Singing Secrets: Interview with Bill Kushner: History


I met Bill at the Chelsea Square Restaurant on March 13, 2010 at 3:30 in the afternoon. The day was a stormy downpour. The wind howled down the street first taking one umbrella from me and then the other that I’d bought at Duane Reade.

I got there first and ordered a coffee because I was soaked and cold having walked up from 14th on 9th Avenue holding what was left of my second umbrella up close to my face as I held onto my backpack, Mac Book inside, close to my chest.

Bill ordered a Matzo Ball soup as soon as he got there. I ordered Moussaka, which came with a Greek salad that was served first.


Bill: Oh God look at that!

Don: Oh my goodness! Great. Thank you so much.

Whew! All right. Fork over. Give me some.

Bill and I are sharing a salad. Here comes my salad and Bill is taking it. He’s taking the cheese. He’s taking the olives. He’s taking the carrots. Have a tomato, Bill.

Now you offered the tomato so I’m taking the tomato.

Did you have any cucumbers?

Yes. No I don’t. Where’s my cucumber?

Do you want an anchovy? Nah, I don’t know if the anchovy is good for you. Actually I don’t know if the anchovy’s good for me. Too much salt. I love anchovies though. Bill, when is your birthday?

May 31st.

When were you born?

1931. Does that make me very old?

Don laughing: Not so old. Not so old, Bill. I think you’re very young. Ah, you had two older sisters, right? You were the baby. And your parents worked. What did your father do?

House painter. And he did wallpaper. He laid wallpaper.

Did you ever work with your father when he did a job?

No. I asked to work, to learn it, and they were against it. They didn’t want me to learn painting. I mean it was very weird. They didn’t think that was suitable for me.

What did they want you to learn?

They never specified, but I guess some sissy job indoors in an office, which is where I landed.

How’s the salad?

Mmm. Isn’t it wonderful? God.

A lot of cheese. I’m not supposed to actually eat the cheese. Would you like some more cheese?

I’m just doing you a favor, Don!

I have to lose 25 pounds. Mmmm.

Who told you 25 pounds?

The doctor. I want to get off my high blood pressure medication. The doctor said if I lose the weight there is a very good chance I will.

Do you know my doctor told me to quit the gym?

Why?

Well, because I got a hamstring strain or whatever, which is very painful and I went to see him for that and then he dropped the bomb, he said the gym is loaded with all sorts of dangerous traps. You can hurt your back. You can pull this, pull that.

It’s important to exercise. Have you walked?

Yeah, I walk a lot. But that just made my mouth drop, my God. Quit the gym!

I heard Jimmy Carter say once when you’re pushing 70 that’s exercise enough.

That’s true.

How many times were you in the hospital last year?

Bill to the waiter: Do you have a napkin? To me: Two or three times.

What were you in the hospital for?

A stroke. My heart. I am wreck yet here. I am chewing your cheese.

When did you have the stroke?

The heart was this year. The stroke that was a few years ago. 911. They found me naked unable to walk sitting on the toilet and took me to Beth Israel Hospital. I was lost—my mind—lost. Steve Spicehandler found me. Steve has the keys to my apartment. Now, he has the copy of my new manuscript. In case I pass on before it gets published.

How is that going?

As far as I’m concerned it’s gone. I’ve done what I wanted to do with it. I, ah—it’s sort of a continuation of the last manuscript, the ah, what the fuck was the name of my last, the last—

The Abraham Lincoln one?

Yeah, In Sunsetland With You. It’s sort of a continuation of that because the boy in that is ten years old. He’s exploring the world and there’s a war on, ah, he’s just exploring his sexuality, or trying not to explore it, and he’s invented this friend, Abraham Lincoln. Well for the most part that last manuscript was greeted with a resounding thud. Bill laughs. Because most people didn’t understand that it was me, it was me trying to find out who that boy I was was. And you know I have every right to do that because a lot of my past I’ve sort of blotted out because I think I was in a great deal of confusion back then.

