Singing Secrets: Interview with Bill Kushner: Poetry

The following Saturday, March 20th, was sunny and wonderful. I spent the morning priming my study, hurrying to Janovic Plaza to order some paint, and got over to the Chelsea Square to talk with Bill who arrived looking very dapper in a floppy cap. I ordered a chicken souvlaki, which came with a small Greek salad and Bill ordered another egg white omelet with vegetables.

Bill, I thought today I’m gonna read some poems and have you comment on them. Because I’ve been painting my apartment, I couldn’t find your books today except well I have Head and I found That April, and I’ve got some poems on the computer. So we have some poems, right? And I’ve been thinking I’m going to read this one because—Would you like more salad? Or are you all right? You can have some.

Don’t you want your salad?

I’m eating my salad. I’m eating my salad!

You’re confusing me. First you complain when I eat your salad and now—

Listen, I’m going to read. All right?

I hear you reading! I’m right here.

My Sisters

So what’s love? I’d watch my 2 older sisters
Spend hours in front of mirrors, doing things
With their lips, incredible! they’d make
Their faces look down this way, up that way
& why? I’d hear them giggle crazily together
About this or that guy, then they’d dance
Together, hours & hours of going around & going
Around, then looking dreamy-eyed to a song
& then back to their mirrors & whispers & shadows
& moving their lips to uttering names, men’s
Names: oh James, ohh Jimmy, no-o Johnny
& they’d sit for hours & write their names
Then we’d dance, they’d make me lead them
Around & around some imaginary dance floor & I’d
Look up into their eyes, their eyes so far away.

Oh that’s beautiful!

Well it is beautiful, and it’s about your sisters, and you know we were talking about your sisters last week, and what an influence they’d been on you.

Yeah, I love them. Very much. They were like the stand-ins for my mother. Very early love objects. I would do anything to please them. But that’s an interesting poem because I’m doing some poems now about dancing. Now that I can barely hobble.

Did they teach you how to dance?

Yeah. They taught me how to jitterbug, how to rumba, how to waltz, and my mother liked to dance too. We’d go to functions, family; you know they’d put on the music, and they’d grab my hand and we were off.

And of course dancing is form and pattern and rhythm and beat just like poetry so they got you going very early to learn pattern and rhythms and beats and different steps.

Very smart. That’s quite an insight. I had lost touch with a cousin of mine, daughter of my father’s sister, and of course she’s very elderly in Florida and she sent me a picture of my mother and father when they were very young living in the Bronx. And they had my little sister Rose, she must have been maybe three four or five, six, whatever leaning on my father’s shoulder and it was just so—they took that picture in a studio in the Bronx, and so my cousin was cleaning out her closet, and found that picture and one of me, as a little baby lying on a rug, and she called my other cousin and asked what my address was and she sent me the pictures.

That was very sweet. Your father must have liked being a family man.

He was very well taken care of by my mother. And he especially loved one of my sisters—my sister Gladys, he was very sweet with her. But you know, not so much with me.

Why not?

Beats me, but fathers and sons weren’t—for most fathers in those days—there was very little demonstration.

My uncle who’s your age says that back in the 30s, the 20s and 30s growing up that people didn’t show that much affection to children, it wasn’t, ah, I guess you were seen and not heard—

You got it, baby! I think it’s why my new manuscript is really full of that father son relationship, I mean I’m really trying to get into it because my father was a poem, he was just not decipherable, he really was just a mystery; he was an abstract poem Laughs. You could never tell what he was feeling; you’d have to write into the situation whatever the hell he was feeling because he never spoke about it, never.

Could I read another poem?

I didn’t finish my thing about my cousin in Florida; she’s probably in her 80s or whatever, so I called to thank her for sending the pictures, and she said, “Oh I remember when you were just a little boy, the cutest little boy, and how you used to dance and all of your cousins wanted to dance with you.

Did you have any movie stars who were good dancers who you wanted to dance like?

Oh I loved Fred Astaire—Boy! Shirley Temple was lovely. I loved her, yes. For a kid love is endless, there are no limits really, it just goes over, it spills over into another world, ah, but somewhere along the way I lost it, because of course being gay, being gay and trying to hide it, to mask it because back then—

When you said you lost it, what did you lose?

I lost that ability to love widely, wildly widely and


And wisely and it got repressed because, ah—

In your poems you’re always looking, your poetry’s always—which actually reminds me a bit of mine—I know we’re not here to talk about mine, but there’s this looking, looking, looking for something, something, something, and maybe in your case it’s looking for Dad. Here’s one.

