Charles Bernstein and Norman Fischer :Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture

At the San Francisco Jewish Cultural Center, co-sponsored by the Taube Center and Small Press Traffic, on Tuesday May 11, 2010, Charles Bernstein and Norman Fischer talked about and read poetry and writing from the newly published Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture edited by Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris and published as part of The University of Alabama Press's Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series.

I was eager for this evening's discussion and reading because for me the question of identity and radical poetics is both fascinating and problematic. It seems to be so for all of the writers included in this anthology. Charles and Norman explained a bit about the project's emergence out of just this fascination and problematic.

In the Introduction to the anthology Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, Daniel Morris explains that this anthology grew out of a poetry event held in 2003 at the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History in New York. The Center had asked Stephen Paul Miller to host the event and when Miller spoke to Charles Bernstein, he found that Bernstein had a project in mind. He "seemed to have seen a need and was responding to it," writes Morris. He explains:

Conservative and fundamentalist coalitions were dominating the religious institutional and political terrain, and Bernstein proposed an alternative that would facilitate the public life of imaginative and interpretive, as opposed to fundamentalist, forms of religious life and support. Bernstein also stressed the 'secular,' which significantly underscores practical realities of religious life and culture and its relations with culture at large.

Out of this emerged the event,"Secular Jewish Culture/ Radical Poetic Practice: on September 21, 2004," as part of which, Morris explains,

Bernstein asked: What are the innovations and inventions of American Jewish poets over the past century? Can we say that there is a distinctly Jewish component to radical modernist and contemporary poetry? What is the relation of Jewish modernist and contemporary poets to the historical avant-garde and to contemporary innovative poetry? How do Jewish cultural life and ethnic and religious forms and traditions manifest themselves in the forms, styles, and approaches to radical American poetry? What role does a distinctly secular approach to Jewishness by poets and other Jewish artists mean for 'racial Jewish culture'? (1-2)

Miller also noted that:

This volume contrasts with Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry (1997), in which the editor Steven J. Rubin presented the first anthology devoted to Jewish American poetry. In his introduction, Rubin writes that his 'purpose throughout this collection is to present the best and the most representative work of those writers who can properly be classified as American Jewish poets' (11). He goes on to state that he has 'not included those poets who, although nominally Jewish, do not deal significantly with the American Jewish experience.' how did he define 'best' or 'representative?' What does he mean when he says that certain 'nominally Jewish' poets 'do not deal significantly with the American Jewish experience?' Does Rubin consider a test such as 'The Artifice of Absorption,' an eighty-plus-page 'essay' in the form of lineated verse by Charles Bernstein, an insignificant expression of American Jewish experience? Although his poem does not focus overtly on Jewish themes (such as the Holocaust, immigrant experience, Diaspora, anti-Semitism, the family, the place of Yiddish in American poetry, or the Bible), Bernstein seems to express his Jewishness in many ways, especially through the poem's half-serious / half-comic scholarly tone, the concern with the issues of 'absorption' and 'exclusion,' the way he tests the borders between genres, and argues for the instability of the relationship between 'content' and 'style.' ....Rubin's project is commendable, but his anthology fails to offer a sustained critical apparatus or theoretical perspective through which readers could evaluate how his selections were made. We mention the critical lacunae and theoretical shortfalls of Rubin's anthology because it is precisely in such gaps and silences that our collection would like to lay stress (2-3).

The anthology expands upon the New York event and includes writing by:
Paul Auster
Merle L. Bachman
Charles Bernstein
Charlie Bertsch
Maria Damon
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Amy Feinstein
Thomas Fink
Norman Finkelstein
Norman Fischer
Benjamin Friedlander
Michael Heller
Dr. Kathryn Hellerstein
Bob Holman
Adeena Karasick
Hank Lazer
Stephen Paul Miller
Daniel Morris
Ranen Omer-Sherman
Alicia Ostriker
Bob Perelman
Marjorie Perloff
Jerome Rothenberg
Meg Schoerke
Joshua Schuster
Eric Murphy Selinger

In San Francisco at the JCC, Bernstein opened the discussion with the observation that you would think that there would be a great deal written about secular Jewish culture since it is an important tradition and foundational for radical poetics in the U.S. in the 20th century; yet, for a number of reasons, it is not the subject of much discussion. Secular Jewish culture is elided in discussions of Jewishness in Jewish organizations in the U.S. Many of the people asked to participate in the New York event, like Melville's Bartelby, "preferred not to" talk about being Jewish in relation to their writing projects. So, the event brought people together to talk about what they did not want to talk about, what they preferred not to do.