Back when?

When I was younger. A child. Because they thought I was going to be different. Little did they know how different I was going—actually I’m not all that different, I mean I know now that I’m not all that different from everyone else. When you grow up in the Bronx you try very hard not to be too different. It’s a tough little town.

So as a little kid did you stick out or did you fit in?

No, I more or less, ah, became more agoraphobic, more and more housebound, more and more kept to myself, and of course to compensate I read a lot of books, which was good. There were always books in the house because my sister Rose was an avid reader. To this day.

Did you first start to read what she did, and then you got your own books? What did she read?

Ah, she read everything from Shakespeare to Studs Lonigan. Laughs. She still is a very bright person and I think she sort of envisioned me becoming a writer or rather I molded myself into a writer to try to impress her because she was my substitute mother. You always want to impress your mother, your substitute mother.

Why did she take care of you and not your mom?

Because it was the Depression. They were out workin’.

What did your Mom do?

She was a seamstress. She worked in the garment industry and she enjoyed it. Yeah, she loved working with her hands. Well I—she worked with her hands, my father worked with his hands.

And you write. You work with your hands.

And I work with my hands too, I mean, when my sister, when she would be taking care of me, she’d lay around in a housecoat or a slip—Remember she was eight years older than me, so when I was five she was thirteen, and I’d always ask her what she was reading, I was always trying to get her to look at me, the way you want your love to look at you. So I’d ask her, you know, What are you reading? She’d say, “Just words,” because she didn’t think I would understand, but because of her I accelerated my reading ability, so I said, “You know, I can write words too,” the way kids brag, so she goes, “Good, then go write me a poem.”

So she’s the first one who got you to write a poem.

She’s the first one. She said the word Poem like it was a magic word. Waiter comes. Oh, look at that! Mashed potatoes! Let me take my fork, my—Look at this beautiful man! He’s bringing everything. Gracias. Thank you. So she said, ah, she’d say, “If you know words, write me a poem.” So I’d just write any words down, like I do today! We laugh. And then I’d run to her and she always said, “Oh! That’s a good poem. Write me another one,” just to get rid of me, you know.

So you actually started out as a poet although you later on got into play writing—

At the age of 5—

At the age of five you started out as a poet. I always thought you started out as a playwright and then became a poet but it was the other way around. You were a poet and then you went into play writing.

Well, it was because of her. It was out of love. If you love somebody you do. The waiter comes with the main course. Look at that! Heaven help us. We’re doomed!

Don to the waiter: You make me fat. Oh my goodness! Thank you. Now Bill if you want some of this, be my guest.

No, no, no, I have to lose weight too, you know.

This is my only meal today. I’m doing two shakes, and then—Mmm—So were you influenced by your other sister as well or just the one?

With a mouth full of food: My other sister Gladys yes, but she was completely different, she was into music. To the waiter: Can I have ketchup? Ketchup?

You write about music. Music’s very much in your, Ah—that Billie Holiday poem that you wrote not so long ago was very beautiful. So do you think you got any of that from her?

Yeah, because my sis she would buy sheets of the current songs. So right in front of me were the lyrics of all the songs that were out.

So how old were you when you began to read the lyrics? Were you five or six then as well or was it a little bit later?

Five, six, seven, yeah. Man, I loved Billie Holiday.

Why do you like Billie Holiday?

Because when she was singing a song there was feeling, and there was intimacy to her voice, to her singing, and that’s the way I want my poetry to be. I, ah, think it’s all fine, everything is fine. Language poetry is fine, academic—but you know I go for something deeper, intimacy, the thing that Billie Holiday had. And it was like she—like I say in my poem, ah, it was like she was singing secrets. And to me it was like the most, the best you could do. You know, tell all your secrets.

Now, ah, you saw her sing live, right?

