All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems offers the prospect of commemoration and erasure. The same is probably true of selected poems in general. The format serves the purpose of introduction and distribution, often for students in classroom settings. The selection is passable if it supplies new readers, through a carefully crafted table of contents, with an abbreviated synopsis of a poet's career and a balanced overview of writerly achievements and worldly concerns. Some degree of simplification or distortion must result. The best selections are like gateway drugs: the hard stuff can come later.
The erasure is especially acute, however, in the case of Charles Bernstein. He has been actively publishing for more than thirty-five years, during which time he has skillfully risen through networked communities and institutions of a fiercely intellectual counterculture and through a series of anti-workshop initiatives for the teaching of poetry and poetics. These relationships, not surprisingly, can be glimpsed as the wheels within wheels of his prior book publications. Of forty-two authored or co-authored books between 1975 and 2010, two come from self-publishing (e.g., Asylums), four come from university presses (e.g., Girly Man and My Way), and all the rest, without exception, come from small and mid-sized independent presses (e.g., Republics of Reality, Dark City, Rough Trades, Islets/Irritations, Resistance, Stigma, and Disfrutes). All the Whiskey in Heaven marks a significant new step because it is his first book released by a large commercial press. A three-decade oeuvre now finds itself represented by a private company that may or may not share the same interests with do-it-yourself and community-based ideas about the avant-garde.
While the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition does include endnotes for the prior book and chapbook editions, the information goes only so deep in that it does not list the magazines, journals, and broadsides where Bernstein originally found company with other poets. This point is less a critique of the FSG edition than a basic observation about the historical erasure that accompanies the commercial repackaging of a poet's work. Without the print record, the poems appear as solitary objects removed from the social and material conditions in which they took shape. My discussion here - moving chronologically through All the Whiskey in Heaven - attempts to forestall this erasure by constructing a bibliographic map, or a zine ecology, of the small-press world in which these individual poems first developed.
The selection opens with the title poem from Bernstein's Asylums (1975), the self-published chapbook from a press (Asylum's) that he co-founded with Susan Bee (née Laufer) in their apartment on Amsterdam Avenue between 82nd and 83rd. Bernstein absorbed the DIY ethos locally from poets on the Lower East Side. In the early 1970s, he himself enrolled in Bernadette Mayer's workshop at St. Mark's Poetry Project. Bee designed the cover of this, Bernstein's first book, establishing a pattern of poet-artist collaboration that they have maintained for many of his forty-plus works. There are a few exceptions: Arakawa designed the cover for the original edition of Islets/Irritations (1983), and the cover of All the Whiskey in Heaven is a photograph by Emma Bee Bernstein (daughter of the poet and artist).
Self-publishing, even when collaborative, is an isolated activity that only indicates so much about the social ecology of a poet's writing activity. Was that activity part of an emerging conversation about poetics? How did its formal structure resonate with what others were doing? How did it circulate and who cared to read the poem?
These questions are partly answered by revisiting the zine debut of "Asylum" in the San Francisco-based Tottel's (No. 16, 1976), edited by Ron Silliman. Like Bernstein at this early moment, the fellow contributors are almost all outsiders in the poetry world: Jackson Mac Low, Lee De Jasu, Barbara Baracks, Ray DiPalma, Keith Waldrop, Jerome Rothenberg, Karl Young, Bruce Andrews, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Hannah Weiner, and Silliman himself. Still...