It’s Dawn

It’s Dawn! Bill to the waiter: Could I have a cup of decaffeinated coffee?

You follow him he gets out of cab tall & dark
Crosses into little park between Hudson and Bleecker
Only 1 bum there this early funny his face reminds you of someone
You’ve lost him! you peer in dark window of dim lit restaurant
Chairs on tables & in the back a man stares fiercely back
Him? his black hand goes to crotch, you try the door
Locked! he still makes no move to front, continues to stare
Too weird, what’s he? waiter, busboy, cockteaser don’t do this to me
Up empty Bleecker there’s a blonde kid black pants appears
Out of nowhere! he turns up a sidestreet, should you? you fly
Past a window full of white birds pretty pretty they’re alive
Down Perry, the waking sun hits the kid’s head, half a block up
There’s a front! 2 black-winged gargoyles on each side, their faces
In a shriek! you hurry helpless past them, God before he disappears

I think that’s a very beautiful poem, it’s kind of a desperate poem, not much time for commas, you’re looking and it’s dawn and it’s like last call at the bar, just one more drink, I mean you’ve got to get something before it’s too late, and you’re looking, looking, looking—

I think part of it is, ah, part of it is, ah me trying to come to terms with my sexuality, my homosexuality, and part of it is trying to find my father, reconcile with my father, find someone who will love me for being gay, which I couldn’t picture my father doing.

Did your father know you were gay?

Eventually, when one day all my family was gathered together—was it Mother’s Day?—anyway, I “came out” as they say, to everyone. But my father I don’t think he understood or wanted to understand what that all meant. Like I say, I don’t know anything about my father. You know everything about your father, right? Busboy comes to take Bill’s plate. No, you can’t have it. No, I want to hold on.

Busboy to me: Qué?

Me to busboy: Quién sabe? Es un loco. Un loco viejo. Cuidado. Dejalo.

Bill watches the plateless busboy leave. So he is here! You said he wasn’t here.

It was a different busboy last week. That’s a different busboy. They all look the same to you. You don’t look at their faces. What are you looking at?

I’m looking at their souls. Food arrives. Oh my God I hope that’s me!

Strange, I thought there was going to be some vegetables with this. I guess that was the salad.

Is that the chicken?

If you’d like some chicken Bill you can be my guest and have some.

Bill digging into his omelet: Mmmm good. Why did he forget the ketchup? I hand Bill the ketchup hiding behind the laptop. You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you? But the last poem I wrote, the poem I wrote yesterday called The Bird, it’s about a true incident, we found a bird lying on the sidewalk—

Is this with you and your father?

No no, it was in the building, the building where I live.

So this isn’t the past; it’s now.

And everyone was wondering why it was lying there like it was wounded, and one of the neighbors said it was probably poisoned, so there was a lot of conjecture about how the bird got—

Was the bird dead?

No, but it was obviously dying, so ah the other day I came out because it was in a certain corner where the garbage cans are, and there were some neighbors there and I said, “What happened to the bird?” and one of the neighbors said, “Well, the bird died.” But in the poem I have the bird living, and it’s all because this woman conjures up a kind of a dance. She dances around and around the bird.

Was it a pigeon?

Yeah. I’m a pigeon feeder by the way.

Bill, you wrote a poem called Pigeon. Do you remember?

No honestly I write so many poems I don’t remember.


A man flies freaked-out down the street
& past me, he spits out something but I jump
A PR kid laughs “Faggot!” from doorway of welfare hotel
This is New York hang tough far too many pigeons
Over 1 piece of bread, a cornfed cute guy
Lets his freckled girlfriend take a bite off his muffin
A mustardy hardhat digs into his hotdog, ahh
& the heart you eat’s your own, for this is lunchtime
At noon the happy workers pour out onto the avenues
Don’t they know they are all in a novel called Huh?
Written by someone who knows all about True Life, who me?
Tho I suspect one’s life depends on who’s living it
& if it’s not you Watch Out! another man crazy-eyed
Talking to himself, heads lurching toward you, ahhh he’s yourself

Pigeon, there’s a pigeon poem. I like that one as well. That one’s in Head too. You don’t remember writing that poem?

I remember the PR kid from the welfare hotel. Who threw a rock through my window, broke the windowpane so the janitor had to come up and fix it.

Why did he do that?

I assume because he thought I was a faggot. Like in the poem. It isn’t fun for a kid living in a welfare hotel. Right? So he had a lot of anger, he did a lot of stupid stuff up and down the street, not just me. Well, eventually they moved the disruptive families out of that hotel. He disappeared. I don’t know where he is today. That was years ago.

He’s probably a father by now—if he lived. Let’s hope he’s OK.

