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Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Managing the Art
Joanne Limburg Interviews Richard Berengarten






Richard Berengarten and Joanne Limburg

Managing the Art

This interview was conducted via email in December 2001 and January 2002. The resulting bundle of texts served as the basis for my feature article ‘Human Above All’ on the first edition of The Manager, which appeared in The Jewish Quarterly (No. 185, Spring 2002). Richard and I revised and updated this version of the text between November 2012 and January 2013.



Joanne Limburg: How and when did you begin writing The Manager?

Richard Berengarten: The Manager started happening in 1978. The Greek poet Nasos Vayenas was living in Cambridge, doing research on George Seferis for his Ph. D. at King’s. He had written a poem in nineteen short sections, entitled Biography, which had just been published in Greece. He and I decided to translate it together. I had the benefit of his insights and explanations during translation, a fascinating experience.

Late one night, just after typing out the final English version of Biography, I found myself doodling in my notebook and writing (not translating) what seemed like more ‘parts’ of Biography, or rather spin-offs from it. These fragments came out effortlessly and at speed. Then, as a jeu d’ésprit, I had the idea of presenting Nasos with some ‘new’ sections of his own Biography – but pieces he hadn’t written himself. I knew this would be in tune with his Borgesian sense of humour. Then I looked again at my doodles, and saw them in a new light. I realised that they didn’t belong to Biography, that they were the first beginnings of something of my own.

These were the first inklings, self-announcements, of The Manager. Nasos’s Biography was the trigger. I don’t remember when the title arrived, whether then or later. But when it did, it announced itself cleanly and authoritatively. I never questioned it or needed to.

JL: The first thing one notices on opening The Manager is its very distinctive shape on the page. How did you arrive at this particular verse form?

RB: Nasos’s Biography provided the immediate model for the verset, or as I call it, ‘verse-paragraph’. In The Manager I think I’ve extended its range and flexibility. He told me he had adapted it from Seferis and the fifteen-syllable line of Greek oral poetry, for example the Cretan seventeenth-century masterpiece, the Erotokritos.

The verse-paragraph was a huge discovery for me. I only realised its full potential as I gradually worked at it, tracing its many precedents, partly through discussions with Nasos and partly through thinking more about other poetry and poets: for example, the fourteeners of early Elizabethan verse, Blake, Whitman, Ginsberg, Saint-John Perse, and Seferis. Since my student days, I’d been trying to develop a longer line for English, one that could be adaptable and flexible enough to bear the currents and stresses of contemporary speech-rhythms. Not just a vers libre line, but something more shaped, less loose, less flabby. When I asked Nasos where he thought Seferis had got his long line from, he answered unhesitatingly, “The Byzantine Bible.” Then I realised what should have been obvious all along: that Blake and Whitman had both derived their own long lines from the King James Authorised Version, and Ginsberg from the Hebrew or Yiddish Bible. So, curiously, it turned out that the Bible, in various languages, was the key to my own long line too. A little later, in Black Light, which was dedicated to the memory of Seferis, I imitated his long lines.

As I experimented with the verse-paragraph and tried it out in varying contexts, it gradually dawned on me that this was an extraordinarily flexible, adaptable and versatile instrument, well suited to handling anything from interior monologues, meditations on nature and expressions of intimacies to comedy, satire and social commentary. It could be a container for dramatic dialogue, straight narrative or description. It could equally well support specialist jargons, advertisements, business memoranda, fax messages, and so on. And it was capable of holding humour, parody, irony, sarcasm. In many ways, the flexibility of the verse-paragraph was the key to the realisation of my intention. This was primarily to present a kaleidoscopic composition made up of many apparently separate parts of contemporary life. And once that question of form had been sorted out, the rest followed.

JL: How far is The Manager autobiographical, and how far is the protagonist a persona?

RB: The Manager is a portrait (exploration, investigation) of its eponymous protagonist, who is a fictional character. I wanted him to be fleshed out, three-dimensional and individualised enough to appear plausible and authentic, but not as narrowed-down or realistically determined as the kinds of characters who appear in a great many novels. On the other hand, there’s a strong novelistic element in the book. The Manager has occasionally been described as a verse-novel, and I don’t mind that description, though I’d prefer simply to think of it as a ‘long’ poem. While the protagonist needed to be relatively actualised, he also had to be blurry or fuzzy enough to contain multiple possibilities and contradictions, and to be open to varying identifications and interpretations.

Specifically, the protagonist is a middle-class Englishman living through the final decades of the twentieth century. He’s a manager in a large commercial organisation, operating somewhere in its middle ranks, with people ‘above’ him and ‘below’ him in the firm’s hierarchy. Like many of his contemporaries, his world-view is fragmented and muddled. He has ethical and moral values, but he hasn’t sorted them out very well in his own head.

I intended the persona of the Manager to be a typificaton of contemporary western life in the fourth quarter of the twentieth century. With the (spurious?) benefit of hindsight, it now occurs to me that my own need to discover (invent) this character may well already have been configured in the last lines of a short early poem, entitled ‘For the New Year 1976’:

. . . and so go forward into the last quarter of this century

                as battered but resilient and somewhat joyful, assuming

just as very little as most persons of this generation but

                the renewable contract to earn and become the name Human.

(Learning to Talk, 1980: 17)

By exploring the Manager’s subjectivity and behaviour, I wanted to find out more about his world (or do I mean your/our/my world?) through his eyes, and by examining his/your/our/my world, to find out more about our inner configurations and maps of a shared, intersubjective world. Outer and inner were supposed to open each other up, mirror each other. There’s a passage in which the Manager looks at himself in the mirror (section 88: 140-141). And incidentally, I’ve always been interested in the blurry demarcations of pronouns as identity-markers and distrustful of their arbitrariness. In one of the ‘Codas’ to The Manager, there’s a section on pronouns, including those of gender. I saw my job as two-directional: to build up a view of the Manager through perceptions of contemporary life and of contemporary life through him. And if the end-result was to provide any kind of composite picture, it would accumulate out of worms’-eye details. There would be no need for overarching panoramic shots to provide splendid wide-screen God’s-Eye views, as in Thomas Hardy’s novels – except perhaps right at the end. There would be no narrator outside the speakers in the poem. And certainly no answers, solutions or finalities of any kind. The compositeness of the composition would be modelled (tapestried, ‘mosaicked’) through accretion of detail.

JL: Would you describe the Manager as a hero, an anti-hero, something in between?

RB: Whether as a hero, anti-hero or plain non-hero, I’m not really sure. What I wanted is easier to describe in negatives. I didn’t want him to be either a cliché or out-of-the-ordinary: he could be any fellow, feller, chap, bloke, bod, guy. This idea couldn’t stand up entirely, of course – and in class terms, not at all, since he’s inexorably middle-class. But what did go through my head early in composition was that if Everyman was the typification of medieval Man, a good way to envisage or imagine an equivalent for our time might be an anyman. Such a persona would be uncovered (dis-covered?), not through any explicitly formulated agglutinative set of features, but as a serial configuration designated by disjunctions, alternatives, lapses, hiatuses, hints – and contradictions. Above all, contradictions. To expand this point, if Everyman belonged to an age when belief in a single absolute, generalised, all-inclusive and universal truth was de rigueur, then the attribute Every was entirely apposite in its authoritative, authoritarian insistence on inclusiveness. But in our day, when belief in any one single totalising universal reality has been knocked out both by modern physics and by competing and contradictory ethical values, then the attribute any seems considerably more appropriate. And if Every should be capitalised, then any should be small case, like the ‘i’ in e. e. cummings’s poems. So the binary or replaces the inclusive and.

So while I articulately shaped this ‘Manager’ to embody or represent a kind of modern (or late-modern, or post-modern) type, I was also quite clear in specifically wanting him not to be quite a number of things. For example, he should be neither a Hollywoodian git nor a Woody-Allenian creep. Nor should he be a merely allegorical good-guy or two-dimensional simpleton, like the medieval Everyman. Nor, like a character out of Sartre or Camus, or Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, should he be tragically pinioned – by his worries about the insufficiencies of his will or his willpower or his willie or his whatever – in a closed situation (Huis Clos). The Manager is of course neither Highman nor Lowman but Middleman. Not to mention Muddleman.

And isn’t modern Middleman-Muddleman a goer, a gofer, an entrepreneur, a busybody, a haggler, a mover, a survivor, by default and definition? Whatever his faults and failings, he does have guts and gusto. Ennui, whether Art-for-Art’s-Sake or Existentialist, isn’t for him. Death is with him and lurks in him and he knows it will happen and he may be preparing for it in some corner of his consciousness, but it’s not going to happen to or in him quite yet, that is, not if he has any choice in the matter. A choice which the Manager, in the early pangs of illusory and inflated self-belief in his own ego, thinks or at least hopes is actually his to make – as when he remembers being a child on the playground edge: “I was not made for death. I just refuse to die” (section 17: 28). Later, when he harangues Death, perhaps he has moved on a bit in self-ironic understanding: “Do not approach. Not yet … For I have scarcely set out. / Have far too much yet to do. Have not proved myself, even anything” (section 97: 154).

