetic circles in the city were socially and aesthetically cloistered, and I saw an opening towards bridging scenes that didn’t, on their own, seem as interesting to me as they could be if occasionally forced to relate more intimately. But I was also just lonely, too, I think. Editing for The Brooklyn Rail puts me in touch with work I might not otherwise get to, and that can be useful.

You grew up in a household dedicated to poetry, and both you and your brother are now poets. You married a poet. Most of your friends are poets. Do you ever want to get out?

No! Actually, more than half of my friends are not poets at this point. So it’s not that bad. & I’m one of those odd people who like the family. But I came to poetry on my own. I didn’t read it much growing up. I didn’t know what to do with myself when I left home and found myself in college in Buffalo in 1989. I got interested in journalism, and that led to writing about music. That led to keeping a notebook, starting in on weird little stories, and then one day in May of 1991, breaking a line instead of following some phrasing into a sentence. Breaking the line made this, like, electric opening in my brain, and I recognized on the spot that poetry was what I wanted to be doing. I felt, and still feel, called upon. I couldn’t otherwise assert myself. All the social stuff and readings and everything could fall away, and that feeling wouldn’t change. I’m sure no one wants to hear this kind of thing in this day and age, but that’s what it is for me.