Singing Secrets: Interview with Bill Kushner: Questions

April 10th at the Chelsea Square. I have some questions to ask Bill sent to me by several poets and writers. There is a family eating at the next table chattering away happily. Although I fear Bill won’t be heard I start recording when he starts to talk about Alice Notley; I figure might as well.

…Ah, getting close to my kind of poetry, which was something I always wanted to do, I think like Alice Notley, she is the closest poet we have who is really in touch with her anger and her frustration at life and the country and the world.

Talk louder, Bill. Just a little.

But I think Alice is completely in touch with her, her what I call madness, I think it’s just a fine madness because when you’re writing poetry you’re really writing a kind of madness as far as I’m concerned if you’re courageous enough to be in touch with it. I probably said that before.

I turn off the computer and then turn it on again as the loud happy family leaves. Bill has spilled some ketchup and is cleaning it up, preparing to take his pills.

Bill has just finished his egg white omelet and he’s having his pills with a little ketchup which he thinks is very amusing, but it is, there is ketchup over everything, ketchup on the table, ketchup on his hands, ketchup on the shirt, and ketchup on the pills, and there’s one, two, three, four, five, six pills, oh my goodness Bill, very nice colors, there’s a green one—I like the shade of the green—and that black, black one, my goodness.

The green is for men over fifty. Mostly organic and I figured, well, I’m just about over fifty so—There’s saw palmetto in them, which keeps me from peeing every five minutes.

Now Bill, we’re going to start asking you questions.

Go for it!

The first question is from Charlotte Carter. “Bill, I don’t know anyone who talks and writes and, I suppose, thinks about love more than you do—all sorts of love: mother love, sexual love, unrequited love, quick-and-dirty love, etc. Have you ever found—and maybe lost—a person or a thing that embodied total, completing, soul-filling love for you? Do you perhaps feel we aren’t supposed to ever actually get our hands on that ideal, that the search is all?”

God, that’s the hardest question of all.

And it’s the first one.

Yeah. Boy, Charlotte reached into my heart and just plucked out all the heartstrings. No I never found it, which is why I worry about it all the time. I was pretty sure of my mother’s love, but very unsure about my father. Here we go back to that theme again, don’t we? I mean it’s a nice balance between sure, not sure. Yes, Charlotte, there is no Santa Claus and yet the search is all.

Did you ever find a person who embodied the total complete soul filling love for you?

Only my mom.

Do you think we humans are ever supposed to get our hands on the ideal? Or is it the search?

I think that’s what makes us human, that we are always striving for that ideal, but ah the kind of love that is portrayed on TV and in the movies is not the kind of real love that there is because real love is non judgmental, is non altering, it’s accepting you as you are, and I don’t even love myself that way. Bill laughs. I’m very judgmental of myself and I can tell you all of my imperfections in case you dare to ask. So it’s a hard question for me. I have to think about it some more. Bill laughs. It’s very embarrassing.

Well, we’ll talk about it some more in a little bit. Now Bill we have a question from Maureen Owen.

Hi Maureen!

“What was the first poem or part of a poem you ever remember reading?”

Oh my God these are hard questions. I can’t remember who I read yesterday. I seem to remember being in a classroom, I think it was PS 25 in the Bronx, and the teacher reading Whitman, I remember When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, and ah hearing her voice and how she read it and I thought it was very beautiful and I just fell in love with poetry and Whitman right then and there. I just remember hearing the poem. Now you have to remember that that poem was about the death of Lincoln, and Lincoln is very much in my last book, In Sunsetland. And as soon as I heard that poem I went to the library and researched Lincoln and his life, and he became a prominent protagonist in my last book. So that poem went a long, long way with me.

Do you remember how old you were?

Oh my God, was I close to puberty then? I had a lot of crushes on a lot of teachers, I remember that. Her, she was pretty elderly then. One male teacher, I kept remarking on how well-dressed he was, he always wore a tweed suit, always seemed so cool, so in control, and so yeah early on I don’t know whether that’s transference or what that is, but ah I mean talking about love, what do you call that, school boy crushes?

Mmmhmm. I have often been enamored of teachers; and being a teacher, you have students who become enamored with you. It happens. I have been in love with many teachers. Ah, here’s the other part of Maureen’s question. “What was the first book of poems you ever bought?”

