This interview took place in September, 2006 at "The Poetry Shed," a small cabin
adjacent to both an art studio and barn on rural acreage, which includes forest, ponds and pasture for two horses, an Appaloosa and a
Morgan/Thoroughbred. While James Bertolino is now in his mid-sixties, he somehow retains the vitality and enthusiasm
of a younger poet.
James Bertolino was born in October, 1942 in a tiny village named Pence, near the Northern border of Wisconsin and
the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. His paternal grandparents had moved from Italy to Wisconsin, where his grandfather
worked (for 50 years!) in the iron mines. His father and uncles were also miners. His maternal grandmother was
French Canadian, with one-quarter White Earth Chippewa ancestry, and his mother, after raising seven children,
became a junior high school home economics teacher.
When James Bertolino was five, his family got its first record player, a Victrola. Their introductory 78 rpm disk
had the unforgettable refrain, "I'm looking over / a four-leaf clover / that I overlooked before." Jim was smitten
by language! That sentence became a mantra, and he drove the family crazy with his earliest literary obsession.
Later, as a high school student in the late fifties, his older sister would bring him poetry books from the college
library: he became an ardent follower of Kerouac, Corso and Ginsberg. They provided a passport to realms beyond the
ornate verse he'd been subjected to in school.
His poems, which are succinct in style but which generate universes, are
endangered species holding onto their unique niches. His poetry that reaches through concepts into the realm of
vision does not fit neatly into any school or era. Throughout the work, totem creatures appear and reappear, allowing us to enter animistic realms where
the reader can taste the insect in the bat's mouth, feel the swallow's flight through a human body and, more
importantly, learn how to think like a planet. The boundaries are constantly shifting.
The Path of Water
Nothing can make water better.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Water grows heavy
with its own wounding.
Earth is the planet of water.
We are water. We are the history
of water in this star system. We sip
molecules that brought oxygen to the tissues
of blind fish. Our breaths remember ice.
Sweat remembers clouds sliced by pterodactyls
on leathery wings. Water rises and sinks.
Water that traveled by comet for thousands of years
finds news of the universe in the urine
of Tibetan priests. Water teaches.
Water is the path that takes us
in. We swim
the mind of water.
MCR: In your
essay "A Close Call" from the 1996 chapbook
Goat Footed Turtle, you wrote about
an experience where you were hanging from a
crane at a construction site, contemplating
taking your life. How did that moment define
your aspirations of being a poet?
JB: That's a good question. I think it identified poetry as a life-or-death proposition.
The reason I even considered committing suicide by jumping off a construction crane when I was
sixteen was because my father accidentally happened to read poetry I'd written and took it as
evidence of my insanity.
That was deeply upsetting to me, shocking that he would consider my poetry as proof of insanity
instead of budding genius, you know? But, given that those poems were written under the influence
of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," it's not surprising my father wouldn't embrace my work. He
didn't read poetry of any kind, so I guess my poetry, which was a sort of Midwestern version of
Allen Ginsberg, would seem distasteful to him, and extreme. Anyway, the process of climbing down
was importantthe struts of that seventy-five-foot-high crane had me doing a mantra with each
of the rungs: "I will be a poet, I will be a poet, I will." I became determined that
someday my dad would actually be proud of me, but it took almost twenty years.
MR: Did your father finally accept you as a poet and decide that
maybe you weren't insane?
JB: Well, over the next four or five years I gave both my parents plenty of other reasons
to be concerned, but that's another story. My mother did manage to finally drag
my father to one of my poetry readings; I had been an undergraduate at the University of
Wisconsin in the early sixties, and was invited back there for a reading while I was a professor
at the University of CincinnatiI think it was the mid-seventies. It always pleased me not
only because I got paid for that reading, but the event was scheduled in the same room where
Bill Knott had read back when I was a student thereKnott was one of my heroes, and I
still consider him an indispensable American poet. You don't get a Franz Wright without
there first being a Bill Knott. Anyway, my dad came to that reading. I think it was the
only timethey lived in Madison, so it was easy. But important to me. Later, when he and
my mother were going through a divorce, he wondered if I would ever consider writing a poem
for him. Of course, that was his way of asking me to take his side during the divorce. And I
did write a poem dedicated to him, but I don't think he appreciated it, because he never
commented that he'd received it. That poem is titled "The Adequacy," and came out
in my Copper Canyon book,
Making Space For Our Living (1975).
I also wrote a poem for my mother, which became something other than a son writing a poem to a mother. In the
process, the voice I was hearingsaying the wordsbecame my mother's, her speaking, and so it became
a poem where a mother is speaking to a grown-up sonkind of interesting. That one is titled "A Mother's
Song," and is in the same book, facing the one I wrote for my father.
Getting my hands on "Howl," powerful poetry
that didn't rhyme, that wasn't metrical—that
got my attention. Ginsberg spoke in a very
direct way: he dealt with homosexuality,
with politics, dealt with American culture;
with love, loneliness, drugs. A lot of his
issues had an impact on me.
MR: Earlier you mentioned Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation
as having a profound effect on you in the late fifties. What were some of the elements of
Ginsberg's work that opened up a new world of poetry to you?
I had read about the Beat Generation in Life Magazine. They did a feature on the Beats, and I saw pictures
of Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, as well as a few othersmaybe Gregory Corso, who was a poet I really enjoyed
later on. They were famous, a phenomenon in American culture. That there would be any group of writers, any poets,
who would be the subject of a story in
Life Magazine, was amazing. Getting my hands on
"Howl," powerful poetry that didn't rhyme, that wasn't metricalthat got my
attention. Ginsberg spoke in a very direct way: he dealt with homosexuality, with politics,
dealt with American culture; with love, loneliness, drugs. A lot of his issues had an impact
on me. And where I grew up, if you were a young male and demonstrated an interest in poetry,
everybody automatically considered you gay.
