The Sacred in the Quotidian

Fall, 2005

Gene Berson

Interviewed by Velene Campbell and Carmine Giordano

How does your sense of humor influence the content or form of your poetry? 

In a poem like Zenny’s, I suppose humor creates a tone that balances the cynicism the voice in that poem expresses; without humor that poem could easily come off as too personally bitter, perhaps vitriolic. The humor allows you to feel some sympathy for the character. So humor can be part of the artifice. I’ve never thought of as particularly funny, but this question is intriguing, the more I think of it. For example, in The White Truck, a poem written from a paranoid state I guess you’d say, paranoia is revealed as something of a comic state. Lines such as, “Sometimes when I wake up I feel like Frankenstein after they sewed him together” make me say that, but also the whole poem, despite its power and urgency, can make you chuckle as you read it. Perhaps the exaggerated tone creates this effect.  

Speaking more generally, I’ve always appreciated Kafka’s observation that “A joke is the tombstone of a feeling”, probably because it implies that humor is a healing mechanism and that a joke is sort of a transcendent achievement. You know, “we’ll be able to look back and laugh at this one of these days”. Underneath the humor there’s an injury of some sort. We all know humor can be cruel. But when I think of my poetry, as far as humor is concerned, I realize that it is more and more implicit in the work, because I am more and more in this life than when I started writing. The suffering, either from loss of people through separations due to foolish misunderstandings, violence, circumstances, political dynamics, catastrophes, illness or just the flow of life, and the mutual witnessing of how our precious world is being desecrated and destroyed, sometimes by our own lifestyles the inertia of which is too powerful to overcome, or simply watching our childhood world drift farther and farther away as we view it from our little rowboat lives – these sufferings create a bonding matrix that reverberates whenever we speak. Sorrow and humor get braided together, along with pity, grief, passionate idealism and who knows what else. How this suffering gets reflected in the poetry, technically, is probably in the tone, through various devices, such as exaggeration, wit, dialect or surprising diction in certain contexts and so on.  

So, for me, humor is inclusive, because it is based on recognition of our mutual suffering, even the joys, such as using the womb broom to dust off a little anchovy heaven, are part of this. Humor that excludes other people by defining one group over another, and I guess ethnic jokes fall into this category, eventually fails for me. I’m an outsider, so I feel that eventually that humor will be turned on me, once I’m discovered.  

What recurring personal or universal themes appear in your poetry? 

A lot of my poetry starts out as anxiety, or worse, and resolves itself by recovering a larger harmony as a balance, usually by perceiving something outside myself. Descartes said that the two conditions of reality are of seeing and being seen. You can practice this. If you’re walking down the sidewalk and you feel self-conscious, you feel seen and, in a way, this makes you blind. We walk around like this all the time, and it contributes to our misery. But if you really look at the sidewalk and notice something, even a crack in the pavement, suddenly you’re seeing, and the self-conscious state of “being seen” pops like a bubble. Suddenly you feel more open to the possibilities of life. In a poem, when that moment of seeing occurs, it often leads to metaphorical implications. Maybe the crack looks like the seams in the skull with all that implies. Then we’re like Rimbaud – “I walk out into a flood of correspondences!” where everything is connected and everything is a metaphor and the world is rich with meaning and the power of transformation. My poetry is full of stops and starts like this – the themes are recurring – men/women, man/work, nature/city, terror/transcendence, regret/acceptance – sometimes it seems that I’ve gotten nowhere. It’s like walking. They say that walking is a continuous process of falling and recovering yourself with the next step. Until the baby gets the courage to fall he can’t walk. Of course with practice it will learn to catch itself, with the next step, and even achieve momentum. But each step is a fall first. It occurs to me that this is a comical state in itself, like Charlie Chaplin crossing the street and getting knocked down by car after car. What makes it funny is that he always pops back up. Peek a Boo – probably a primitive form of humor. Falling and popping back up, falling and popping back up – sometimes it seems that this is all I know and, like Keats, all I need to know, like a pulse.