Let’s hope. Everyone has their own pain you know.

How did you know it was him who threw the rock through the window? Did you see him?

Pretty much. I heard the window break and I ran to it and he was running away.

Maybe he loved you and wanted you to notice him. Do you think? I mean he knew where you lived, Bill.

That’s one scenario. I just hope he’s not in jail today.

A tough, a tough city. But you were lucky to have sisters you loved and they loved you and showed you the way.

My sister Gladys loved to sing, she loved to dance and she would bring home these song sheets. And what I’m trying to make clear is that they had the words of the song on them and so that was just like poetry. You think of a song like Stardust. Sometimes I wonder why I spend a lonely night dreaming of a song. The melody haunts my reverie and I am once again with you.

What are you looking for? Keep going.

The decaf coffee that comes with the—To the passing busboy: Do you have? Hello? The decaf coffee? No more?

Bueno. The busboy goes to get some coffee.

About the busboy: He’s funny. About the sheet music: But they were poems to me back then as a kid, it was just pure poetry, and I looked at the song sheets and I’d sing along.

Who wrote Stardust?

Hoagy Carmichael. He was a great poet. There was Stella by Starlight. The song a robin sings through years of endless springs. The murmur of a brook at evening tide that ripples through a nook where two lovers hide. There were songs that were very descriptive of nature and yearning which I like to think is very much in my poetry. I like to think I’m the poet of yearning.

You are.

Bill cheers as the busboy brings the coffee. Ah Bravo! Bravo!

Me flirting with the busboy: Un regalo de Dios.

Busboy flirting back: Regalo.

Bill sips. Ahh! Oh my God it’s good! The busboy slightly bows and leaves and Bill gets back to business: But I’m lucky most of my issues are eternal, that yearning for connection, that yearning for connection that can never be fulfilled. I may pretend. Bill pauses. You know when I got around to reading porno books I thought the language was exciting and I wanted to put that kind of excitement into my poems too.

When did you start reading porno books?

As soon as I could. In the 40s. During the war they were around. You went to 42nd Street to get the porn. Straight porn, gay porn. All kinds. All kinds. All kinds. But the stories were you know they were corny, about men meeting and the language was very kind of ah just very much to the point. But I thought it was exciting language and I wanted to see, I wanted to replicate it, I wanted to invent the kind of language that people would get excited about too. I don’t do it always, but every now and then I hit my mark.

Well, your work has excited me, Bill. And actually I was reading That April when I started to write my own sonnets, it was That April that got me started, and it was April too! 2003. You’ve influenced me. It’s funny with the pornography, when I went to China and I was going to teach a poetry workshop and I wanted to include you with Bernadette and Alice, it was very hard for me to find a poem of yours—Bill laughs—that wasn’t pornographic.

And I’m proud of it!

I’d almost be through one OK this one OK this one’s gonna work, this one! this one’s gonna do it and then Boom! there it was, you’re sucking a cock or somebody’s kissing shit or something. Something’s going on.

Well, you can suck a cock, but it’s not that gratifying after awhile, ya know, it’s not what the real yearning is about.

What’s the real yearning about?



Love, you know being loved by an older man or a demonstration of love by one man to another, which is what I long for, you know with my father, and it never goes away, and therefore I keep on writing. I think a lot of poets—Who knows? Whatever keeps them writing, you know, it’s great for them, but in poetry you need to have a reason to begin writing, and to keep writing it, a real emotional reason for doing it.

I think for me I wanted people to notice me and I didn’t know how to be noticed.

When you say people, narrow it down.

It wasn’t for lovers—I started writing when I was in my teens, for a teacher and some friends who liked what I was doing, and I just had an urge to do it, it wasn’t romantic at first, it wasn’t really about love. You on the other hand—

What was it about?

Nature, what was going on around. Snow storms. But back to you, Bill, you know when I was looking for That April, when I picked it up, the first poem in That April is just wonderful, it really—you’ve always reminded me of Catullus—He’s very conversational, high style but very conversational, puts the vernacular on Olympus, same as you, and the first poem in his book of poems is about his book, a dedication, cui dono lepidum novum libellum, my cute little, my charming little book and when I opened up That April Oh my God! because there you are writing to your notebook. You say



& Hello to you!
my new blue sky notebook
your cover says


(in fat black letters across the blue) (but
I’ll use for my POEMS
which are like MEMOS, too)