I wrote a poem not too long ago, not necessarily about me of course, where, as a young teenager, a boy wanted
to be Elvis Presley, so he slicked his dark hair back and wore his collar up, but all the girls thought he was
gay. I remember walking into a packed indoor stadium with a girlfriend, and somebody in the stands yelled
out, "Hey! Hey, Robert Frost. Robert Frost is here!" I didn't know who had said it, so I just
flipped the bird to the stands, you know? One of the reasons I joined the wrestling team as a high school
student was to be able to kick ass if I had to.
Anyway, Ginsberg was saying things in his poetry that needed to be said. It was the fifties, the late
fiftiesa very repressive time.
MR: Your early poems in the sixties seem to challenge political paradigms, and
there's a sense of resistance to the accepted societal norms.
How much of that resistance stemmed from growing up in Wisconsin? What was the social
setting like there? Blue collar, primarily, and conservative?
JB: Everything was conservative (he laughs). My dad was a blue collar worker, but
enterprising. He was the kind of guy who would be working in the mines during the day and
going around looking after pin-ball machines and jukeboxes at night to make a little
extra money. Then he started working for Holland Furnace Company, installing heating
systems and stuff, and ultimately became a manager of a local franchise. He didn't
go beyond ninth grade in education, and really, in my family, not until quite late,
was there any discussion with the kids about college or having any kind of extensive
plans for their own future. So I look back at that's being a great gift in a sense,
that there was nobody telling me what I should be doing, other than
"Stay out of jail!"
When I was in eighth grade the principal of the school invited my parents to come in and have a conference.
It was spring and graduation was coming; she brought up the issue of prison and told them she'd pegged me
as the kind of person who was bright but needed some discipline. The principal, a nun, was worried that
if I didn't get some discipline it would go badly for me (laughing). So my parents sent me off, as a freshman
in high school, to a Catholic monastery school in
Peru, Illinois: St. Bede Academy.
MR: What was your experience like there?
JB: It was a great experience in a lot of ways. I appreciate it more and more as
I look back. It wasn't a very happy time, but
it definitely cut the apron strings. There I was, fourteen years old, living in another
state with a bunch of guysabout half of them from Chicago. They knew how to get into a
lot more mischief than I did. The first night in the dorm I got cold-cocked by the monk
who was the prefect of the dorm. He was responsible for over sixty freshman students who
slept in metal-frame cots in a single, mammoth room. I had a nightmare, woke, and was
fiddling with my stuff on the noisy metal chair next to my bed. He came up in the dark and
round-housed me with his fist. I was knocked back over the bed and came to, seeing stars.
Being slugged by that priest wound up serving as the bookends of my St. Bede experience
because, about two weeks before the end of the school year, he laid me out again in the
main hallway downstairs. He'd heard that I'd been in a fight that day
and had given the other kid a black eye. Those monks didn't spare the rod, that's for sure.
On the property owned by the academy and monastery, there was a working farm and probably thirty acres of
forest. I liked to go off by myself and spend time with the cows and pigs, walk or sit in the woods. I've
always been a watcher. If you look at anything long enough, you'll see things you didn't expect.
That year was an example of how I repeatedly got bounced out of what was the normal track for my
working-class peer group. I have no idea how my parents got the money together to send me to a private
school for even a single year. They must have been worried!
Those monks were weird, some of them very weird people, and some quite brilliant. I was adopted by one of
the monks I had as an English teacher.
He invited me to come to his mini-apartment in the main building. He left the door open
so nobody would think anything strange was going on, and he introduced me to classical
music, to some novels and poetry he thought I should read.
That was very important to me. I only went to see him a couple of times, but it left
MR: Do you think poetry can be used as a political protest?
JB: Absolutely. Check out the thousands of poems published on both the American
and British Poets Against War websites. As well as the
Poets Against the War anthology edited by Sam Hamill and published by
The Nation Books (2003), which includes one of my poems.
Reviewers noted that some 13,000 poems were considered.
. . . it has been essential for me to bring to
the reader an unusual point-of-view. It's
not surprising for one of my poems to take
the perspective of an animal or one of the
forces of nature. You might find an animal
being eaten alive by a predator because I
want to represent all of it . . .
In what ways do you think your poetry has acted as a protest?
JB: First of all, the most important thing is to give one person a voice.
Secondly, it has been essential for me to bring to the reader an unusual point-of-view.
It's not surprising for one of my poems to take the perspective of an animal or one of
the forces of nature. You might find an animal being eaten alive by a predator because
I want to represent all of it, you know what I mean? Too often people feel that if you
show some of the harsher aspects of nature, it demonstrates that you don't love nature.
And that's the equivalent of being critical of your own government, for good reasons, and
people's saying you're unpatriotic.
Bullshit! I love nature. I have spent a lot of time, unsupervised time, observing the
natural world. And don't forget that we humans, and all we do, are part of nature.
MR: Your poetry, at times, carries an animistic aura about
it that transcends political boundaries. I'm thinking of your poem "The Mystery"
here. How has being reared near the woods of Northern Wisconsin influenced this
JB: You said animistic, not animalistic right (laughing)? Yeah, animistic, I like
that term. The idea that nature, everything in nature, embodies spirit, is compelling. I
can certainly understand why tribal peoples would recognize the power of a mountain or
river, recognize the power of a certain animal that an individual might accept as an ally
or totemic figure. One unforgettable experience for me up in northern Wisconsin was when
I was a kidI couldn't have been older than nineand had gone down my favorite trail to
a swamp. As I got closer, I could see the swamp was sort of rippling and had an unusual brown
tinge to it. So I picked up the tempo, ran down the path and jumped off into it, sinking up to
my ankles in baby toads. There were millions of baby toads
covering the swamp about five-inches deep. I
just stood there, overwhelmed by that
incredible abundance of life. Of course my
leaping into them probably killed a few
dozen. That experience taught me something
important about how nature works. One of
nature's methods is excess, and nature has
no fear of death.
