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“The Long Views Are Terrific”: Some Words for Bill Berkson


Bill Berkson (left) and Frank O’Hara (photo by John Button, 1961)

I was sad when I heard Bill Berkson died in June. I knew he’d been ill but didn’t know the details. But he always seemed to be the picture of a gentleman poet—by that, I don’t mean the stuffy, overly courtly, bow-tie beclad figure of an academic measuring his words in coffee spoons, of course. Or even exuding the quieter scent of class, though Bill clearly knew his way around the world of high society: His mother, Eleanor Lambert, was regarded as the doyenne of fashion publicity, and his father, Seymour Berkson, had been a high-ranking Hearst executive and for a time, publisher of the New York Journal-American.

From his early days, Bill was closely tied in with the New York School of Poetry, and his close friends and deep poetic influences included John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara (he edited a posthumous collection of O’Hara’s work, In Memory of My Feelings, reprinted in 2005.)

But somehow he found himself moving out to the West Coast in 1970, living in Bolinas for a good while before returning to San Francisco and settling in Noe Valley. He taught in the California Poets in the Schools program and was also lecturer for many years at the San Francisco Institute of Art—he was ridiculously well versed in modern art, and knew most of the players personally. His gentle presence struck a notable contrast to the Beat and post-Beat decorum of the time. Bill was always an avant-gardist, who appreciated excessive expression, and behavior, but he walked his own road.

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A Reading List for These Dark Times

When Donald Trump announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination last June, the whole production had a farcical air. The surreal sight of his too-long descent down an escalator, magnified by the hired actors awkwardly cheering him on the entire way, elicited ridicule. His baldly racist nativism was beyond the pale even for dog-whistle Republican politics, and immediately earned him the ire of the GOP establishment. His speech, generally incoherent even as it gave voice to legitimate grievances, didn’t do him any favors; if he couldn’t even articulate a platform, how was he going to run a serious campaign? Pundits laughed at the suggestion that Trump might win the nomination, and media organizations such as CNN were content to exploit his campaign for ratings. In short, Trump’s candidacy seemed dead on arrival.

But his triumph over Republican rivals tells us that if Trump’s campaign is absurd, then there’s something equally absurd about our current moment. It’s difficult to know what to make of an election season where political institutions are failing and all of presidential politics’ truisms are inadequate to understanding our nation. 

So what to make of all this? ZYZZYVA’s Dark Days Syllabus looks to fiction, history, economic theory, and other sources to make sense of Trump’s prominence (despite his declining poll numbers). While these readings range from the allegorical to the historical, they all examine the cultural and political forces latent in American society that combined to make Trump’s nomination possible. Also, feel free to suggest a title you’d like to see included in our syllabus in the comments section.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life If we hope to understand what is happening in the world around us, we require more than knowledge of current events; we require, too, historical context, and then a leap of imagination. For the former, I’ve recently returned to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life; for the latter, Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America. If Hofstadter could write a present-day sequel, what might he say? Certainly there is much to be said about how anti-intellectualism has been wielded as a political tool in our current era. I suspect, wearily, that there may also be something to be said about the compounding effects of the Internet age, how it is now easier than ever to sequester oneself among only like-minded opinions, well insulated from facts that do not suit us. And with Roth’s Plot in mind, I suggest that imagination is vital, too, because when we say, in a casual way, “history repeats itself” we do not mean that it does so precisely, identically. What we might mean is that certain themes endure, though periodically rearranged in unfamiliar forms. To perceive fascism, nativism, and anti-Semitism as they manifest in the present day we must be well enough versed in history to remember that these ages-old tendencies take different form each time they erupt; and to perceive them as they flourish in previously unseen forms requires, too, an imagination alert to possibilities (the possibility, for example, that our institutions may break down and fail us to an unprecedented extent, and that, if we are not vigilant, we may succumb again to our worst impulses). Lastly: if the presidential debates do, in fact, happen, I’ll brace myself for a deluge of misogyny with Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, which I am often tempted to carry with me like an amulet, or to distribute as a helpful parting gift after particularly trying meetings. —Laura Cogan

