Best known for his underground rock group The Silver Jews, David Berman has also earned considerable recognition as a poet. If the Cobain journals are your idea of poetry by musicians, be forewarned: Berman's 1999 collection Actual Air is actual poetry. Now in hardback after several reprints, it's also actually successful. (Studying with Pulitzer Prize-winner James Tate at the University of Massachusetts helps.)
The Williamsburg, Va. native's unique American voice is often humorous if seldom comedic; the underlying examination of the past makes the humor seem, at times, a penance for simply having personal history. On one page, a laconic Judas Priest reference; on the next, the dull heartache of a departing girlfriend's suitcase, "like a little brown dog at her heels."
On Wed., Feb. 8, Berman makes a rare public appearance as part of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series. He took a few minutes from practicing for the Silver Jews' first tour in 15 years to chat about the potential and perils of creative multitasking.
You've talked about how, unfortunately, poetry is now in the hands of "uncharismatic nerds." Do we live in the Nerd Era, generally speaking?
When I was younger, I wasn't expecting such a robust audience. I am lucky to be read.
In the last ten years it has become increasingly clear that we are never going to read the directions for all these machines we buy. We do not even fill out the warranty cards.
As an indie rocker who has also attended grad school for poetry, do you qualify as "charismatic nerd?"
Only when I'm solving hilarious math problems.
Plenty of rock musicians add "/writer" to their resumes: Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Henry Rollins, to name a few. Does this pairing appropriately reflect an artist's development, or is it like being a "model/actress"?
Maybe that's happening with Jamie Foxx, or (a couple years ago) Jenifer Lopez -- starring in other media than the one they came up through.
How would you characterize typical rocker/writer poetry?
I would take each case one by one. Richard Hell's novel Go Now is excellent. Rollins is one of the best oral storytellers I've ever seen. I don't think "rock/poet" is a category. I think "being known in some other field and wouldn't be published otherwise/poet" is the category. You can file your Selected Poems of Walter Mondale right next to the Billy Corgan chapbooks.
You've mentioned that being a musician and writer causes both fields to perceive you as moonlighting. Is a certain level of success in one permitted, beyond which crossing over is impossible?
I'm trying to think of an example where the crossover-ed career became the primary one. There must be a bunch. Kinky Friedman is a popular mystery writer who crossed over from music.
What would happen if Don Henley published a poetry collection (aside from the collapse of the physical universe)?
A young female poet named Dawn Henley would throw in the towel.
What turns you off most about music, bands and records?
I guess all the opinions and evaluation that necessarily goes on.
Poetry, poets, and MFA programs?
There's a lot of nutcases in this field.
Interviewers from alternative weeklies?
All of you eat entirely too much pizza ...