At Home in the Unknown
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An Interview with William Bronk

Photo of William Bronk

Is this house like a second skin to you?

BRONK: Not only skin, it has internal organs. Itís the only place thatís ever been home. Iíve lived outside of it from time to time when I was in college, briefly in New York City and the service, but itís the only place that I have ever really felt at home in. I wasnít really comfortable anywhere else.

Itís been such a core part of your writing.

BRONK: Oh yeah. The house is a frequent metaphor with me. I think very likely that when I die it will be torn down. It has a two-wire electrical system. Itís inadequately insulated. The plumbing is old. No modern person would put up with it.

Youíve lived here alone for many years now, havenít you?

BRONK: I think most peopleís lives are pretty solitary. Even people who go to offices or factories where there are lots of other people. I remember a woman I would have said had lived a great deal of her life in a quite satisfactory marriage, had several children. Her husband died, and I was commiserating with her. She said, "Iíve always been alone." And I was surprised but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, yeah, sheís one of the few honest people in the world. And she certainly was a woman that not only had that family. She had lots of friends and was not a recluse at all. She was out every day, meeting people, enjoying them. The woman from next door, whose children were grown, lost her husband, but not too long after that she told me that she was going to marry a man in Florida, whom she had grown up with and gone to school with here. I said, "Nothiní like first love, is there." And she said, "Who the hellís ever said anything about love. She said, I canít live alone." "Oh," I said, "I live alone." She says, "The hell you do. I donít know anybody that has more people in his house than you do!" It was pretty much true at that time. There were a lot of young people that were here most of the time, coming and going, you know. But I was still living alone. Iíve always had close friends. I may not have had as many casual friends as lots of people do but I think Iíve more close friends than most people do.

Thereís an unusual stove in the kitchen.

BRONK: Thatís an Aga stove. There was a woman who came in through the kitchen a couple of years ago and the first thing she said was, "Oh, you have an Aga stove!" And I said, "Youíre familiar with Aga stoves?" And she said, "Oh yes. I grew up with my grandmother in Ireland and she had an Aga stove." They were a Swedish development designed to be very economical in their burning of coal. Theyíre designed to store up heat and not release it into the room. They are widely used still today in England and the British Isles in general, Scotland, Ireland. My father apparently saw them at a housewears show and decided he wanted to sell them. He was a dealer but I donít think that he ever sold very many. Today theyíre still made but made principally for burning gas rather than coal, which of course would be much more convenient. To me it wouldnít be the same thing. I still use coal. A few years back there was publicity about them again calling them a "celebrity" stove [laughs]. I think theyíre ten or eleven thousand dollars now. They are economical but the initial cost is such that itís not an easy sell. It was said that Princess Diana had one. I forget who was listed in this country, maybe Norman Mailer, I donít know.

When did you begin writing?

BRONK: I began writing things in High School because of a teacher that I had who had a great influence on me. Sheís still alive, God bless her. But what I was writing at that time were imitations of one person or another. When I went to Dartmouth my teacher was Sidney Cox. Iím sure that I began writing things for him that were poems and were mine.

At that point did you know that you would follow that course and continue to write seriously?

BRONK: No, I didnít know it, though it wouldnít have surprised me. There wasnít conscious planning or a definite goal. It was simply something was happening that I hoped might continue to happen. Writing is something that happens to the writer. And if it doesnít happen again to the reader, you might as well not have read it. In either case itís a happening. Literature is about the reader's experience of the work. Itís the reader that makes the work. Some people expect that the reading experience of the work is going to be made for them. But, unless the reader really makes the work, it might as well not be read. If it isnít doing something to the reader, itís not authenticated.

Are you a pencil and paper man when you work? Do you sit at the typewriter?