It’s obvious that several layerings can be read into the title The Manager – through usages, puns, and etymologies – as well as into the name of the protagonist, Jordan Bruno. Giordano Bruno, remember, was a polymath, philosopher and magus. Names and titles like that can hardly not have multiple meanings. Think of Italo Svevo or Tristram Shandy or David Copperfield. And no prizes, nudge-nudge, for anyone who works them out. Clearly, Bruno isn’t Prince Charming, nor was meant to be. He may go through phases of being and feeling blocked, trapped, self-absorbed, betrayed, self-pitying and depressed, as well as joyful, exuberant, happy, calm, etc. But he doesn’t stop (get stuck, fixed, fixated) in any one of them. He fucks and fucks up. And he gets fucked and fucked up. But he moves on.

It became clear to me at some point in composition that whatever kind of muddle or mess the Manager might get into, he needed to be capable of introspection and thought, self-mockery and irony, and even sometimes reason, and at least some degree of self-determination and change. Even though he’s a fiction, I wanted him to have ‘an individual soul’, ‘an individual mind’.

JL: Though the Manager does undoubtedly have his ‘anyman’ aspect, there does still seem to be an autobiographical element to the poem. Could you say a bit more about that?

RB: The best critique I’ve come across of what could be called the ‘biographical fallacy’ appears in Northrop Frye’s study of William Blake’s Fearful Symmetry, in which he compares the biographical critic’s attempts to explicate a work of art by referring its parts back to the often trivial details of its creator’s life. He elegantly deploys the analogy of stripping of paint off a carefully made painting back to a bare canvas. “To dissolve art back into the artist’s experience is like scraping the past off a canvas in order to see what the ‘real’ canvas looked like before it assumed its painted disguise”(Frye: 326).

Inevitably, many features (aspects, facets, details, bits and pieces) of ‘the Manager’ have been modelled on my own experience, experiences, ideas and sensibility. How could they not have been? Equally, many features are quite distinct from anything in my biography. All this is to say that the Manager inevitably has something of me in him, but also something other than me. He isn’t identical to or coterminous with any single version of whoever-it-is-that-I-am.

Very early in the various phases of composition, in spring 1979, I did a reading tour in the USA. At a reading in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I included some passages from the first few sketches for The Manager. The context was an open weekend poetry workshop in the university’s adult education programme. Sitting in the back row of the audience was a tall man wearing a suit and tie with a fat Windsor knot, an unusually smart outfit for that kind of occasion. Because he was tall and at the back of the auditorium he had caught my eye, so I found myself projecting my voice towards him. At the end of the reading, he came up to me, shook my hand firmly, looked me full in the eye, and said, simply, “Thank you.” And added, significantly, “How did you know?” I had no idea what he meant. “How did I know what?” I asked him. He said, “How did you know my life? That’s me. That’s my life. That’s me you’ve been writing about.”

Then it was my turn to thank him. I invited him for a drink and sitting at the bar he told me more about himself. His name was Ed Engle. He was a businessman who had just gone through a divorce. We became pen friends, and a few years later, when I spent six months working in South Bend, Indiana, I visited him. He owned a factory near Detroit which made small, highly polished metal parts for car engine pistons. He was probably the first real Manager I had ever met. I can’t tell you how much his response gave me.

JL: Moving on from the poem’s inception, how soon did the structure and form of the poem stabilise, and how and when did the main character settle? And what factors went into that?

RB: Two aspects of structure became clear pretty well immediately. First, at the micro level, the medium would be the verse-paragraph. Second, the poem would consist of discrete ‘shots’ or ‘scenes’, usually not longer than a single or double page. Photographic and filmic techniques, once I’d recognised them, were consciously woven in. So each section would present the verbal equivalent of a photo or what would nowadays be commonplace as a video-clip. I wonder if it could almost be said that I was making the verbal equivalents of YouTube takes but before YouTube had been invented? The scene might be exterior or interior or combine both aspects. If interior, it could present, for example, a state of mind, dream, fantasy, interior monologue. I felt I had Joyce, Malcolm Lowry, and Virginia Woolf on my side. Sharp focus was needed. And if blurry outlines were to be deployed, this would be by deliberate choice.

Working on each of these small components meant keeping two principles in mind. First, there was the identification, registration, clarification, honing, and polishing of the detail, of the “minute particular” – the sketching and then the filling-in of the this-here-now, establishing the authenticity and accuracy of the ‘part’ – and doing all this in just enough depth and precision to specify it and enable it to come alive. And then, often considerably later, a sorting of the way in which this detail fitted or might or ought to fit into the overall pattern – and, on occasion, be rejected or excluded from it. Of course the main difficulty all along was to discover the shape, size and pattern (i.e. form) of this ‘bigger picture’, and how to model it (e.g. narrative, photo-album-collage, video, mosaic, tapestry, collage, bricolage, jig-saw, etc.) I throw so many alternative analogies here because not one of them fits totally.

JL: So how did the bigger picture begin to show itself?

RB: As I worked on The Manager, it grew and grew. Its shape kept changing in my mind. How it should ‘develop’ and how it should end were huge problems that I turned over constantly, debating with myself, with friends, and sometimes even with audiences at poetry readings when I tried out parts of it. And there were occasions when I couldn’t see how it would or could ever end. Around the time when the potential scope of the poem was first shaping in my mind, when I was flooded with material for it, a brilliant twenty-year old student of mine at CCAT, the poet Alan McConville – who not long afterwards died tragically of a brain haemorrhage – commented, “Richard, it sounds as if this Manager of yours is about the universe and other matters. That’s too much to bite off.” Well, there were plenty of times when I did get lost in it, immersed in it, when it took me over. I do tend to get transported by images and ideas, though perhaps that’s what making poems is all about. Could one write poems without that?

I think this inability to see any end, at certain times when one is working on a poem – during any kind of creative project – is fascinating. Where is it going? Where am I going? Where are we going together, this thing and I/me – I through it, it through me? All one can do is simply follow the whatever-it-is, this inchoate thing that is urging for expression and clarification, be guided by it, and wait, patiently. As Theodore Roethke puts it: “I learn by going where I have to go.” One senses, somehow, that one isn’t writing the poem so much as being written by it.

In his preface to the first edition, which appeared in Serbian translation in 1990, Anthony Rudolf, after Norman O. Brown, called the Manager “polymorphous-perverse”. Perhaps changeability itself is one of the keys to the multiple chambers of his being. There were times, too, when Bruno seemed to me an alter-ego, even a doppelgänger. He haunted me for many years. In general, I find it quite hard to say where autobiography as fact ends and fantasy, imagination, and fictional construction or reconstruction begins. Maybe this is a common experience for fiction writers. And querying whether stories, histories, and life-stories and life-histories – and roles, masks, and personae – are fictive, factive or factitious is a component in the poem itself. When the Manager looks into his mirror, his mirror-image tells or appears to tell him: “Time, Buddy Boy, you realised, a story is a fiction and life is the story and the story of the life is the fiction of a fiction made by sweet ole you not merely in order to live the damn thing, let alone die it or at least die in it, but ...” (section 88:141).

JL: So for a good deal of the time you were feeling your way, in the dark, as writers often must. But if structure, as you put it, “kept shifting around”, what about development? And how did you eventually establish the sequence that appears in the published poem?

RB: At several stages during composition, I found myself strongly resistant to all notions of development, both of character and of ‘plot’. It wasn’t so much that I’d ‘lost’ the plot, but that I didn’t know if the poem should have one at all, at least in any linear fashion. I asked myself, as a kind of litmus test: “Have I ‘developed’ since I was, say, 20? Have I become any more intelligent, kind, profound, sincere, or wise?” I somehow doubted very much if I had. I found myself increasingly critical of the ways in which the notion of ‘development’ was being used in so many fields; the ways in which it was seen as the key to so many activities and disciplines; and, most of all, the ways in which it could too easily serve as ulterior justification for behaviour that was unpleasant, exploitative, cruel or barbaric. What is more, different kinds of ‘development’ always seemed to me to have their own defensive jargons, perhaps in readiness for the argument that the end justifies the means. There was ‘evolutionary development’, ‘child development’, ‘educational development’ and ‘skills development’. There was ‘developmental psychology’ and ‘developmental linguistics’ and the development of consciousness and awareness. There was industrial, scientific, technological, social and economic development. Too much development, far too much. ... So development, to me, had itself got grossly over-developed. I seemed to be surrounded on all sides by ‘development’, pinioned inside it, and I was thoroughly sick of it.

By the late 1990s, I was devouring books by Zygmunt Bauman. When I started reading him, I found myself being bitterly sorry that I hadn’t done so before. His writings clarified many of my difficulties in composition vis-à-vis The Manager. And especially, thanks to his brilliant Postmodernity and its Discontents, a series of heuristic flashes leapt through my head in rapid succession. What he clarified most to me was that notions of ‘development’ (‘progress’, ‘advance’, etc.) are enshrined in all modern (and modernist) philosophies – including capitalism, fascism and communism. What’s more, these notions derive from a historical period marked by both imperialist expansion in space and positivist control over time. Out of this, I realised that my Manager is a character who resists all these notions. He’s in revolt against the narrowing, pointedly teleological thrust of development. He will not be patronised. And he refuses to be colonised. I began to correspond with Bauman, and eventually he wrote a generous comment on The Manager, part of which appeared on the back cover of the first edition.1 His comments meant an enormous amount to me. Incidentally, Bauman’s thoughts on ‘development’ echo Octavio Paz’s earlier analysis of “the twilight of the idea of revolution” and “the decline of the future”.