Bernstein noted that while in California, he happened to meet one of the editors of the Nortan Anthology of Jewish American Literature and asked what Gertrude Stein work the anthology would include; the editor told Bernstein that he did not think they were going to include Stein. Bernstein was shocked by the omission of perhaps one of the most important Jewish (though she didn't necessarily identify as such) Twentieth-Century American authors. The editors eventually did include Stein, apparently (given a framework that demanded readily identifiable Jewish content--I'm extrapolating here) because they were able to link something from the Making of Americans to Jewish culture. Bernstein cited another example of omission and silence around radical writing projects and the Jewish writer: he spoke of the recent and amazing conference on Zukofsky which included almost no framing of Zukofsky's work in relation to Jewish culture. Bernstein found the great aversion to identify as Jewish a valuable incitement to conversation.

Norman Fischer agreed: He noted that inside synagogues, people don't like to talk about the secular Jewish culture that doesn't identify as Jewish; if you are in the secular culture, outside of synagogue, there is reluctance to talk about a possible Jewish dimension to what you do. Fischer said that it is all very confusing!

Fischer elaborated. It is all not clear: What does Jewish mean? Religion, culture? What is culture, secular, religious? Fischer noted that the more he has thought about this, the less clear the distinctions between them become. Fischer mentioned that some would wonder why, Fischer, a Zen Buddhist priest and poet, who is involved in religious life, could having something to do with radical Jewish secular poetics!

[Note that these proceedings were accompanied by an ongoing playful banter between our two speakers.]

Fischer told several stories. First: Many years ago, he brought his pregnant, non-Jewish wife to Brooklyn to meet for the first time his Jewish family. They all met at the apartment of Fischer's cousin, a kosher butcher. Fischer looks over and sees his wife has a stricken look on her face. Fischer asks her if she is ok, and she says she needs to go outside:

She: Can't you see what's going on here? These people-- they are all talking at the same time and they are shrieking, they are yelling.

Fischer: No, they're not. It is a normal conversation.

They go inside. He listens, and, yes, he realizes they were all talking at once.

For Fischer, the deep point in this is: This is the nature of Jewish discourse, everyone talking at once at the top of their voices. It makes a beautiful music and is inherently self-contradictory and confusing. This is, Fischer said, the essence of what we are dealing with here.

Another anecdote: Fischer talked about reading from his book Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms. In the mostly Jewish audience in New York, a guy begins attacking Fischer vehemently. At the event, Rabbi Jonathan Slater says that in Judaism there is no pope. No body gets to say what Judaism is. Judaism is whatever a person who defines him/her self as Jewish says it is.

Fischer then read from Bernstein's piece entitled "Radical Jewish Culture/ Secular Jewish Practice":

Remember Kafka's question: 'What have I in common with Jews? I don't know what I have in common with myself.' Or, in a recent translation, I wouldn't want to have an ethnicity that would automatically count me in its number...when the saints go marching in...

Am I Jewish? Is this Jewish? I am no more Jewish then when I set my Jewishness adrift from fundamentalist religious practice. I am no more Jewish than when I refuse imposed definitions of what Jewishness means. I am no more Jewish than when I attend to how such Jewishness lives itself out, plays tunes not yet played. Jewishness can, even must, in one of its multiple manifestations, be an aversion of identification--as a practice of dialogue and as an openness to the unfolding performance of the everyday. Call it the civic practice of Jewishness (13).

and then, Norman Fischer read a piece from his own contribution to the anthology. This is from "Light (silence) word."

The Kabbalists were obsessed with language. They were not interested merely in analysis, contemplation, and interpretation. Study for them was not an intellectual act. Instead, every word of text masked hidden depths that revealed operations crucial to the salvation of the world on a moment-to-moment basis; and every word was related not only to every other word of text but to everything else throughout the whole of the mundane and supernal realms. Things of the world were, in their essence also 'words' (in Hebrew devar means both word and thing), because God had after all, in the most hidden of all parts of the Bible, Bereshit ('In the beginning,' the Jewish name for Genesis, and the main subject of the Zohar) created the physical universe exactly by uttering words. What was the nature of God-speech, God-word? And how did it relate to human speech, in which it lay hidden?

The Torah, it was said, was written in light. Every letter was light. And within this light all mysteries were contained. The book was the world, the world was the book. To those who then and now complain that the Torah is a primitive text, full of violence and vindictiveness of a terrified people and a terrible God, the Kabbalists had little to say; they knew otherwise, but how could one explain, for without faith, spiritual practice, and intimate knowledge, what could be understood? They knew that certainly the Torah was not saying only what it seemed to be saying, what the black letters on white seemed to indicate, it was saying that and everything else, in multifaceted, ineffable ways. The words, the letters, were fire; the page was burning. (In an essay on Buber's vision of Chasidism, Kenneth Rexroth, who felt that the Bible was the most destructive text ever written, said that the Chasidism had manage to read the Bible in such a way that is said exactly the opposite of what it actually did say; Rexroth was seemingly both right and wrong about this.) Behind every letter of the text, every infinite pinpoint of light, lay universe upon universe (61-62).