Parable of the SowerIt’s impossible to understand the eruption of nativist racism in this election cycle without thinking about its relationship to our increasingly stratified economy. As Barbara and Karen Fields argue in their study of American race relations, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, American racial and class inequalities have defined one another since our democracy’s earliest days. This isn’t to suggest that racism is a function of economic inequality, but that racism is often one of the insufficient vocabularies in which American express economic suffering. Racecraft suggests that part of what makes the white working class so vulnerable to Trump’s demagoguery is the lack of a language to talk about poverty, inequality, and the erosion of the middle class. Resisting the intolerance that Trump represents means crafting a better language in which to diagnose and address these processes. David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism is an accessible—but still rigorous—text that puts a name to the ideology that powers globalization. In the process, Harvey helps us imagine what a better political vocabulary might look like. While political vocabularies are necessary, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents show us we also need personal vocabularies so we can better understand each other’s subject positions. Butler’s novels are prophetic allegories of life in a resource-scarce American future. Set in Los Angeles, the Parable novels center on Lauren Olamina, a woman burdened with an ability called “hyperempathy”—the ability to feel others’ pain as if it were her own. While Butler tackles the issues of white supremacy, misogyny, and exploitative capitalism that climax in a post-apocalyptic America, her real concern is the novel’s empathic protagonist. Lauren turns her burden into the foundation for a religious community based in empathy; in doing so, she lets us imagine what a society organized according to human need might look like. —Ismail Muhammad

Tuchman Several works immediately come to mind: Robert Caro’s four-volume (and counting) LBJ biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and The Proud Tower (both of her books are conveniently packaged in a single Library of America volume, should you be interested). Why the Caro? Because I can’t think of a better written, extensively reported work of nonfiction that shows you exactly how the sausage got made when it came to 20th century American politics. How do ruthless ambition and public service co-exist? How did a reactionary minority manage to control the U.S. Senate? How can altruism and decency checkmate corruption and duplicity? These all-too-relevant questions are addressed at length. And Tuchman? Her rightly lauded books—a history on World War I, and an essay collection on the U.S. and Europe in the decades leading up to that war—show us just how compromised civil society can be. We witness the discontent raging through various nations during the supposed Belle Epoque, knowing the abyss awaits them. You read her books these fifty-odd years later and are frozen by descriptions and insights bearing an uncomfortable relevance to our current predicaments. Lastly, Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All the King’s Men. Ostensibly about the populist Huey Long, it lays bare (among many other things) how just about no one—and certainly not a governor nor a senator nor even a beloved judge—gets through this life without some mud on his or her hands. The novel ties in beautifully with the dualities and contradictions Caro explores, I think, and its story captures a fact of life we are seemingly incapable of understanding outside of a simplistic binary (immaculate-equals-good, blemish-equals-evil), which may be partly the reason we cannot effectively mitigate this difficult truth: Power corrupts. —Oscar Villalon

9780996421805_p0_v1_s192x300In 1968, English author J.G. Ballard managed to predict the cult of celebrity that would develop and perhaps dominate in American politics over the ensuing decades with his ‘cut-up’ novel The Atrocity Exhibition. One of the most fascinating portions of the book remains a late section titled “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” a short piece presented as a log of scientific experiments intended to test the psychosexual appeal of then-Governor Ronald Reagan as a Presidential candidate. Examples: “Powerful erotic fantasies of an anal-sadistic character surrounded the image of the Presidential contender.” In a bizarre turn of events, a group of avant-garde artists and social revolutionaries distributed the pamphlet at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit; despite its provocative nature, many of the RNC delegates took the piece at face value—particularly since it was stamped with a stolen Republican Party seal—and felt the data offered scientific proof of Ronald Reagan’s immense subliminal appeal. Dennis Cooper’s Period, the closing volume of his five-novel George Miles Cycle, explores the apocalypse on a personal scale. A slender tome at a mere 109 pages, Period depicts a backwoods nation of Satanic rock bands, underground Internet message boards, and death-obsessed teenagers. Considering the bile that pours forth from many Trump rally attendees, Cooper’s bleak vision of Red State America rings even more frighteningly true in 2016 than it did upon publication almost twenty years ago. Jarett Kobeck’s 2016 book I Hate the Internet is the rare novel that attempts to capture the zeitgeist and pulls it off with aplomb. Kobeck slings some well-deserved arrows in the direction of social media giants like Twitter, overvalued tech startups, and astronomical rent prices, but at the heart of the novel is the eye-opening notion that—much in the same way the postwar comic book industry built its empire by ensuring writers and artists had no legal ownership of their own creations—we are a culture of users happily providing free content and generating revenue for the companies who own the digital landscape. We may not be students of history but our media masters certainly are. —Zack Ravas

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Obsessions: Angel Olsen

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We continue with a piece on musician Angel Olsen by Danielle Truppi. Truppi is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at San Francisco State University and has written for Write Club SF and Oatmeal Magazine. She is currently working on a series of stories about insects.

