I want to shock you in a wine & cheese kind of way. In episode 12 of Phoned-In, BOMB Magazine’s poetry reading by phone podcast, Jim Behrle reads a selection of his work.
Luke Degnan How did the Boston Poet Tea Party poetry marathon go?
Jim Behrle It was pretty cool. It’s a lot of work, but then when you see the pieces come together, it’s kind of great. You invite like 120 poets, but it ends up that 20 of them can’t make it to Boston. It’s still pretty amazing. They can be really transformative events. That’s what’s so interesting about them. Aaron Kiely ran one in ‘95 or ‘96, the first one. It was in Cambridge. I was like “holy shit.” I met at least 25-30 poets who I still know today and whose work I think is great. For a long time, when I was a kid, when I was in college, I thought, I’m a poet and I want to be a poet, but I was like, how come I don’t like poetry? How come I don’t like what my teachers are teaching me? Louise Glück is that all there is? She’s nice, but is there anything else? For me that was a huge event, that first one, and then ever since it’s been an opportunity to meet people who I wouldn’t have a chance to hear or see read ever.
LD Anybody this year that you hadn’t heard before?
JB I met Elizabeth Marie Young. She did a bit on the radio with me, and I thought she was terrific. There was another Fence guy, Jibade Khalil Huffman, who I thought was terrific. Also I met Geof Huth. He does a lot of word poems and stuff, where it’s like a symbol…I’d never met him before. I had only seen his work on Ron Silliman’s site. It was a pretty intense thing to see him read. He was jumping around, throwing poems against the wall. He was speaking in tongues for a while. I thought that was pretty cool.
LD You’re from Boston. You’re a big Red Sox fan. Why did you leave Boston and go to the home of the Yankees?
JB I grew up north of Boston and I lived in Boston and Cambridge for a long time. Even walking around is great. You’re near Harvard, near Harvard Square, near Inman Square. You think this is just an unbelievable, beautiful place. If you get the right weather and you’re walking around in the sun, you think what an amazing city to be able to come to. It’s real different than Brooklyn. I think Brooklyn and Manhattan is beautiful, but there’s something about Boston that seems like a city that’s built on poetry or made for poets somehow.
I’m a huge Red Sox fan. I actually moved the day after the Red Sox won the World Series. I had been working in Brooklyn at a bookstore part time, shuttling back and forth. The last day I lived in Boston was the night the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. I remember walking though Kenmore Square hugging crying old men. The riot police were out. I walked all the way from Boston to my house in Medford up Mass Ave. People were just honking their horns and going crazy. This was pretty much the moment I was waiting for for a long time. I had always wondered what it would be like to live in New York, to be a New York poet. The bookstore I had been working out was closing. I had run out of bookstores to work at in Boston. They called me The Jim Reaper. I think I worked in 12 or 13 bookstores and 11 of them are closed now. I just kinda ran out of ideas. Brendan Lorber let me sleep on a hammock in his basement, I fell in love with a married woman, and I was here in New York trying to do it.
LD What would you like to achieve as a poet or perhaps as a poet who has ideas on how things should be?
JB I’ve always wanted to write poems. I try to write them better and better, but they have descended into humor and parody a little bit.
LD What I mean is, you do seem to have an agenda. You have definite ideas.
JB I feel like I’ve been a satirist for a long time. I started writing satire when I was in college. I found it to be an incredibly enriching experience. Every once in a while someone wants to punch you in the face, but for the most part at least you can get ideas out there that people want to think about. They say “well, Jim’s crazy, but he might have a point.” I used to write satirical columns for the Suffolk Journal. I went to Suffolk University in Boston. That stuff was some of the best writing I think I ever did, but it was dependent on Gonzo journalism and creating a persona that even I couldn’t sustain. I literally had to stop drinking. I had to stop eating Chinese food at 3:00 AM every night. Even I could not sustain the Gonzo lifestyle.
