Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Christopher Bernard

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

chien lunatique

Christopher Bernard:

is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. He is founder and co-editor of the literary and arts webzine Caveat Lector (www.caveat-lector.org) and contributes regularly to the monthly online magazine Synchronized Chaos Magazine (www.synchchaos.com).

His books include the novels A Spy in the Ruins and Voyage to a Phantom City; two books of stories, In the American Night and Dangerous Stories for BoysThe Rose Shipwreck: Poems and Photographs; Chien Lunatique (poems); and the play The Beast and Mr. James. His new novel for adults, Meditations on Love and Catastrophe at The Liars’ Cafe, will be published this year. His work has appeared in several anthologies and many periodicals, including cultural and arts journalism in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere, and poetry and fiction in literary reviews in the U.S. and U.K. He has also written plays that have been produced and radio broadcast, in part or complete, in the San Francisco Bay Area. His poetry films have been screened in San Francisco and his poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Web. He is currently working on a series of children’s books, called Otherwise.

The Interview

  1. What inspired you to write poetry?

When I was very young, I had little or no interest in verse; it struck me as an awkward and contrived way of saying what could be said more effectively and directly in prose. I wrote a few poems, for the experience of the thing, when I was nine, and first began writing “seriously”—“with deliberate intent” (a writer is like an imaginary criminal plotting an imaginary crime): my first stories, plays, fragmentary novels, essays, etc. The tenth year of each decade often jolts me into more feverish activity than usual, as though I feel time breathing down my neck more keenly just before the next zero descends on my personal history. The year I turned nine was in fact my own annus mirabilis, when I first discovered the life of the mind would be an immense journey, rich with discovery, invention, adventure, sometimes frightening, sometimes despairing, but never less than interesting, and of which writing would be a central part. My first poem, called “Old Hundred,” was about an imaginary blind, ageing, loyal and loving dog.

But I didn’t really see the point of poetry until sometime later, during my 12th summer: I picked up, at a seaside soda fountain and notions store called Jump’s, a little book of poems with a dazzlingly white cover, yellow edges, and a wonderfully wicked title: “The Flowers of Evil,” by one Charles Baudelaire, translated by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The combination of lyricism and sensualism, moralism and cynicism (or realism, if one prefers) that I found between its covers entirely fascinated me. I had already discovered the Russian novelists and poets, and the modern-day existentialists, and was already drawn to staring into the abyss down the long well of white pages and black type with the rapt eyes of a bookworm tween. I was even writing a novel in this vein, never finished, called “The Atheist.” (I had already written an adventure novel, about an eighteenth-century pirate with the not terribly original name of Captain Skull, in lieu of my social studies homework for an entire year; my teacher, unsympathetic to the honor of literature, flunked me. The handwritten manuscript was stolen from me by an older, somewhat suspicious friend in Mexico, where we were living at the time.) After wading into Baudelaire’s provocative verses (I hadn’t known poetry was allowed to be confrontational, sardonic, intellectual, even shocking), I began turning my hand at bleak sonnets and sensually rhyming ecstasies between chapters plumbing my strictly literary notions about the tragicomic human condition.

But what finally captured me in thrall to the muses happened a few years later, when I discovered the oceanic lyricism of the English Romantics: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron—but above all Shelley and Keats. I will never forget standing inside a silent, shadowy, dusty, cramped, almost empty used bookstore in Philadelphia one Saturday afternoon when I was 18, and opening a green volume of Keats’s poems, the book turning to a poem I had never heard of, called “Hyperion”:

“Deep in the shady sadness of a vale

Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,

Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,

Sat gray-hair’d Saturn, quiet as a stone,

Still as the silence round about his lair; …”

The lines hit me with the shock of recognition, though a recognition of what was as mysterious then as it is to me today.

I felt at once, with a sharp sweet pain, that I wanted to be able to do something—to be something—like this, just like this—of this dignity and gracefulness and truthfulness and power—in my life ahead. I still confused the poetry with the poet, as I suppose many do. I didn’t want to be a “poet” so much as be a poem—even though I realized I would probably have to be satisfied with being a mere flesh-and-blood scribbler.

Not long afterwards, I came across the recent paperback edition of Aileen Ward’s (for myself, perfectly timed) biography, John Keats: The Making of a Poet; after reading which (“inhaling” it, as the phrase does, between endless underlinings), it was all over for me. I despaired of achieving Keats’s eloquence: that Keats himself never quite realized the heights he had attained makes his story all the more painful. (And yet it remains true that, however great a poet is, he (or she) cannot, if he is honest with himself, be certain, ever, of his “genius”: it could all be mere daydreams and will-o’-wisps. And, in the end, it doesn’t depend solely on himself anyway: a “great poet” is half-created by the poet’s society and the accidents of history.)