I remember the sound of redwing blackbirds
lacing the humid air over the swamp.
Picking my way down the pumphouse trail
in high-topped sneakers, I paused
at a break in the trees to look out over
the marshy lowlands, fetid acres
that were a brown that moved, that undulated
like the skin of an enormous snake.
I ran the rest of the path and leaped onto the bog,
then sank ankle-deep in a frothy mud, an ocean
of baby toadsnone of them larger than a dime.
I felt that expanse of life pulling
at my stomach, weakening my knees,
and knew then the world is a mystery
of excess, which never recedes
from its love of death.
MR: Has the environment, both cosmological and physical, helped
define your "place" in the literary world and your identity as a poet?
JB: Of course the answer is "yes." Because I have felt intimate with nature
and have actually considered nature one of my teachers, it's impossible to miss the fact that
we are all connectedto each other, to nature, to the universe. How can that not affect your
political perception, your values? At the same time, because so many of my formative experiences
occurred when I was alone, it's easy to feel like a loner in the world of poetry. I'm quite
gregarious, of course, and love the company of other writers, but
I've never felt I was part of any "school" or movement. Many times over the forty
years I've been writing, editing and publishing there have been readers who have liked my
poetry, then have been dismayed when they've found other published work of mine that is not
only quite different, but appears to embrace a different
aesthetic, different values. But I guess my work, when considered in its entirety, is almost
cubistin the sense that Picasso or Duchamp might give many different perspectives on the
same figure or scene in a painting. Recently, the well-respected Language poet Ron Silliman
published an essay about my career as poet, in which he associated me with the New York
School of the sixties and seventies, and suggests I would be an actual famous poet these
days if after grad school at Cornell I had moved to New York City and hung out with Ted
Berrigan, Anne Waldman, John Ashbery, etc.
Well, Silliman's got a perspective that is accurate. But while I was writing the poems that might have encouraged
readers and critics to identify me with the New York School or the burgeoning Language school, I was also writing
nature poems, poems driven by exciting ideas in science, and wild, in-your-face poems that came out in my books
Terminal Placebos (1975) and Precinct Kali & The Gertrude Spicer Story
(1982). In fact, I had three books published in 1975, and they were each quite different. I
had to hide my book
Terminal Placebos when I was being considered for early tenure at the University of
Cincinnati. Once tenured, of course, I delighted in pulling that book out at parties!
MR: At Cornell University you studied under A.R. Ammons. In his
poetry, he integrates science with details from his physical environment, often in a minimalist
style. Did this style appeal to you as a young poet, or were you already structuring your poems
in that vein?
JB: The three years I spent at Cornell was the same period when Ammons was achieving
major national recognition. I remember Archie telling a story about the
eight-hundred-pound-gorilla-critic, Harold Bloom. (He's the very critic who, many years
later, reprinted an essay I'd written on Maya Angelou without my permission.) Bloom used
to call Ammons up to predict for him what his next development was going to be in his
poetry (laughing). I don't think Archie liked that much.
For my third year at Cornell, I'd finished my M.F.A. and been hired as an instructor. Ammons and I were
colleagues! Now there was a guy who was a prominent voice in American poetry, and his primary impulses
extended from his experiences with nature, his background in rural North Carolina. But that ethos was bound
up with intellect, with eruditionAmmons was ultimately a poet of ideas. That really caught my attentionthat
it was possible to be a poet whose imagery came out of nature, but whose language could carry ideas and intellect.
That was what I wanted to do, and pretty much what I took with me from Cornell.
My actual manner of putting a poem together had taken a lot from William
Carlos Williams and Objectivist poets like George Oppen. Also Denise
Levertov was, for me, an extremely important example of a poet who could say a great deal, who
communicated wonderful impressions, feelings, and responses to the world in a very succinct
manner. I was reading Gary Snyder back then, too, and his early work was important to me, as
was Robert Creeley's.
MR: How did Ammons' scientific ideas and imagery affect your poetry?
JB: There wasn't all that much science in my work of the sixties and early seventies,
but there were a lot of references later. My actual manner of putting a poem together had
taken a lot from William Carlos Williams and Objectivist poets like George Oppen. Also Denise
Levertov was, for me, an extremely important example of a poet who could say a great deal, who
communicated wonderful impressions, feelings, and responses to the world in a very succinct
manner. I was reading Gary Snyder back then, too, and his early work was important to me, as
was Robert Creeley's.
By the time I arrived in graduate school at Cornell, I was already "there" in terms of style. A number
of reviewers and interviewers have wanted to point out what seemed obvious to themthat key aspects of my style
had been learned from Ammons, which wasn't true. My main reason for applying to the M.F.A. program at Cornell was
because William Matthews was therehe and Russell Banks were planning to publish a collection of my poems at their
Lillabulero Press, and I had printed poems by both of them in
Abraxas. As such things sometimes go, Matthews and I had a falling-out, and Ammons came to
seem a kindred spirit. Archie really appreciated my work, and that was sometimes embarrassing!
One time, in the poetry workshop, he said something like,"The only one in this class who
is doing serious work is Mr. Bertolino." Another time he read a poem of mine aloud to the
workshop and finished with, "How could this get any better?" Of course the other
students looked at me, probably thinking, "you asshole!"