3 IN. X 5 IN.
70742 44003
Camp Manufacturing Co.
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
Made in Brazil

Where’d I buy you? In Lamston’s were you lying on sale (as I so often) in some dark
forbidden corner, alone and pale, whispering Pick me up, Mister, I’m guaranteed to
please! why a talking wonder and all for 49
cents WOW WHAT A BARGAIN! & look
you just match his work shirt
HIM that man there from the HI-VUE DAIRY
husky I’d say 40’s body hardened by bending lifting


& how shall I remember him if I don’t stop right now make this MEMO/poem
as he crosses against me & the traffic to get back to his van

for I am what I am, who am only a man, please, a working man
& you are what you are, sir, a working man, too, as we pass & I sing out
“Good morning!” (& your honest face nods back)

(& if I could but reach out & touch you/those marbles of arms/would you me too?)
us just walking along, getting it done, getting it down

It’s conversational, talking to your notebook, it’s what you do, your being, your writing, I love this, it is a really nice poem.

It reminds me of James Schuyler, Jimmy Schuyler.

You talk to your notebook with the same affection Catullus talks to his boat and that’s really charming.

I’m a little charmer.


You never asked me all the poets I studied with.

Yes I did. That was last week.

You’re kidding!

Lewis Warsh, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley—

Ted, Steve Carey—I loved Steve Carey. John Godfrey was a fabulous teacher. He was very into the Spanish poets, the surrealists, and ah he had this vast knowledge, and his workshops began kind of small, but as word got out, because he was such a brilliant, brilliant teacher.

Don’t say was! He’s still alive.

He’s still alive, right, but a brilliant mind. His workshop filled up and filled up more until there was no room for an actual workshop.

I only took one workshop at the Project. It was with Maureen Owen. You were in that workshop as well.

Yeah, Maureen was great.

I loved Maureen’s workshop. I really did good work in that workshop.

Why haven’t you taken more workshops?

I’ve always figured I can do it myself—isn’t that awful? Maureen gave me some good advice. I was working on Poet Laundromat and I’d used a word “illuminous” which isn’t a real word, and Maureen said, “Of course you can use the word. Poets invent words.”

You see! it’s good to have input. Right now Anselm’s teaching a workshop. I hear it’s wonderful. If you’re not writing, a workshop does get you writing. And it can be an inspirational thing. My publisher, Phyllis, you know, Strawgate Books, she’s taking Anselm’s workshop. I think he is teaching about how to write a long poem. And I hear he’s wonderful. He’s a curious combination. He’s very intellectual like John Godfrey, but he can really dig deep into the idiom of today’s language, and he really has the whole Lower East Side vernacular in his poems.

Well, he grew up there.

I tried to get the publisher of Rattapallax Books who didn’t know who Anselm Berrigan was at the time he was publishing me, and I tried to get him to do a book of Anselm’s, I said, “You really should do a book of his.” Or a book of Anselm and Edmund his brother. Because they’re both terrific poets and eventually he did get to know him, but he didn’t—Anselm is very loyal to Edge Books who first published him, but it’s wonderful to think of that whole heritage going on, Alice and Ted, and now their two sons and their sons are married, no, well yeah, Anselm is married to a poet and I believe Edmund is going with a poet, so it’s wonderful to think of that tradition going on. Wonderful. I often used to wonder what I’d be like if my parents had been—my parents were for the most part illiterate, so that’s quite a leap I made to writing.

Did they speak Russian at home or English?

Both. Russian, Yiddish.

Could you speak all of those, could you understand?

I understood them at the time. I’m not sure if I would now. That was a long time ago. Or I thought I understood them. Maybe I just understood their inflection. Pick up this. Eat this. But I really I wish I had gotten more, you know when I got out of high school there was not even a thought of college because I had to go to work, so I never got a college education, and I always feel what kind of a poet I could have been, would have been, should have been, if I had a better education, more of a background, but little did I realize that I had the perfect background because I had all of that yearning, all of that love which was instilled in me very young, it was just there in me, it was there, my mother gave me a great deal of love. Maybe to over compensate for my father not giving, but I mean I had that background, and that’s the background that keeps me writing today, that keeps me looking for miracles because if you write a good poem as far as I’m concerned it’s a fucking miracle.


It is. It absolutely is. So I had the background I had. We all have to come from somewhere.

Absolutely. And we are what we are. I mean sometimes I can get into that kind of mood, Bill, but we are what we are. Can I read Quack?

Of course you can read Quack. Why couldn’t you read Quack?

The Chinese students like this poem. And there’s no pornography in it.