Angel Olsen tried to put the radio show host at ease. She told NPR’s Bob Boilen that her new song “Intern” is “such a lie,” that her next album would not be a synth album, that the song’s trailer video was meant to test her fans. Yes: it’s about performance, expectations: “people are anticipating something, and so you give them a song all about them anticipating something.”

I am a fan feverishly anticipating Olsen’s new album, and have listened to “Intern” upwards of fifty times. I was disappointed Bob Boilen didn’t trust her.

I became acquainted with Angel Olsen two years ago when a man I loved moved away from me the first time. He made me a mix CD with the song “Iota” on it, a devastating song that left me supine and puffy-eyed. On its surface, the song is a list of regrets, of hypothetical conditions that would bring about an elusive happy ending. But the conditions described are not entirely reasonable and the ending not entirely happy. The song hurts you so much because it has unanticipated barbs buried in its tangle of melancholy. It is mournful, but sarcastic, too—“if only all our memories were one,” “if only all our hopes were to be here.” If only things weren’t so complicated, things wouldn’t be complicated. If only this one little thing—this bleak, nebulous thing—then we could settle down. If only we stayed still, we could rot away together.

It was this tonal complexity that had me hooked. I bought Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014) and found myself playing it again and again, a heavy, vintage coat of sadness I never wanted to take off. The album both cradled and scorned me for my broken heart. It told me it’s all important and real and deep, this pain you are feeling, but you are all you actually have and you need to understand that. The song “White Fire” begins with “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart,” a statement so huge and simply stated it risks seeming ridiculous. Olsen’s beautiful, quavering vocals invite you to sing along, but unlike, say, Adele or Sarah McLaughlin, it is an experience that is broader than catharsis. Olsen’s songs aren’t songs you belt into your hairbrush because love hurts; they are songs you warble along to because other things hurt, too, like condescension and the labor of communication.

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Obsessions: ‘Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts’

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We begin with “Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts,” a piece from Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, a Ph.D. candidate in English Language & Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Rajabzadeh’s poetry has appeared in Poetry Northwest and Modern Poetry in Translation, and she is currently working on a series of essays about immigrating to the United States and growing up Muslim, post-9/11.

She’s closed her Instagram account again. I’ve checked three times in the past hour. I always forget how obsessed I am with her until she closes her account. Last time she shut us out, she had broken up with her fiance. For just a few days before she left, after she had posted the photo of her slender finger with the simple, diamond ring, I thought to myself, “Finally, someone has brought this woman well-deserved happiness.” But then, when she reopened her account, I was met with a slew of photos, self-portraits—sometimes close-ups, sometimes of her solemn face in the mirror—with captions about the darkness that had consumed her. And at nights, I wondered, “Did she end things? Is she just that broken? Or did he end them? Why would he do that to her? Hasn’t she already been through enough?”

I am spellbound by her account—the story of a poet, humanities PhD in exile. I generally do not like following lives. The practice overwhelms me, frustrates me, injects me with envy when photos portray extreme happiness; and when they are melancholy, they surround me in despair. For this reason, I do not have a Facebook account. I am, however, arrested, engrossed, mesmerized by her life.

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How Reading to My Kids Helped Me Give Better Author Readings

Publishing a book can mean a lot of things. You might, for example, find yourself at a book club meeting where an elderly gentleman confesses that he didn’t think he’d be able to finish your novel but he nonetheless managed to “struggle through it” (true story). You might, on the other hand, achieve a staggering level of success that allows you to quit your day job (unfortunately not a true story). Or, more likely, you’ll probably have to give a reading.

This was the part of being a published author that I was dreading the most. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, not at all comfortable with public speaking or standing in the spotlight; at forty-nine years of age (yes, I’m a “debut” author who’s on the cusp of fifty), I still blush when I’m the focus of attention, cursing the redness in my cheeks that I can’t control.

But, much to my surprise, I didn’t completely suck at reading from my novel in front of a crowd of people. And at some point during my first book tour—on a plane, in an airport, staring at a hotel ceiling, writing notes and scenes for my next novel—it dawned on me why: I’d been reading out loud to my kids for the past ten years.