Fischer makes the link between "a key Kabbalistic theme, concealment, hiddenness" and "the germs of nearly all avant-garde writing's chief themes: revolt against the polite, rational, Aristotelian order of things; focus on language not as a conduit of communication but as infinitely suggestible medium that writes the world; concealment, hiddenness, obscurity, exile; intertextuality; resistance to closure and the univocal interpreting self. The world is hidden within language, words conceal rather than reveal meaning, meaning as meaning being essentially concealed, the not said, the written writing the unwritten etc, (65).

from Norman Finkelstein's essay "Secular Jewish Culture and Its Radical Poetic Discontents," Fischer read:

We think of innovative writing as providing a liberating perspective on reality--otherwise, why "Make it New?" In his discussion of Rabi Nachman's contribution to Jewish hermeneutics, Ouaknin focuses on Nachman's interpretation of the concept of divine tsimtsum (contraction or withdrawal) that is fundamental to Isaac Luria's kabbalistic theory of creation. According to Ouaknin, Nachman's concern is with the process of textual innovation, how it is possible and how it may be encouraged, since in Talmudic interpretation, 'the plural speech of Mahloket, room is left for each person to create his own world' (284). Nachman associates innovation with tsimtsum:'When someone wishes to innovate new words (new meanings), he should limit his knowledge (literally: accomplish the Tsimtsum in his mind), that is to say, evacuate, not hurry into the known preliminary considerations that confuse his mind and are not necessary for innovating. He should act like someone who does not know and only then can he progressively, and in order, innovate new meanings' (285). The rationale for this procedure implies a critique of institutional thinking and of the status quo. As Ouaknin puts it, 'Man has to withdraw from 'himself' in order to attain himself. The first 'self is not the real one; it is constructed, prefabricatd by institutions' (285). Tsimtsum is thus a process of designification; the innovative reader (or writer) 'attacks the semantic actuality of speech, or, in other words, rediscovers for himself the power of words through their 'designifying'(287). Withdrawal from conventional signification transforms one into a 'simple man,' one who says, ' I know nothing'--a notion that I cannot help but see as analogous to Keats's negative capability, which went on to inspire ideas of open form composition in poetry over a century later (228).

Fischer and Bernstein then discussed Ben Friedlander's astonishing essay which reads Paul, suggesting that Paul probably was just a Jew who said I'm a Reformist, and I'm going to do this whole thing differently, but it is Jewish. Friedlander's argument is that our reading of Paul now is an anachronistic one. When Paul wrote, he was writing as a Jew.

from Friedlander's essay "Letter to Romans":

If 'secular Jewish culture" is a form of antinomianism, then it follows that this culture is also a part of the religious history of Judaism, and not, as is ordinarily conceived, the nonreligious extract of that history. A further corollary is that problems faced by this culture will often be translatable into Pauline terms. Ethics without adherence to the law? 'Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law' (Romans 13:10). Compatability of traditions within mixed groups or families? 'Practice hospitality....Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgement on him who eats....None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself' (12:13, 14:3, 14:7). Hostility among Jews of divergent beliefs? 'Do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you' (11:18). Paul's entire discourse concerns the continuation of Judaism in a new form (430).

Importantly, during the evening's discussion Bernstein mentioned what innovative writer Leslie Scalapino asked them when they had had dinner with her the night before: why bother then with the Jewish framework?

Bernstein replied: because it is an important part of American history...and important for opening up discourse and practices to contest the rigid and singular.

At some point in the evening at the JCC Bernstein quipped that he is starting a new movement called Midrashic Antinomianism, or Bent Studies, the motto for which is: See the Crookedness in the Straight. I am an observant Jew. I look closely at the things around me as if they were foreign!

The discussion at the JCC didn't get around to a detailed discussion of the intersection between radical poetics and secular Jewish Culture; there just wasn't time and the questions from the audience took us elsewhere. I am looking forward to reading more of the book as I'm wondering if the anthology suggests what its editors found lacking in Telling and Remembering. That is, if one were evaluating the success of Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, one would have to ask if this anthology offers a sustained critical apparatus or theoretical perspective. In my cursory reading thus far, it does indeed offer an array of differences, locating and examining the histories of various writers and practices while suggesting continuing possibilities for multiplying perspectives, voices, and textual strategies, for opening rather than restricting, for delinking identity from boundaries and borders and enforcement, for emphasizing an ongoing daily, lived and textual practice. Can the resulting historically specific and rich engagement be extended to other so-called identity and poetic categories? Certainly, African American poets, women poets, queer writers, a wide variety of Asian American poets and any number of other poets and writers categorized by identity have encountered similar though historically distinct problematics and possibilities. One question seems to be: How to make contingent use of categories--whether identitarian or genre-based--and simultaneously to subvert them. Or deform them all together. An ongoing rumination. Antinomian poetics? Against the law. Retaining the law to mark it in all its complex history and then to make many and much out of it.