With the cartoons and the blogging and all that stuff, I dunno. I like prodding poets into better behavior if I can. Sometimes you wonder if you’re actually poisoning the well or if you’re cleansing it. I get as many people who say “Jim’s a crazy jerk” as I do that say “Hey, I thought that was really fun. I thought that was really interesting.” That stuff has moved over into poetry too, the satire. When you say “what do I want from being a poet” it’s complicated. I used to think that being a poet meant that you were John Wieners. You’re hanging out your apartment writing beautiful poems that maybe no one ever reads or that you destroy. You make something beautiful, and it gets thrown out when you die. I used to think that that was the ideal. Or somebody like Robert Lowell who I think was the first poet I ever wanted to emulate. This deep voiced character. Now I feel like I can do some things. Through my humor and my ridiculous personality, I can get poetry a little attention that maybe it wouldn’t get otherwise.
I wrote a poem about Snooki for the radio the other day. People just love it, and I’m like “Well, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written.” I literally wrote it on the Green Line. If you’ve ever been on the Green Line when it gets above the street it is just shaking back and forth. I’m just hitting my head against the wall writing this crappy poem. It’s garbage. People are like, “Wow, a poem about Snooki. How interesting.” I don’t really know if it is or not, but for five seconds people didn’t think poetry was an unapproachable, ridiculous, obtuse thing. I love ridiculous, obtuse poems. Those are some of my favorites. I hope I can bridge people between this and that and say “well, poetry is not all that unapproachable. Poetry is not all that obtuse.” Robert Lowell used “BU” for Boston University in one of his poems. Which was a lightning strike back in the 60’s or 70’s. People were like “wow, you don’t have to say Boston University.”
I’m just struggling like everybody else. Poetry is a tough gig. The technology is amazing. I think there are more people who consider themselves poets than ever. You do have to get yourself out there. My anti-self promotion self promotion gig hopefully is transparent. Hopefully it just makes you think okay well, do I need to become a professor and make other students become professors? Does the experience of being a poet mean that everyone has to be in debt to a university or a bank as opposed to, I dunno, having sex in the woods on some couch for free and then reading poems to whoever you just did it on?
LD You say you have this anti-self promotion self promotion gig. In your essay for The Poetry Foundation, 24/7 Relentless Careerism you wrote:
Negative publicity works just as well. Having the right people hate you is better than having the wrong people like you. Controversy is rare in poetry because poets usually just drink and bottle up whatever is bothering them. If we all just spent a year or two yelling at other poets, we might be better off and have cleaner colons.
JB I don’t think I meant controversy on the level of some obscure poet threatening to punch me in the face. If Billy Collins threatened to punch me in the face or John McCain, that would be great. We should shoot higher than thinking some other poet wanting to punch you in the face is a big media score. If it was in the New York Post or something like that, that would be great. If I knew that being in the Boston Phoenix was going to make this many people upset, I would have done it a long time ago. I have a big mouth. It’s kind of interesting from my own point of view because I’m a former book publicist so I can powerfully turn one thing into another thing pretty quickly using my magical skills of book publicity that I learned at the Overlook Press.
I would warn poets not to think that the way to get ahead is to just upset each other and then have punches thrown all over the place. I don’t think that’s really helping. We all create personas for ourselves and for each other. Sometimes it’s interesting to see how one persona makes another persona explode. I really do think we need to aim higher. I’m not saying commit crimes to get attention or anything like that. That doesn’t seem like a good idea. If you’re gonna upset people, upset someone like Oprah or somebody who has a lot of media power.
In an interview for the Boston Phoenix, Jim briefly spoke about the difficulties he had setting up the Boston Poet Tea Party. Originally the event was to take place in Philadelphia, but it fell through. On this Jim said, “We found a bunch of poets who were even lazier than we were. We couldn’t get a venue.” This remark was taken very seriously by Philadelphia poets who responded to the article itself, “Well, you’re definitely living in fantasy-land, Jim, if you think more insincere mewling on top of your flippant, unfounded, arrogant stupidity is going to resolve anything”, as well as on Facebook and various blogs.
LD Can you briefly explain the hub-bub that surrounded the event and your interaction with the Philadelphia poets?