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Poet Laureate of Spaceship Earth: An Excerpt from ‘You Belong to the Universe’

You Belong to the UniverseThis Thursday at 7 p.m., author (and ZYZZYVA contributor) Jonathon Keats will be at City Lights to discuss his newest book, You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future (Oxford University Press). Called by Douglas Coupland a “wonderfully written and highly necessary book about one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic outliers,” the book takes Fuller’s life and personal myth as a basis for applying his world-changing ideas in the present.

The following is an excerpt from Keats’s book.

Late one evening in the winter of 1927, Buckminster Fuller set out to kill himself in frigid Lake Michigan. At thirty-two years old, he was a failure. He had neither job prospects nor savings, and his wife had just given birth to a daughter. A life insurance policy, bought while he was in the Navy, was all that he had to support his family.

So Fuller walked down to a deserted stretch of shoreline on the North Side of Chicago. He looked out over the churning water and calculated how long he’d need to swim before succumbing to hypothermia. But as he prepared to jump, he felt a strange resistance, as if he were being lifted, and he heard a stern voice inside his head: “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.” Then the voice confided that his life had a purpose, which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind with the world, and that his family would always be provided for, as long as he submitted to his calling.

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Lucia Berlin: The Art of Phantom Pain

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

I met Lucia Berlin in 1977, the year her first small book appeared, but it wasn’t till I published her collection Phantom Pain that we became great friends (Tombouctou Books, Bolinas, 1984).

Lucia was working at Alta Bates Hospital then, in Berkeley, at the switchboard and in the waiting rooms. Hospital work suited her. She was interested in extremities, in gossip, in contrary people with serious complaints, who also felt relieved to be alive. It was hard, low-paying work. She would have preferred to be writing, but she almost never said so. She did produce several new hospital stories (“Emergency Room Notebook”, “My Jockey,” “Private Branch Exchange,” “Temps Perdu,”) during this time. I imagine her composing them at night and on the weekends, and then stealing time at work to edit. We often spoke of stealing time, as though it were a necessary concomitant of creation. All but one of these pieces went into the new book of 15 stories and a play.

The title, Phantom Pain, refers to the haunting ache an amputee feels for a missing limb. The phrase neatly sums up Lucia’s work for me. Many of her best stories transform life’s fleetingness and loss into deeply felt—yet comedic—memories, more real than life, without coloration or emotional distortion. The haunting ache they deliver to the reader is tempered by tenderness and bemusement. Her style may appear to be offhand, an accretion of detail. It is anything but.

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A Possible Way for Tech and Artists to Work Together?: Digital Art from Depict

Yue Li's "Untitled" (2014), digital painting

Yue Li’s “Untitled” (2014), digital painting

A lot of the conversation in the Bay Area about art and tech describes an alienated, if not antagonistic relationship between the two spheres. Tech workers “displace” artists in much of the dialogue about rising rents and gentrification. Tech also threatens art by making its replicability ever easier and cheaper, and by fostering a culture of consumption that habituates people to enjoying the works of writers, artists, actors, and musicians for free.

And yet, a fruitful relationship between the two camps isn’t impossible. San Francisco startup Depict is hoping it has found a way to (in startup language) “optimize” the performance of both with its new venture: an online gallery that lets people collect digital art and display it on any desktop or mobile screen.

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E-remorse and Writers

“E-mail,” snorted Molly Young, in the New York Times last December. “A medium I associate with cowardly ex-boyfriends and offshore Viagra vendors.”

On the face of it, yes. Social media scorn the e-mail habit: a sad old grandfather, smelling of camphor and oatmeal.

But I’m still waltzing—more like, locked in a tango—with Grandpa. I depend upon e-mail, check it obsessively, prefer it over real-time, physical confrontations for the same reasons I turned to writing in the first place: leisure to think deeply (or stall for time), speak from the heart in shiniest prose, curry favor and influence—all this accomplished either as subterfuge during day jobs, or in pajamas.

I sense, too, that I’m in a big club.

A writer’s love for the form dies hard. It’s our last remnant of old-fashioned letter-writing, a ritual most of us adore. E-mail’s as malleable, swift, and cheap as air. Sometimes it lets us discover what we think. But because e-mail is also how most writing business is now conducted, we’ve no choice but to learn (and re-learn) the etiquette, the rhythms.

Whom to bury, whom to praise.