At Carnegie Hall. In 46. I was in my teens then, so you know it was—Oh my God the crowd loved her. It was just love. And she just sang song after song after song. Later on when I ah you know when I was working a little, making a little money, they had a music club called Birdland on Broadway near 52nd or 53rd Street. And I saw Ella there. I ah, you could get in very cheap if you just stood behind the ropes, but of course once you got in, you just mingled. Ella was just beautiful tones, beautiful pitch. She was all about pitch, and she really sang the song, but I mean she wasn’t Billie. Ella had the voice. Sarah Vaughn. I saw Sarah Vaughn there. Billy Eckstine.

My mother liked Billy Eckstine. She saw Billy Eckstine. What do you think of Billie Eckstine?

Oh I thought he was wonderful, very sexy. Deep, deep throat.

I think Billy knew he was sexy.

Every black man thinks he’s sexy. And for my part, every black man is. My first two or three lovers were black.

Where was the first from?

Chicago. Ah, I think he was studying. I can’t remember what the hell he was doing. He was great in bed.

How old was he?

I was late teens and so was he.

And he was here studying and that would have been in the 40s, or the 50s, was that the 40s or the 50s? Your first love?

Late 40s. Late 40s. Yeah.

How long did that relationship last?

It lasted for around a year and then one night I came home and found him in bed with some white kid who was cuter than I was, and like a jerk I walked out instead of joining in—I should have just joined in. But I was just a kid from the Bronx and I somehow thought that you know love was love and all that. He was cool though, you know, I mean, yeah, well, but I walked out.

So you never saw him again, you never talked? You just walked out?

Years later I saw him in a diner. Around here. The Malibu Diner. 23rd Street. And the first thing he said when he saw me was, “I had to do it.”

So your second love was black, your third love was black. What was your fourth love? What color?

Sunburned.

Sunburnt?

He was white but he was nicely tanned.

Did you meet him at the beach?

Yeah. I met him on the train going to Coney Island. He was sitting across the aisle. And I looked at him and he looked at me

Kismet! Was he from New York?

I think so, yeah. Man, I’m going through a lot of ketchup, aren’t I?

And a lot of lovers too.

Well, I really believed in love. I mean after awhile it gets knocked out of you.

The busboy pours more coffee. To the busboy: Esta bien. Gracias. To Bill: Why is he laughing at me?

Well, at one point he came over to put more coffee in, and you shook your head no, but he looked at me, and I shook my head yes, and he put it in anyway, so he started laughing, he thinks it’s funny. Tell me he’s not a cute fellow?

He’s cute and he speaks Spanish too. Que bueno!

Now remember you’re practically a married lady. Behave!

Bill, I am. And he gets jealous. I mean, it should be the other way around, right? It’s not been easy. He’s from Bangladesh. It’s illegal in Bangladesh to be gay. So it’s a thing of derision. There’s blackmail and all those sorts of things that go on. My friend has a lot of issues with all that stuff.

Well, that kind of hatred still goes on in America. We think we’re all so cultured. Not!

How much does your sexuality influence your writing? I know this is a silly question.

It used to a lot. You know, I mean my book Head is very sexual.

It’s my favorite book, Bill. I love Head.

Yeah, but a lot of people say that, and I love to hear it except that it irks me, because once I’ve done, I wrote that whole book—

Actually that’s from the 80s. I mean your work has been consistently good, I’m not saying it’s only Head, but Head was the first thing of yours that I read from cover to cover, so it’s like the first love, the first kiss. There will never be another first kiss like the first kiss, ah, there’ll be other kisses. Bill laughs. But there will never be that first one.

I’m trying to hold myself back from kissing you right now, baby!

I read the book. I was in Puerto Rico I think with Patti. And I was reading the book and ah, and it was great. I think Bernadette gave me the book.

Bernadette was so great. We spent a day or two together. She took the pictures for the front and back covers. Really nice pictures. She is so, so talented, such a great photographer. As well as a great poet.

For all the poets who are living around today you and Bernadette are my two favorites, people I know who I read consistently. I like how you use the English language.

I love Bernadette.