It’s only frustrating because we know what
It should be & it’s not. I went to a shrink
Once & he said maybe you’re better off not seeing
Beyond your nose. Maybe you’re better off kid
Digging your ditches writing your poems going home
For what are poems but these disturbances of silence
These disturbing glimpses of other forms of lives

As for instance, a duck has to make a connection
For whatever reason, with another duck. So what’s
The duck do? Quack. He goes Quack my name is
Donald & I’m lonely. Quack my name is Donald &
I’m going crazy. & beyond my lake’s the valley
& I Donald I see the mountains & the spacious skies
And beyond that this sexy silence. Quack I kiss you, silence.

Oh God, that’s a great poem, but the silence was my father.

The silence was your father.

Yeah. I never quacked for my father. See I can make a joke. It’s a good poem.

It really is and I was so glad there was no cock sucking in it so I could take it to China. You’ve no idea! I like this one too. And of course I was desperately looking for poetry of yours—

I know without the cock sucking. You’ve made your point, Yorty!

I think I called you on the phone when I found the next poem.


If fiction is necessary what am I
doing in this torn dress at this very bus
stop he signs in a kind of language used
by polite intruders who enter ever ever so quietly

so what’s a Pip? The bus is named
Emma Bovary she smiles & gently moves over
one seat to let you sit down as we all must glance
just once, before it ends, the moonlight, the sultry breezes

& all the fleshly elements of from the heavens
of nights spent deep within the unimaginable crevices of
a run on tents of sentences, is everyone terribly not happy
as we both roll over & meet somewhere bumpy in the dark

that is life itself. I was born here, poor & distraught
of a deadly combination: a pen, blank paper, & a thought.

Bill applauds: That poem’s for Blanche DuBois! Y’know I saw a Streetcar Named Desire back in 1947 and I was 16 and I was so crazy about it, that crazy Blanche was me. I thought Brando was the hottest man I’d ever seen and look what a crazy life he led us all down. So much for fame. Anyway, I did write a poem the other day called BRANDO trying to recapture all those feelings back then. Hard to do. Maybe FICTION does it all better.

You know I got a sonnet out of this because in China there was a kid in my poetry workshop and he was in a speech contest, and during the speech contest, he thought of this poem, and he started to quote it, and then he forgot his own speech thinking about your poem, and it was kind of awful, there was this silence because his mind just went blank, but he didn’t make a sound; usually the Chinese, if they’re stalling, they go Mmm Mmm they make this sound, but he was just quiet. I got a poem out of it. And I use your poem when I’m talking about the abstract, I know you say you’re not a language poet, but there’s something about this poem that’s like the language poetry. So what’s a Pip? What is a pip?

I—it’s in a Charles Dickens novel. I was just wondering what it was, that’s all. Just a thought.

Well, the ending is very beautiful. I was born here, poor & distraught/ of a deadly combination: a pen, blank paper, & a thought. It’s just amazing, it really is, it’s beautiful, beautiful, and what’s so great about it is Bill, I put the whole thing in my sonnet, so I got to quote it too. Maybe someday somebody will think I wrote it. Laughs. But if you’re gonna steal, you might as well steal from the best.

Far from the best, my friend.



I think you’re up, you’re up there in the constellations. Bill, do you ever regret that you chose the life of a poet?

We laugh.

At times I do. I had spent a number of years doing plays, writing plays Off Off Broadway, and you know I got some, a lot of good reviews and thought my life would be in the theater, and I’ve finally come to realize that theater doesn’t have the same pull on me that poetry has. Poetry, being a poet, and thinking about writing a poem everyday, somehow is my life. Ah, if I write a good poem, like I say, It’s a miracle. If I write a so-so poem, a lot of the poems are just so-so, then it’s just part of the process. I think of it like painting, you know, it’s all layers and layers and layers, and I think all of the words come to me from out of the past, to use a movie title, Out Of The Past, and plays don’t do that. I have a basic need to be writing poetry, a basic need to do it, and if I ignore that need then I might just as well get in bed and pull the covers over my head.

Bed and head, where have we heard that rhyme before? Are you finished?

I think so, I don’t know if I said exactly what—but we’ll get to it—next time. There’s always a next time, right?


  1. Barbara Henning
    Posted 25 Jan ’11 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    This is lovely!
    Thank you, Don & Bill

  2. Lorna Smedman
    Posted 2 Feb ’11 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Dear Don,
    Your interview with Bill is wonderful–you so clearly transcribed the “now” of your meeting, including busboy.
    I have been thinking about teaching English in China (and perhaps Mongolia) and would love to talk to you about your experiences there. Would you have time for a cup of coffee/tea sometime soon?

    • Posted 2 Feb ’11 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Lovely to hear from you. Sure. You can come over sometime and have a coffee. Be nice to talk. I am busy but not so busy. Are you here?

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