Interview With The Paris Review

In early 2013, The Paris Review asked me to give an interview. I bargained for first serial publication rights, and was given permission to post it here.

Ted Hash-Berryman

 

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

A couple of months ago.

INTERVIEWER

That’s not very long ago. What were you doing before that?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Quite a bit of Adderall. I was doing a lot of talking too, mostly lectures.

INTERVIEWER

Do you start your poems at the beginning?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

No, but I begin at the start.

INTERVIEWER

Where does a poem begin for you? Do you take notes for poems? Do you get up in the middle of the night?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

There is no beginning and no end, really. It’s just something that is there and just discovered. There is no source or anything. It’s just like swimming in the ocean and looking under a tree only to find a bucket full of germs. You don’t know what to do with it, but it’s there so you do something.

I take notes for poems by writing the poem for which I am taking notes.

Sometimes if I drink a glass of water before bed I’ll get up during the night to piss.

INTERVIEWER

What inspires that first line, though? Is it something you see? Is it a passing thought, a line of someone else’s work?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

It could be a passing thought, yes, or a line of someone’s work, sometimes. But never anything I see. Visual perception is drunk on familiarity, so it never provides anything interesting. This is why the poet opts for the eyes of a child. Everything should be looked at as if for the first time. That’s how actual things are noticed and not merely seen.

INTERVIEWER

Do you know your own poems by heart?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

It’s hard not to know your own poems by heart, given all the time spent writing and revising them. But no, I intentionally forget them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you know a lot of poetry by heart?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Of Being Numerous and Leaves of Grass are the only two things I know by heart. Everything worth memorizing is contained within these two poems. I’ll read anything, but memorization is dangerous because what is implanted in the brain cage is not easily unfettered. I like what William Morris says, Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. He was talking about an actual house, but the same principle applies. The mind is its own house. I would also add “know to be necessary” to that list.

INTERVIEWER

Who else do you feel influenced by? Do poets of your generation tend to read each other’s newest work in the magazines and learn from each other?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Charles Reznikoff has probably had the most influence on my work. We spent something like two years just living in his parents’ basement, playing piano and trying to define “the line.”

I’ve tried reading the popular magazines of the day, but they are for the most part unbearable. I think some poets read them to know which types of poems to emulate in order to gain cog status within the poetry machine; of course, as we’ve seen, doing so creates a self-perpetuating cycle of mediocrity or worse. Don’t get me wrong, there are great poets in my generation whom I greatly admire, and they know who they are, but I assure you they aren’t reading the popular magazines.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start showing your poetry to other people? Were you sending out poems when you were on the assembly line?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

I don’t show my poems to others unless they ask. I’ve never been one to send out poems for publication unless first solicited by a respectable editor. I figure if people are interested enough in what I have to say to ask me for a poem, they will actually read the poem, and hopefully appreciate it, and maybe even offer some helpful criticism.

I appreciate your calling it an assembly line, but let’s try not to glorify what Burger King does.

INTERVIEWER

Well, then, do you think of a particular audience when writing certain poems?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Not really, but I like to ask myself when writing, “would a superintelligent dog be able to follow this?” If the answer is yes, then I’m generally satisfied with the poem. If the answer is no, then I know I’m in for a long night of revision. Revising my superintelligent dog serum, I mean. Not the poem. The poem was perfect.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel there’s some sort of integrity in the poetry world because there isn’t the lure of money?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

I’m sure it’s there, but no, in general there’s not much integrity in the poetry world. Even without the lure of money, poets are comically pulled toward the imagining of it. But to paraphrase Heroclitus, “seekers of gold dig up much earth and find little.” I just want to shout, “It’s not there! There is no money!” You could sell 100,000 books and get tenure at an ivy league school, but you still will never be wealthy. Then again, why would you want to be? There may not be money in poetry, but there’s security, and don’t underestimate how valuable security is, especially to a poet.

INTERVIEWER

Somebody once asked you what question you would like to be asked and you said the question was, “Are you happy you became a poet?” What’s the answer to that question now?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

I never said that. Who told you I said that? Was it Bill Knott?

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us about growing up, your family?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

I prefer not to recount stories from my family life, but if you ask me a specific question I’ll answer it.

INTERVIEWER

What did your mother read to you?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Kafka, Camus, and the Bible.

INTERVIEWER

Was there anything that you were particularly afraid of as a child? The dark, spiders, and so forth.