The busboy comes to take away Bill’s plate. There’s still a little food left on it and Bill puts his hand for the young man not to take it.

Busboy: Keep it?

Yo creo que si.

Busboy to Bill: You don’t want to go this?

Busboy doesn’t take the plate and Bill laughs
: He knows me to my soul, this kid. What was the book, what?

“What was the first book of poems you ever bought?”

I think it was Joyce Kilmer. I loved Joyce Kilmer’s Trees. I don’t know if it was Kilmer or Robert Frost, who I saw read, by the way, at the 92nd Street Y.

I like Robert Frost a lot.

He was a rotund man, very stately, he had a wonderful suit.

Do you remember any of the poems he read?

He read, ah—

All the hits.

All, all. The 92 Street Y is still a big reading place for poets.

Do you know what year that was?

Ah, the 40s, the 50s, I would say in the 50s. After the reading they allowed people to come into a certain room for the poet’s autograph, to sign his book.

Did you buy a book and have it autographed?

I did, yeah.

Do you still have it?

Oh I don’t have it, no, I mean so much of that stuff is gone, so much.

I love Robert Frost. I was sitting once talking with Gregory Corso and we talked—He liked Robert Frost an awful lot.

Gregory Corso liked Robert Frost?

Yes, very much, we both—

We’re going to make headlines here!

It was something we agreed on. He thought Shelley was better than Keats, but we both liked Robert Frost. Ah, so the first poem you really ever remember was When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed—

I remember it to this day. I loved it!

And the first book of poetry you every bought was either Joyce Kilmer or Robert Frost.

Yeah, but you know Whitman got me that book, the book that Melville House published because after 911 Melville House wanted to bring out an anthology of 911 poems and ah I wrote In The Hairy Arms of Whitman, which was in some way inspired by Lisa Jarnot. I was reading Lisa’s book—Lisa is one of the really great poets, I think, and something about her, her rhythm helped me to write In The Hairy Arms of Whitman, so I wrote that, sent that to Melville, and they brought out their 911 anthology, and they had a series of readings around town from the anthology and then that poem was kind of successful—I remember Anselm telling me he liked that poem, and praise from Anselm, you know, it went a long way, so then Melville House asked me for a book. They said we liked that poem. Bill laughs. And so I sent them around 200 poems. We both laugh. But they were very patient and selected whatever they wanted little by little, it wasn’t complete acceptance all at once, but Whitman helped me get that book published, so you know when I fall in love with someone, it goes deep, Don! Talking about love, it goes deep.

And speaking of Anselm, guess who the next question is from? Now if you thought Charlotte’s and Maureen’s questions were difficult, wait till you hear this one.

Oh God! Anselmo!

Are you ready?

Yeah. Go ahead.

“I’d like to know how you think about, or have thought about over time, the matter of writing out of your own experiences while also staying out of the way of the poem…that is, not letting the force of the I reiterating or replaying an experience overwhelm the poem’s need to move away from the person in order to be a poem.”

I think the question is a poem. Good for you, Anselm. What I do now is just write down what comes to me as it comes to me, however crazy it may sound, and I get it all down there and then if it’s promising enough I just go along with it—if it’s not it’s often times something I’ve written before so why write it again? And ah I don’t get in the way of what is talking to me, there is something that happens to my hand, from my mind to the hand, and as it goes to the paper it’s just sort of mechanical, it’s what the voice in me tells me to write, and I get out of the way of telling the voice to shut up and leave me alone. I write it all down and I would say most of the time, 75% of the time it doesn’t become a real poem, but I don’t stop it, even though I may sense that that’s happening, I don’t stop it, it just goes on and on.

I sometimes find even if I’m writing and I think what I’m writing’s bad that doesn’t necessarily mean it is—So I have to get to the end of it and then I will see. When I was in Scotland I was writing a sonnet a day, just sketching them out, and one day I thought this is stupid, but I kept writing it and when I looked at it later on, it was actually kind of perfect, I mean it wasn’t stupid, it was kind of perfect for what it was doing.