MR: Can you talk about your time at the University of Cincinnati?
JB: I started there in seventy-four, and back then it wasn't that unusual to go right
from a graduate program into a tenure-track job. Now tenure-track jobs are really hard to
get, mainly because there are thousands of M.F.A.s looking for gigs these days. I actually
wasn't excited about going there and didn't expect to stay in Cincinnati long. I could have
stayed at Cornell for two more years as an instructor. But people, including my wife, were
saying to me, "Jim, come on, it's a tenure track job, you have to take that job." It
did turn out to be a good positiona big school, with an unusually well-endowed English
department when it came to poetry. Their budget for poetry readings, writers-in-residence,
book awards, literary magazinewas over thirty thousand. That was an enormous amount of
money in the seventies: over thirty-thousand dollars a year to use for poetry would be
phenomenal now! It was a great place to be, and a fabulous opportunity for an ambitious
young writer, where there was funding to bring the most famous, the most exciting poets in
the country to campussome of them for ten weeks.
MR: Which writers visited while you were there?
JB: We had the Elliston-poet-in-residence position, where a poet came for an entire
quarter, which included William Stafford, Louise Gluck, Gary Snyder, Philip Levine, John
Ashbery. Others who came for readings were Jorge Luis Borges, Ishmael Reed, John Haines,
Jean Valentine, etc. I actually chaired the Elliston Poetry Foundation for a couple years, a
nd got the Elliston Book Award for independent presses going in 1976the first winner was
Tess Gallagher. Later, I was instrumental in getting the poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge hiredwhen
there was a one-year position open, I argued that we should give it to an Asian-American
writer. Mei-Mei had, at that time, been secretary to the famous artist Georgia O'Keeffe.
William Stafford, of course, was the first poet-in-residence there during my time, and that was just a wonderful
experience. I really liked that guy.
MR: What was your impression of William Stafford?
JB: You've probably read my essay, "How Stafford Taught the Faculty." He was
a consummate performer: the way he spoke, the way he delivered his poems at readings, it was
all the same stuff, the same belief system, the same attitudes, same valueseverything
was there. To me, he was a great model of a person of vision who walked the talk, lived the
life, and dreamed the work. William Stafford was an extremely intelligent man and his values
were hard foughthe wasn't born with them. He was a Conscientious Objector in World War
II; I mean, he did hard stuff.
MR: Can you speak about the lunch you had with William Stafford?
JB: The Lunch! Yeah, that's right. It wasn't my habit to bring a lunch to campus. If I
had the time, I would go out, or have lunch at home. That first year in Cincinnati, my wife
Lois, who had been a prominent artist in Ithaca, set up her own jewelry studio in our basement
apartment. She was self-employed and developing a reputation as an artist in Cincinnati. Anyway,
because she worked at home, I would often have lunch with her. One day Stafford told me he
was planning to bring his lunch the next day, and wondered if I would join him in the faculty
lunchroom, so I did. I sat down across from him just as he was getting ready to eat, and I
suppose there were a dozen faculty members sitting around the tables chatting, pulling out
really nice sandwiches, baguettes with cream cheese, steaming homemade coffee.
Stafford put in front of him this beat-up brown paper bag with stains on it, opened it, and started taking
stuff out. First, he spread a paper napkin, and on it placed half an apple that had turned brown, then a
cube of cheese about an inch square, a piece of cold toast and half a sweet roll. His beverage was a glass
of water. I described it in my essay as a Kansas version of the Zen tea ceremony. He would take a bite of
toast, then a nibble of cheese, then a bite of apple. After he had finished those items, he started in on
the sweet roll. Nobody commented, but I think the faculty present were in awe: here was this famous, well-paid
writer-in-residence who was apparently completely focused on his impoverished meal. Given his stipend, he
could have afforded the most expensive restaurants in town, but he had something important to teach those
Cincinnati, by the way, was known for its restaurants. The poet Donald Hall, who was teaching at the University
of Michigan then, would sometimes drive down from Ann Arbor because he loved the food.
C. W. Truesdale's introduction to Precinct Kali & The Gertrude Spicer Story . . . describes
my work as "a strain of American poetry that is very rare—a virus, a
genius, a madness—that looks at what we are in this country, and laughs.
There is no do-it-yourself utopianism here, no romantic solutions, no
nostalgia or illusions, nothing that looks or smells like the American
Dream, and no effort to teach us to be better and more compassionate
human beings. His gift, simply, is to make us see in hundreds of ways
what we are and to cause us laughter and recognition. He is our Fool and
Trickster, and we are all his kings and queens.
MR: You worked also as an editor at the University of
JB: I was a co-founder of the Cincinnati Poetry Review, which was supported by
the English department. I didn't get any release-time from teaching for doing it, but was
very happy to be at a place where they would actually pay the printing bills. I had already
been editor/publisher for
Abraxas magazine and press, as well as Stone Marrow Press, and it was all done on my
nickel (with a small amount of grant supportboth the National Endowment for the Arts and
Ohio Arts Council had grant programs for literary publishing). At Cornell I had served as
Poetry Editor of
Epoch, as well as on the editorial board of Ithaca House Books.
The ten-year period I spent at the University of Cincinnati was a productive time. I discovered that I could be
a full-time professor and still do a lot of writing and publishing. Plus, I was invited to be on the judging
panel for the Ohio Arts Council's grant applications, and then became the chair. I was involved with CETA,
which was a federal program to support writers and artists who were at risk of not making a living. I started
the Cincinnati Area Poetry Project and received grants to publish a series of books and an anthology of
Cincinnati poets. Those poets got paid for giving readings, and their books were published. You could say
that prior to moving to Washington State in 1984, I already had quite a bit of community involvement. Even
in New York, I always was involved: Board of Directors of the Brooklyn Print Center, Board of Consultants
and grants committees for the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines.
