Edmund Berrigan is the author of two books of poetry, Disarming Matter (Owl Press, 1999) and Glad Stone Children (Farfalla, 2008), and a memoir, Can It! (Letter Machine Editions, 2013). He is editor of the Selected Poems of Steve Carey (Sub Press, 2009), and is co-editor with Anselm Berrigan and Alice Notley of the Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (University of California, 2005) and the Selected Poems of Ted Berrigan (University of California, 2010). He is an editor for poetry mags Vlak and Brawling Pigeon, and is on the editorial board of Lungfull!. He lives in Brooklyn.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was Disarming Matter, published by Owl Press, run by Albert DeSilver. It was both great and a little scary to have it published. I remember walking in the woods and talking with Albert about whether it was worth putting more objects into a world that was already saturated with them. But luckily he convinced me. And occasionally now people will tell me that something about that book has meant something to them, which gives it purpose. My work now is still connected to my initial interests, and doesn’t feel different to me.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I grew up in a household full of poets. My mom gave me my first blank notebook when I was 8, and I wrote poems on and off until I was teenager. My mom gave me a new blank book when I was 15 or 16. I watched an episode of the TV show Quantum Leap in which Jack Kerouac was portrayed. It was terrible, and I left the house with my notebook and walked around the West Village in NYC and wrote 4 or 5 poems, and that was when I decided that I was a poet for life.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My last book, Can It!, took fifteen years from the initial writing until publication as a finished book. I had a few learning curves to grapple with. Poetry manuscripts usually go through several drafts. Sometimes a poem will come out exactly right the first time, but I also use processes that require rounds of editing. I also do additional editing when manuscripts are coming together. I do take a lot of notes, and failed works also become notes. Whether or not I have a full time job is also a factor.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I have more success when I just start writing based on the impulse to write, and keep the decisions based in the process. Having chosen a life as a writer, everything I write is a small part of a larger practice. I’m always working on a manuscript, but Can It! is the only book that had a predetermined formal idea.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I really enjoy reading, especially making changes to and decisions about works on the spot, based on the feeling of the performance. It offers new possibilities for the work, and it’s fun. Poems are meant to be vocalized, and it’s good to explore this part of the practice.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’m not really sure what a theoretical concern is, or else the answer is everything, but I tend to take a more unconscious approach to writing, so probably I wouldn’t know or would refuse to. I’m not trying to answer questions particularly. I recently wrote down a quote from my dad’s book, Clear the Range: To be is nothing compared to being.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer is to provide information and escapism. Good writing makes people smarter and more compassionate. It directs their attention internally and externally, and gives them a different point of view.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s always a good idea to have another set of eyes, but it is not essential.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“You are a writer, surely you know that.” Robin Blaser said that to me after I sat in on a workshop he gave at Naropa in 1992 when I was 17. It was empowering. I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to do, but it was really great to have someone there to say keep doing it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to prose to memoir)? What do you see as the appeal?
I started writing the pieces that became Can It! when I was unemployed and sleeping in an office in 1999. After a while I got a job as a copy editor. By the time I finished Can It!, I had been a copy editor for over a decade, and I knew how to make editing decisions that I was unable to negotiate previously. The appeal is being able to provide a range of situations and dimensions. The poems reflect lines of thinking, the diaries represent actions and responses, the interviews and conversation reflect what actually comes out when I talk, and so on.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a schedule or set routine, I just make sure to have a few notebooks handy. Most of recent writing has occurred on subways and airplanes.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If my mind isn’t ready, then I just do something else. Otherwise, anything that crosses the path of my senses is a potential inspiration.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cooking, marijuana, and cat shit.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
The first time I saw cubist paintings my mind fell apart. I’ve also had important moments in my education at shows of Franz Kline’s paintings, Kurt Schwitter’s assemblages, and at the Picasso Museum in Paris. Musically, Bob Dylan has always been important for me, and led me into folk and country blues. I’ve played guitar since I was 8, and write, record and perform songs. Nature, science and history are among my favorites. I also read a lot of medical and pharmaceutical materials as part of my copy editing work.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
My dad died when I was 8, and I spent a lot of time when I was young reading all of his poems to try to understand him, myself, and to continue our relationship. I read everything by my mother, brother, sister-in-law, and wife (all poets) and then I try to read as much of what is going on in my writing community as I can stand. So that’s quite a lot already, and all of it poetry, without getting into historical poets. Currently, I get paid to read pharmaceutical advertising for 40 hours a week, and I follow baseball writing on a daily basis. I just finished Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje, which was interesting for me as a fan of western literature. I read Geronimo by Angie Debo awhile back, and that was also amazing.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a science fiction novel.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would like to be a geologist, physicist, astronomer, and archeologist.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was already a writer before I had a chance to think about it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Clear the Range by Ted Berrigan. I read it in on the subway during my morning commute. I really enjoyed my experience of reading and rereading it. I took a lot of notes. It’s a cross out of Twenty Notches by Max Brand, which I also read.
20 - What are you currently working on?
An essay about the Clear the Range.
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