But I decided to try; I would rather fail in the attempt than succeed at just about anything else. And I still do, actually, unreconstructed romantic and irrational fantasist as in many ways I remain to this day. Was it a good decision? Perhaps not. And yet . . .

  1. Who introduced you to poetry?

Books introduced me to poetry. In fact, no one I knew had any serious interest in poetry. My teachers’ interest seemed to be at best dutiful. I was alone, not that this bothered me terribly, as it has been a condition I have submitted to for a great deal of my intellectual and cultural life.

  1. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

Much: I still prefer them, as a rule, to my contemporaries, who are still proving themselves. One of the things that deeply impressed me when I was very young—and still does—is that cultural, artistic, and literary immortality (in the sense of longevity long after one’s body is dead) is the one overcoming of death that is available to us: as long as we are reading Emily Dickinson, she still, in a significant sense, exists.

I have also been impressed by the fact that kings and emperors, pirates and capitalists, empires and armies and kingdoms and cities vanish as if they had never been, but a poem can outlive a monarchy—a line of verse from Sappho has triumphed over all the invasions of Alexander—and can do so even if it is forgotten for millennia. “Oxymandias” and Gilgamesh are the proofs of my, of our, joy.

  1. What is your daily writing routine?

I try to write on first waking up, for an hour or longer if possible. If I have no particular project, I write in my journal (a serpentine monster that has grown to over a hundred volumes since I was eleven; I have even given my pet python a name).

  1. What motivates you to write?

An idea comes to me, seemingly out of nowhere. usually when I am very relaxed and a bit daydreamy: this can be while in bed in the early morning, while riding a bus, sitting in a café, etc., and that I see I might be able to do something with: some scrap of words, a title, a phrase, numinous and ramifying, specifically and narrowly for a poem, more vaguely, and widely, for a novel.

The literary habit was already well established in our household when I was a child: my father wrote (and directed) for the new medium (at the time) of television, and had ambitions to write “fiction,” his own father had had literary ambitions, having spent time in Paris in the ’twenties, and my grandmother on the same side had been a talented poet.

I never thought much about this until I started getting vocabulary exercises in English class in fourth and fifth grades: a list of new words for each of which we needed to compose a sentence. And we had ample license over what to write. Not much in school up to that time engaged my interest. Education was at best tedious stuff; at worst it was as much fun as wrestling a water moccasin: if you lost, you were killed with an “F”; if you won, you were rewarded with a sense of Absolute Pointlessness, symbolized by an “A.”

But this was fun: I was being rewarded to make things up (when I did this at home, it was called “lying” and brought down on my head the severest punishments). I was always pressing my “vocabulary” luck; to this day I’m amused by what I got away with (nothing terribly indecent: my tendencies lay more toward the fantastic and melodramatic).

Then, around that time, I discovered “horror stories” and the high-style bloody-mindedness of Edgar Allan Poe. And one day after school, having finished one of my vocabulary assignments, and feeling on a literary roll, I decided to try my hand at one and dashed off a quick mystery cum horror tale before dinner, at which I announced it to the family and my great aunt, who was visiting for the weekend. I was invited to read it aloud after dinner, and it proved a hit.

The combination of pleasure in writing and this early taste of “success,” coupled with the active encouragement by my parents (“For a writer everything is grist for the mill,” as my mother memorably told me—some of the best advice I ever received), sealed my fate.

  1. What is your work ethic?

I believe you owe it to yourself, and to everyone else, to do the best you can. Sloppy work has three strikes against it: it is lazy, it is disrespectful, and it makes you lose the self-respect I believe everyone needs in this life.

My cultural and literary attitudes (unapologetically straight, white, dinosaurian Eurocentric male, with a few dozen Facebook friends and little interest in conquering the cyberverse) are far from fashionable, and so the prospect of my making a marketable career out of my words is unlikely. Thus I have to do something other than “writing” to pay my bills (I am currently a freelance technical editor, with some technical writing).

I have strong perfectionist tendencies, and so rewrite constantly. For me, 80 percent of writing is rewriting; to reread my own work is to rewrite it. This can be perilous: in my own case, it has sometimes had the bad effect of draining the work until it becomes perfectly bloodless. It took me some time to work out the right balance: to polish a piece only so far without murdering the original inspiration that gave it life. Sometimes this requires it to keep some of its “imperfections”: better imperfect while still keeping it breathing than a smooth smile in a polished coffin.