I was also getting my own books published: three while in grad school, and five while a professor at
Cincinnati. The presses included Brown University's Bonewhistle Press, Copper Canyon Press, New Rivers
Press, Ithaca House, Granite Publications, etc. My
New & Selected Poems volume that came out from Carnegie Mellon in 1978 is
the one that brings together a lot of nature poems, poems about human relationships
and so on.
The pattern for poetry writing professors at Cincinnati was that they did not get tenure when they were
evaluated in their sixth year, so I figured my best chance was to apply for tenure early, and did in the
spring of my second year, 1976before they found out I was a secret agent! (Laughs) As I mentioned earlier,
Terminal Placebos had come out, and I knew I couldn't let anybody in the English
department see it until after I was granted tenure because it was illustrated with all
these soft-core collages. While I knew the name of the artist, I didn't know until I
received my copies in the mail what kind of art the editor had used. Of course, if you
were in New York City at the time, you would probably know the kind of imagery Anne
Sharp was known forher posters were all over. But geez, full frontal pictures of
naked women and in-your-face poetry wouldn't help any young professor get tenure,
even now (laughing)!
Terminal Placebos was reprinted (without the art!) as the first section of
Precinct Kali—which came out in 1982.
The poetry was a new style for me, it was a city style, with gritty city
energy. They're not nature poems. I mean there is nature imagery in
them, but they are not nature poems. Here, I'll read from C. W. Truesdale's
Precinct Kali & The Gertrude Spicer Story,
where he describes my work as "a strain of American poetry that is very
rare—a virus, a genius, a madness—that looks at what we are in this
country, and laughs. There is no do-it-yourself utopianism here, no
romantic solutions, no nostalgia or illusions, nothing that looks or
smells like the American Dream, and no effort to teach us to be better
and more compassionate human beings. His gift, simply, is to make us see
in hundreds of ways what we are and to cause us laughter and
recognition. He is our Fool and Trickster, and we are all his kings and
queens." I found his response to the book quite insightful.
MR: Your work seemed to be a reaction to, or an aggressive
resistance against, a society that generates billboard consumption. It also brings to the
surface the taboo-ridden masks associated with Western culture. Can you talk about the
transition from your earliest work to the present?
JB: My earliest work is, in some ways, similar to my latest work. I was embroiled
in all the political and social outrages of the sixties, and was very angry at our
government and at Western materialist culture. I was hanging out with people who felt the
same way, mainly writing poems that were nature-oriented back then, when I believed that
making any kind of art was an effort that ran contrary to how the world seemed to be
going. However, it wasn't until the seventies that I started taking a public stance
against what I referred to back then as the levels of corruption in everything from
religion, to politics, to general cultureit was just grosseverything had gotten
so gross. But now, from the perspective of the new millennium, from the perspective of what
America looks like right now, my god. It was a sweet, naïve
In Precinct Kali & The Gertrude Spicer Story for example, there are lots of references to
quantum physics, and other kinds of sciences. There are references to literature, to politics, to
society, gender, sexuality. At the same time the poems are compelling at the level of imagery, and
they have a lot of pyrotechnics happening in the language. I remember that Howard McCord (my mentor at
Washington State University, where I spent my first year of grad school, 1970-71, the year I got my
first paid reading with William Stafford and Russell Edson at Boise State), wrote me a letter when
that book came out in 1982, saying he thought it would stand as one of the really great books of the
twentieth century. It's funny, when people I respect say things like that to me I tend to go dumb. I'm
stunned. I mean I don't know if I even responded to that wonderful letter McCord sent me back then.
MR: What brought you out to the Northwest?
JB: I got married in November, 1966. I was young, just twenty-four (laughs). That
winter, in a favorite bar in Madison, Wisconsinwhere I was at the time an
undergraduatemy wife and I flipped a coin between Albuquerque, New Mexico and Eugene,
Oregon. They had the two universities in the West that I knew had M.F.A. programs in
poetry writing. In June or July, we put all our belongings into a Greyhound bus and
climbed aboardEugene had come up heads. It's funny, they allowed us to store our
stuff at the bus station for twenty-four hours. We had these big boxes, like home
appliance boxes, washer and dryer boxes full of our stuffpeople did that in
those days on the Greyhound.
We quickly found a place to rent in Eugene, and the guy who owned the apartment building had a pickup
and went to get our stuffit all worked out. Then I got a job working with the University of Oregon
bookstore in textbooks, and Lois got a job at the public library. The idea was we were going to live and
work there long enough to gain residency status so I could go to college without paying a lot of money. We
started to hang out with some of the M.F.A. poets at the university, and I was impressed not only by their
work, but that of their professors. Anyway, I wound up editing an anthology titled
Northwest Poets, published back in Madison (Quixote Press, 1968), which included
Stafford, Snyder, Vern Rutsala (who was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2005),
Sandy McPherson, Duane Niatum, Carlos Reyes and other significant poets.
We loved Oregon, loved the coast. The first time we went to the ocean we saw a pod of gray whales; I've
never seen a pod of gray whales again. You just don't see that. We were remarking to the people who brought
us out to the coast: "Wow, look at those whales," and they said, "Oh, yeah, we see those all
the time." Liars! (Laughs) Anyway, after spending a year in Eugene getting to know the faculty and
student poets, plus finding out how difficult it was going to be to transfer, and how much work it was going
to be to first finish an undergraduate degree there, I decided to go back to the University of Wisconsin.
But returning to the Northwest became the Holy Grail.