Yeah, you never know. Just let it be. To quote a Beatle’s song. We laugh. I reject a lot of what I’ve written. I mean I’m currently working on a new manuscript, and for me most of it is finished, but I have I think at the moment a very high sense of what a poem is, and if it doesn’t even come close to that, it goes into the reject pile, and that’s a big pile. Nothing I write is perfect, I’m not perfect so why should everything I write be perfect. But occasionally a poem just happens. I wrote a poem called Marilyn Monroe from a kid’s point of view, and that poem just happened, just exactly the way it came to me, just a matter of fact kind of poem, it was just good, it wasn’t bad. It was exactly the way I wanted the memory of Marilyn Monroe to occur because to me I think her life was tragic, and there are some aspects of my life that are tragic too. I mean to be a sex goddess is not something a woman can always live up to, you know. But you know for me sexuality is a very sensitive issue, and I’ve felt she was me in a kind of way, and caught in a kind of cage. She caged herself and I’ve caged myself too. Ever since Head everyone thinks I’m that very gay crazy poet and that’s an aspect of me, but I don’t want to be labeled. As I’ve gotten older and closer to death, I think about death, I think about illness, I think about passing away from this life, I think about family values. I think family is very important. Anyway that Marilyn Monroe poem is something I’m proud of and it just happened, I didn’t have to think it out, I just put it down the way I saw it.

And you got out of the way of it.

Yes, Anselm, I got out of the way of Marilyn Monroe. Poor Marilyn. But then you know poor me. I put myself in a kind of a jam. I wrote Head in a kind of heat of the moment. I had a permanent erection for two or three months as that book was being written and that came out of all that heat. I think Lewis who published the book was very happy with it, he wanted heat, he wanted to put out a gay book, and boy was it gay!

OK. So that was a question from Anselm. We heard from the apple and now we are going to hear from the tree. The next question is from Alice Notley.

Oh my God. Alicia!

“Now that you’ve achieved your great age, what do you think poetry articulates for you —What is the purpose of poetry? What is the purpose of your poetry?”

The purpose of my poetry is to release the madness. Like I said before. Let it go out there naked and unashamed. I think that’s the purpose of poetry. When Frost was writing about you know miles to go before I sleep and promises to keep, that’s a kind of—to me that was always a lullaby of madness, maybe not to other people, but to me it was. I think just let it happen, be crazy on the page, and hope for the best. And I love you, Alice, wherever you are.

So then is the purpose of the poetry just to release your madness or do you want it to do anything for anybody else?

I think it helps to free other people. My last reading at the Project in January, after I read, I did have people coming over to me with my book, and some of those people were clearly affected by something I wrote. I mean I had a guy come up with three of my books, and he clearly had read my work, and clearly it meant something to him. I can only hope that it frees other people too. Alice’s work frees me. I love her Alma, her Houses books. To me she’s the most adventurous poet around. Ashberry seems to me a bit too safe compared to Notley. Notley is letting it all hang out there.

Which you like to do too.

Yeah, Notley is—

And Kushner.

If you say so. I have miles to go before I get anywhere near Notley’s sphere. She is just amazing, she has all these different personas. I haven’t even come close to all the crazy people in me. I have a lot of crazy people in me. Alice is so free and I’m still trying to unfetter myself from all these mental chains that I got into growing up poor in the Bronx and gay and whatever cage I put myself in, and so I think Notley is my poet laureate.

Your poems get you out of the cage.

Bill laughs. Thank you, Don. You are very astute and kind.

So they get you out of the cage.

If I write a good one, yeah.

And they get other people out of their cages.

That’s my hope.

Rrrrrrrrr! I roar like a lion. Everybody’s roaring and growling and running around.

Oh yeah. A lot of us are very caged. I mean I get out and then something happens and I’m back in it again. Mentally. I need help. I could use a shrink or a whole battery of them, but that might stop the poetry.

Exactly.

Writing a poem is maybe saving me from the asylum.

Yes. So that’s the purpose. Now. We heard from one apple and we heard from the tree. Now here’s the other apple.

Eddie Berrigan?

Yes.

Eddie is a wonderful poet. Exciting, daring, touching, wonderful.

“What are some individual poems (by yourself and others) that have been important to you as a person and a poet and how?”

Bill laughs. Only Eddie, only Eddie could think of that. Well obviously In The Hairy Arms of Whitman was a very important poem for me because it got me a publisher, it got me published, it got me a book. A poem I wrote called Kiss in Lewis’s workshop, I like that poem, it was ah—Lewis put together a workshop book of us and I have two or three poems in it, and Kiss is one of them, and I think Lewis liked it enough to give me a book, he gave me Head. Oh I’m sorry Lewis! We laugh. I don’t mean you gave me head—I mean—

Lewis doesn’t mind, he doesn’t mind what people think.