JL: It’s clear, then, that the development as such, came to be anathema for The Manager, in its narrative form and central character, as well as in the process of its composition. But did any alternative structuring principles present themselves?

RB: Should a character in a poem or a novel necessarily develop? Change, yes; transform, by all means, yes; learn – well, one would hope so, especially from past mistakes (although somewhere or other I remembered Jung or Erich Neumann saying that one does not ‘solve’ problems, neuroses, etc., but ‘transcends’ them.) But must or even should one ‘develop’? Without even the merest hint of gloom or pessimism, the answer, surely, needed to be: not necessarily.

So for a long while, I toyed with the idea of publishing The Manager as a loose leaf album, in a ring-binder, or as a set of unbound pages in a box, like B. S. Johnson’s wonderful novel The Unfortunates. The sections would then be able to be taken out and reshuffled into different orders. I still don’t think this was an entirely fanciful idea. Many people, myself included, often read books of poems in random order, or even back to front. When the Cambridge poet Glen Cavaliero read The Manager, he confirmed this. He wrote me a letter in 2001 which said: “I have now read The Manager all through twice – once forwards and then back (it works rather well that way, one sees it as a whole not just as an unfolding process).”

But I finally rejected the idea of random or multiple sequencing. I think this was partly because I began to sense that there was some kind of pattern of movement, or change, or even (if one were to be pompous about it) ‘narrative’ or ‘transformation’ – going on in and through the book. I find it hard to intellectualise this. The feeling is still a visceral one.

JL: In what ways, then, do you think that the Manager does progress – or at least change – as a character?

RB: As I’ve suggested, ‘development’ isn’t one of my favourite concepts. Could one say that he ‘matures’?

JL: Then could I ask if his ‘maturation’ worked out, as you had intended?

RB: The author of a fiction can be the worst, least trustworthy, least authoritative of all its readers. That’s one reason for listening to readers and critics. Not long after publication in 2001, I was in correspondence with Nicholas Mosley, author of Hopeful Monsters, who wrote to me: “I find the end of The Manager intensely powerful and moving – like Dylan Thomas’s raging against the dying of the light. But it is a savage paean of praise for life: the protagonist becomes a giant figure.” A similar response was forwarded via my publisher from Sir Peter Parker: “It strikes me as a remarkable leap, or leaps of imagination and, oh, he has got guts.” Responses like these suggest that there is a maturation – transformation – in the character. Comments like these validated intention.

JL: And what about the final ‘buffer-piece’? With the two children playing in the street? How does that fit?

RB: As a complete change of scene. Here, we are hundreds, maybe thousands of miles away from the Manager himself, from any of his personal problems, his individual life, his little world. Perhaps hundreds of years away too. This is a panning out, a movie director’s long shot. The children speak (or are learning to speak) a secret and perhaps new language. There are hints of pronouns in their words. They are “learning to talk”. I got this idea from the last scene of the great movie by Marcel Camus, Orfeu Negro, set in Brazil, which I’d seen in 1962. That film ends with two children playing against a background of the sun going down. Or is it coming up? I’d like to think it’s coming up.

JL: You’ve told me about the beginnings of The Manager, and the inspiration and influences behind its particular form. The front cover specifies that the book is “a poem”. Could you say something about your interest in long poems and how this developed, as distinct from writing short poems?

RB: In Serbian and Croatian, the distinction between ‘short (lyrical) poem’ and ‘long (narrative) poem’ is made by two separate words: for short poem, pesma (Serbian) and pjesma (Croatian), which also means ‘song’; and for long poem, poema. It’s the same in Italian: poesia and poema. A pity we don’t have a distinction like this in English, even though ‘lyric’ and ‘lyre’ are cognate and both embed the imagem of music (sound, rhythm, instrument, melody, harmony, etc.). In the English-speaking world, the mental model of a poem that I think most people grow up with is a relatively short piece, and the conventional idea of composition is lyrical. This confusion is a pity because there seems to be little popular understanding that long poems ‘belong’ to everyone in the way short lyrics do, and aren’t necessarily ‘odd’ or ‘difficult’. There is a magnificent tradition of long poems in English, from Beowulf on.

In my own case, from an early age the writing of short poems came relatively easily to me, so much so that I’ve taken this mode more or less for granted, and have never found it especially worth making much fuss about – except when I sense that, for any reason, it’s in danger of attack, or being distorted or belittled. Like most people, I enjoy poems and lines of the “M’illumino d’immenso” and “Silent upon a peak in Darien” variety. I’ve written plenty of sonnets, in varying patterns, and villanelles. Haiku and epigrams are scattered through my notebooks, nearly all unpublished. Even so, I’ve never been happy with any view of poetry that suggests that production of this kind of thing is the highest or most valuable thing one can aspire to: flawless gems, exquisite tiaras, crystalline carcanets, timeless instants out of time, mountainous moments, and so on. To rely on these kinds of miniatures alone to epitomise the ideal of poetry and of the poetic experience is specious, as if one were to read the whole of La Divina Commedia only in order to pull out pearls like “la bocca mi baciò tutto tremante”.

I’ve always wanted and aimed to write long poems as well as short lyrics. This has been an aim and challenge since I was in my teens. Many of my earliest attempts, even as a schoolboy, were long poems. Around the age of fifteen, I wrote a piece called ‘The Household Gods’, and a year or two later, I wrote other long poems at school, influenced by Alan Ginsberg. All of them are juvenilia, unpublishable. In the 1960’s, when living in Greece in my twenties, I started a long poem about Orpheus entitled The Orphead. Only a couple of fragments survive from this, but ‘The Easter Rising 1967’ (1969) also emerged in this period. In the 1970s, when I started getting interested in Celtic legend and myth, thanks to the influence of my first wife, Kim Landers, I wanted to write a long poem based on the Breton and Cornish story of the city of Ys and la cathédrale engloutie, but this turned out to be too much for me and I abandoned the attempt. All that survives is a prose piece (in For the Living: 97-103). Before the first edition of The Manager came out (2001), I published other long poems and sequences, including ‘Avebury’ (1971), ‘The Offence of Poetry’ (1973), ‘Angels’ (1976), ‘Ode on the End of the Second Exile’ (1976-8), the chant ‘Tree’ (1981), ‘Black Light’ (1984), ‘Against the Day’ (1989), ‘Day Estate’ (1990’s), and ‘Croft Woods’ (1998). I gathered these in For the Living (2005, 2011). But The Manager was bigger and more ambitious than any previous attempts at long poems.


JL: The Manager has been a long time in the making. Could you give a fuller account of the story of its writing, and some idea of the timescale involved?

I began composing in 1978. Except for a handful of small last-minute changes and adjustments, the text of the Elliott and Thompson edition, which was published in November 2001, was finalised around September 2000 – a span of nearly twenty-two years. So the process involved something of a journey. I didn’t (couldn’t) work on it regularly, only sporadically. The time it took to get The Manager out and the sporadic nature of composition were dictated by various considerations, most of them banal and best summed up as force majeure. This strangely long period of time in composition and editing was also connected to the finding of a publisher. So the full and intricate story of the writing and editing of The Manager, its advocates and supporters, and its publication-history, are entwined together. Any big project of any kind takes time. A long poem needs sustained periods of concentrated work. It has to be worked on, then left, then worked on, then left. It also has to be carried around in one’s head while one is not sitting actually writing it. It quite often has to be forgotten and set aside too, so that it doesn’t interfere with other things.

JL: So how did interference and interruption affect the writing?

RB: Writing poems doesn’t pay the bills. Or rather, it never has done so in my case and I’ve never expected it to, even if I’ve fantasised about it doing so. The writing of The Manager kept having to be interrupted, in a whole series of jerky stop-start-stop-start patterns, simply because of the need to earn money doing other things. Moneymaking is something I’ve never been very good at or very interested in. The interruptions, of course, weren’t just because of ‘work’, but to do with living-a-life: family, children, friends, holidays, hobbies, you name it, everything that makes the world go round. Life as a habit gets constantly interrupted by its need to be lived. It could also be said that life consists of interruptions: it can’t avoid interruptedness, interruptions of interruptions, a never-ending series of interruptions of interruptions of interruptions, and so on, right up to and including that last interruption of all, one’s own common but singular dying and death. What’s more, until then, perhaps more so than our predecessors, we live in multiple worlds. We not only multitask, we multi-live.

So it could be said that the constant interruptions in the process of the writing of The Manager themselves constitute a kind of pattern, even a patterning principle. It could also be said that the insides and outsides of interruption-and-interruptedness-as-pattern have been carried through into the final product. An artistic work is bound to reflect and contain the act or process of its own composition. I think and hope The Manager does that. What is more, lack or absence of continuity is both what patterns it and what it’s about. The action is broken up into episodes. Times within and between episodes are, as Zygmunt Bauman has put it, “flattened out”.2  The syntax in is often staccato and disjunctive. A lot of jerky full stops are used. The protagonist usually has (or experiences or projects) a sense of rush, hurry, anxiety, frustration, incompletion. Interruption as an explicit theme enters the text in several places, for example during a row between the Manager and his wife/partner (section 26: 40-41).