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Each Element Building to an Exuberant Whole: tUnE-yArDs at The Chapel

tUnE-yArDs at The Chapel in San Francisco.

tUnE-yArDs at The Chapel in San Francisco.

On a recent Monday evening at the Chapel, a gabled music venue built last year in San Francisco’s Mission District, a crowd gathered beneath the venue’s bejeweled chandeliers and curved stacks of speakers to hear the Oakland folk-indie act tUnE-yArDs. It was the band’s first stage appearance in over a year and a half, as well as the debut performance of their highly anticipated third album, Nikki Nack, and the excitement was evident. Cheers rose and fell and hands stretched out and waved as the house music blared above. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, and the audience began shuffling under lights switching vigorously between green and blue and red, but nobody left. If the band was intentionally prolonging their entrance, then the crowd felt confident they were worth the wait.

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All the Lost, Autobiographical Novels

The Haunted Life and Other WritingsYears ago, when novelist Alexander Chee couldn’t sell his first book, a literary agent told him, “The first novel you finish isn’t always the first novel you publish.” The agent was right.

Hunter S. Thompson, for example, wrote his first novel, the autobiographical story of a boozy Kentucky boy in the city titled Prince Jellyfish, in his early twenties. After numerous literary agents declined it, Thompson shelved the manuscript and finished a second novel called The Rum Diary, which Simon & Schuster released in 1998, nearly four decades after he had completed it. And just last month, De Capo Press published Jack Kerouac’s lost, semi-autobiographical novella The Haunted Life, seventy years after Kerouac wrote it. It isn’t the Beat author’s first novel. That title goes to The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel, penned in 1942. Nor is The Haunted Life Kerouac’s only “lost” novel; both it and The Sea Is My Brother took seven decades to reach print. The troubled twenty-two-year-old supposedly left the manuscript of The Haunted Life in a New York cab. But the novella surfaced in his friend Allen Ginsberg’s Columbia University dorm room closet, and much later in 2002, it sold at Sotheby’s for $95,600.


It might be true that the first novel you write isn’t the first novel you publish, but like many writers sitting on a finished manuscript, I used to want to publish mine anyway. It isn’t simply the first novel I’ve written. It’s the only novel I’ve written, possibly the only one I ever will write.

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The State of the Bracket

The NCAA’s Men’s Basketball Championship will be played next Monday. The field of sixty-four college teams has been whittled to four. Warren Buffet’s $1 billion bounty for correctly predicting the winner of each game in the tournament will go unclaimed. And for weeks, people asked—they had to ask—the question, How is your bracket?

So, how are your brackets, dear ZYZZYVA friends and contributors?

Kate Milliken: I’m offended by the question.

Ben Greenman: The way this tournament has gone, the only way to look at brackets is philosophically. What is victory, really? What is loss? Who can say for certain that the Stephen F Austin game even happened? We think we know, but do we know that we know? Bracketology, meet epistemology.

Vanessa Hua: My bracket’s busted. In the stack of books on my bedside table, I have books-by-friends, The Dismal Science by Peter Mountford and Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kirstin Chen, matched up against books-whose-structure-I’m-studying-for-my-novel, Monkey Hunting by Cristina García and The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. The latest-book-by-a-favorite-author, At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón, facing off against an award-winning-book-by-an-author-new-to-me, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories by Manuel Gonzales

I’ve started on each. But the book I finish night after night, I am Invited to a Party by Mo Willems, features the adventures of Elephant and Piggie and illustrations of the fancy pool costume party, a tale my toddlers twins demand when we pile into bed to read before they sleep.

Paul Beatty: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, fellow citizens, readers of ZYZZYVA:

Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this Chamber that “the NCAA bylaws makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress … It is my task,” he said, “to report the State of the Bracket – to improve it is the task of us all.”

Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American hoopster and Mercer, there is much progress to report. After a year of grinding up and down war, our brave men and women in basketball uniform are going to the rim. After years of grueling recession, our TV networks have created over six million new jobs–all bracketologists. We fill out more American brackets than we have in five years, and depend on less foreign oil and players than we have in twenty. Our mid-range jump shot is healing, our offensive rebounding is rebounding, and consumers, patients, and sports talk radio enjoy stronger protections than ever before.

The state of the bracket is strong.

Thank you,

Barack O’Beatty

(This a copy of the Prez’s 2013 State of the Union Address with very few changes.)

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