Over the course of 2003 and 2004, David Berman, author of Actual Air and the creative force behind the band Silver Jews, corresponded with Travis Nichols through email about poetry, songwriting, and pleasing the French.
This quasi interview will appear in two parts, both prefaced by this email, which Berman sent a few days ago:
Oh my Lord this was tough to read. I was really messed up in these months. I had avoided going over it until today because I knew. But now it’s done and although I am a flippant jackass throughout, it is still interesting and I hope will be interesting to others.
The last form letter/message is what I wrote when I got out of the Vanderbilt mental hospital and before I went to rehab.
What I left in the document is what doesn’t make my skin crawl to read or have anyone else read. I don’t like who I am here, and I don’t think I’m funny, and my bitterness and self-pity are all over the place.
On the other hand, your comments touched me then and they do again now reading them.
Your thoughts about my poems are just the kind I would want a person to have and your honorableness and good intentions buffered my crackhead jackassery in ways I or you couldn’t know.
Please do anything you like with what’s left. Rewrite anything you need to on your end and change any grammatic or spelling problems with my comments.
I don’t need to check it over again. I trust you.
TN: It’s about five o’clock here in Amherst and the geese just worked their way over our heads. I’m in one of Dara Wier’s classes at the moment and the geese gave me the feeling of a wall crumbling inside my head, so I leaned over to Dara and said, “I want to write.” She said “perfect” with her eye twitching a little and so here I am writing. Of course it’s silly and probably a form of poverty to write to someone respectfully instead of intimately when the bug hits, but I can’t get “composition horseshit magic” out of my head, nor can I get “you looked so damned beautiful beneath Bob’s silver maples” out from behind my ear, so here I have ten minutes and here I am writing to you.
If nothing else I’d like to say thanks. Your poems are important to my life and poetry in a way that is very different from the way other art is. Your poems give me hope. For what, exactly, I’m not sure, but I’m hopeful nonetheless when I read your work.
But I have more than that to say, and I would love to not say it at you but have a conversation of sorts with you. I have both questions and answers, neither of which work well by themselves. If you would like to talk about poems, I’d love to hear from you. If not, saying thank you is enough for my conscience because it would be heavier if I knew I never properly said it to you.
DCB: Well I’d like to say thank you. Your letter really lifted my spirits and bolstered severely flagging confidence. Thanks. I’m getting married in a few days and then going on a two week honeymoon. After that we could have an email discussion about poetry if you’d like. I’ll write you back when I get back.
TN: Please do, and congratulations on your wedding.
DCB: Alright Travis, I think I’m finally ready to have my first talk about poetry. I like practicing it because it is the art form closest to bare life as I experience it. Also, I am an unconscionably lazy fellow who thinks everyone and I mean EVERYONE owes me a living.
TN: Thanks for getting back to me. I hope the wedding went well and you guys are settling in. I guess if your bare experience is as complex, funny and wise as your poems, then you should feel like EVERYONE owes you a living. Because you’re living more fully than most.
But maybe I’ll just ask a different question: How did “Self-Portrait at 28” end up in Purple?
DCB: I have a friend named Jutta Koether. She’s a German artist, married to Tom Verlaine, who’d done work for them. She passed the word on. I think I wrote it to fulfill their request. You know, like contracting.
TN: So they asked for a poem and you had some ideas like the line “I know it’s a bad title but I’m giving it to myself as a gift” in your head and the contract was out and so you filled it? Or had you been working on a self-portrait for a while but hadn’t had anything to push you to finish it until Purple asked you for a poem?
DCB: I think I had the title and the first stanza when I got the request. It keep going and going, probably out of some need to I’ve always had to make French people like me.
TN: Was Actual Air put together after the same sort of contracting? Did Open City ask for the book and then you put it together or vice versa?
DCB: Robert Bingham (r.i.p.) badgered me into forming a book for months and finally wore me down. He edited the first version and I took it from there. Ordering the poems was like 52 card pickup.
I’m going to the Feb. 28th version of the play (Actual Air, as adapted by the Infernal Bridegroom Theatre Company in Houston) Bob Nastanovich is meeting me down there, as he’s working at Oaklawn in Hot Springs as a jockey’s agent all winter.
I’m reading at Boston University on April 26th. And the New School in NYC on April 8.
TN: Have people always asked you to read, but only now you’ve decided to do it? I know of so many people who have been affected by your book, both the kind of smarmy academic types and the non-smarmy regular types, so I would think people would have been asking for you to read from the get-go. Anti-showmanship aside, you seem pretty good at it too.
DCB: I always like it once I get there.