So I think the poem embodies and is also about this condition of being and feeling interrupted, this sense that everything that happens interrupts (and can’t help interrupting) everything else that happens – in and through discontinuous episodes, accidental contiguities, uncertain contingencies, continual non-sequiturs (i.e. non-sequiturs and disruptions perceived as ‘normal pattern’), occasional serendipities, and apparent synchronicities. And meshed into this, inevitably, goes the sense that events – occurrences, happenings, episodes, processes, and whatever patterns may run through or underlie them – are all, somehow, mysteriously, and for no special reason, outside one’s control. Nor is it that they are within the control of any ‘other’ body or group, whether construed socially in terms of ‘class’, or intellectually – or even metaphysically – in terms of ‘higher orders’ – from any of which the Manager might feel excluded. It’s rather that, if events are patterned at all, then it’s by indiscernible forces, which a good deal of the time don’t seem orderly or rational to anyone: “Oh Slattern of a Pattern, / Comptroller and Contortioner. Whore named More. Bond of Beyond. Father alias Further” (section 87: 138-139).

JL: So does the Manager inhabit a meaningless universe without hierarchy, God or gods?

RB: Surely all one can say is, “Perhaps.” I certainly don’t think the condition the Manager exists in and operates through is either specifically pessimistic or nihilistic, according to, say, some Existentialist model such as Camus’s L’Étranger. The world of The Manager isn’t a meaning-void. I’d prefer to think of it as a condition jam-packed with possibilities and dangers, replete with ironies and returns, budding with openings and threats, blossoming with patterns in chaos, burgeoning with chaos in patterns, rippling with unseen avenues, showering undisclosed outlets ... but this is beginning to sound like a shopping mall catalogue. Sve je moguće, they say in Serbian and Croatian. (“Everything is possible” – not “Nothing,” not “Anything,” but “Everything”). I was lucky to have been around when the conditions for this condition had already been clearly and almost prophetically marked out, at least as far as I was concerned, in fine, full ambiguity and ambivalence, in a poem by my friend and contemporary Peter Mansfield, entitled ‘Credo’, written when he was an undergraduate at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1962.3

JL: Would you say that The Manager was about the tearing of time into tatters?

RB: “Perhaps”: again, that word. ... Or about the absence of any clear map of time? Or about times being flattened into anecdote and episodicity? Or about the recycling of linear time? Or simply about a man managing to get through his time, and out, carrying on regardless? And could it be said that in The Manager, interruption, hiatus, gap, non sequitur, absence, pause, caesura, and parataxis all convene to form a connecting, cohering, unifying principle in itself – because these all posit larger context and because they implicate an order? I’d like to think the latter is the case and that an implicated sense of order, or at least a search for order, is among the poem’s core themes. Isn’t the “blessed rage for order” what all poems are about? So from the point of view of the Manager himself, might it equally be that an overall pattern does exist but that its workings are indiscernible, inscrutable, unfathomable?

JL: Further to ‘timescales’, I understand that you tend not to work on different projects serially, but rather on several long projects (as well as shorter poems) simultaneously, often writing, rewriting and returning to a particular project over many years. Could you say a bit about this way of working – how you came upon it, what it allows you to do?

RB: Again, this is partly though not entirely to do with force majeure. Most of the poets I know operate in this way, as do plenty of artists in other fields. I don’t think I’m in any way unusual. Don’t you work on a lot of projects at once?

JL: Not as a rule, but I know from talking to other poets that I’m unusual in that.

RB: In my own case, I think that if I had a particular project I was being paid to work on, I might simply drop everything else and concentrate on that. But poets aren’t usually paid to write poems, and rather rarely get commissions, or work to exterior deadlines on poems. So, in effect, as well as working on different projects serially, each of the several long projects on which I’m working in itself becomes a serial. What’s more, if I’m working sporadically on what I’ve marked out, prioritised, as central (in this case, a long poem), then the syndrome of Coleridge’s “person from Porlock” will tend to govern just about everything that isn’t part of that. Then life itself turns into the person from Porlock, who keeps knocking on the door, any time, day or night, delivering junk mail, babies, viruses, windfalls, deaths, computer viruses, plagues, contracts, mad cow or foot-and-mouth disease, neighbours from hell, bankruptcy notices, terrorist attacks, car and train accidents, lottery tickets, lottery wins, bailiffs, immediate eviction orders …

JL: I understand that a certain amount of collaboration was involved at the editing stage. Could you say more about that?

RB: Many friends contributed to the making as well as to the presentation, editing and publication of the poem. Anthony Rudolf was The Manager’s most loyal advocate. Nasos Vayenas had an important role, not only in its inception in 1978 but towards its end, too. When I saw Nasos again after a gap of some years, in Oxford in 1999, I was still talking about being unable (or not knowing how) to ‘finish’. He said to me, simply, “Then, Richard, you must unfinish it.” This was a koan-like challenge.

Around the same time as I visited Nasos, editing was also going on with Peter Mansfield. He and I had already done a good deal of work together. As undergraduates at Pembroke College in 1963, we had worked together on the second number of an Oxbridge undergraduate literary magazine called Carcanet, which I had co-founded with Mike Duffett and others in 1962. In the late 1960’s, Peter and I co-translated a novel from Greek, The Flaw, by Antonis Samarakis. Over the years, from the 1960s to 2006, he worked on several of my books. And in the mid-1980s, he helped finalise Black Light. When it came to The Manager, as a superb linguist and a remarkably intuitive listener, he helped get details right. Towards the end, he did much more: he edited the whole book, a laborious and painstaking process. He pushed me to turn rough drafts into polished versions, made me excise dross or inferior material, cut down versions which I’d thought were already polished but which were in fact too long, and entirely removed what I sometimes thought were beautifully written sections, on the grounds that they were repetitious or did not fit, or because they belonged to an intrusive authorial or ‘other’ voice rather than one in keeping with this persona, this poem. He ‘pounded the waste’, chucking out and compacting the refuse. I bucked and baulked, but he was right and I knew it. I don’t think I would have been able to see a good deal of this for myself. Of course, we argued points but, when it came to it, I submitted to him on most issues and didn’t allow anything to be included that he disagreed with – though the ultimate responsibility remained mine as ‘signatory’. Despite occasional infuriation, overall this was an enormously enjoyable experience, at least for me, and one that I learned a great deal from. Finally, most important, Peter helped me decide on the nuanced juxtaposition and ordering of sections.

This process of editorial discussion went on, too, well beyond the typescript stage and into the book’s final making. Brad Thompson, the design-editor, who took enormous pains over each small detail, was keen to ensure that each double-page spread would look ‘right’ – and of course we couldn’t know in advance the extent to which the visual impression of the typescript would match the page layout on his computer screen. When it came to it, at proof stage Peter and I had to add several sections back in – which we had only just taken out – and also adjust the order of several others, for visual design. Minor reordering continued into the second and third editions too, because new page formats and fonts entailed different pagination. So both content and structure were influenced by factors of design.

In these senses, then, a certain preparedness for instability and lack of ‘finality’ was built into the fabric of the text itself. Overall, this process was like cutting a version of a movie from its various takes. There was always the sense that other versions might be possible, that the text was never 100% ‘solid’ (bound, bonded), but ‘liquid’, mercurial. The idea of liquidity is quite apt here, both literally and in connotations and associations that apply to money and investments. And couldn’t the idea of liquidity be carried over, too, into the multiple and variable ways in which time can be patterned? ‘Liquidising time’ doesn’t quite mean ‘liquidating’ it, though perhaps it does imply ‘flattening’ it. Anyway, as a result of these editings, a good deal of material was left over, some of it quite good. The best of it was collated later in the two sequences ‘Sketches With Voice-overs’ and ‘Nine Codas’ in Book With No Back Cover.

JL: Could you say more about the publishing history of The Manager? Various extracts came out in magazines, didn’t they?

RB: Yes, a good number of extracts got published quite early on in magazines and anthologies – notably in 1983 in the New York journal Boundary 2, which announced itself as “a journal of postmodern literature”, as well as in an issue of Poetry South East, edited by Barry MacSweeney in 1980. To me at that time, Barry’s words of praise in his editorial were like the first tiny nuggets that a gold-prospector sifts out of a riverbed, even if now in retrospect they seem over-the-top:

The Manager is a fabulous work. I wish I had room to publish more, or cash to print the lot. Its tense, hysterical edges (no insult) and jagged rhythms are just what we need in the eighties. More and more we need to record the breakdown, anger, frustration, paranoia and downright bloodiness of society. Richard has his writing hand on the thudding pulse. It will make a fine book.

Then Elaine Feinstein included some extracts from the poem in a PEN Anthology of new writing in 1988. I was also encouraged by some remarks in a review of Elaine’s anthology by Carol Ann Duffy: “Some poets soar above straightforward craftsmanship. [The] extracts from The Manager by Richard Burns give a genuine frisson with their stark originality.”

JL: Turning to book publication, isn’t there a curious story there? Didn’t the first edition appear in Yugoslavia?

