Introductions for Norma Cole & Bill Berkson – 22 April 09

Norma Cole is a poet, painter and translator. Among her books are Collective Memory, Do the Monkey, and Spinoza in Her Youth. Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988—2008 makes its debut tonight, express mailed to us from City Lights. Translation work includes Danielle Collobert’s Journals, Fouad Gabriel Naffah’s The Spirit God and the Properties of Nitrogen and Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France. Cole has been the recipient of a Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation Award, Gertrude Stein Awards, the Fund for Poetry, and Foundation for Contemporary Arts. A Canadian by birth, Cole migrated via France to San Francisco where she has lived since 1977.

Norma Cole said in a recent interview: “At times, I still begin a work not knowing whether I will draw or write, starting from the same ‘nowhere’.” This ability to stay in the space of the indeterminate both as image maker and word worker generate some of the most formally adventurous poetry being written today – her painterly approach to the page unfurls visual and textual delight via rupture from expectation though always with a detectable framework, aware as she is of our desire for patterns. Erin Moure describes experiencing Norma’s work in this way: “The reader must enter her work like a swimmer into water; only after the swim can you say the lake was or was not cold, was deep, was weedy or dropped off, precipitous.” In the poem sequence Natural Light just published by Libellum “narrative is the body / so breathe” (that’s actually from Do the Monkey) – the body is politically and environmentally vulnerable under a darkening sun yet Norma Cole’s vision is not of estrangement but of cooperation in the creation of sane social space with (in the words of David Levi Straus) “language as freedom.” Please welcome Norma to the Poetry Project.

Bill Berkson has been active in the art and literary worlds for nearly fifty years. He is the author of sixteen books and pamphlets of poetry, including Serenade; Fugue State; a volume of his 1960s collaborations with Frank O’Hara entitled Hymns of St. Bridget & Other Writings; and the deluxe portfolio Gloria with etchings by Alex Katz. During the 1960s he was an editorial associate at Artnews and a regular contributor to Art. A selection of his criticism, The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings 1985-2003, appeared from Qua Books in 2004, followed by Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981-2006 from Cuneiform Press. A volume of new and selected poems has just been published by Coffee House. He now lives in New York and San Francisco.

I read through Berkson’s Sudden Address lectures before I read Portrait and Dream, his new and selected, and circled this line in “Travels with Guston” –“Surface is the great revealer.” This is, I think, is one the most intriguing aspects of Berkson’s poems or compositions. While the impact of poetry is usually attributed to a vertical agency, a slightly different and more accurate way to state this for Berkson is that there is an accretion of active surface by way of language. He writes “start a verb through the motions / the motions all ring true.” His lifetime of work as collected in Portrait and Dream, like Pollock’s painting “Portrait and a Dream” masterfully balances figuration with abstraction. One gets the sense that this is a poet who is not intimidated by the empty page – he knows what to add and what to “paint white” and his readers, through envisioning the language, are given the gift of poems that “lay into life.” Please welcome Bill back to the Poetry Project.