Mark Kerstetter Interview, with Mari L’Esperance
The name of your blog is The Bricoleur and I’ve enjoyed exploring it. You’ve written, “…bricolage is a way of life for me, and not just the way that I do art….. The bricoleur does not have a program, but always makes do with what is at hand.” About poetry and bricolage, you’ve written: “…poetry is not chaos. We are not talking about glossolalia when we talk about bricolage. To make a poem is to come into intimate contact with the world on a local level. The moment of poetry is a very specific, discrete moment, even when, as is often the case, the metaphorical resonances of words radiate back out into the world at large.” Can you expand on your assertion that a poem written as bricolage is not chaos? And how is this reflected in your own poems?
I am referring to the common understanding of the term as complete confusion, disorder or a lack of discipline. The idea persists that to write in free verse is to write without any sense of order or artistic discipline simply because it may not conform to one of the traditional modes of poetic meter, or that, because a poem eschews narrative, it is without meaning. Of course it can be a very laborious exercise attempting to explain such a poem in terms of its rhythm or ideas, and one rarely laughs at the explanation of a joke. In addition, some see bricolage, in practice, as the cutting and pasting of other people’s words and ideas. But I use the word in a more general sense, as an attitude toward life, and when I write my words are my own.
The title of your poem “The Buffing Wheel” seems to be a metaphor. Can you say more about it? Also, please tell us how your poem (which features an epigraph by Isamu Noguchi—more about him later) came to be and how it reflects the “bricolage” approach to creation.
It is something specific as well as a metaphor. I was thinking about the relief in stainless steel Noguchi did for Rockefeller Center. It measures 27 by 20 feet and Noguchi executed it single-handedly, spending more than a year polishing the steel. I imagined him at work buffing the metal (and images of Noguchi at work are very dramatic) for hours and hours. It seems to me that if an intelligent person like Noguchi did not understand how to meditate, then such an activity, over such a long period of time, would be far more than drudgery. I thought about Noguchi’s relationship with his father, a man he was never able to establish a bond with, and I thought about the passage of time. In Noguchi’s work you will see both the smooth and the rough, and he made wonderful large polished rings. Of course the epigraph is brilliant. So the wheel is also a metaphor for time. As Ecclesiastes put it: “To everything there is a season.” I have a theory that the circles carved into stone by ancient hands may have been early attempts to record the passing of time.
For the most part, my poems are not acts of bricolage in the sense of cutting and pasting or the ostentatious juxtaposition of different kinds of text—the techniques one normally associates with bricolage. But they are the result of a bricoleur’s approach to life. Wherever I happen to be, whatever I happen to be doing (endeavoring always to keep my eyes and ears open), the world within my touch combined with my imagination are the elements of my poetry. For example, I understand an activity such as buffing metal for many hours at a time because I’ve done similar kinds of work. I discover a lot of things by accident in the actual process of work, and then incorporate those things into future work. As Roethke put it: “I learn by going where I have to go.” I take that “have to” both ways, as volition and compulsion. Life is a dance between will and chance. I try to embrace that, and use it; I like improvisation in art.
In addition to being a poet and writer, you are a practicing visual artist and have exhibited and won awards for your artwork. This affirms for me how important it is for artists and writers to have “something else” besides our primary medium (if we have one) and, at least for me, that reading and writing poetry is not enough. Can you tell us how your visual art making informs and enriches your writing practice? Do you move back and forth between the two, or do you find yourself favoring one medium over the other, depending on where you are in your process?
It’s really refreshing to hear you say: “reading and writing poetry is not enough.” I concur wholeheartedly. Some artists behave as if art were everything, believing that if they don’t behave that way, they will be seen as lacking passion or commitment. But the immediate experience of the world comes first, always. This is what informs art, even though, of course, art also grows out of art. For example, poems are written, in part, in response to other poems. But if one’s art comes from art only, and not the world, it will be a weak art, or at least not as strong as it could be. So, yes, I think that it’s valuable for a maker of novels to also be a bread-maker, just to give an example.
I’m not as convinced of the value of exploring more than one art form in depth. In principle, it enriches one’s experience, yet practicing a craft produces excellence. Focus on one and the other suffers. For years I welcomed visual art as a release from language. But there are less strenuous ways to escape language. It took much longer for me to feel the kind of comfort in writing that I felt in the visual arts. I enjoy writing much more today, but a troubling thing has occurred. The more comfortable I feel as a writer, the less so do I as a visual artist. Practicing an art is like conditioning for an athlete: stop working out and you’re back at the starting line.
I appreciate this from your blog: “We live in a world today characterized by narrative lassitude pierced by a number, the same old number, of dead discourses propped up by desperate minds. The bricoleur wants, first and foremost, to walk on the ground beneath his feet, to feel the elemental things once again.” What are your thoughts about formal (in particular, academic) artistic training, whether it be in the visual arts or writing? Do you yourself have formal training in any creative discipline and, if not, how has this fact helped or hindered your creative life?
