for All the Whiskey in Heaven
Charles Bernstein was born in 1950 in Manhattan, the youngest of three children. His father, Herman (1901?-1977), one of 11 brothers and sisters, was also born in Manhattan. Herman’s father, Charles, and his mother, Jenny, emigrated from Western Russia in the 1890s, settling in the Lower East Side and then Greenwich Village. Jenny ran a Jewish resort on the Jersey shore and later a restaurant in lower Manhattan. Herman worked in the garment industry and was a manufacturer of ladies’ dresses. He married Sherry in 1945. Sherry, an only child, was born in 1921 and grew up in Brooklyn. Her mother was born in Western Russia; when she was seven she was sent, alone, to America to join her step-family.
Bernstein grew up in a sometimes secular Jewish household on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He attended the Ethical Culture School, but adapted to it poorly (as chronicled in “Standing Target”). He went on to the Bronx High School of Science, graduating in 1968. It was also in 1968 that he met visual artist Susan Bee Laufer, whom he subsequently married, and with whom he has two children, Emma (1985-2008) and Felix (born 1992).
During his years at Harvard College (1968-1972), Bernstein was active in the anti-war movement. He directed several experimental theater works and, as a senior, started his first small press magazine. He studied philosophy with Rogers Albritton and Stanley Cavell and wrote his undergraduate dissertation on Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gertrude Stein. After a brief stint near Vancouver, where he met Robin Blaser, and was first in touch with Jerome Rothenberg and Ron Silliman, he and Susan Bee moved to Santa Barbara in late 1973, where he worked as a health educator for a free clinic and wrote the minimalist poems of Disfrutes (published in 1981). Bernstein moved back to the Upper West Side in 1975 and has lived there since.
In New York, Bernstein connected with a loose circle of iconoclastic poets who were committed to formal invention and who shared a sense of the importance of poetics as an activist historical and ideological project. He published his first two books with Asylum’s Press, which he started with Bee, named after his first book (1975). In addition to the title poem, included in All the Whiskey in Heaver, Asylums included the dense imploded-syntax prose of “Lo Disfruto” and a long list poem “My/My/My,” from which he also produced a multi-track sound poem that was collected on the audio release Class (1982) . In 1976, he made a series of densely overlaid typewriter visual poems entitled Veil, which he later reworked in holographic and digital media. The full text of his early works and visual works, as well two visual/typographic collaboration with Bee – The Occurrence of Tune (1981) and The Nude Formalism (1989) – are available on-line via Bernstein’s author page (epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bersntein).
Bruce Andrews and Bernstein published the first issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in 1978. It ran till 1981. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was a home-made poetics periodical that brought together mostly North American poets committed to connecting their work to radical modernist traditions, articulating philosophical and aesthetic foundations for poetic composition, and, overall, promoting forms of poetry and poetics that were antipathetic to what Bernstein, in an early essay, called “Official Verse Culture.” L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and its associated poetry created a great deal of controversy (not to say hostility) in the literary world, since its disruptive “aversion of conformity” went against received ideas of voice, tone, coherence, and verse form, and implicitly questioned the exclusive prominence given to poets taken to best represent these received ideas.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Bernstein worked as a medical and healthcare writer and editor. In 1986, at the New Poetics conference in Vancouver, he presented an early version of what was to become Artifice of Absorption, which was collected in A Poetics (Harvard University Press, 1992). This 3000 line poem-essay contrasted absorbing and absorptive poetry with poetry of opacity and impermeability. Bernstein argued that, like all binary oppositions, the two terms are not aesthetic absolutes but context-dependent.
In 1990, despite not having a graduate degree, Bernstein was appointed to the David Gray chair at the State University of New York at Buffalo, previously held by Robert Creeley. With Creeley, Susan Howe, Raymond Federman, and Dennis Tedlock, Bernstein started the Poetics Program and became its Director; he was later appointed SUNY Distinguished Professor. The Poetics Program brought an extraordinary group of young poets and scholars to Buffalo; they sought doctoral degrees but also the chance to write, read, and publish poetry in a charged literary community. In 1995, with Loss Pequeño Glazier, Bernstein founded the Electronic Poetry Center, one of the earliest and most sophisticated models for digital poetry resources on the web.
Bernstein has collaborated with visual artists Susan Bee, Mimi Gross, and Richard Tuttle on books, paintings and sculptures. In the early 1990s, he wrote three operas with composer Ben Yarmolinsky, collected as Blind Witness: Three American Operas (Factory School, 2008). And starting in 1999, he worked with composer Brian Ferneyhough on Shadowtime, a “thought opera” in/around the work and life of Walter Benjamin, which was published by Green Integer (2005). These libretti are not included in All the Whiskey in Heaven.
In 2003, Bernstein moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was appointed Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature. At Penn, he cofounded, with Al Filreis, PennSound, a vast web-based audio archive of poets reading their work. In 2006, Bernstein was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
From 1974 to 2009, Bernstein published 13 full-length collections of poetry along with 21 additional pamphlets and artist’s books, three collections of essays, and two books of libretti. He also has edited numerous magazine, essay, and poetry collections. His writing has been translated into many languages and selected works in translation have been published (or are in process) in Brazil, France, Sweden, Finland, Yugoslavia, Mexico, Cuba, Mexico, Germany, and China,