RB: Yes, I was given my first chance to publish a version of The Manager in Yugoslavia in 1990. I was probably the only English-language poet living in the country in those years. The secretary of the Montenegro Writers’ Association wanted the text of a book from me, any book. The Serbo-Croat edition came out in 1991 in a fine translation by Vladimir Sekulić and my then-wife, Jasna B. Mišić, with a generous introduction by Tony Rudolf. He pointed out that he thought it was a ‘first’ for an English writer, to have a book published in Serbo-Croat before being published in English. Then Tony showed the manuscript to the London literary agent, Giles Gordon, who took it on. Giles wrote me a letter on January 17, 1991, which started: “I suspect, quite genuinely, that THE MANAGER may be a masterpiece and posterity will regard it as such.” I was gobsmacked. But he added that he didn’t expect to find a publisher for it “…at this time. And possibly not last week and certainly not next week.” But he did send it around all the major and fashionable British publishers. Several said they liked it, even admired it, but no-one would take it on. Some said that they didn’t know how they could sell it to their own marketing departments. The book was desperately uncommercial. Eventually he gave up.

Then I gave up for a while too. I was going through a difficult time personally and financially, and this disappointment made things worse, especially after my hopes had been raised by Giles Gordon’s letter. For several years I did very little writing. It’s at times like that when you need your friends. Tony Rudolf tried to keep my spirits up. “Look, Richard,” he said, “George Oppen spent ten years between writing one poem and the next.” Then Jerry and Mieke Hooker generously sent me a cheque to help me along, and I received more valuable financial help from a private benefactor and from the Royal Literary Fund. So, gradually, my confidence picked up again. Antoinette Moses was an ally, arranging for republication of Black Light, under Aude Gotto’s imprint at The King of Hearts, Norwich, in 1995. Then, in 1999, Aude herself renewed her encouragement by editing and publishing the selection Against Perfection, including several extracts from The Manager.

By then, The Manager itself had been rejected by as many mainstream publishers as had rejected Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano – and maybe more. But in 1996, Tony Rudolf showed the book to David Elliott. At last here was an editor who believed in the book and was prepared to take it on. David was then working with Ib Bellew, who agreed to publish it. I was broke and had bills to pay, but these publishers – to me, unbelievably – were prepared to wait as long as it took me to complete the book. By 1998, I managed – yes, managed – to spend periods working on the book again, which was when I turned to Peter Mansfield to help me edit it. Our final version took a year to finalise.

Then Ib went out of business. But David joined up with Brad Thompson to form a new publishing company, as Brad put it, “specially to publish The Manager”. Since then, three more editions have appeared: paperback and hardback editions from Salt Publishing in 2003 and 2008 and a new paperback edition from Shearsman Books in 2011.


JL: You use different registers of language in the poem – some parodying and satirical. Could you say a bit about the language?

RB: First, there was a need to get the voices ‘right’, not just the protagonist’s but for all the speakers in the poem: their accents, tones, timbres, rhythms, registers, argots. This involved first ‘hearing’ each voice in my head, followed by a careful ‘listening’, authentication – linguist’s skills – not to let my own overlays, constructions, or interpretations interfere. I think this point worth generalising. Part of the process of writing poems involves not so much ‘self-expression’ or ‘developing an individual style’ – which most critics, academics and pundits tell us we ought to be looking and aiming for – but, on the contrary, getting oneself and one’s own linguistic prejudices and idiosyncrasies and styles out of the damn way. Samuel Beckett said that the reason he preferred to write in French was that doing so enabled him to write “sans style.”2 Dismissing one’s own insistent, irritating style-ego is the first key. Styles can become bad habits.

Then, there’s the fascination in the differences and widenesses of gaps between what Basil Bernstein called restricted and elaborate codes, and in the huge multiplicity of language-varieties that are present all the time both out there, in and among the voices of others, and in here, passing through the inner voices that concatenate inside one’s head, for example in fantasy and dream – voices that may well be any poem’s first sayers and tellers. And along with this goes interest in the sheer rapidity and unpredictability of shifts among registers and varieties. The comedian Kenneth Williams, whom I admire enormously, was a brilliant handler of these transitions. He could hike along a phrase or sentence in one register, somersault it hilariously into another, finally setting down his very camp camp, as it were, miles away. Part of the effect I was after in The Manager was comic, and I was pleased that several friends said to me after publication that they’d laughed out loud at certain points. I wanted the poem to express some of the ways in which arrays of unpredictable voices and noises, in choruses and solos, offset, juxtapose and counterpoint one another, in all aspects of life. And this links, of course, with what I’ve been saying about interruption. We’re all constantly being bombarded by different kinds of language-use. It’s most people’s everyday experience – urban, suburban, even rural – pretty well all over the world. All you have to do is twiddle a radio knob or flip a TV channel. Speech coming in from a long distance is now all part of our immediate sound background. In the decade since publication, we’ve been wired up even more extensively: www, mobile phones, video phones, smart phones, iPads, Wi-Fi, skype, etc. – and we quickly take each innovation for granted. The Manager tracks at least some aspects of that concatenation and conflation.

Obviously the most likely effect of all this variegated background noise is disturbance, screech, irritation, background hum, white noise, cacophony, babble, disjunction, split, gap. With that comes the need to multitask, plus a resulting anxiety that one can’t keep up. But less obviously, this set of disjunctions is capable of transforming into surprise, delight, openings, discovery, serendipity – and even turn out to possess a set of discoverable rhythms and patterns of its own. And that pattern can be jazz. The jazz motif appears when the Manager is listening to an FM radio station when he’s driving on the motorway (section 30: 46-47).

JL: You also have mock faxes, an email, adverts, a business memo, a newspaper horoscope, and even a CV in the poem.

RB: That’s right. According to the theory of language register, performative aspects of a speaker’s usage change according to medium, situation, and who is addressing whom. Idiolectal usage is influenced, even determined, by these factors. Every mode of language delivery is open to being explored in poems.

Tony Rudolf was right, too, in his introduction to the Serbian edition, in drawing attention to the ways in which the telephone in The Manager figures so prominently. It’s not just that its appearances in the poem are intended to serve as part of the authenticating backdrop. Several sections in which the telephone appears as a medium are about non-communication rather than any kind or degree of success or satisfaction in this form of contact. Not getting through, getting the wrong number or wrong person, only getting through to an answering machine – or as we call it now, voicemail – and so on, are all part of the poem’s wiring. It was W. S. Graham, I think, who first wrote wonderful poems deploying telephone imagery, and I owe him a huge debt for that. I wrote The Manager when mobile phones were just coming into mainstream consumer use.

JL: As one might expect, there’s a good deal of business language in The Manager, Could you say a bit more about your use of this kind of language in the poem?

RB: As The Manager sets out to explore the subjectivity and behaviour of a contemporary businessman in both private and professional life, business-language has to be explored. Some of those aspects have been pretty well covered in the novel, ever since, say, Italo Svevo’s La Coscenza di Zeno, and even earlier. But I think it’s relatively new in poetry, isn’t it? In researching the poem, I read a lot of books on business management.

I have to confess to an ambivalent attitude to business-jargon. One thing that fascinates me about it is its gusto, its energy and even its voraciousness. Business greedily sucks every possible kind of vocabulary into its maw – for example, terminology from semantic fields such as war, sport, psychology, the sciences, technology, food, body language, and many more, all get replanted, grafted, culled, chopped up, recombined, and then rehashed and served up as quickly as possible and – hey presto, what do we have – cutting-edge buzz-words. In this sense, business jargon is parasitic, viral. It’s enormously creative and energetic, highly metaphorical, and often slick, witty, playful. There’s a poetry latent in all specialist jargons, and there’s a good deal of surreptitious parodying of jargons in the text (for example, section 86: 135-137). I hope some of the sheer fun of this manages (again, manages) to come over, for example, the pilot-speak in section 27 (42).

On the other hand, when it comes to the language of advertising and marketing that spins out of business, I think we tend to see ourselves as jaded, weary, cynical sophisticates who are all of us so knowing and so aware and so conscious of its whole gamut of subliminal aims and surreptitious intentions that we take no notice of it. We defend ourselves from it by means of irony, even though we know it affects us and conditions our buying behaviour, not to mention our dreams, aspirations, ambitions and so on, and even though by then it has become completely capable of liquefying and rejellifying vicariously in our consciousnesses, usually by invading, adopting and assimilating – i.e. co-opting – our irony itself, in order to seduce us all the more effectively – so that the original irony we have deployed as a defence spirals into ineffectuality and obsolescence, in the same sort of way as reinsurance does among small circles of financial brokers, and nobody notices until there’s a scandal or a crash. Which is to say that using business language in a long poem like this has to involve multiple layerings of irony.

While in the poem I attempt to deflate business jargon wherever possible, as well as some of the apparently dehumanising aspects of PC-speak, pseudo-academic-speak, pseudo-sociological-speak, and so on, I’d hardly be after advocating any kind of linguistic purism to take their place, let alone any kind of ‘clean up’ operation. When irony’s in question, these days there’s too much complicity, too much connivance, too rooted an involvement, with-and-in-and-within the target of any attack, for any wholly believable mission-statements. (Incidentally, I think the interrelationship between irony and co-option is a huge issue that needs closer investigation.)