  1. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

Those writers include Baudelaire, Shelley, and Keats, as I mentioned before, Shakespeare (in his tragedies), and, above all, Dostoyevsky, whose “Notes from Underground,” The House of the Dead, Crime and Punishment, The Double, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov had an enormous impact on me when I read them in my later childhood to mid-teens. To these I would add more modern writers, such as James Joyce and Malcolm Lowry.

In my puberty and teens, I was also strongly affected by philosophical writing: Plato (the gadfly Socrates may have had more influence on me than is strictly healthy), Aristotle, and the Stoic Epictetus among the ancients; and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (ditto, re influence), Miguel de Unamuno, Jose Ortega y Gasset, and Jean-Paul Sartre among the “moderns.” All of these writers are deeply interested in the vagaries of the human condition, the meaning (or, more appropriately, the many possible meanings) of human existence, the peculiar combination of strength and weakness, power and impotence, the endlessly bizarre combination of cleverness, wisdom, heroism, lunacy, cowardice, arrogance, humility, and brazen stupidity of human existence.

All of these authors continue to influence me as I age and see just how profound their insights were, and are, and how deeply brilliant their writing.

  1. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Most of the modern writers I admire are now dead: most of them belonged to the second wave of European modernism after the second world war, in particular the “new novelists” based in France, and those influenced by them: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget, and the late Juan Goytisolo. Also Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian novelist and playwright, who is a kind of updated Dostoyevskian “underground man” whose “notes” turned into an entire literary career. What I admire in these writers is their insistence on approaching the writing of fiction as an art form, and how they make a virtue of pursuing innovations of form, explorations I have also tried to pursue in my novels. These innovations of form allow one to explore aspects of the human condition unavailable to earlier writers: the result is not just innovations in form (intriguing and often exciting in themselves) but discoveries of what I believe may be important truths, or, if not that, fruitful errors. (Sometimes there is nothing more exciting than finding out just how wrong one has always been.)

I sometimes have a hard time with American writers, as I don’t always find the American literary tradition completely sympathetic (I find, to be candid, just a little too much of the “barbaric yawp” in it, and a kind of compulsive, unconvincing optimism and what I call “the great American delusion” (“exceptionalism,” they call it) that, well as it may often be for society, makes for a literature that can run from the self-important to the hysterical to a kind of manic wishful thinking).

I have a soft spot for Henry David Thoreau (that great nay-sayer to some of our national self-conceptions), and another for the other great “nay-sayer,” Emily Dickinson, and I am a fan of Henry James, hardly a typical “American” writer. I also like Ambrose Bierce and keep his Devil’s Dictionary in my satchel for salutary communion with a saner compatriot on train journeys.

  1. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

Partly to express, partly to invent, partly to organize my thoughts, partly to explore my feelings, partly to celebrate life and its oddities, partly to take revenge against it, partly to rejoice in language, partly to rail against it through the very eloquence it makes, amazingly, when not alarmingly, possible.

  1. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

You sit down (or take some other posture you can sustain for a few hours at a time without distraction) and you write.

If you don’t enjoy doing that, then you are not a writer, because that is all a writer is: someone who enjoys the act of writing for its own sake. If money and celebrity and status come, all the better. If obloquy, notoriety, ostracism, and contempt, so much the worse. If being ignored, so much to be expected. But write one will.

  1. Tell me about the writing.

Writing is a bit like dreaming while awake. I have a certain amount of conscious control of the dream, but not so much my brain can’t surprise me. It’s also like a drug, or like alcohol: it lowers the defenses and lets feelings and thoughts sneak through that might be suppressed or ignored if I were fully awake.

It is like walking on a high wire: keeping my balance while ever moving forward is my uppermost thought. It is thinking in slow motion. It is a game of charades. It is a theater where I am author, actors, director, stage hands, audience, and critic, all in one. It is one of the few escapes, however temporary, from the prison of existence. It is a form of mysticism. It is a form of magic. It is a kind of witchcraft. It is a kind of lunacy, harmless except to the practitioner and a few foolish folk who have fallen into his hands at an impressionable age.

It is one of the keys to the door of possibility that opens just enough to give a peek at a horizon above which lie infinitely changing clouds. It is a displacement of aggression. It is a substitution for reality. It is a cry of despair. It is a form of hope.

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