It was always something we talked about, we kept looking for good jobs in the Northwest.
I never found one. In fact, I'm still unemployed (laughs).
MR:: Did your transition to the Northwest and Guemes Island
in particular cause you to be more environmentally aware? Can you talk about your time
as a "Poetician" there?
lived in a house right on the beach for $170
a month, including telephone. It was fabulous, being unemployed with plenty
of time to write.
My wife briefly had a good job as an arts administrator in Seattle, but she uncovered
a pattern of embezzlement, so the job didn't last,
but with a boat, and a view to the East of Mt. Baker and the Chuckanut Mountains,
it was hard to think of anything better. Living on Guemes Island was the first time in my
adult life that I was part of a community small enough where I knew most of the people. When
you live on an island you've got to be more careful about a lot of things. Any nasty stuff
you do there, stays there. When you've got somebody in the community doing bad stuff,
whether socially or environmentally, everybody knows about it. Guemes was a place where
I embraced my love for nature and, having grown up in Wisconsin, I used to quip that the
Pacific Northwest was a Wisconsin wet dream. I began to connect the feeling I had about
the natural world with the requirement for political and community action to protect the
I was involved with a number of environmental issues on Guemes and ultimately ran for County Commissioner
as an environmental candidate. I came soberingly close to winning! It was during that campaign (1988) when I
coined the term "Poetician."
MR: What Environmental projects did you work on?
JB: On Guemes Island my friend Joseph Miller, a woman named Dorothy Bird, and
I were the trio that started an outfit called the Guemes Island Environmental Trust.
The most visible aspect was our quarterly newsletter, which I don't hesitate to say was
brilliant. We had everything from organic recipes, to politically potent essays, to general
news and cartoons. It was quite a liberal publication and environmentally oriented, but
even the conservatives read it. We sent it free to everybody who lived, or owned property,
on the island. It wasn't unusual for regional and national publications to reprint pieces from
our issues. That's how my Pantoum "See Willow" got published in
The Amicus Journal from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Whenever we needed money
for the Guemes Island Evironmental Trust, all we had to do was ask and people would send it to
us. We did that for years. We also had a revolving editorship; each issue would have a
different editor. Dorothy Bird, Joseph Miller and I would be there to help that editor, but
it was a great educational experience for people to edit the newsletter. Joseph was the
computer guy who had the printers and was great at designing; I, of course, had experience
as an editor, and Dorothy Birdshe could do anything. It was a talented and
We took on the Navy and the evil forces of norithose were battles we won (laughs). We actually forced
the military into doing a one-hundred-thousand-dollar research project, testing the noise, the decibel levels
of the Navy's training flights over the island. We had a highly regarded environmental attorney from Seattle
who worked pro bono (free), for the virtuousness of the project. We met with high-ranking Navy officers, wrote
letters to congress, and also had representatives from the military base on Whidbey Island come to Guemes
Island to speak to our community. We recorded everything and used their own words against them. Anyway, we
got them to stop. They had never done an Environmental Impact Statement to see what the repercussions would be.
The county commissioners around that time wanted to give permits to this corporate seaweed
farm (nori) that planned to monopolize seven-hundred acres of open water on the north side
of the island. This was all public water used for fishing, crabbing, and recreation. They
were going to have blinking lights going twenty-four hours a day, and it would probably look
like the Seattle airport. We won that war. The
New York Times came to interview usthe article they published was syndicated to all
the countries in the world that had aquaculture. Our slogan was "Wrap your sushi in
cabbage" (instead of nori).
What other environmental organizations have you worked for?
JB: Well, I taught workshops in the writing of nature poetry for the North Cascades
Institute over a period of several years. And my favorite site was the Goat Wall Cabin in the
Methow Valley. I also taught workshops for the Washington State Department of Ecology a couple
of times at Padilla Bay.
I reserve the right to create any kind of
art that occurs to me. It's useful to
challenge the reader's expectations,
especially if you can do that in a seductive
MR: Given the status of where we're at politically as a country,
and considering the wars going on, especially in Iraq (and possibly Iran), do you feel
obligated as a poet to write poetry directed toward our government?
JB: Writing poetry is usually a solitary act, but often poets have given voice to
their communities, even their nations. Artists should never feel obligated to do anything,
but the strongest work is frequently that which proceeds from your beliefs, your values.
However, I've been called a Trickster, so don't expect everything I write to be an expression
of my personal values. I reserve the right to create any kind of art that occurs to me. It's
useful to challenge the reader's expectations, especially if you can do that in a seductive
way. And there can be a positive purpose in poetry that enacts or models what might be
considered horrifying or evil.
There's also the language, the imagery, the way certain poets, like Bill Knott for example, have written
poems that were harsh, saying very critical things about the world. I liked the style, the language that
could be very adept, very clever, fast moving with a lot of twists to it. The imagery would often be shocking,
the whole thing a highly energetic construct. And there was a lot of humor, too.
MR: When you are working on a poem, what dictates its form?
JB: There's no simple answer to that
because it's a very complicated thing. If
you're writing in traditional metrics,
traditional prosody, you are using a
complex, very rich off-the-shelf system to
construct the poem, a system that's evolved over hundreds of years. And poems written in
traditional form can be gorgeous. But if you are a free verse poet and stick with that as
an artistic model over a period of years or decades, you do develop a sophisticated sense of
your own structures, your own sense of sequencing, the rising and falling of language. When
I'm writing a poem, I know if it has the right shape; I know when it needs to end. People
like my dear Anita Boyle will sometimes tell me that a poem of mine is wonderful in its way, but
would be great if it could be longer, if it could be two or three pages. But I rarely write
poems longer than a page because my poems demand to be short.
MR: So, you are saying it's more instinctive?