No, he doesn’t mind.

Do you have a copy of Kiss? Can you recite it off the top of your head?

No, I’d have to find that. That workshop book, when the hell did it come out? I think it was called Eight-thirty because that’s when we met, we met at 8:30 in the evening at The Poetry Project in one of the little hallways, they put us in a hallway or on the rooftop or in the steeple.

I’d like to see it.

It’s a good poem. I think Lewis realized, Hey I’ve got a gay poet in my class, why should I let this go to waste?

So you talked about the Whitman poem and Frost’s poems, ah, are there any other poems that you’ve read that grabbed you early on. I know you talked about song lyrics.

Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale. John Donne.

Those are two of my favorites. I love those guys.

Cool! Maybe that’s why we’re friends.

In one of your poems that you were reading at your last reading at St Mark’s you put in a little bit of Ode To A Nightingale, you talked about the alien corn, you know, Ruth is standing in the alien corn.

Oh my God, really? That is totally unconscious. I did not do that consciously. You know In Sunsetland I take some phrases from James Schuyler and Ted Berrigan, who I studied with. Ted Berrigan was just amazing to study with, he was Mr. Poetry, and when he spoke about it, he was just beautiful and inspiring, as was studying with Alice and Steve Carey and studying with Lewis, they just are just poetry, that’s their existence, I mean Alice has said, “Poetry is all there is,” and she’s so right. Am I getting carried away?

No, it’s fine.

I was talking about going to the readings at the Y, and I remember Ogden Nash read there, and I went to that one, and he was just a very amusing poet. No one is ever going to put him in the Whitman class, or Robert Frost, in that company, and I wrote in my autograph book

Who is he? My man, my pash?
His name? Why it’s Mr

And then he looked at it and he wrote Ogden Nash, and he laughed. I got a laugh out of Ogden Nash whose work it was to get people to laugh. So I got a laugh out of Ogden Nash, that’s all I wanted to say. I remember that because it made me proud. It was one of my first little poems that to me had an effect on a very popular poet, he was an amazingly popular poet, he was published in all the magazines, Saturday Evening Post, and I guess he made a living from it.

I think he did.

That’s all what I wanted to say. I don’t know if it was worth it.

Yes, it was really worth it. How old were you then?

This was back when, in the 50s?

So you would have been in your 20s.

Yeah, I think so. I didn’t really become a poet until—I kept putting it off, I didn’t think I could ever write poetry, and I still don’t. Can’t understand where it comes from or how it comes. I mean in the end we don’t know. Do we really know? Did Shakespeare know he was a fucking genius? He just did what he did. We don’t know. I seriously doubt that I’m going to last throughout the ages. To me, it’s all temporary, but while I’m here I like to grasp a little bit of what makes me happy, and that’s what makes me happy, writing a poem.

OK, a question from the wonderful Elinor Nauen.

I love Elinor Nauen. She’s one of the few ladies who’s seen my penis. She took my picture for KOFF.

Bill everybody has seen your penis.

I beg your pardon. She and Maggie Dubris came to my apartment. They were doing pictures of naked men poets. John Godfrey was one. And I said, You’re not going to take a picture of me naked unless I have an erection. So they go, “Uhhh, all right.” So I run into the bathroom, jerk off, and come out, Take me! Take me! Take me now!

And she did. So here’s Elinor’s first question. “Do you still write a poem every day? Do you ever get tired of writing? Is it easier because you do it so consistently or harder?”

I think about a poem every day. If I’m not writing a poem I revise old poems. My newest manuscript I’ve been revising and reshaping. It has a narrative flow to it almost like a novel but there’s a poem for everyone.

Do you ever get tired of writing?

No. At my age I just get tired physically and that’s

That.

You have to be healthy—Well, you don’t, but your body has to be somewhere OK.

“Is it easier because you do it so consistently or harder?”

Ah, I think it’s easier because if I start a poem and it’s something that I know, I’m going down a road that I’ve been before—and of course I’ve gone down a lot of roads in my poetry—I stop and go on to something else, so that makes it easier; I’m not wasting the time. And then if I keep writing, the more you write the more you realize you’re trying hard not to say something, so I’m trying to get at more and more of what I’m trying to say. It’s about human relations, which as you know can be very complicated.

