interview by Raina von Waldenburg

I walk into Vietnam Palace on Thursday, April 27 and find a man sitting at a table whom I assume to be Stephen Berg. Dressed in black with clearwater eyes reflecting everything in the restaurant, and more awake than most of us dare to be, he is clearly a poet. "Stephen Berg?" I ask. Founder and co-editor of American Poetry Review (APR), recipient of fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts, Stephen Berg has also published numerous books of poems and translations. I expected to be having lunch with a cranky ego-maniac. But when he stands up and shakes my hand, I am dazzled. Friendly, responsive, down to earth and slightly electric, Berg orders a martini. The interview begins.

RvW: What do you think of being a poet?

SB: It's a trivial profession. It's more useful to be a doctor. Being a doctor is a brilliant profession. Others need you, they keep taking you outside of yourself. Technically, writing is not a life and death situation. A poem is not going to perform surgery. I can't claim that much for poetry. It's an impractical way to live, to raise a family. To make exaggerated claims for art is ridiculous. Writing is a natural thing. It's what I do best. I'm happy to have chosen this career. I'd be crazy not to accept that about myself. I'm too far gone to feel that poetry is not useful to the world. I'm too deeply in it. It drives me. But I have no way of knowing if poetry helps others.

RvW: So how do you live with yourself believing that poetry doesn't contribute much to the world?

SB: I consider the American Poetry Review to be social work. It is the highest circulating poetry magazine in the world.

RvW: What is it that gives you faith?

SB: Poetry doesn't give me faith. Not faith but tenacity. I keep working. I know life is very fragile. I have faith in my daughters. In my friends and family. I have more faith in others than in myself.

RvW: Do you feel a poet needs a strong ego to survive?

SB: I think a strong ego is one which is fluid and cleansed of all resistance to reality.

RvW: How do you know when a poem is finished?

SB: Louise Gluck, my friend, said "I'm euphoric over my new book!" and I guess that's what it means to be finished. I'm not like that. I mean I've got seven books finished now, and unpublished. I've had an incredible streak of writing since about 1989. I mean Shaving, I finally finished it. And it went through I don't know how many revisions, and I'm sort of depressed about it.

RvW: Why?

SB: That's me, I'm not Louise.

RvW: Is that your way of saying you're finished?

SB: I don't know. It's my lousy, Jewish nature. My mother's influence. I don't know.

RvW: Now that you know so much more about poetry, about life, do you ever cringe when you read some of your older books of poetry?

SB: Not really. That's who I was then. Even with the bad poems I went as far as I could.

RvW: How many poems does one need to publish in literary reviews before one can publish a book?

SB: These days it's very hard to get a book published by commercial publishers. And the smaller presses, some of them are very good. I'd say it has more to do with--I mean, my editor at Copper Canyon is unpredictable in certain ways, not in other ways. He could see a manuscript that had no poems published and say: I'm going to do it. I guess the more you publish the more confident you feel when you publish your manuscript. I don't know what the rule of thumb is. We get poems at the magazine from all kinds of people. I don't know what editors really think at publishing houses. If someone sent a book to the National Poetry Series, right? and none of the poems have been published in magazines, and the judge is supposed to read carefully, and if the judge liked the book, it wouldn't make any difference. At APR, if a cover letter mentions that someone is published here or there, we tend to pay a little more attention to it. We've seen good poems by people who haven't published much. Young, really young people. In fact, there was someone, who never published before, sent something to us, and we published it. Wild, strange poems. I mean she never published anywhere before, right? but she's got this terrific poem. And you'd think maybe she had published--ten poems or five poems. I voted against it I think. I realized afterwards that I should have voted yes.

RvW: How does it work at APR in terms of what gets published?

SB: Ethel Rackin, the associate editor, does a lot of first readings. She's terrific. And then the editors vote. For most of the work that ends up in the magazine, the final decision is based on a three-person vote. On the other hand, each editor has six free pages in the magazine that he can fill with his own stuff. And a free essay. And a free column. And a free book review. We are also starting to get poets to review movies.

RvW: What do you think about performance poetry?

SB: The little performance stuff I've seen is amateurish. But some of that is pretty fantastic. Raw. Wild. I mean if you're good as an actor, I guess you can make a great deal of that moment. But if you're not a good actor,--even if your poetry is good--not knowing how to perform it would really screw it up, dont you think? But I dont know enough of that genre to judge it.

RvW: What do you think about Poetry Slams and how they popularize poetry?

SB: I think it's great. Even if the poetry's shit, that doesn't bother me. I'm for that kind of freedom. I'm not trying to protect poetry from...essentially itself. I mean the language is here to be used by everybody. If someone calls himself a poet, I don't have to agree. But I don't have to disagree.

RvW: And what do you think of the competition in the Slams?

SB: Like jazz musicians. They used to call them cutting contests. Louis Armstrong would get up, and Clifford Brown, and they would try to cut each other by playing different choruses of their numbers to see who was better. But they would be stimulating each other. To me that's one of the great unrecognized aspects of poetry.

RvW: Do you like to get up and read?

SB: I hate to read. I'm not good at that.

RvW: Do you like to go to poetry readings?

SB: Sure. Not that much, though. It doesn't really excite me that much. I love to read a poem from the page. I'd rather read it myself or read it aloud. Seeing it performed...I know it's important, you know, it really is because then you get a sense of how the poet hears the poem. I just never thought that was a great evening, you know? I'd rather do something else. I mean Whitman didn't read aloud. He didn't go around reading. Neither did Dickinson, obviously. Lowell was a terrible reader. He mumbled, he was shy. In a way, you went more to see the person once they became famous than to hear their poems. What did Robert Lowell look like? I mean if they happened to be invisible you'd feel cheated, wouldn't you?

RvW: How do you think technology is going to effect poetry in the next twenty years?

SB: I think it's great that poetry will be on the screen. I don't see anything wrong with it. But I don't know how that will effect the actual writing of poetry.

RvW: Do you think technology will lower the standards of poetry?

SB: The standards are already low. They're always low, and they're always high. Think about it, since Beowulf the standards would have to be low once you begin to set a standard as high as that. It's not so much standards as how you apply the standards to your own gifts, judgments, work, to your own relationship with poetry. Because the standards are infinite, right? So I'm not worried about television or the internet screwing up the language. The question is how to maintain the standards without being authoritarian about it.

RvW: Authoritarian as an editor?

SB: As a human being.

RvW: And how do you do that?

SB: I dont know. Make a lot of mistakes, I guess. Just keep reading a lot. And...getting fed up. And I have a strong capacity for that.

RvW: With your own work or with other people's?

SB: Both, both. I can love something tremendously and then despise it to get away from it. I just don't want to get trapped in it. I want to move on.

RvW: That sounds like a 'follow your heart' kind of thing.

SB: [He laughs] It's like 'follow your bliss', Joseph Campbell? Follow your bliss. Great. But it's dangerous.

RvW: What is it that you follow then, if it's not your heart or your bliss?

SB: My ignorance.

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