Ever since John Berbrich, the busy editor and publisher of the fine literary quarterly, Barbaric Yawp, interviewed me back in early 2001, I have wanted to �get even� by interviewing him. When I finally worked up the courage to ask him, he said, �Sure, why not?� And so I did, and John published the interview in the December 2002 issue of his magazine. That interview appears below in its entirety, but with a twist. Always in search of new adventure, we both thought it would be fun to continue our conversation here on the website, and to ask visitors to join in. In fact, we�ve already made a start, which you can read by clicking the �Join Conversation� link at the end of the interview. Or, if you�ve already read the interview and/or you want to jump right in, you can join us now. Either way, you are welcome, and we look forward to hearing what you have to say, or to having you listen to what we have to say, as we continue our exploration of all things literary here in cyberspace. The choice is yours. So. Let�s see where it leads, shall we?
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To read our original March 2001 interview, click here, or on the �Interviews� link, at right.
For more information on Barbaric Yawp, go to Highly Recommended.
William Michaelian: John, small press fanatics and other deranged life-forms are dying to know more about you, as am I. Your contribution has been extensive and, thank goodness, you show no signs of letting up. Now. Let�s start with a simple two-part question. First, how do you see yourself � as an editor first, or as a writer? Second, does a good editor also need to be a writer, and vice-versa? Or are the two pursuits not two pursuits at all, but really one and the same thing?
John Berbrich: Well, Bill, to start at the beginning, I consider myself primarily a writer, a writer at present voluntarily buried beneath a small mountain of editorial responsibilities. As to your latter question, I think that reading and writing are generally intertwined. Most writers read a lot, and most readers at least dabble in writing. I think it�s more important that an editor be a good reader than a good writer. Great writers are probably too ruthlessly creative to sit still long enough to wade through others� manuscripts. Although, when my wife and I started up this publishing thing, I hardly realized how much creative artistry is involved in putting together a consistent, coherent, and balanced literary journal. It�s really satisfying.
W.M.: Judging by the result, I can see why. And that�s the beauty of undertaking a project like Barbaric Yawp. No matter how much or how little you know when you start out, the work itself is bound to lead in all sorts of interesting and unpredictable directions. Which makes me wonder. What is your publishing philosophy? Do you simply let the magazine take you where it wants to go, or are you and Nancy following some sort of master plan?
J.B.: The only plan is to eventually expand the BoneWorld empire planet-wide. Regarding the Yawp, each issue seems to develop a soul of its own. We select the poems and stories we like best, always with an eye on space limitations. Those last few cuts are agony. We have no political agenda. If a piece makes me sit up and think, laugh, or compels me to read it again, it has a good chance. Let me also say that we have no restrictions regarding form. We consider anything that works.
W.M.: I like that approach � leave the door open, and see what walks in. By your own admission, being Absolute Ruler of BoneWorld is creatively demanding and time-consuming. When do you do your own scribbling?
J.B.: I try to arise at 5:00 every morning to engage in literary pursuits. This provides me with roughly ninety minutes of quiet time. If I�m working on a prose project, I have this opportunity every morning. Regarding poetry, I don�t schedule that � poetry comes in quick bursts of so-called inspiration, generally while I�m doing something mindless like driving to work or chopping firewood. I might run the nascent poem through my mind for days or even weeks before I write down a word. By then, it�s pretty much revised to its final form. As to being Absolute Ruler of BoneWorld, I�ll have to ask my wife about that.
W.M.: I see. Do you want to ask her now, or should we finish getting drunk first?
J.B.: I�ll tell you what, Willie � let�s suck down a few more of these, and then you ask me again if I want to ask her � know what I mean? Pass me one of those fat cigars, will you?
W.M.: Gladly. Now let me write this down. Ask... him... later... if... he... wants to... Aaah � the hell with it. What got you started writing? The glamour or the challenge?
J.B.: Actually it was the money. But before that, it was this desk. You see, when I was like fourteen years old I had this big, solid wooden desk. It just looked like a place where one could write great poetry. So I sat there at night and wrote my imitations of Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot, and Jim Morrison. The desk is gone. Actually, I think one of my sisters has it. But I still write. If I don�t write, I feel wrong. No pun intended.
W.M.: No, of course not. After all, writing is the right way to right wrongs, right? Never mind. Don�t answer that. Rather, let us discuss your tendency to smoke cigars from the wrong end. Is this your way of rebelling against the world, or against yourself?
J.B.: Bill, with these cheap cigars you bought, it doesn�t matter which end you smoke. As for rebelling against the world, it�s pointless and childish. Worse than that, the very act of rebelling leads one to unwanted consequences, because one�s actions are always reactions against the outside world, rather than real expressions of the rebel�s true self. Got it?
W.M.: Yes. You�ve just explained why I�m a such a failure. Now, perhaps you could say something rebellious about the current state of writing in America, the world, and Russell, New York.
J.B.: Rebellious, eh? Let me calm down a little first. Okay. There isn�t much writing going on in Russell, but then again I�m not sure about this. The longer I live here, the more I find that these hills are teeming with artists. But they are quiet about their work. So perhaps we have closets filled with writers. Now that�s a funny image. But as far as a writing scene goes, there isn�t one. As to world literature, I must admit that I am totally ignorant on this subject when it comes to the present day. If you want to talk about the past, I�m pretty conversant about a lot of different lands all through history. In America, well, speaking of the USA, there�s this weird dichotomy between academic writers and � how shall I put it? � non-academic writers, like the Beats. The former are perhaps more interested in form than in content, while the latter seem to think that any old thing scribbled down is simply great, as long as it has no particular form. Of course, these are gross generalizations on my part. But it seems to me that we need both. We need the guys who try to keep the language orderly and standard, and we also need the ones who try to stretch language and who explore new linguistic territories. What a dreary world it would be if we had either one without the other. And we here in BoneWorld appreciate many kinds of writing and publish our favorites, regardless of the author�s social class. And there are social classes.