OK. Now. “How did being a KOFF calendar pinup change your life?”

It almost changed my life because Steve Carey when I was taking his workshop, he said, “Oh, Jimmy Schuyler saw that picture and he wants to meet you.” Of course, he saw a guy with a hard-on.

Did you meet him?

No. I got all crazy and tongue-tied and told Steve you know he wouldn’t find me very interesting or something like that.

Ah. “Who/what are you reading?”

I was rereading you this morning.

What were you reading?

Your New York Chronicles. It’s such an honest book, it starts off so lovely with you on jury duty about drugs, and the killing of the boy—who’s the boy you mention got killed, the Palestinian boy, right?

Mmmhmm.

You get right into the whole tension.

And what’s interesting about that is that happened a year before 911. That whole New York Chronicles is going up to 911, being in New York that year.

It’s the life of a writer. It’s not all guns and roses. And I also love and adore your China Journal 2006, that you wrote about teaching poetry to Chinese kids. That is another superb piece of journal writing. Hopefully, in time you’ll get all those journal writings together in a book. It should be out there, it’s so good. The world needs it.

Well, that’s nice, Bill. You were reading me.

It flows very easily. You know Barbara Henning got her diary writing published—I don’t know what you would call it—You should get yours published too. They’re very good.

I know. I’m very bad at it. I’m happy just printing out my own little books and handing them out, but I have to do that one day. Now. “By what process”—We’re still with Elinor—”By what process and how long did it take to find the form that works so well for you?”

Well, when I was studying with Lewis he was talking about Edwin Denby writing a poem a day, a sonnet, and of course I was trying to impress Lewis, so I started in on the sonnet form, and of course Ted Berrigan and his sonnets were just amazing—One thing just flowed into another and it all led to Head, my first book of gay sonnets.

Edwin Denby was a sweetheart. I only got to know him at the end of his life. We were getting to know each other, and then he killed himself. He liked my work. He was nice, he was nice to me.

So anyhow I found the sonnet form, and when you start out writing your teachers are very much into form. But now I just put my words down and if it becomes a sonnet fine, and if it doesn’t fine. You know I’m an American, I don’t need to lock myself into form. I love Jazz, I love music, I love all kinds of beautiful forms, so it’s wherever the words go. I don’t try to box them in, and my poems in the new volume they’re longer and longer, they just go and go until they stop. So that’s good.

Now Lisa Jarnot. “Bill, if you were asked to create a reading list for a fledgling poet, which twelve books or writers would you put at the top of your list?” Bill laughs. Now we only have ten fingers. This is going to be a tough one. We’re going to have to use two toes.

Well, there’s Shakespeare’s sonnets. There’s Keats. There’s Frank O’Hara, there’s Denby, Ted’s marvelous poetry. There’s Anselm Berrigan. There’s Edmund Berrigan. They’re inspiring to me, they really are. John Ashberry, yes, him. Alice Notley, yes, her. Bernadette Mayer of course. And Lisa, did I mention Lisa? Oh my goodness. I was having dinner with Lisa and I asked her, How long does it take you to write a poem? And she said, It takes me forever. It takes me a long time to write a poem. The way she said it, it was like hearing a painter talk. You know sometimes great poems take a long time.

Some of my sonnets have taken over a year to write.

Yeah! You’ve got to have patience with it.

Horace said you shouldn’t publish a poem until you’ve worked on it for seven years. He said, You can show it to your friends, but no publishing for seven years—I kind of agree with that a little bit.

Horace, yeah. Ah—Was that Horace Greeley?

I don’t think we’ve reached twelve poets yet—

I hope someone asks about fame. Because I kind of think fame may be the worst thing that can happen to a poet for some reason. Did I mention all the poets?

No.

Robert Frost. Walt Whitman absolutely. Emily Dickinson would be in my top twelve. I use a lot of her I’m nobody. Who are you? I misquote that a lot in my work. There’s one poem I wrote, I like to lick umbrellas. Do you? They have a name for us, you know. So I misquote Emily all the time, which I seem to find amusing although who knows if anyone else does. Ah, so they’re all mentioned, right?

I think so. If you don’t have twelve, I’ll put my name down. Bill laughs heartily. OK, now here we go. Lewis Warsh—his question—

Oh, Mr. Warsh! He’s helped me so much. And he’s a top poet! What’s his question?