JB: Absolutely not instinctive, no, but any well-learned process begins to feel
instinctive. And also it's a matter of knowing when the language is alivewhen it's
vital. I think I'm a good editor, and of course, having been a creative writing professor
for thirty-five years, I know a few things about composing poems. I can take a poem I wrote
five or ten years ago that I not only haven't published but haven't even looked at in quite
awhile, and in five minutes can revise it, edit it, so that it's ready for publication. I
There are plenty of poets who say that teaching is not good for them, that teaching dissipates the energy that
should go into their poetry, but that has not been my experience. When I'm teaching I'm thinking about
language, imagery and form all the time, and about how the poems we're studying work. I love explaining
certain strategies. In some contemporary poems there'll be a couple of elements early in a poem or during
the course of a poem that seem to have no connection to each other,
details or passages that don't have any obvious or linear relationship, but they set
something up, they create an environment, a kind of confluence by their presence
together. So when something important happens or is stated at the end of the poem, it
has a great deal of force. It's not a matter of connecting the dots. It's a matter of
those apparently random elements helping to create a field in which something unexpected
and brilliant can emerge.
I've been a studentfor thirty or forty yearsof different states of being. I've always been
interested in paranormal events, nontraditional thinking, and nontraditional responses to the world. I think
the ideal reader for some of my poems is going to be able to track a lot of this (not necessarily in a
conscious way), so that when they get to the end of a sixteen-line poem they have had a very rich experience.
Some of my best readers have been fiction writers. Charles Johnson, a novelist who won the National Book Award
and received a MacArthur fellowship, has really appreciated my poetry. He's comfortable with a world view that
finds a seamless continuity between Buddhism and quantum physics. I'm interested in genuinely new paradigms.
MR: I'm curious about your revision process. A lot of writers
fear revising too much and losing some of the essence that make the poem work. How do you
know when a poem is finished?
JB: Well, it helps to be completely ruthless. I'm not only ruthless with my own
work, I was ruthless with my students' work. When you look at a poem you can see, yeah,
there's a lot of good stuff here, but if you take this part out, and this word out, the
rest of the poem would come together better. It could be the sound of tumblers clicking
in a lock and
Bam! it opens and the poem comes to life. Not that the other parts taken out aren't good
writing. I've always told my students not to throw away what they remove, because you might
be able to use it later. Another thing about my poetry, I have no problem stealing lines from
You might think of Allen Tate, who was known to reprint revised versions of poems published in his earlier
books. And why not? I don't see a problem with it; they're your poems and you can do what you want with them.
I think poems need to have a kind of ruthless integritywhen you have the right pieces together and they've
been honed to a high shine, the poem has a kind of density and vitality it doesn't have otherwise. I tend to
be lapidary. Like a diamond-cutter, I tend to take the rough mass of the poem and cut it, then cut it more,
like faceting a gemstone.
My approach has always been lapidary. I like that word.
Sure, you can cut away too much of the poem, I know people worry about that, but I think a bigger problem is
when poets become a little too fond of their own lines. Each poem sets its own standards, and each word, each
line has to measure up. A student might have worked really hard on a particular passage, and it really says
something cool, but I'll say, "Yeah, that line is cool––so use it in another poem!"
. . . it's not hard to see the world of poetry
as a metaphor for nature. So many different
species here, some in symbiotic
relationships with others, some shooting off
on their own. I find it comforting, a rich
environment. My guess is that anybody who
would say they know "the new direction of
American poetry" is either a fool or
somebody who has learned to drive by looking
in the rear-view mirror.
MR: Where do you think the future of free verse poetry is heading?
JB: Free verse was a fairly experimental form a hundred years ago. Free verse in the
sixties, seventies, and into the eighties almost became the law in poetry; during that period
it was difficult to get any literary magazine to publish a traditionally structured poem. Free
verse had become the ruling party. There is still a lot of experimenting going on, but I think
what's significant now is that some serious writers are now working with approaches to poetry
that minimize meaning, that undermine content. But when readers or listeners have asked me what
a particular poem of mine means, I'd ask in response: "What does a mountain mean? What does
a virus mean?" We like to think that our lives make sense, and that poetry should express
that sense. But aren't we really imposing a structure, a system onto information that otherwise
might seem random? I think that most people see the world that they were taught to see. Their
responses to everything are conditioned, are based on the principles that were imposed on
them early. I was lucky enough, through trauma, to have experienced aspects of the world
that most people couldn't. I do not wish to experience the world in a manner consistent with
the majority of other humans. I know different species witness worlds quite different from
any we're capable of detecting. And according to Annie Dillard, seeing beauty bound up in a
rapture with violence might be the closest we can get to comprehending the universe, the
chaos and cosmos described by the early Greeks.
Theodore Roethke is a poet I really like and wish I had studied earlier. He was the poet I probably needed when
I was in my twenties. Unfortunately, I thought of him as being a figure of the establishment, and
I damn well wasn't going to read that crap. Roethke's a phenomenal poet. But you don't see
much violence in his poetry. I can't write about this world without including some violence.
MR: Why doesn't Washington State have a poet laureate?
JB: I understand there is at least one bill currently in committee in the Washington
State legislature that would provide for a poet laureate position, and Governor Christine
Gregoire mentioned that in her 2007 State of the State address. As I understand it, Washington
is one of only ten states that do not have a poet laureate. When the Washington Poets
Association sent me around the State to give readings and workshops in areas "underserved
in poetry" in Spring, 2005as the lead poet in the Poetry Roadshowit was to
demonstrate what kinds of things a poet laureate might do for the State.
MR: How do you feel about being a candidate for this office?