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

It’s funny that you mention spiders. When I was a child I actually had reverse-arachnophobia, wherein I was terrified of everything that wasn’t a spider. I know it sounds crazy, and, well, it is crazy, but at the time it was crippling. I had to wear glasses with spiders painted on the lenses just to live my day-to-day. My parents had to cut my mattress in the shape of a spider just to get me to go to bed. Fortunately I got over it when a black widow killed my babysitter. She was a great painter though.

INTERVIEWER

Was there a time when your true self suddenly emerged, an epiphany: I mustn’t be a Stevens; I mustn’t be a Ferlinghetti?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

How could I ever be Stevens? He’s the Emperor of Ice Cream. I would have to, I don’t know, eat way more ice cream than I’m currently averaging, and even then, how do I know if it’s enough to become the new emperor? It’s easier just to be me. And who’s Ferlinghetti? Is he the guy who sued Ginsberg for plagiarizing “Howl”?

INTERVIEWER

If you had to construct a poet out of whole cloth, so to speak, what attributes would you give him or her?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

A cloth vagina.

INTERVIEWER

Anything else?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

I might make a cloth penis.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever considered writing a novel?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

A novel has the advantage of being able to reach a mass audience, but it can never make a pronouncement as directly or as strikingly as a poem can. The tension comes from the narrative and character interactions rather than the syntax and line. It may take a whole chapter or the entire book to inspire the same emotional response that one poem might. To me, it’s just a far less efficient medium. I’ve considered writing a novel, and I am always coming up with ideas for plots and stories, but honestly it just seems like a lot of work.

INTERVIEWER

What made you turn back to the short form after having written two long poems?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

I assume you’re talking about A Good Taunt and Higher Modernist. Once I completed these poems, I felt compelled toward the short form because of how it’s very nature precludes any argument against it; what is written is too tight even for air holes and thus is impregnable. Besides, John Ashbery said he didn’t like the direction the longer poems were taking (but I still think that’s only because A Good Taunt contains his home address). Once Unintentional Blackface was published, I felt inspired to write more short poems, so I just sort of went with it. I’m still trying to get Male Rape to the right publisher, however.

INTERVIEWER

Was that a Freudian slip?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

No, it’s the title of one of my poems.

INTERVIEWER

What do you tell the people in your writing classes? Is there sort of a principle that you start out with? What are your opening remarks to a classroom of would-be writers?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Well, I wouldn’t really call them classes. I just have different people come stay with me for a few weeks at a time and we take drugs and write and talk about poems. At the end of their stay, they pay me whatever they feel it was worth, plus half of the utilities. No, I wouldn’t call it a class at all.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have good teachers?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

The best. All of the books I’ve read have taught me something about my craft and/or myself. Though most of the teachers in my PhD program were terrible. Terrible people, I mean. They were great teachers.

INTERVIEWER

What effect do you think fame has on a poet? Can this sort of success ruin a writer?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Fame is the most pernicious of curses because it lures you ever toward it and then when you finally touch it, it eviscerates you from the inside out, soul first. However, to equate fame with success is to make a grave mistake. It is something terrible poets do. And success is something else entirely. Regardless, if a poet is writing for the sake of expected fame, then he or she is already ruined. And if fame falls upon the neck of an innocent writer, a horrible ravenous Bukowski is created that can never be sated.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like to take high tea with William Butler Yeats?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Well his cat had just died the day before so he basically only talked about that. I felt empathy for him, of course, he was a wreck, but I really didn’t give a fuck about the cat. We had planned to discuss Spinoza’s Ethics and that never happened so it turned out to be a waste of a day.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say something more about this rescue action? Just what happened?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

I hate telling this story, but OK. Basically I saved Dennis Lehane’s dog. It wasn’t spectacular or anything. Poets & Writers tweeted that Lehane’s dog was missing. This was in December of 2012, I think. I didn’t think anything of it, but later that night I discovered a beagle while on a walk around the neighborhood, and it matched the description. It turns out that Lehane and I were living like 7 houses down from each other at the time. He offered to write me into his next novel as a reward, but I told him I was all set.

INTERVIEWER

Have you had much contact with men in politics and government?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

No. I try to stay away from politicians, government agents, police officers, city comptrollers, meter maids, former presidents, Texas rangers, border patrol, Supreme Court justices, and so on. Essentially anyone in a position of judicial power turns me off. But now that you mention it, I’m still waiting to hear from Michael Robbins’ lawyer.

INTERVIEWER

How about writers as leaders? Yeats, for instance, held office.

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Poets, true poets, are probably less corruptible than most, so maybe Yeats was a decent politician. I wouldn’t recommend it, though.