“What was it like growing up in the Bronx? An experience we both share. Did you ever go to the Loew’s Paradise, the great movie theater on the Grand Concourse?”

We moved around a lot. My father got some good deals with landlords, being that he was a house painter, and in most of the buildings we lived in, there was a real sense of sharing among the neighbors. We were poor but everyone kind of shared with the kids, so in that sense, it was fine. I did have a sense that we were poor. Because as I grew up, you know, I felt guilty every time I had to have a new pair of shoes, or my pants were too small, I could see that it was hard for them to, you know, spend the money, but ah—

“Did you ever go to the Loew’s Paradise?”

Yeah, I loved the Loew’s Paradise. MGM musicals. It had a fantasy feeling like the sky, the twinkling stars—You just looked up and you were in heaven. So that was a classy place to go to. I was a big fan of the movies.

“Who was your first boyfriend?”

Who asked that?

Lewis. It’s his last question. Sort of a non sequitor here. I guess he wants to know if you met him at the Loew’s Paradise. Did you ever have sex at the Loew’s Paradise?

I did. I ah. I went with my sister to see a movie at the Paradise and went to the bathroom and met this young man just like O’Hara’s poem, and he wanted me to go home with him, and I said, I’m with my sister, and he said, Well, it will just be a little while. I live nearby. Well, a little while went into a long while.

What did your sister?—I mean she must have been panicked or something, or was she just watching the movie?

When I went back, Loew’s Paradise was closed, but my sister was waiting, and I thought for sure she’d give me the third degree, but—

She probably didn’t want to know.

That’s right. She didn’t wanna know.

Was that your first encounter?

Yeah.

So your first encounter kind of came out of Loew’s Paradise—

That’s right, the man from paradise.

How old were you?

Thirteen or fourteen, whatever. He was in his twenties. He was very nice. We did every imaginable position.

Were you the top or the bottom? Bill mouths the word: bottom. So that was your first time, you didn’t have any practice, you just went right into it?

You don’t have to have practice; it’s a primal instinct.

OK. Now. John Godfrey, another nude poet asks, “What poets or other writing impelled you to write your earliest, earliest poems, before you were aware of the schools, the downtown scene, and the workshops at St Mark’s? What of them do you still feel loyal to?”

Walt Whitman. Yeah, he was the one. I just remembered his poem for Abraham Lincoln, and I thought it was kind of wistful and romantic, and that’s the way I was feeling, I was feeling wistful and romantic, so he’s the guy. I sensed the homoeroticism that was in his work. And that meant a lot to me because it was all the stuff I was trying to hook up to, and there are those poems where he’s longing for contact with someone, walking beside you.

There’s nothing like them. There’s nothing that expresses that longing for human connection like a poem of Whitman.

I don’t know how he managed to do that. Coming from his time. But he did. He made that break through. God bless him. Where would we be without Whitman? I remember when I titled my book In The Hairy Arms Of Whitman, some guy asked me, How do you know Whitman had hairy arms? And I said, I know. Laughs.

Do you like hairy arms?

I like any arms.

OK. Now Bernadette. Here we go. What do you think Bernadette is going to ask you? She has two questions.

Something like, “Why are you such a whore, Bill?”

OK.

”Do you think that writing poetry interferes with your life as a whore?”

It’s not quite that way. Here’s what she says. “What have you found to be your favorite way of fucking?”

Bill laughs, cackles actually. At this point in my life it’s just me and my hairy hand. We laugh. Thank you, Bernadette.

OK. It looks like the two young couples in the booth in back of Bill are getting up. I think the table is moving.

They’re moving away from us? Who can blame them?

Everyone’s lost their appetite. They’re leaving. Oh dear. What have we done?

Bill continues: I’ve been on the top, I’ve been on the bottom. It depends on the person you’re with. Sometimes it’s just easier to be the bottom because some guys are a little indecisive about what they want to do so you just wrap your legs around their shoulders—

And call it a day

Or call it a night, you know. Then they suddenly, Oh, so that’s what we’re doing—

Now this is Bernadette’s second question.

Of course.

“Pretend that I’m going to be 80 on my next birthday, what question would you ask me?”

Oh my God, Bernadette! Ah. I heard that she wrote at night while everyone was sleeping, maybe that was because of the kids. So, do you write naked?

That’s an easy answer. Does she write naked? Of course she does. I’m sure she’s written naked quite often.