BRONK: [holds up sheet of white paper bearing a few lines in his spidery script] This was yesterday. I donít know whether itís finished or not. Iím not making it any longer but I might need to rephrase something. I hate to type. Iíve never really learned to use the typewriter. I donít hunt and peck anymore because I know pretty much where the keys are but nevertheless Iím watching. Itís always by hand. Sometimes I hear the whole thing before I even have a pencil or a pen in my hand. Back in the days when I mowed the lawn a poem might happen while I was mowing. It would have nothing to do with mowing. It would start working in my head. That was the way also when I was walking. I tried to remember to carry a stub of pencil with me. I could always pick up an old cigarette package or something and jot some things down so I wouldnít forget them before the time I got home. Very often now I wake up at night in the middle of a poem or wake up in the morning with something going on in my head and I say, no, no, thatís not a poem. But it keeps insisting, you know, look at me. I might get up, start shaving, whatever, and go, ah, ah go back and get my workbook and write down a few lines. Thereís no advanced planning. It comes as a surprise. Oh, oh, is that so? [laughs] When I was writing The Brother in Elysium I pretty much had to plan, but I didnít always know where I was going. As a matter of fact I can remember I would come to a point at which Iíd say to myself, Where the hell do I go from here? And usually that would straighten itself out when Iíd be walking. Iíd go for a walk in the afternoon and be somewhere out in the countryside and realize, Oh, yeah, I know now. When I write tomorrow I will do such and such. A sentence or a paragraph or a direction would occur to me. It was a way to get away from the desk. I think we have to get away from the desk and do something physical, otherwise weíre in a trap that we donít see our way out of. If you stay inside it you can get lost. You have to re-approach it. Itís a matter of replenishing your energy. Getting a fresh view of things.

Dictum (Poem)

How much do you revise?

BRONK: I revise very little. And the revisions are not really re-writings at all. In most workshops and creative writing classes youíre advised to re-write and re-write. If the poem isnít there thereís no point in trying to write it. And if the poem is there, leave it alone. Very frequently I think that Iím improving something. I make the improvements and then the next day realize that it was right the first time. Leave it alone.

Beckett said that his work was a matter of fundamental sounds.

BRONK: Oh, yes. You have to hear it, very definitely yes. I wonder sometimes when Iíve heard other poets read without any expression at all, with no sense of how the words go together. I asked Creeley why he read that way, "Well, I didnít want to con anybody," he said. "I just wanted to giveíem the words." Which is like a piano player saying, "I didnít want to con anybody, I just wanted to play the notes." And when I hear somebody read that way I wonder what they heard when they wrote the piece. Is that the way they heard it? I hear it in full expression; this is the way these words should go together. Creeleyís poetry became second-hand Bronk, very very much so. And I think he was well aware of it. I have no idea what it is right now because I havenít seen anything recently.

Did you know Charles Olson?

BRONK: Olson came here one time looking for me but I wasnít here and I went to Black Mountain one time looking for him but he wasnít there. We had some correspondence. I admired the man but really didnít care anything for his poetry. In most cases I didnít know what he was talking about. I havenít the slightest idea what "projective verse" is.

How do you feel about giving poetry readings?

BRONK: I like to read to a person or two or three here in the house. Itís like having a conversation. Public readings are something else again. I was never invited very often. In recent years I have been invited and have refused because I donít want to do it anymore. Success is awfully hard to take. Itís corrupting. And weíre all, including me, corruptible.

Are you familiar with the Internet, the World Wide Web?

BRONK: I know there are such things. My archives at Columbia and the University of New Hampshire are indexed on the Internet. From time to time somebody will say to me, "Oh, I saw one of your poems on the Internet the other day." I donít know who put it there or why.

What writers do you admire?

BRONK: I have a great admiration for Proust. I might say Shakespeare, if there actually was a Shakespeare. I almost feel that Shakespeare is inexpressible. I said, someplace or other, that Shakespeare didnít write the plays. They were part of the original creation. I greatly admired Beckett for a number of years but I havenít read anything of his recently and wonder if I would still feel that way about him. Iím not sure. He was a great excitement to me when I was reading Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. And of course the plays, very fine. I donít read anything anymore except the New York Times, the New Yorker and books that friends have written send me. Iím glad I read the things I did when I was younger because I couldnít possibly do it now. I read Proust two or three times. Time is not a uniform quality because as you get older it shrinks. I donít know where the hell it goes to. There used to be long days when you could read long books but theyíre not there any more.

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