In 1990, around the time that the first Serbo-Croat edition was published in Montenegro, I sent a draft of the English version to Jeremy Hooker. He wrote me a letter that made helpful criticisms, strictures and suggestions on weaknesses in the ordering, structure and content, most of which I hadn’t fully worked out at that time and still needed to address. In that letter, he also pointed out “a linguistic versatility that is rare in any writing, and sometimes calls to mind Joyce, not by suggesting a debt to him, but by virtue of its control of language, its knowledge of words.” So Jeremy recognised and validated what I had been aiming to do vis-à-vis voices and registers:

The work has immense verbal richness, it delights in different purposes by different voices, and therefore has a considerable range of voices, a range far wider than that of The Waste Land. It is in the voices, above all – romantic, lyrical, sardonic, self-condemned by cliché, ‘managerial’, ‘popular’, ‘bitter’, tender, that The Manager at once composes and reveals, projects and diagnoses, a whole modern world with its conditions of life. [...] I do not know another poem, or indeed any writing, which is at once so expert in our modern consumerist specialist languages, and so witty in exposing their superficiality and heartlessness. You excitingly take great risks, you are closer to Blake of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell or the Prophetic Books than you are to the vast majority of your English and American contemporaries or even to Eliot of The Waste Land.

Similarly, Anthony Rudolf mentions in his preface to the 1990 Yugoslav edition that ‘The Manager’ “. . . is ‘just managing’ in his personal life. He is not in control of it, preferring to control others.” And he too refers to Eliot:

The disjunctive pattern of this ‘dissociated sensibility’ (in Eliot’s phrase), this life whose bits are hooked up only by the telephone – to which he is addicted – brings to mind the shadowy figures who flit in and out of the great predecessor’s masterpiece, The Waste Land.

JL: You have talked about The Manager being, pace Eliot, historical – of a particular moment in time. Can you tell me more about your attitude to Eliot? Would it be true to say that his influence is dominant? For example, the cover of the first edition shows people in the rush hour crossing a bridge. Isn’t that a reference to The Waste Land?

RB: Yes, and a direct one. That cover idea came from the publisher David Elliott. He commissioned a photographer to stand on London Bridge during the rush hour and take shots of people hurrying by. The lines in question are from the first section of The Waste Land: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” This translates Dante’s Inferno (Canto 3) almost literally: “. . . si lunga tratta / di gente, ch’io non avrei mai creduto / che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.” Incidentally, I can’t help wondering if T. S. Eliot knew the translation by his relative Charles Eliot Norton, which seems very closely similar: “so long a train of folk, that I should never have believed death had undone so many.”

JL: Could you say more about how you view Eliot? And how this comes into The Manager?

RB: Eliot is one of the very few poets who have aroused any kind of “anxiety of influence” in me. Writing The Manager was partly a way of getting him off my back. Or rather, The Manager marks my attempt to ‘answer’ The Waste Land, at least to my own satisfaction if no-one else’s. My aim was to write a ‘big’ poem that would ‘articulate’ the end of the twentieth century, in the same sort of way that The Waste Land had done for the 1920’s and surrounding decades. A tall order. This inevitably meant following Eliot, modelling my work on his, learning all I possibly could from him, consciously submitting whatever individual talent I might have to his tradition, and so on – while at the same time taking issue with some of Eliot’s approaches and solutions.

I first came across The Waste Land at the age of sixteen in the lower sixth form. It seemed a masterpiece to me then and still does, despite all the knocks it has taken. Not all teenage appetites last, but this one has done so. Alan Sillitoe has a line in his long poem, ‘The Rats’: “The Wasteland was my library and college.” I could say the same of Eliot’s poem, though not of the working-class social context that Alan was brought up in.4

But for all my high admiration, there’s plenty about Eliot’s work in general and The Waste Land in particular that I never liked and can’t abide. There’s his atrocious class snobbery, and there are his élitist views on culture itself, and his attitudes to sexuality, all of them, in my view, linked directly to his anti-Semitism, which can’t be wiped away with the apology that this was the ‘merely’ typical attitude of a man of his time and class, as Anthony Julius has shown convincingly in his book on Eliot.

Another of my objections to The Waste Land, this time primarily poetic – structural and aesthetic, even though it has ethical and moral implications too – is that with its final leap into prayer or blessing at the end, it jumps right out of all the questions and problems it poses and proposes. I think the chant Shantih Shantih Shantih, meaning ‘inner peace’ in Sanskrit, is too convenient by far. Now, my objection to this line is not because I deny – or am in denial about – visionary experience. Far from it. What I don’t like here is the suddenness of the jump into wordless peace. The line is a deus ex machina, and marks a cop-out, however subtly and possibly even quasi-ironically it might be controlled and contextualised. Eliot jumps off into religion, meditation, eternity, silence, as if to say, “Enough of language. I can’t do any more with it. It isn’t good enough for me. It’s too coarse, too common, too karmic, too bonded and tied, too tortuous and tortured, too trammelled up in ‘the ten thousand things’. Pure peace, pure vision, pure silence is better, and higher – a release!”

My objections to Eliot underpin several sections towards the end of the poem. For example, the middle-aged Manager implicitly pokes fun at himself and his own mortality by echoing lines about drowning in ‘The Dry Salvages’ (section 97: 154), thereby parodying Eliotic notions of sainthood, saintliness and martyrdom. Expert wriggler and avoider though the Manager may be, he does insist on operating inside history. I parody Eliot elsewhere too. For example his lines “To Carthage then I came / Burning burning burning burning / O Lord thou pluckest me out” in ‘The Fire Sermon’, together with “Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London” in ‘What the Thunder Said’, are conflated and transformed to produce: “To Cape Town then I came. O Lord Thou. Dresden Nagasaki Sarajevo. Burning Burning Burning” (section 31: 48-49). Here I deploy Eliot’s own procedures (irony by juxtaposition), not only to parody him but also to make points which are different from his. Eliot’s list of cities to me suggests his lamentations for the effects of time and degeneracy on ‘high’ civilisation. His is a plaint about corruption and decadence. To him, the barbarians outside the gates – and probably the Jews and other aliens within them – are very definitely them, not us. But the cities I list are specifically chosen as sites of senseless twentieth-century cruelty: racism, bombing, destruction, war, and civil war. We are all in these sites, together, all together. They belong to us all.

JL: What about Eliot and sexuality?

RB: The treatment of sexuality and his attitude to it is problematic throughout his work. Without demeaning Eliot’s achievement by carrying out archaeological digs back into his biography, so far as I can make out, encounters with women seem to work positively in his poems only when they’re approached on a symbolic level: in the rose garden, as it were. As for The Waste Land, all its sexual contacts and encounters strike me as being unhappy, sleazy, unfulfilling or depressing. I think that as a male embedded in a dualistic, puritanical tradition Eliot viewed all women as frightening, even terrifying. Though part of my education was set firmly inside a Protestant dualist tradition, I’m not a dualist by any means. For one thing, being Jewish comes in here. I may be wrong, but wouldn’t you say that dualism is alien to Jews anyway?

JL: I’d say there’s less of an emphasis on an essential physical/spiritual split, but Judaism certainly has its fair share of binary opposites.

RB: That’s true, of course, to a degree. I’m thinking specifically of the body-mind split involving denial or denigration of eros. The Judaic tradition, at least as I’ve experienced it, has little trace of this.

JL: What about other influences, from drama, poetry and fiction? And what about your interests in psychology?

RB: Most of what I think of as ‘interesting’ influences in this respect are modern or modernist. As I’ve suggested, among the achievements of modernism in all its expressions was the discovery that when disjunction and disturbance are deliberately brought into an artistic work, when they become integral parts of it, then interruption itself becomes a structuring or ordering principle. Along with this, juxtaposition or overlay that is not necessarily logical or causal but, rather, apparently coincidental, results inevitably in parataxis and ellipsis. So non-sequiturs – gaps (écarts), dashes, breaks, surprises and so on – themselves have a part to play in patterning, as does the unpredictability of consecutive utterances in any series of speech acts. Gaps themselves become not just gaps but seams in the fabric. They may baffle, and their disordering capacities may suggest irrationality, even madness, but they also imply a larger, as-yet-unimagined and perhaps ultimately untappable coherence, which is completely consonant with the theories both of Freud and Jung vis-à-vis subliminal consciousness, and the discoveries of post-Einsteinian physics and astronomy vis-à-vis the stuff and extensiveness of physical reality in space-time.

When it comes to drama, I think of Waiting for Godot and much else of Beckett, as well as of Pinter, especially The Caretaker, as being part of the brilliant and pioneering research that went on into discovering how such an ordering principle might work artistically. Both Beckett and Pinter have been strong influences in my thinking about dialogue, and even about speech itself. The staccato speech rhythms that occur, for example, when the Manager is experiencing a breakdown, or something close to it, embody these influences (for example, sections 71: 114, and 75 and 76: 120-121).

As for poetic models, apart from The Waste Land, the other great modernist poem that absorbs and makes patterns out of apparently disjunctive fragments is The Cantos – whose title itself suggests, and perhaps even claims, that the patterns are musical. One section of The Manager pays direct homage to Pound, quoting Canto CXVI, “I cannot make it cohere” and “it coheres all right. Even if my notes do not cohere”, as well as Canto CXV, “the light sings eternal” (section 92: 146). Here again, an overall order is implicit and implicate. David Bohm incidentally clarifies that the etymology of the word implicate is ‘enfolded’ or ‘folded inward’.