Oh good. Let me picture that. That’s hot.

Do you know when I was having a hard time sleeping, Bernadette wrote me a series of poems, ah, and they were very long and I think it was sort of to put me to sleep. Laughs. But I think Bernadette sometimes has insomnia, and often wrote at night.

Yeah, yeah. Does she still write at night?

She probably gets up at three in the morning, like we all do at the age of eighty, and she might be writing then.

I get up and I read or write, or I revise. There’s always something to do. Fucking poetry. But it is so important to find at least one poet you love and adore and to read and to read his or her poems endlessly. I do. I plug into all my loves.

I have to find those poems that Bernadette—I have all my poetry and stuff under the bed, all of my New York, East Village stuff is under the bed.

Well, you’re so busy on top of the bed, you have no time to look under the bed. So I didn’t answer that question right, did I? Bernadette, do you feel you’ve made a recovery from your ah, ah?

Stroke?

Your stroke, right.

Now that’s something that you and Bernadette have in common. And you wanted to talk about that, but not a whole lot.

I wanted to say that when I was rushed to the hospital, Beth Israel, I didn’t pack a suitcase, so throughout my treatment I was dressed in diapers, and every day there was a lesson on how to walk—I didn’t remember what my body, ah—and I felt helpless, so much a baby, and from that I think I began to write poems looking back on my life, because I was very much in touch with that helplessness and anger, and I think out of that came Sunsetland, and the new book that I have, which also pictures my life, my relationships with my sisters, neighbors, and my father. A stroke, all kinds of illness can be related to your creativity, you can use it not to create, but subconsciously my stroke led to a lot of interior writing, and I want to explore helplessness more, you know being out of and being in control, and so I think I’ll continue to do that, but that’s directly related to my time in the hospital, to being just a baby.

Now Stacy Szymaszek. She told me in her e-mail how much she admires you and your bravery in writing. For her it was very difficult to come out about her sexuality.

Oh my. No my answer is, Stacy, you’re already doing it. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re fine.

This is what she says. “I really appreciate and feel emboldened by the carnal in your work—The homoeroticism. What did you have to go through to reach that level of candor? Do you think that poets of my generation censor themselves, are afraid of writing about sex, and if so, what has happened?”

I think that Language Poetry sometimes can skirt true feelings. And the poetry taught in many colleges. Smartass poetry, goodbye my heart. Me, I had to go through a lot, a whole bunch of internal struggles to even begin to put my feelings down on paper and into a poem, into poetry. It’s a very sensitive thing to go through and to do and who knows how many young poets there are who even think it is important to go through and do? But the whole metamorphosis took a long time. Along the way I had sex with women and men, and like I say I saw and read pornography and I thought the language of gay pornography was poetically exciting. I wanted to put that into my work, gradually I wanted to put that more and more into my work and little by little with the aid of my teachers because Lewis was a great unlocker, Alice and Ted, everyone wanted to get to the sexual part of my nature it seemed to me, so studying at the Poetry Project was a very freeing thing for me. I was just in the right place at the right time. There’s no reason for American poets to hold back. I taught a poetry workshop there, The Poetry of Love & Lust. One of the students was a young Chinese woman and you know there can be a bit of reserve and repression within the Chinese culture. But she brought a poem to the workshop, it was about the breakup between her and the woman she loved. It was a lovely poem, really, and brave of her to come out as a lesbian in my workshop. I was really proud of that.

But don’t you think maybe because of the oppression you felt, that the oppression really might make you want to revolt? Ah, say just you when Elinor comes to take your picture and you insist on having an

Erection

An erection. That sort of could just have come out of all the oppression you went through as a child and just wanting to be a rebel—

I wanted to be James Dean—a rebel. And Bette Davis—a Jezebel. All those belles! But all kidding aside, you have to constantly overcome a great deal. Maybe there are young poets who feel the sexual revolution has come and gone and they don’t have to worry about it anymore, but the point is they do. Repression is always going on in every fucking small town where every gay boy and gay girl is afraid to come out for fear of becoming another Matthew Shepherd. Freud had his finger on something. People are awfully afraid of death and their sexuality and yet they never talk about it, they don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to face that fear. I think the one thing I’ve always been afraid of is madness, going insane, and now I’m trying to face that in my current poetry, the new book.

And sexuality and madness are close.

If it doesn’t come out, if you hold it in.