W.M.: Hmm. Interesting. What is it about an author�s writing that reveals his or her social class? And is social class always revealed, or do writers sometimes keep you guessing?
J.B.: Well, class is of course short for classification, and people need to classify things in order to understand them. Naturally, classifying is mostly generalization and approximation. We compare a particular object to a similar object or contrast it with something very different, thereby achieving perhaps a starting point for true knowledge, or at least deeper knowledge. Writers will belong to classes either consciously and voluntarily, or they will be identified as belonging to this or that group by readers or critics. Much of it is vague nonsense, but then again so is nearly everything.
W.M.: How true. That�s one reason having a sense of humor is so important. But the trouble with classifying things is, all too often we are satisfied with the comparison and we don�t push on from there. In that respect, don�t you think a lot of reviewers and critics owe us more than they�re giving?
J.B.: Well, you�re right. If an author is classified as, say, a �Beat� writer, or a �neo-romantic poet,� or a �disciple of Raymond Carver,� or a �member of the Black Mountain School,� then it�s quite likely that his work will be viewed through a particular narrow lens. Criticism is a very difficult undertaking � one must begin with comparisons and contrasts, and then move deeper into the work. Does it stand on its own? Do we analyze on a Formalistic basis? On a Sociological one? How about Psychological, Archetypal, Moral? With what works of the past does it resonate? Is it likely to inspire future bards and scribblers? Personally, I prefer the criticisms written by writers � Pound, Auden, Eliot � over those of professional critics.
W.M.: Me, too. And I like your point about inspiring future writers. Because an inspired writer � assuming he also has the courage � will realize he owes it to himself, and to his source of inspiration, to set out on his own. What about rejection? What can a writer learn or gain from this often crude form of criticism?
J.B.: Every aspiring writer must learn to deal with rejection � to thicken his skin, as they say. A young author can perhaps learn from the wise counsel given by editors who have the time to bestow some of the knowledge they have gleaned over the years. But it�s tricky, because often the whole acceptance/rejection thing is so arbitrary and subjective. You may revise your work based on the valued criticisms of others � but only to a point. Somewhere, the writer must take his stand against the world. The �courage� that you mentioned earlier. The idea of inspiring future writers is crucial, since it is central to my chief theory of art.
W.M.: Theory of art? I think we need to hear more about this. Because in my mind, being inspired also means having the courage to accept one�s responsibility to communicate, if not clearly, then at least powerfully in some way � otherwise, how can a writer be worthy of a reader�s intelligence and attention?
J.B.: That�s it � communication is one part of it and inspiration is another. Please keep in mind that I�m generalizing here, but it seems to me that art is a sort of a triangle � a three-sided or three-angled figure, with the creator at one point, the creation at another point, and the appreciator at the third point. This goes for literature, music, sculpture, anything. We start with a creator, an �artist,� someone who shapes materials, experiences, whatever, into a certain form, which then becomes the work of �art,� and which is in turn viewed or read or listened to by someone � an appreciator, I call it. Now, this is fine, but in the best scenario, the appreciator is inspired by the art to become himself a creator, one whose efforts will inspire still others in the future. So you end up with this endlessly revolving triangle, round and round and round. I�m sure many great novels may have been written and ended up in a desk drawer, which really doesn�t detract from their potential greatness, but if they inspire no one, the artistic cycle is broken and incomplete. In this way, each manifestation of artistic inspiration can be traced back into the roots of the past and will burrow a tunnel into the future. Different critical schools today focus on a particular aspect of this triangle � making either the writer, the text, or the reader the apex � which is fine, but one must keep in mind the cycle, the totality of the experience. In this context, art is defined as �that which inspires.� Anything that does not inspire is dead. It is like masturbation � there is no exchange, no reaching into the past or the future. There is no creation. And, by extension, this is the secret of the poetic beauty of children as creations and future creators.
W.M.: Well, now I�m inspired. Thank you. And I see the sun is coming up. How did you manage that?
J.B.: The sun also rises � Ecclesiastes: chapter one, verse five. Hemingway borrowed it. Perhaps he was inspired.
W.M: Ah. I might have known. Okay. On that note, we need to face two important facts: first, we both need coffee; second, we are almost out of time. So. While I get the coffee going, I want you to say as many profound things as you can into this little microphone. And remember, you will be forever judged by your closing remarks, so make it good.
J.B.: Gee � thanks, Willie. Get that spotlight out of my face, willya? Okay, profundity. I have no profound statements of my own, so I must dig into the cobwebby cracks of my brain. Here�s one I really like: I�m paraphrasing from the Chinese Lao-tzu, which says that when everyone agrees on what is beautiful, already there is ugliness. Emerson said that every word was once a poem, which is a really lovely thought to meditate upon. Emerson also said that we all do what we must, and then we call it by the best names. According to Nietzsche, the secret of all education is learning to infer. He also said, that which is convincing is not necessarily true � it is merely convincing; he called that a �note for asses.� Breton suggested that Columbus should have set out to discover America with a boatload of madmen, and Picasso said that when he ran out of red, he used blue. There, Willie, is the wisdom of the world, neatly set forth in under a dozen lines. And by the way, thanks for this opportunity. It�s been great fun. I just wish we had more time. Now, where�s that coffee....?
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