As for prose fiction, the supreme influence on this poem is Joyce. One section in The Manager is a parody of Finneganese (section 78: 124-125). The passage occurs in the series of sections in which the Manager is experiencing a mental breakdown, or something close to one. During a session with a psychoanalyst or psychotherapist, the apparently ‘crazed’ or ‘crazy’ diction on the left-hand page is translated into the modulated views of the analyst on the right. Parody of course implies evaluation and, here, Joyce-speak is directly associated with breakdown – which, from a Laingian perspective, could also become breakthrough. Nor is it an accident that this section ends with a passage conflating two quotations, one from Jung and the other from Marie-Louise von Franz, one of Jung’s leading disciples, which make it clear that breakthrough is possible. “No alternative ... but to face into the dark approaching, unprejudiced and quite innocently, / And find out what its secret aims are and what it holds for you.”

JL: In the context of Postmodernity and its Discontents, and considering in particular the discontents, would you say more about sexuality and gender in The Manager? Much of the poem is concerned with the behaviour and perspectives of men, and with male sexuality. In The Manager, did you set out to write specifically as a male about a male?

RB: Yes. I set out deliberately to write about sex and sexuality from a male perspective. I mean this in the broadest possible sense: eros, fantasy, desire, projections, self-images, introjections and internalised images of the other, emotions, behaviour, and relationships. Of course, in The Manager, female personae speak too. For example, there are rows between husband and wife and intimate conversations after lovemaking, and there is a good deal of talking in bed.

A key influence in this respect was Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I was struck by how powerfully and originally she had charted female sexuality and mental breakdown. I’d never seen these explored together so convincingly in fiction before, including the treatments in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. Lessing’s The Golden Notebook was a kind of giant beacon, a model to emulate – and a challenge too, because as far as heterosexual experience was concerned, I knew of no other work approaching it for her depth or range in the English language – at least in anything I’d read – from any contemporary or recent male novelists, or for that matter from poets of either sex – all of whom seemed stuck somewhere far behind her, perhaps with the exception of Ann Waldmann in her celebratory chant-poem Fast Speaking Woman. Apart from Joyce, I’d found little imaginative writing to do with sexuality that appealed to me or even seemed relevant or usable, from any male novelists writing in English. I’d long grown out of and away from the character and gender typologies of D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, for example. The only recent works of interest by male writers in exploring sexuality were, it seemed to me, homoerotic, for example Allen Ginsberg’s poems and John Rechy’s novels. But my interest was in charting heterosexual experience.

Lessing’s work was important to me in a third way, too. In her preface to The Golden Notebook, she writes that she aimed to write about a main character who was an artist. And she adds:

Those archetypes, the artist and his mirror-image, the businessman, have straddled our culture, one shown as a boorish insensitive, the other as a creator, all excesses of sensibility and suffering and a towering egotism which has to be forgiven because of his products – in exactly the same way of course, as the businessman has to be forgiven for the sake of his.

When I first came across this, I found her notion of artist and businessman as mirror-images – and perhaps semblables and frères – striking, challenging and provocative. It was a formulation that seemed more subtle and interesting than, for example, Arthur Miller’s thinking about the world of business and commerce in Death of a Salesman, which seemed two-dimensional by comparison. And though I could never wholly accept Lessing’s collation, especially when it came to thinking in depth about her word “products” (what does a businessman actually produce, except profit?), she did set me thinking about questions of aspiration, creativity, power, achievement, satisfaction, and fulfilment.

The Golden Notebook, then, gave me some indications of what might be possible. So I set out to take up its challenge in three distinct but interconnected ways. First, to write about male sexuality as Lessing had written about female sexuality, in as wide a range as possible of its varied permutations, as clearly, and, dare I say, as accurately as she’d done. Second, to write about mental breakdown. And third, I wanted to explore her idea of the artist and businessman as dialectally related mirror-images. All of these were factors that led me to explore the subjectivity of a businessman, including his sensibility, his suffering, his egotism – and his sexuality.

JL: So how did these concerns come to be expressed through The Manager in practice, in the subject matter and in your treatment of it?

RB: For a start, I wanted the book to be erotic, at least in part, and celebratory. Lyricism and eros are natural partners. In many passages of The Manager, eros is enjoyed simply, directly. Shortly after publication, I received an email from Jeremy Hooker. He wrote: “Did I tell you that I think ‘The Manager’ is, among other things, the sexiest poem I’ve read for a very long time?” That pleased me. I also relied on models of eroticism in other traditions: for example from The Song of Songs, and from modern poets I admire whose writings are unscarred by the Protestant body-spirit split, especially George Seferis, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz. ... In 1996, Octavio returned to England for a reading with Charles Tomlinson at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and I met up with him again afterwards with other friends of his for the first time in twenty-five years and for what was to be the last time. Three years earlier, Octavio published a last tour de force, his final affirmation of eros, translated into English as The Double Flame. He died in 1988. Paz and Seferis are both models for me in their approaches to sexuality. Neither of them is puritan or dualistic. Every line these poets write is simultaneously sensuous, sensual, erotic, sacred, fleshed. Seferis, for example, has these lines in his poem ‘Memory, II’: “as a woman’s face changes yet remains the same / after she strips naked.” I would hope that something of the frank, open, steady and joyful clarity of that erotic gaze comes across in The Manager too.

I also found that comedy and eros make good partners. I think that there are passages in The Manager that can be read as simply comic by both male and female readers. Lyricism combined with comedy sometimes resulted in a kind of wryness, a recognition of pathos, perhaps even a complicit fellowship in sharing the condition of mortality.

Then anger, arguments, bitterness, frustration, pain, guilt and betrayal needed to be included. As did male attitudes to and about women, including both sides of that coin: on the one hand, male coarseness about women and insensitivity towards women (often, exorbitant, gross), and on the other, male sentimentality about women and idealisations of them (equally often, exorbitant and gross). There were also several areas that I wanted to look at which seemed to me ‘difficult’, that is, which I sometimes found it hard to confront in myself. Consequently, the process of writing was sometimes slow and even painful. One such vulnerable area is the male’s longing for the mother, which still strikes me as being more or less inadmissible by most modern adult males. My ‘Manager’ does manage to admit this (section 62: 101). Another addresses that ambivalence in male sexuality between wanting power over a woman or women and wanting to be abandoned to a woman’s power. And another is what a man can go through after a divorce – or after any relationship has broken up. Associated ‘difficult’ areas include male sexual possessiveness and jealousy, and the fantasies involved in the experience of jealousy. Some of this material may even be painful to read – for both male and female readers. I’ve been told by several people that some of these passages are ‘too’ close to the bone.

At one point, after the break-up of a relationship, the Manager cracks up. But he comes through, somehow ‘still managing’, to sing of the Shekhinah, and to call out “Life, my veil of splendour,” and insisting, quoting the words of Seferis, “No it’s not the past I’m talking about. I’m trying to talk about love (sections 98: 155 and 99: 156).” So, all in all, I hope that The Manager presents not just the misery, suffering, embarrassment and pain attendant on sexual love, but some of its funny sides, its pleasures, its joys and compensations too, and even at times its revelations and transformative powers and effects.

JL: And have you found that female readers have responded differently from male readers?

RB: There has been a broad range of responses. The book has received praise and criticism from both female and male readers and reviewers. I think the men who like the poem have been able to identify fairly quickly and easily with the central character, at least to some extent – as in the early reaction I’ve mentioned from Ed Engle in 1979 and the later one from Jeremy Hooker. Obviously, ‘the Manager’, being male himself, isn’t so easy for women to identify with. So I wonder if women readers who have liked the poem, have done so in slightly or subtly different ways from the men who have liked it. I don’t know the answer to this, or even whether it’s answerable. Elaine Feinstein has called it “a remarkable work”.

JL: Finally, you’ve mentioned influences from drama. There are clearly dramatic elements in The Manager. Has the poem even been performed?

RB: A one-off reading/performance was held on the final night of the fiftieth Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival, on 24 August 2003, commissioned by the Festival director, Roger Pringle. Melanie (my wife) and I made a selection of forty-four sections into a script. I then made parts for three main voices. The reading took place on a Sunday evening and the actors, Jasper Britton, Alexandra Gilbreath and Henry Goodman, were members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I gave myself a few bit-lines too here and there. On the Saturday night before the reading, Jasper played Petruchio and Alexandra played Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, which we went to see. So the whole experience was very exciting. On the Sunday morning we had only a few hours to rehearse. At one point in the rehearsal, I asked if a particular speech needed clarification. Gently but firmly Henry Goodman told me to stop worrying, adding that as actors they knew what they were doing. It was their job to understand and interpret text. I had full confidence in them and was happy to keep out of the way.

The actors were brilliant. The entire experience was exhilarating for several reasons. First, to hear the text come alive thanks to their interpretations. Second, to know that the inflections and emphases I’d aimed at were actually there, in the text itself, not just in my head as authorial intentions. And third, to experience the audience’s response.

JL: Thank you for this, I think we’ve shown how your view of The Manager, as its author, might help to inform and even illuminate a reader’s understanding. The author isn’t quite dead yet, as Barthes would have us believe.


December 2001 – January 2002 & November 2012 – January 2013





This interview will appear in Richard Berengarten: A Portrait in Interviews, ed. Paschalis Nikolaou and John Z. Dillon, (Shearsman Books, 2017). Many thanks to John Dillon for his invaluable recommendations in preparing this version.