JB: Well, because there isn't a poet laureate position, I'm not a candidate. But I
wouldn't mind being a candidate if there were. (Note: Since this interview was conducted, a bill
to establish a Poet Laureate position has been signed by Governor Gregoire, and Bertolino
is a candidate.)
MR: Looking back on forty years of writing poetry, could you tell me
how you think your work has evolved? What would you have done differently?
JB: This is another enormous question. One of the workshops I'm hoping to teach sometime
soon might be titled: Comprehending the Implications of Your Own Poetry. Very few successful
poets have written with as many variations in style as I have and, consequently, my work has
been confusing to both readers and critics.
It's not surprising that, at last count, seventeen different poetry presses have published
Bertolino books. In a sense "evolve" is an inappropriate term for describing my
poetry. "Species" might be more applicable. I have written numerous species of
poetry, and they have coexisted through and outside of time. I wrote a couple of poems over
the last week that I could easily have written thirty years ago, just as I was writing poems
forty years ago that I could enthusiastically compose today. My complete
oeuvre (I always want to put hors d' in front of that word), the sum of my
art, is in its totality my major metaphor: I aspire to live as a multi-dimensional being
in a universe not limited by time or space. And, like you, probably am.
As for what I might have done differently, it depends on the second part of the question. Had my career been
foremost, I would have stayed at Cornell for the three-year instructorship and more fully developed my East
Coast network. I wouldn't have resigned my tenured job at Cincinnati when my wife got an exciting offer in
Seattletaking a leave of absence would have been professionally adept. As for my poetry, I would have
found a diplomatic way to keep Carnegie Mellon University Press as my publisher, and would have recognized
that, when I received a thoughtful note from Alice Quinn, I should have been smart enough to keep sending
The New Yorker! But I have to say that when it comes to the quality of spirit in
my life, and the fire in many of my poems, I cannot be unhappy about where I find myself
MR: Can you leave our readers with one of your latest poems?
JB: To give you a little context, back when I was Writer-in-Residence and Hallie
Brown Ford Chair of Creative Writing at
Willamette University in 2005-2006, I tried
commuting to Bellingham each four-day
weekend by Amtrak. I would bring my laptop
along and pound away on the keyboard in both
directions. Unfortunately I learned that the
train trip could take from 9 to 12 hours
one-way, while driving time was only 5
hours, and gas was cheaper than tickets.
This poem "Unnerved" came out of one of
those few trips. I had an idea in mind, this
strange female figure, and typed a long
series of odd attributes that could be part
of her character, or the way she behaved.
Here's the poem:
She believed electricians, because
they grant power, feel entitled
to manipulate and mock their clients.
She lived where war veterans play chess
with bloody fingers and skyscraper
window washers have found a way to duel.
She said there was a melody
Sigmund Freud loved as a child,
but nobody remembers it.
It was unnerving how she persisted
in humming whenever
someone else was speaking.
She claimed her ears were poisoned by wind chimes,
and she confused mildew
with antiquities, the loud with wealth.
She had not been truly happy
since the neighborhood butcher
JB: That poem accrues by a series of images or statements that don't necessarily move
the poem in a specific direction, but in the course of the poem, by association, they create
a kind of confluence of images, ideas, and emotions that is satisfying. It feels whole and
somehow grabs hold of a picture of her world.
MR: Is there anything you'd like to add or tell our readers?
Poetry is like the vast world of species where an individual researcher or scientist, like E.O. Wilson, for
example, might establish his career by discovering a number of new ant species. That's similar to when a
given poet utilizes a slightly different approach to imagery, to the syntax, to the tone of a poem, and in
that way adds, or recognizes, a new species of poem which, while similar to others, is different in some
In fact, I've seen that the poets most successful in the literary world are not those that create a dramatically
new style, because the true innovators are almost always summarily rejected by the literary world. It's the
poets who can take what is one of the various streams of poetry, or one of the established aesthetics of
poetry, and add a little bit to it, torque it, twist it, or bring a slight shift to the strategy or
structure. Those are the poets who get generously recognized because the literary world can see their
antecedents very clearly and evaluate what it is they've done. I've not been one of those poets (laughing),
though I've had my moments!
I think it's important to immerse oneself in
all the literature that's available. Looking
at the hundreds of poetry books here in this
cabin where we're sitting, which have been collected over a period of forty years, it's not
hard to see the world of poetry as a metaphor for nature. So many different species here,
some in symbiotic relationships with others, some shooting off on their own. I find it
comforting, a rich environment. My guess is that anybody who would say they know "the
new direction of American poetry" is either a fool or somebody who has learned to drive
by looking in the rear-view mirror.
I do think that the emphasis on performance, not just with the slam poets, but any poets who have worked hard
at effectively performing their poems, is adding something very important to poetry. It sets a standard. Of
course there have always been a few poets like Galway Kinnell who could thrill an audience by reading his
great poem "The Bear" and poems from his
The Book of Nightmares.
In closing, I would say that I've intended, since the sixties, to have a symbiotic relationship with all of
American poetry, and as much non-American poetry as I can find and understand in some way. That's my story,
and I'm sticking to it!
MR: Thanks Jim, I've enjoyed our time.
(photos by Anita K. Boyle)
Matthew Campbell Roberts was born in Napa Valley, California in 1971 where he attended a one-room schoolhouse surrounded by a vineyard. His writing has appeared in numerous literary journals, and
he has work forthcoming in the online literary journal, Kennesaw Review. He was a recipient of the 2006 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Award,
the 2006 Washington Wilderness Coalition's "Words for Wilderness" prize, and the 2007 Jeanne Lohmann Prize for Poetry.
He is currently teaching English composition while working toward an M.F.A. in poetry at Eastern Washington University.