By Doug Holder
Bert Stern is another Somerville, Mass. poet who lives right near my home on School Street in Union Square. In fact, his house is right behind the one I live in. So it was natural that I would want to interview him not only because of his location, but because of his long and varied career in the literary world.
Bert Stern was born in 1930 in Buffalo, N.Y. His first poems were made into a pamphlet by Gene Magner, the former curator at the University of Buffalo’s Poetry and Rare Books Collection. Stern wrote me that: “I received responses from Cid Corman and Robert Creeley and then felt confirmed.”
After graduate school Stern taught at Wabash College; retiring in 1997. Stern has also taught abroad at the University of Thessalonski in Greece from 1965 to 1967, and his second teaching experience was at Peking University (1984 to 1985).
After retiring from Wabash College Stern became an editor at Hilton Publishing, a company dedicated to bringing health information to the underserved, and especially to African-American and Latino readers.
More recently his wife the poet Tam Lin Neville, along with Stern and a few other friends have started a cooperative press “Off the Grid.” Stern wrote that: “We publish books of poems for accomplished poets over 60.”
Stern has also been teaching in the Dorchester, Mass. based program “Changing Lives Through Literature,” a program for people on probation.
Stern’s published writings include a book on the poet Wallace Stevens, a poetry chapbook, and poetry published in such magazines as: The American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, Sewanee Review, The China Daily, and Ibbetson Street.
Doug Holder: You have been described as a “progressive” How was it teaching at a conservative, Corn Belt type of school, in the hinterlands of the Midwest?
Bert Stern: I played a role. And to some extent I was stereotyped as well. It’s not that I was alone. But I felt I had certain points of view to maintain and it felt valuable for that reason. My eyes were cocked at a slightly different angle than other people.
DH: How does Somerville differ from Indiana where you taught for many years?
BS: I was living in this inland land-locked place for a long-time. This certainly had repercussions with how I lived and related to people. The academic world became rather tiresome to me…I don’t mean the teaching…more the format. The school had certain formats of its own as a conservative college.
We chose to move to Somerville at this time in our lives, rather than slowly waste away in Indiana.
DH: You have been a teacher for a long time. Has teaching been a deterrent to writing poetry?
BS: I don’t think teaching has to be a detriment but it was. I let it be an excuse. I put very intense energy into my teaching. I think I taught creatively. So all the time I taught, poetry was on the back burner. I published some, but not much. In that sense it was detrimental.
DH: You wrote a critical book on Wallace Stevens. He is known as a “difficult” poet. From what I read of your work; you seem to have a different style and are accessible. What attracted you to him?
BS: What really attracted me…well, I consider myself a “reductionist” poet. Many of my poems, regardless of their surface patterns, really have to with diminishing movement. Stevens was as well. His poems, most notably “The Snowman” moves in that direction. I love the richness of his language, the same way I loved Keats. But I suppose I like the difficulty too. He made me feel like I wanted to right.
DH: You ever meet Stevens?
BS: Stevens isn’t the kind of man you would want to call up on the phone. I never met him. I met his daughter. I once even drank from his beer mug. When I was a kid I saw him at the New York Y. It was quite a spectacle. He came in his business suit, planted his book down, put his watch down on the lectern, and read with out even looking at the audience. And when his watch told him that his time was over, he just picked up and walked off.
DH: In your poem: “A Little Poem.” You have a humble man requesting a humble little poem.
“Did I ask to hear the earth thumping in it, like on a third day?/ Did I ask for peace, happiness, justice,/ the wicked withering away?/ No a little poem only, to watch water flowing through rocks/ fishes still in the current/ geese flying over/ noisy, like children.”
What are you asking for here?
BS: I am asking for the power of embodiment, which all poets ask for. To make words, and bring out the sound we want. That’s a big request.
DH: You told me to a certain degree you have come back to examine your Jewish roots. Why did you stray?
BD: It never took. Paradoxically even as a kid I was spiritually hungry. I think at that time Judaism meant ritual. There was a lot of complicated reasons. By the time I had my Bar-Mitzvah I lost interest.
I guess I came back to it for the sense of ancestry and family. I could track back. I am the product of a lot of people’s feelings and sufferings through the immigration process. The older I get the more I look like an old rabbi.
DH: Any Jewish writers you particularly like?
BS: I do like Saul Bellow, not necessarily the man but the writer.
DH: Did you like Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep?”
BS: I think it was too lacerating for me.
DH: You founded the “Off the Grid” press with your wife and a couple of friends. It is a press for poets 60 and over. Why did you choose 60 as the demarcation point, and why is a press like this needed?
BS: The particular age was arbitrary. There comes a time when you reach an age that you don’t want to do the contests anymore. You maybe feel you are in a world where young people call all the shots. You might feel out of place with the taste of the time. I retired from my other publishing job so this filled in nicely. We have rejected seven manuscripts and published one. The one we published was by Henry Braun. We put that out as our calling card. Tam (my wife) and I really want to put out not just a good book, but a really good book.
DH: You are quite well traveled. Can you be just as good a provincial poet?
BS: Stevens never went away much. It is a temperamental thing with me. I have the sense if you only know one world you don’t know anything. This is true for me. Frost’s poetic scene was provincial, and Williams by definition is provincial.
DH: You are involved in a program “Changing Lives Through Literature.”
BS: In a way it is a religion for Tam and me. Our classes are for people on probation in Dorchester. It is the most exciting teaching I have done. So much is at stake. To break through the suspicion the street requires, to earn trust, to open hearts and minds, is a big thing.