Writings by Richard Berengarten referenced

1980                 Learning to Talk. London: Enitharmon Press.
1980                 ‘Extracts from ‘The Manager’, Poetry South East 5: 11-13.
1983                 ‘Thirty Extracts from The Manager’, Boundary 2: a journal of postmodern literature.
                         Vol XII/1, Fall: 15-31.
1988                 ‘Three Extracts from The Manager’, in New Poetry II, ed. Elaine Feinstein.
                         London: Quartet Books: 21-25.
1990                 Menadžer (trans. Vladimir Sekulić and Jasna B. Mišić). Titograd: Udruženje književnika
                         Crne Gore [Writers’ Association of Montenegro].
1995                 Black Light, poems in memory of George Seferis. Third edition. Norwich: The King of Hearts.
1999                 Against Perfection. Norwich: The King of Hearts.
2001                 The Manager (first edition). London and Bath: Elliott and Thompson.
2002                 ‘Codas pour Le Manager’ (trans. Robert Davreu), Po&sie 98: 52-58.
2003                 Book With No Back Cover. London: David Paul.
2005                 For the Living: Selected Longer Poems 1965-2000 (first edition). Cambridge: Salt Publishing.
2006                 The Manager (second edition). Cambridge: Salt Publishing.
2008                 The Manager (third edition). Cambridge: Salt Publishing.
2011                 The Manager (fourth edition). Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2011                 For the Living: Selected Longer Poems 1965-2000. Third edition. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2011                 The Blue Butterfly (third edition). Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2011                 In a Time of Drought (third edition). Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2011                 Under Balkan Light. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2012                 ‘A Nimble Footing on the Coals – Tin Ujević, Lyricist: Some English Perspectives’, sic 2.
2013                 Imagems (1): six statements on poetics. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2015                 Notness: Metaphysical Sonnets. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
2017                 Richard Berengarten: A Portrait in Interviews (ed. Paschalis Nikolaou and John Z. Dillon).
                         Bristol: Shearsman Books (forthcoming).


 Critical Texts on The Manager

 Calder, Angus. 2004. ‘A Spectacular Variety of Registers’, The London Magazine, December/January: 88-95. Reprinted in Jope et al.: 233-239.

 Derrick, Paul Scott and Sean Rys (eds.). 2017. Managing the Manager (essays). Brighton: Waterloo Press (forthcoming).

 Gelashvili, Manana and Temur Kobakhidze. 2011. ‘The Manager: Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in Jope et al.: 240-250.

 Hamilton-Emery, Chris. 2008 & 2011. ‘Preface’ to The Manager. Cambridge: Salt Publishing; and Exeter: Shearman Books: xi-xvii.

 Hooker, Jeremy. 2011. ‘Richard Berengarten’s Art of Transformation’, in Jope et al. 2011: 68-80.

 Jope, Norman, Paul Scott Derrick and Catherine E. Byfield (eds.) 2010. The Salt Companion to Richard Berengarten. Cambridge: Salt Publishing. Reissued, 2016, as The Companion to Richard Berengarten. Bristol: Shearsman Books.

 kuhn, philip. 2011. ‘“’Tis Death is dead, not he” On Reading Richard Reading Richard Reading’. See also Jope et al.: 92-117.

 Limburg, Joanne. 2002. ‘Human Above All’. The Jewish Quarterly 185 (Spring): 17-23.

 Query, Patrick. 2011. ‘Form and Redemption in The Manager’, in Jope et al.: 251-258.

 Rudolf, Anthony. 1990. ‘Predgovor’ [Preface], in Vladimir Sekulić and Jasna B. Mišić (trans.), Menadžer: 7-9. Titograd: Udruženje književnika Crne Gore [Writers’ Association of Montenegro].


References: General

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—— ——. 1991. Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press.

—— ——. 1993. Postmodern Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

—— ——. 1997. Postmodernity and its Discontents. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Beckett, Samuel. 1956. Waiting for Godot. London: Faber and Faber.

Bernstein, Basil. 1971. Class, Codes and Control. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Bloom, Harold. 1997 [1973]. The Anxiety of Influence: a Theory of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bohm, David. 1980. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge.

Brown, Norman O. 1959. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

—— ——. 1966. Love’s Body. New York. Vintage Books.

Camus, Albert. 2012 [1942]. The Outsider (trans. Matthew Ward). New York: Random House.

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Cowley, A. C. (ed.). Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays. 2004 [1956]. London: J. M. Dent, Everyman Books.

Damon, S. Foster. 1979 [1973]. Entry for ‘minute particulars’, in A Blake Dictionary: 280-281. London: Thames and Hudson.

Dante. 1902. The Divine Comedy (vol. 1), ‘Hell’ (trans. Charles Eliot Norton). Boston MA and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

Eliot, T. S. 1952 [1917]. ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in Selected Essays: 13-22. London: Faber and Faber.

—— ——. 1972 [1922] The Waste Land and Other Poems. London: Faber and Faber.

—— ——. 2001 [1943]. Four Quartets. London: Faber and Faber.

Frye, Northrop. 1969. Fearful Symmetry, A Study of William Blake. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. ‘What is an Author?’, in Donald F. Bouchard (ed.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected essays and interviews. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Franz, Marie-Louise von. 1979. ‘The Process of Individuation’, in C. G. Jung, M.-L. von Franz et al. (eds.), Man and His Symbols : 158-229. London: Aldus Books.

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—— ——. 1977. Implements in Their Places. London: Faber and Faber.

Heraclitus. 1967 [1931]. ‘On the Universe’, in Hipoccrates (vol. IV, trans. W. H. S. Jones). London and Cambridge MA: William Heinemann and Harvard University Press (Loeb Classics).

Johnson, B. S. 2008 [1969]. The Unfortunates. New York: New Directions.

Julius, Anthony. 2003 [1995]. T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. London: Thames and Hudson.

Jung, C. G. 1959. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works 9 (1) (trans. R. F. C. Hull). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Jung, C. G, M.-L. von Franz, et al (eds.). 1979. Man and His Symbols. London: Aldus Books.

Kermode, Frank. 1966. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Laing, R. D. 1965 [1960]. The Divided Self. London: Pelican Books.

Laing, R. D and Esterton, A. 1970 [1964]. Sanity, Madness and the Family. London: Pelican Books.

Lessing, Doris. 1979 [1973]. The Golden Notebook. London: Panther.

Lowry, Malcolm. 1967. Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry (eds. Harvey Breit and Margerie Bonner Lowry). London: Jonathan Cape.

Mamangakis, Nikos. 1964. O Erotokritos tou Vitzentzou Kornarou [The Erotokritos by Vitzentzos Kornaros]. With Manos Katrakis, Vera Zavitsianou and Kostas Karras. Lyra 3501. LP.

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—— ——. 1975 [1974]. Conjunctions and Disjunctions (trans. Helen Lane). London: Wildwood House.

—— ——. 1996. The Double Flame (trans. Helen Lane). London: Harvill Press.

Pinter, Harold. 1960. The Caretaker. London: Methuen.

Rechy, John. 1963. City of Night. New York: Grove Press.

Rhys, Jean. 1992 [1966]. Wild Sargasso Sea. London: Bloomsbury Classics.

Roethke, Theodore. 1975 [1937]. Collected Poems. New York: Anchor Books.

Samarakis, Antonis. 1969. The Flaw (trans. Peter Mansfield and Richard Burns). London: Hutchinson; and New York: Weybright and Talley.

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—— ——. 2011. The Perfect Order: Selected Poems 1974-2010 (eds. Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou). London: Anvil Press Poetry.

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1 Zygmunt Bauman’s full (unpublished) comment was: “Many have tried, and many more will try, to crack the mystery of our condition, which is unlike any other we or our fathers or mothers have ever known before. Most have failed: our experience seems to escape any nets sewn of words which have been forced into stiff definitions. But images often say more and, unlike arguments, may be used as mirrors to hold up to the countenance of our experience. Richard Burns is master-supreme of images. His images speak, and they speak of truth that cannot be grasped in any other way” (RB, personal correspondence, December 1998).

2 Note from RB. The image of a “flattening out” of time is deployed by Bauman to describe the experience of time in a postmodern society, which I think aptly suits The Manager. See 1997: 67 and 89-91. On the distinction between the ‘event’ and the ‘episode’, see in particular 91.

3 Peter Mansfield, ‘Credo’: “It is not our business / we who have set out / to ask formulable questions / but in our passing to distil / answers from the lies of circumstance. // In the forest we must hear / behind the noise the young whisper / and scent not only this roebuck but him / in the next valley or the afternext / dissatisfied: // our bodies a nostril and a leap / our minds the only formless question / and acquiescence, in the ritual / of expectancy not hope / We are not liars. We are not priests.”

4 Sillitoe’s appraisal appears on the back cover of all English editions of The Manager, abbreviated from a personal letter, February 4, 1990: “I’ve just finished reading your book, and I think it’s a wonderful and very special piece of work, something new, deep, and not beyond anybody’s comprehension or enjoyment. It’s a sad chronicle – love, death and renewal. But I’m still under its very strong influence, and can’t be literary or specific about it.”