JB I guess the kids that we were dealing with in Philadelphia were upset that I was a mean person, that I treated them like employees, which is understandable because that’s exactly what I did. We waited around for a month, and they kept saying well we’ve found a bar for Friday night for a venue, and I was like, we used to have classrooms or better spaces. You can always bring beer in. If your concern is poets drinking, that’s never a concern. Poets are going to find a way to drink at any event. They hadn’t really found the kind of venue that we wanted. I was thinking the Kelly Writers House. Kelly Writers House is one of the greatest poetry venues I’ve ever seen. It’s on the campus of Penn down there. It’s a little house. I recall going to something there on some summer weekend which was sort of like a poetry marathon. I guess that’s what I had in mind when me and David Kirschenbaum came up with the idea. Philadelphia would be a great central location for a lot of poets. We personally wanted to go to Philadelphia so we could go to a Phillies game. Also to find out about more poets. I know about 10 Philadelphia poets who I think are pretty cool. I wouldn’t mind knowing 50. I wouldn’t mind knowing 100. It’s built out of a curiosity of my own. I guess those organizers that we worked with spread the word that this thing wasn’t happening because I was mean person, that I made them all quit, which is fine. It’s true. I made them quit because it didn’t seem like they were getting it done. I hadn’t chimed in until 3 or 4 weeks into the thing when I’m like, what the fuck is going on? You want to talk about name of the thing. You want to talk about who’s going to be invited, but we didn’t have a venue yet. You don’t really have an event until you have a venue.
There was some anger from the initial “Jim’s mean” thing. When I made that comment in the Boston Phoenix, I guess it tapped into that anger. I mean I understand. I’m a guy that’s frequently naked in alt-weeklies. I’m the guy that sometimes gets attention for being a total jackass. You see this moron cracking on your town in an alt-weekly, and you say “that’s not what happened. He’s actually a moron.” Well yeah, It’s obvious I’m a moron. I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone. I think what happened too is that it got emailed around, sort of in the political style of the Republicans. Like, “Look at this crazy guy talking bad about us!” That created this whirlwind of Facebook comments and this and that. I’m up trying to run an event. The thing that upset me the most was that the Philadelphia poets who were supposed to come to this event, they were young, they never read in Boston, things that CAConrad had the opportunity to do in the past, they may have felt that they were bullied out of a reading in Boston because someone decided to go thermonuclear. So that’s upsetting. They’re kids, man. They’re just poets who want to meet other poets and come to a reading.
You can ask anyone who was at the Boston Poet Tea Party. The event is not about me. I didn’t read until 5:00 on Sunday when everyone was gone. The event is about the event. I just thought it should happen. I do have an insane ego, but in this case I’m somehow totally in the right. I don’t know how that’s possible. I initially apologized on Jenn McCreary’s Facebook thing. I was like, well I’m upset that poets I like are upset about this. But then it just felt that people were piling on, and I was like “screw it. We can go the other way too.”
LD It seems that you have a thing against scenes or movements in general.
JB I really think that the reality is that there’s a bunch of people writing who want to get their work out there. You can certainly market it anyway you want. Flarf has done well for themselves to get themselves in the Wall Street Journal and poetry magazine. That’s fine. But at the end of the day you really do have to define what Flarf is. It’s kind of great that there’s an anthology coming out in the Fall. You can finally say, well I’ve read the poems, and though I may like the poems of Drew Gardner or Katie Degentesh, some of this other work doesn’t really hold up. I’m not even sure what conceptual poetry is other than a foil for Flarf. Like, “if we work together we can have readings at the Guggenheim.” I praise poets for getting publicity for themselves. That’s great, but to pretend that you’ve invented something or that somehow because you hang out with X, Y poets on your scene or because you live in a certain place that you’re somehow a better poet than anyone else, well I’d like to explore that.
LD Is that what you see coming out from these different scenes? Do you think that people actually think that they’re better?