My formal training consists of three months at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I ran out of money and had to drop out, after which the more pressing matters of finding a place to live and how to feed myself took over. There are many ways to learn and while I am not inordinately proud of being an autodidact, I’m not ashamed of it either. I do feel that I missed out on the social aspects of a college education, the people I would have met, sharing with them the experience of learning about both art and life. But then I’ve had other experiences that may not have occurred had I gone to college.
I’m a huge fan of Isamu Noguchi’s work, especially his later large-scale stonework, and I see you’ve linked to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City (likely my favorite museum in New York) and written about him on your blog. For me, Noguchi’s cross-cultural “outsiderness” is one of his appeals; he’s not at home anywhere, nor does his work occupy a comfortable niche. Can you say more about why artists like Noguchi and Henry Darger and their work appeal to you and how they might be different from other artists?
I wonder if perhaps Noguchi made a home for himself wherever he went? Interned with other Americans of Japanese ancestry in Arizona during World War II, he sought for ways to make their day-to-day lives more comfortable. He designed the museum in Long Island City, and it is one of the most profoundly beautiful and peaceful places I’ve ever been. I would gladly spend many hours there meditating. The fact that he could build such a place must say something about his ability to “be” in a space. His father being Japanese and his mother being American certainly gave him a unique outlook, as well as the opportunity to explore two cultures in depth. But the sense of him lacking a home seems to come more from his father’s refusal to have a relationship with him (his father was a poet and a prominent academic, by the way). This disconnection between parent and child is, unfortunately, a universal problem. Anyone who suffers from it is, in a sense, an orphan, an outsider.
Henry Darger was the quintessential bricoleur: someone with no formal training or program, who made art out of a genuine need, using the materials within reach in his immediate environment. Naturally I relate to him on that level. What I love about Noguchi is the feeling of a perfect synthesis between the manmade and the organic. Darger was a competent draftsman and painter, at best. But that lack of craft does not get in the way of enjoying his work. More importantly, his life is an example of art as survival. Noguchi was a consummate craftsman, and his highly developed skills cannot be separated from the joy his work brings. Not because we think about them necessarily, but that without those skills the work would not exist. Yet I might say, following up on your statement, that Noguchi used art as a means of making a home in the world. It may be that all artists have this in common. But I also think any artist worthy of the name is both part of a continuum and unique. In the end, that which Noguchi and Darger have in common, while differentiating them from many others, may perhaps be that their stars shine just a bit more brightly. For me, such artists are beacons, there to help other orphans find their way home.
“The Buffing Wheel”
“Everything becomes in time a barrier. Everything becomes in time an opportunity.”
The time has passed to make things rough.
Girding canvas, mask and gloves,
he takes up goggles and rouge and begins.
It will take a year and more
to make things smooth.
And what will engage a mind
at such a task?
He thinks: A cloud is just a cloud.
As the rubbing compound makes things dark
he thinks: Light.
He thinks of the pressure on his hands,
how it makes them strong.
He thinks of dinner and wife
and how the soft clean sheets
will welcome his aching body.
He thinks of these things over
because they will reward his attention
Because of the missing hands
the rough hands
the unclean hands
the hands hoped for
Because of ideals worked on by time like a rusted lock
Because of the dead and dying light
Because of the light of self itself dimming
Because of the ones who come next
And even those who never come
when you call and call.
As all sounds converge into single silence
and all vision blindness,
round ideals blanch at meridian
and memory flakes to a bald
of all, even perfection
as a category
until ice flows
and the time to make things smooth
Treading blind to the roots
The man put his leather boot
On the tree’s trunk
His hands were on his hips
As he moved his lips
From the name announced
The branches waved
A skein of lines and green
Too complex to be named
Too simple for thought
I shall make a picture of this, the girl thought, using stems, petals and ribbon
Roots are not used for bouquets
And no one cares how flowers arrive
So long as they do arrive
Because roots are words
And making flowers speak
Does violence to them
Severs their roots
Into worm tongues
The bouquet is offered
As an apology
For the damage done
And no one hears
The flowers speak
They are cast
Below the full moon
in a land of shadows.
Light and color exist in great variety
safely inside "The way it is."
The chatter flows in waves,
scouring the exteriors
with numbers to be calculated
by space aliens
enriching the darkness
of a night which, however
seems destined to flow
late February of 1962
a man orbited the earth.
Since then a man has orbited the earth
as continually as the earth itself
rotating on its axis.
That man has never succeeded
in escaping that orbit.
Some of those rotations are sullen.
As the expression goes, "you gotta
eat!" and, dutifully, the man
eats for another rotation.
That man also learned, as a boy,
that he cannot escape
his own skin. In any
rotation there must be a moment
on the crest of propulsion,
a moment not troubled
by the rotting slag
I am that man.
I seek that moment,
but it's getting hard to gather the drops
that want to fall away forever,
to imagine them in cupped hands
to draw to parched lips.
One forgets that forests have fallen
to recover the overspill
The days add up
to a greater gulf
one reaches into
putting a black mark on the calendar:
one day Mars!
But if through the starry eyes
of celebration we allow ourselves
to see, if we let fall away
the hypocritical boast,
the artificial beauty mark
of Man and Woman,
if our arms would open but once
in a gesture of letting
would the ground we stand on
like tired astronauts
Or would we find our way,