I grew up Pennsylvania Dutch and when I was in 9th grade—and I don’t know if it was just a story or if it really happened—there was a story of a Mennonite kid, and the Mennonite kid I guess was coming into his sexuality—You know Jesus said, If your eye causes you to sin, cast your eye out, and he plucked his eyes out—

His eyes out?

Because Jesus said, If your eyes cause you to sin take them out. I guess it had to do with his sexuality. Looking at men, looking at women. Who knows what?

Oh my God!

And the story was that in the hospital, he tried to cut his right hand off too.

Oh my God!

Because Christ also says, If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Jesus was speaking in metaphor, right? I’m assuming he didn’t want anybody to really do that, but growing up in a repressed area like Pennsylvania during the 50s maybe this kid did go insane with sexuality.

My heart goes out to all those kids growing up. What if you were gay and Amish?

I don’t know. I never ever saw one.

Who knows what happens? Maybe they take them out in the buggy and drown them.

Like the kittens.

Yeah.

So here we are at last, Bill. This is going to be my question, the last question. “As you are in your golden years, what do you really want to write about and explore?”

Well, death, but also an appreciation for life, to how beautiful it is just looking at a flower. Nature is beautiful. What was the question again?

I don’t remember. We laugh. Ah, what do you want to still explore in your writing and get people to think about? What’s the message?

The message is just be brave. Be whatever you are. Be the real you. Don’t be the cosmetic you. Try to find something that contributes to life and to the earth and replenishes the soul, your soul and try to be a good person, a good human being. Try not to kill anybody.

We laugh. That’s hard sometimes. Very hard.

I know.

I’ve wanted to kill a few people, but so far I’ve avoided it. Sometimes I dream I’ve killed somebody. I’m either trying to hide the body or I’m going to get caught or something’s going to happen—I’ve got this corpse and I’m not quite sure who it is or where it is or what’s happened—

Do you know how I found my baby picture you wanted? You know I was looking all over my apartment and it’s so full of papers and books and God knows what other clutter, but I had a nap before I came here, and I woke up, and in the dream I dreamed that I found that baby picture and I woke up and I looked around and reached out to the top of my computer where there was a stack of papers and that’s where the baby picture was. It was up there all along. It was very weird because I looked for it everywhere else except where it was. But that’s what I’ve been looking for. That baby. I was trying to give birth to myself in my poetry. And in some poems I do and in other poems I don’t. You gotta take what comes along, you know? The truth about writing is, ah, you can’t always write a masterpiece every single time unless you’re Alice Notley. Bill laughs. You know you just can’t do it, I mean I can’t, but you have to be able to know the difference. And go on. Just fucking go on.


Bill and I met on Friday, May the 30th at noon for some lunch at the Chelsea Square and to chat about the first draft of the interview that I had typed out and Bill had proofread. I’d been to the gym and Bill had been doing his laundry. Bill was fifteen minutes late. He’s somebody who’s pretty much on time, so I wasn’t surprised when he sat down and handed me the following poem that he had jotted down during the wash and dry cycles and then quickly typed out at home, the poet who revises and revises, handing me a poem he had written and finished in the matter of an hour and some minutes. It seems very fitting to end the interview with it.

RICHARD HELL

I never ran over Richard Hell. I never
ran into Richard Hell. I was just walking
along minding my own business when there
he was, Richard Hell. Hell, I said to my
self, it’s Richard Hell. No, I never ever
said that or thought that what’s that bell?
Is this gonna be one of those obsessive things
because I swore last it was last night that
I dreamed there I was in the ring with him,
Richard Hell? & Richard Hell was wearing
this huge jockstrap? & so there I am thinking,
“˜Here, here, Kushner, this is a rather fool-
hardy thing to be doing!’ when Richard Hell
lets out a left and a right and boy that man has
he got a mean left and it sent me flying. When
I woke up, to my great surprise, why I had me
a hardon. That goddam Richard Hell, why he
damn gave me a hardon, a very hard hardon!
So-o, if you see Richard Hell, tell him
what I said. Oh, & tell him I also said Hell-o.

Bill Kushner 4/30/10

 

 

 

One Comment

  1. Peter Bushyeager
    Posted 26 Sep ’10 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    The last installment is the best! The interview is just great! The photos are nice, too. (I’ve always been impressed with your great head of hair!)

    P.

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