JB No. I think the Philadelphia thing was more like “rah-rah Philadelphia.” I live in New York. I understand that people are insecure about New York. I was insecure about New York. That’s why I moved here. In terms of the poetry movement thing, I think that can be kind of flaky. There’s this fetishization of process. That somehow the process is better than the actual poem. That’s a very interesting way to move the cheese on the entire history of literature. “I used this process that makes it interesting.” I don’t think so. There’s plenty of bad poems in the world written in any process. Either a poem is something that you want to read again or listen to or buy or it isn’t. I applaud people for trying to get attention for poetry in any way, but do we really need this to be the only route for people to get attention? Is it that really all you need to do is go out there and call yourself something? Especially with Flarf. Part of the point of Flarf was to create work that was somehow not correct or wrong or was racist or sexist or something like that. It would be fine if at the end of the day you said, well why don’t you talk about the racism or sexism and what you’re trying to create here. That conversation never seems to take place. You say, okay you’ve created this inappropriate art, why don’t you talk a little bit about why? Nobody really wants to talk about that. They just say, I went to a web site a copied a bunch of stuff and put it down. I’m not responsible for what this says. Well, everything I write I’m responsible for. If my poems seem creepy or weird or stalkery, I can certainly talk about that no problem. Part of what I think makes my poems good is that you have this feeling that this guy is weird and creepy and does want to have sex with you.
I know that the poet is not supposed to matter in some larger way, but actually when you think about it, most of the poets that we think about as poets throughout the centuries have been interesting people not just people who sit and type at their typewriter or whatever. You think that’s a character. Allen Ginsburg wrote five billion poems of which we’ve only seen a couple hundred thousand, but he was an interesting dude. That’s a poet. That dude’s going around banging on cymbals, and you know, he’s a poet! It would be nice to think that whatever generations are looking at us and thinking I want to be a poet, they’re also thinking I want to be a really interesting person too not just a safe and cautious professor who really needs to worry about tenure and can’t say anything too interesting. That would be a shame because poets get a bad rap.
LD You were saying at the beginning that you were trying to bring poetry to the masses…
JB I think that 99% people who even approach poetry are themselves poets or maybe want to be. Anselm Berrigan is never going to outsell Stieg Larsson unfortunately. That would be amazing if he did. You can get poetry in front of people who either don’t know it’s poetry or aren’t expecting poetry. There’s always gotta be a way. I dunno if the way is punching each other in the face or stuff like that. I dunno if anyone cares about that. I think there is a way. I dunno. Snooki seems like a good theme. I’m sure there could be poems about pop culture that we haven’t seen yet. It’s pretty heartening that some pretty interesting poets are getting in the New Yorker these days. That’s pretty good. Dottie Lasky is in the New Yorker. Fuck yea! Outstanding! When I was a kid, about the age of 14 or so, I started sending the New Yorker poetry. I had a whole wall of rejections. I didn’t care, man. I was like “I’m sending more poems!” It’s really cool to think that people who are paging through the New Yorker between cartoons might look up and read Dottie’s poem. Or Jen Knox. She was in there. That’s outstanding. She’s about as funny a poet as there is. I still don’t think I’ll get in the New Yorker, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t keep sending them poems.
LD Note: Later Jim sent me an e-mail further explaining his view on poetry scenes:
JB I don’t know if I sufficiently answered your question about Poetry Scenes. They tend to become despotic and about the ego of the gatekeepers. If the point of alternative or experimental poetries is to create more Utopian Scenes (not based on academics or fame) then why do these alternative scenes act like the academic ones? Hierarchical, based on chummy networking, exclusive, constantly rewarding fame over poetic achievement. At their worst they are run like little mafias. When I ran magazines and poetry readings in Boston and Cambridge, I always gave opportunities not just to people I knew but to people who hated me. Or if people asked me to set up readings for them, I did. One person can’t do it all, and no one should speak for an entire city’s poets. But the Philadelphia adventure I think exposes some of the dark sides of people who think they need to stand up for a community. To defend even mild attacks and be their attacking vengeful angel. Poetry doesn’t need gangsters. It does need more angels.
Luke Degnan is an audio engineer, a poet, and a musician. He has received countless accolades from highly respected institutions.