Well, it was great of her to publish you, I mean who sort of did that more, was that her or was that Lewis, was it them together?

It was Lewis and her, the two of them together.

Did they approach you? Did they know you for a long time?

Yeah, I had studied with Lewis. At the Poetry Project.

Is that how he met you?

Yeah, that’s how we met.

So you met him first.

Yep. Studied with him. And I wasn’t very good. Yuki Hartman was the star of that workshop.

And he’s still a star, and you’re a star too Bill.

Yeah, but back then I wasn’t. I was sort of academic. A very repressed little twinkie.

When did you, I mean I think your poetry is really wonderful, there is something about it that is almost off the cuff, it’s just being spoken, it seems extremely natural but of course you really work on it, and yet—

You have no idea! I revise and revise like hell!

And yet it is even this off hand sort of thing, it’s a really wonderful voice. When did you get that voice, was it at the workshop or after the workshop?

In Lewis’s workshop I was still trying to hide my homosexuality. So I was writing kind of abstractly, academically, and it wasn’t until I wrote a poem called Kiss.

Kiss?

K I S S Kiss. And I was just fooling around about kissing. Actually I just wrote a poem the other day still using kissing, ah, but, ah, Lewis said, “I think you’ve got it. I think you broke through.” Something to that effect. And I was so proud. It was like I finally connected to you know that important person, you know, your teacher becomes that important person, that important interest. It was like I broke through to my sister, to Lewis and I kept writing more stuff like that. It freed me, that kiss. Lewis freed me more than, I mean I’ve studied with a lot of people after Lewis, OK? I studied with Bernadette, with Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, wonderful teachers, but Lewis was the first guy who really freed me. They were all pretty much teaching the New York School of Poetry, and I ah I came from the Bronx. I wasn’t from New York.

I thought the Bronx was New York. It’s not New York?

Little did I know, but, ah, once I broke through to my sexuality it opened up a whole—All this dirt blew out. All that lava spewed.

A lot of ejaculation. And you’ve been ejaculating ever since.

I have been, yeah. But ah, now this recent book. I’m still continuing like I said from Sunsetland. And ah like I have a poem in it about a little boy whose father takes him to the park, and they watch a butterfly and it flies on a flower, a red, red flower and the butterfly cares to kiss the flower so the father starts talking about how that’s the way love is, the butterfly is in love with the flower like I met your mother, and I kissed her, and she kissed me and then we had you, so the boy says when the flowers get kissed do the big flowers make little flowers? I like that poem. It’s called Gasp. G A S P.

I like the title.

But I’m still, you know trying to find who that boy I was really was. It’s like I say he disappeared in my mind.

Now there’s about fifty years between Head and your birth. What were you writing then, do you still have that work, were you play writing then?

Well, I stopped for a while to do the plays. I was Off Off Broadway and wrote a number of plays. I got reviewed in The Times, The Voice had a whole page, and I thought I was writing pretty high, but then that whole scene got very commercial, and it kind of turned me off. I was with Theater Genesis. They did a one-act play of mine. That got taken to Expo 67. But you know I loved all of that Off Broadway. I loved it. But the whole scene got commercial and I sort of pulled away. That happened and then I went back to poetry. And that was really what I wanted to do. That was really what I wanted to do since I was five. I just put obstacles in my own way. You know my inhibitions. But I still have a drive to do it. And to me it’s a very important thing to do.

Patsy Cline said, “Obstacles become advantages.” Why do writers write, do you think? You were writing since the age of five. You said it was love, your sister’s love.

Yeah, that’s what it is. Love. And I’ll say it again. Love.


3 Comments

  1. Posted 16 Sep ’10 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    this is great, both of you! Can’t wait for the next installment. xoxElinor

  2. Posted 3 Feb ’11 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    I began reading this with my morning coffee, and then forgot to drink it. The casual voices and genuine pace made me feel I was sitting at the table with you, invisible but listening. Beautiful. Thanks.

    • Posted 3 Feb ’11 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Judy. & thank you Elinor.

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