You can listen to this program via the podcasts available at the San Francisco Jewish Center HERE.

Here are Charles and Norman's bios from Small Press Traffic:

Charles Bernstein is the author of 40 books, ranging from large-scale collections of poetry and essays to pamphlets, libretti, translations, and collaborations. All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems ( 2010) from Farrar, Straus, Giroux. Recent full-lengtht works of poetry include Girly Man (University of Chicago Press, 2006), With Strings (University of Chicago Press, 2001), and Republics of Reality: 1975-1995 (Sun & Moon Press, 2000). He has published two books of essays and one essay/poem collection: My Way: Speeches and Poems (University of Chicago Press, 1999); A Poetics (Harvard University Press, 1992); Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (Sun & Moon Press, 1986, 1994; reprinted by Northwestern University Press, 2001). Shadowtime (Green Integer, 2005) is the libretto he wrote for Brian Ferneyhough's opera and Blind Witness (Factory School, 2008) collects the libretti he wrote for Ben Yarmolinsky.

Bernstein is Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Pennsylvania.

He is the co-founder and co-editor, with Al Filreis, of PENNsound (writing.upenn.edu/pennsund); and editor, and co-founder, with Loss Pequenño Glazier, of The Electronic Poetry Center (epc.buffalo.edu). He is coeditor, with Hank Lazer, of Modern and Contemporary Poetics, a book series from the University of Alabama Press (1998 - ). He has been host and co-producer of LINEbreak and Close Listening, two radio poetry series.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Norman Fischer has been publishing poetry since 1979. Loosely associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets of the seventies and eighties, he maintains close creative and personal relationships with many writers from that movement. Fischer spent five years living at Tassajara Zen Monastery in monastic Buddhist practice where poets Jane Hirshfield and Phillip Whalen were fellow students. He enjoyed a particularly close relationship to Phillip Whalen whom Norman describes in the dedication of his book Slowly But Dearly as a fellow “poet, Zen priest, teacher, friend.” Norman is Philip Whalen’s literary executor.


Christian Nagler said...

This is a great summary of that interesting evening, Robin. I just want to mention one moment that stayed with me from the conversation. I'm talking about the moment when Bernstein quoted the Israeli writer Amos Oz (this quote also appears in Loss Pequeño Glazier's interview with Bernstein, collected in the book of essays and interviews, My Way):

"Now suppose a new Kafka is growing up right now, here in San Francisco, California. Suppose he is fourteen years old right now. Let's call him Chuck Bernstein. Let's assume that he is every bit of a genius as Kafka was in his time. His future must, as I see it, depend on an uncle in Jerusalem or an experience by the Dead Sea, or a cousin in a kibbutz or something inspired by the Israeli live drama. Otherwise, with the exception of the possiblity that he is growing up among the ultra-Orthodox, he will be an American writer of Jewish origin--not a Jewish American writer. He may become a new Faulkner, but not a new Kafka."

Bernstein's comment on this idea was that it was "repugnant," though he didn't explain precisely why. In the Q & A, the young woman employed by the JCC to host the event asked Bernstein why he had such strong feelings about Oz's statement. I don't remember exactly what he said, but it had something to do with how "reductive" an idea of Jewishness it is. What I remembered so vividly was the questioner's clear uncomprehendingness juxtaposed with Bernstein's strong condemnatory language. It felt to me like a moment that stood in for some issues that could not quite be addressed in that setting.

Note: The Oz quote is from his essay "Imagining the Other: 1."

Robin Tremblay-McGaw said...

Thanks for this comment and the reference, and yes that was a memorable moment. And while Morris's reference in the intro to *Radical Poetics* clearly outlines the problematic and reductive vision of Jewish American Writing articulated in the *Telling and Remembering* anthology for example, that background was not offered in so clear a format in the JCC discussion though I think Norman Fischer's comment about his own experience in NY with his book *Opening to You* and the stories and anecdotes that both offered were suggestive, including Bernstein's comment about his own experience of and interest in Jewish writing and its lineage not so much deriving from Israel but rather Europe. He said something to that effect. At the talk, I was not sure how to interpret Bernstein's performance with the Oz piece because I didn't know who Oz is. It wasn't until Jocelyn outlined Oz and then I had a chance to read the remark (rather than just hear it at the talk) that I could get a handle on it. That is probably NOT the case with the questioner....or maybe there was something about the performativity of that piece that made it challenging to the questioner? What is the politics or the poetics? Where the line between?

Unknown said...

I particularly enjoyed this summary/critique of Charles and Norman's talk. I have forwarded your comments to Norman and will link this page to Norman's poetry website (normanfishcerzenpoetry.com).


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