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Camera Ready: Lewis Warsh Remembers Bill Berkson (1939-2016)
Bill Berkson was a poet, art critic, teacher, mentor, magazine editor, independent book publisher, father, husband, grandfather, friend, utterly supportive presence (I feel I’m leaving something out), memoirist and correspondent, a person of many interests, who appreciated, most of all, the playful seriousness of any artistic endeavor, and who had total respect for “the metamorphosis of passing things.” That last phrase is a quote by de Kooning from Bill’s essay “As Ever, de Kooning” in his collection of art writing The Sweet Singer of Modernism. Bill took a hiatus from writing poetry in the 1990s to concentrate on teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute and writing art criticism, but he brought all his many strengths as a poet to his writing about art, and The Sweet Singer contains many great multi-layered, syntactically perfect, all-inclusive sentences, charged with the kind of infinite longing that occurs when someone levels his or her intelligence and emotional being in the direction of an object or another person. It was as if poetry wasn’t big enough to contain the overflow of intelligence and emotion and insightfulness that Bill brought to his relationship to the world, in every respect, and in writing about art he found a happy medium, a source of pleasure and erotic play. Poetry was always there, and Bill–in all his writing–gave new meaning to the word “largesse.” This applied to his many friendships, as well, and I was lucky to feel the heat of it all, the indefatigable mix of good humor and intimacy, time after time, down through the years.
I met Bill for the first time in Spring 1966, at a demonstration against the Vietnam War in Central Park. The last time I saw him was May 9, 2016. We met at EJ’s Luncheonette, 3rd Avenue and 73rd Street, right around the corner from the apartment where he lived with his wife Constance Lewallen when they were in New York. Bill ordered a BLT, I had a Caesar Salad. We talked about memoir writing, and specifically about sex–how to write our sex histories. I said you had to tell everything, at least in the first shot, without censoring anything. A few days later he sent me a beautiful 3-page piece called “Love Without Fear.” It seemed that it could either be a stand alone or the preface to a much longer work. I made a few suggestions via email and he thanked me. That was our final exchange.
Bill was the link between the First Generation New York School of Poets and the Second Generation. He figures prominently in both worlds. Frank O’Hara was his mentor and friend, and two of O’Hara’s greatest poems are dedicated to Bill, “For the Chinese New Years & for Bill Berkson” and “Biotherm.” Much has been written about Bill’s life in the early 1960s. It was in the later half of the decade that he and I became friends. He was living in an apartment on East 57th Street and I was living with Anne Waldman (whose mother, Frances, had been Bill’s student when he taught at the New School) in an apartment on St. Mark’s Place, but at some moment he decided to move downtown to a small apartment with a loft bed on East 10th Street, right off 3rd Avenue.
The Poetry Project had started up at St. Mark’s Church just down the street. There was a feeling in the air that you could actually re-invent your life, break free from your early conditioning, become the person you “wanted” to be as opposed to the person you were “supposed” to be, and Bill actually made it happen: he called up all his impoverished male friends, myself included, and invited us to his apartment to take our pick of his wardrobe–expensive high-end sport jackets, ties and shirts–that he had worn in his other life as a young man about town. That life was over, all the drinking, the mix of fashion and art, museum shows with open bars, long frivolous conversations at a table at Elaine’s, the uptown literary hang-out where Bill, in the early days of our friendship, took Anne and me, if only to give us a first-hand taste of another life and other possibilities, and to also give us a glimpse of his role as a fixture in this other world. And here was Bill, circa 1968, on the couch in our living room on St. Mark’s Place, almost every night, hair half-way down his back, in plaid shirt and jeans, rolling a joint, listening to the Kinks sing “Waterloo Sunset.” A conversation with Bill, the give and take of the moment, came with unexpected benefits, and his presence always made a difference. He was not one to hide his insecurities or his need to be included in everything, and never assumed his link to the first generation NY School of poets was an automatic pass into the future, or even that it made him special, which it did, but he worked hard at being this person with multiple identities, and his uptown identity, half-soused in a bar, and the person getting stoned in our living room, could fuse into a new person entirely. Going back to where he had come from was always an option, if only for a night. Why not?
Bill’s first book of poems, Saturday Night, was published by Tibor de Nagy Editions in 1961. Anne and I worked with him on his second book, Shining Leaves, which we published in 1969 for Angel Hair. It was a mimeographed book with a portrait of Bill on the cover by Alex Katz. The poems were part of a set he had written during a residency at Yaddo the summer before. In February 1969, Bill took Anne and me on a memorable overnight visit to see Philip Guston in Woodstock. Bill was writing a piece on Guston’s new work for Art News and we were there to ask Philip to do a cover for Ing by Clark Coolidge which we were planning to publish for Angel Hair. Bill recounted that visit decades later in his essay “New Energies: Philip Guston Among the Poets.” Hearing Philip speak about his new work, and seeing it all for the first time, was one of my most eye-opening early experiences (I was 24 at the time), and left an indelible impression, in the most positive sense. I always feel grateful to Bill for taking us along on this trip.