INTERVIEWER

Do you own any credit cards?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

I don’t believe in the banking system and no longer hold any accounts in my name. Why would I allow some avaricious nonentity to hold onto my money? It’s literally the one thing separating me from destitution. I always carry at least $74 in cash when I go out and so far I’ve been able to do everything I’ve wanted with that amount.

INTERVIEWER

What made this change?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

When I came to understand the evil inherent in capitalism. It is a system which necessitates inequality and rewards greed. One person has to be in the ditch for another person to be in the clouds. I want to have as little participation in such a system as possible.

INTERVIEWER

Does this current deterioration and corruption of language, imprecision of thought, and so forth scare you—or is it just a decadent phase?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

How can language be corrupted? It merely is, and what it is is ever-shifting. It is in changing that things find repose. To corrupt language is to make meaning flourish. Imprecision of thought is something else, but what it is not is just a phase.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a certain age when a writer is at the height of his powers?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Yes, it is the instant before his or her death, lacking senility and/or dementia.

INTERVIEWER

In the early thirties, did you write for an audience that you wanted to jolt into awareness?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

No. I was just trying to wake those guys up. I’m only beginning to tackle awareness.

INTERVIEWER

You weren’t really there, were you?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

If I was, I was eating a lot of peyote. But what if I was somewhere else, then?

INTERVIEWER

Of which poem are you proudest?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Probably Higher Modernist. That one was written during a very dark time in my life. I was eating a lot of mushrooms during that period because Kooser had told me they would treat my depression, and one night in the full trance of an eight hour trip I Kubla Khan’d out the entire poem in one sitting, although it felt like the month of January was passing at the time. In the night’s confusion I mistook the whole experience for an affective dream. Fortunately when I awoke in the morning I realized it was no dream; I lay broad tripping. I have that poem to thank for halting my descent down the infinite conical staircase traveled upon by the depressed.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever finished a book you’ve hated?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Every book has something to hate about it, which is equally and maybe even especially true for some of my favorites. If a book continues to keep me captivated, I will keep reading it. However, I will never finish a truly terrible book because it is my right, nay, my duty to do so.

INTERVIEWER

If you were to go mad, what do you think your madness would be?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

I often think that I would make a great narcissist.

INTERVIEWER

Does poetry contain music?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Poetry contains everything. Does poetry contain physics? Yes. Does poetry contain your rickety fence? Yes. Does poetry contain the pair of wings branching forth from her grace? Yes. Does poetry contain the concept encasing freedom? Yes. Does poetry contain a rattlesnake’s bite? Yes. Does poetry contain the law? Yes. Does poetry contain your mistakes? Yes. Does poetry contain its own bookshelf? Yes. Does poetry contain what spins the fan? Yes. Does poetry contain the flow of the liquid scintilla? Yes. Does poetry contain everyone’s parents? Yes. Does poetry contain literature? Yes. Does poetry contain a Buddha? Yes. Does poetry contain small genomes? Yes. Does poetry contain vitamins and minerals? Yes. Does poetry contain the equivalent dissatisfaction of a thousand-hour Christmas? Yes. Does poetry contain more than that? Yes. Does poetry contain a functioning rock wall? Yes. Does poetry contain a big racket? Yes. But it does not contain music. Poetry is music’s destruction.

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep in touch with fellow poets?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Yeah, there are a few close poet friends with whom I regularly talk and exchange letters. I also like to stay active in the poetry circles through e-mail correspondence and on Twitter, but usually other poets don’t respond to me.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Sometimes I’m a dick to their friends. Also, Robert Pinsky said that following me is bad for their careers, which is true.

INTERVIEWER

Whose careers?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

Anyone’s, really.

INTERVIEWER

If there is a direction now in America, what do you think it is?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

West.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you go from here?

TED HASH-BERRYMAN

The only way I can go. Some force from the dungeon has awakened me, and so I rise from the outdated dust. Rest assured that I have a mission, and it is not holy, nor is it glamorous, but it is necessary. And I will go down burning in bright rancorous flames for it. And everyone will abandon me, even my loved ones. And I will bear the scars of my self-flagellation. I will ball my fist around expansion and with the other hand tease out contraction, in order to rise so that I may contradict that rise. I am merely a man, and I will die with the skeletal essence of poetry slid between my tightened teeth, and I will not have saved her. But I will have forced open a levee enclosing the dark necessary place from which Lorca’s duende crept, from which Rimbaud’s torment seethed. And the faces that will melt upon seeing what lies beneath will be the justified collateral damage of war. I will have fulfilled the duty of the buzzing gadfly and will be remembered as a hollowed exoskeleton lying supine on a pile of horse shit, or else not remembered at all.

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