Our friendship entered a new phase during the summer of 1969, when Anne and I split up. Bill was a constant source of comfort and advice, while I ranted angrily (how could he put up with me?), mostly at myself. We spent a three day weekend at his family house in Long Island, where I wrote a bit of prose called “With Bill At Belle Terre,” which I later published in a book of autobiographical work, Part of My History. It was an attempt to explain myself to myself, but mostly it was an ode to Bill for his good company. Finally I left New York and made my way across country to live in Bolinas, California, a small town an hour north of San Francisco. There I could stay with Tom and Angelica Clark, and Joanne Kyger–who I had met in New York in 1967–was living there as well. Bill visited over Christmas, and we all spent New Years Eve together, along with Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, and then Bill returned to New York and we corresponded almost daily until he returned once again, in June 1970, driving across country with Jim Carroll and their respective girlfriends, Jayne Nodland and Devereaux Carson. Joanne and I were then living together in a small house near Agate Beach, and they all moved in for the briefest of intervals. Finally everyone, except Bill, returned to New York, and then in September 1970 Bill, Joanne and I rented another house on the main street of Bolinas, and then I left as well, returning to New York for three months. When I came back to California everything was different.
Bill stayed in California, bought a house in Bolinas, and lived there for decades before moving to San Francisco in the mid-1990s. He once told me, in jest, that his move to California was “all my fault,” and maybe it’s partially true, but not really. Bill was so connected to the New York art and poetry world it was almost redundant for him to continue living there, though that’s only a theory. I left California in 1972 and we never lived as neighbors again, though we were never out of touch for too long, and whenever I visited California, and Bill visited New York, we tried to meet. It was reassuring to know we always had something to talk about, and our manner of talking had remained intact over all these years. It didn’t matter whether we were in each other’s daily life, or not. We gave readings together, with Kit Robinson, at the Unitarian Church in San Francisco, in 2009, a reading sponsored by The Poetry Center at San Francisco State, and most recently in October 2015, with Lyric Hunter, at Berl’s Poetry Shop, in Brooklyn.
In 1973, when I was back in New York, and Bill in Bolinas, we worked together on another Angel Hair book, Recent Visitors, which included Bill’s poems and drawings and cover by George Schneeman. Some of Bill’s greatest books are his collaborations: Hymns to St. Bridget, with Frank O’Hara, Enigma Variations, with drawings by Philip Guston, What’s Your Idea of a Good Time, with Bernadette Mayer, and Young Manhattan, with Anne Waldman. In recent years, he published a book of selected poems, Portrait and Dream, and a book of new poems, Expect Delays, both from Coffee House. On May 7, 2016, Bill read from his last book, Invisible Oligarchs, a notebook written on a trip through Russia in 2006, published in 2016 by Ugly Duckling Presse, at the Mary Margolin Gallery in Chelsea, with Kyle Schlesinger.
When all is said and done–but that will never happen. There’s always something more, and Bill, in an understated way, was larger than life, and touched many lives. During a recent visit to my MFA creative writing class at Long Island University in Brooklyn, he described his various roles of poet, art critic and teacher, and I was reminded of the unflagging energy, scholarliness and intuitiveness he brought to everything, and how much he had to offer. I had the good fortune of knowing him a long time and can’t believe he’s not here. This poem by Bill is one that always stands out:
Fourth Street, San Rafael
There was an old man at the bank today
Standing beside the paying/receiving window while his wife
Cashed a check or made a deposit she wore a light
Blue dress black shoes black hair
Not a sign of white or gray in it
But from the curve her shoulders made a weight sunk
Down to her ankles she was probably of a certain age
Though a few years younger than her husband
Whose ripened aging was no way disguised
A stiff olive drab fishing cap visor above his long bony face
And around his neck he had on one of those thong ties
old gents wear
With a metal clasp at the collar and blunt tips at the ends
Loose hung sports jacket and baggy no-color slacks
with a belt
He stood talking seriously to her about their money matters
And whenever he wanted to make some special point
He would place his hand firmly on her back and pat
or caress it
With such decorum he would be her constant lover any time
Healthy wealthy and wise, and so it seemed,
Stepping up to the adjoining window next in line
June 24, 2016