Amy Susan Wilson Interviews William Bernhardt

ASW: Thank you, Bill, for taking the time to chat with me today about your book of poetry, The White Bird. Would you begin by providing us with an overview of this collection, and share what motivated you to write these poems?

The White Bird

Click here to purchase The White Bird

WB: I’ve been writing poetry for some time. Technically, according to my mother, I’ve been writing poetry since I was seven, but I don’t believe any of that ever needs to be published. Only in the last four years or so have I become brave enough to try to publish it. Eventually, I thought I had enough for a book. My editor at Balkan Press, Savannah Thorne, was invaluable. She brought terrific insight to the selection of poems (the book contains less than half of what I sent her) and to the order of the poems. I like the way it all fits together as a book.

ASW: Your poem “Quailing” employs a strong narrative style of writing. Does this stem from your background as a novelist? Is narrative construction of a poem in any way similar to prose narrative construction?

WB: I do tend to tell a story, don’t I? I once heard Isabel Allende say, “I’m a story junkie!” And I thought, you and me both, Isabel. Of course, the wonderful thing about poetry is that it can do so many different things, but it’s also a surprisingly good storytelling medium. The main difference is that in a novel you have so many words at your disposal, as many as you want. Poetry, I think, is about trying to say more with less.

ASW: Your ear for natural speech rhythms is evident in The White Bird collection. Do you revise much to bring these elements into a poem so they work in tandem with the poem’s ideas?

WB: Yes. I revise and revise. And, not only for content, I revise specifically for trying to get the sounds just right. I have read and reread Robert Pinsky’s book, The Sounds of Poetry, which is truly wonderful. Part of the reason people love poetry is the sonic quality that adds an entirely new dimension above and beyond what the words themselves are saying.

ASW: When I was reading The White Bird, this quote of Thoreau’s came to mind, “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” I wonder if you had to revise, cut down to get these poems’ economical closure?

William Bernhardt

William Bernhardt

WB: Absolutely. I had to get over the novelist’s tendency to want to spell everything out, make it all explicit. The joy of poetry often comes, not from what you’ve said, but from what you’ve chosen not to say. Let readers get there on their own. It will make a more lasting impression.

ASW: You are so prolific; you have over thirty books published and have sold over ten million books. Do you write even when you do not feel like it?

WB: Don’t say “prolific!” Too often in our field, that’s a criticism (making this perhaps the only arena in America where people are criticized for working hard). We have so much nonsensical or snobbish baggage in the book world and none of it ever seems to help the writers who are actually doing the difficult work. When I’m working on a book, I write every day, whether I feel like it or not.

Honestly, after the initial enthusiasm for a project has passed, does anyone ever feel like it? Writing is hard work and there are a thousand other things you could be doing. No one writes unless they feel driven to it, I think. Certainly no one ever finishes a book-length project without some serious motivation.

ASW: As a seasoned author, do you have any advice for those who are new to writing? Or, first starting to publish?

WB: Read a lot, and write a lot. The more you write, the better you’ll get. And I believe that in many ways, this is the best time in the history of the world to be a writer. Writers have so many options that were not present before, thanks to eBooks and online retailing. I love dead-tree books, too, and I’ve had a healthy relationship with a large New York publisher. But an author benefits from having options, rather than having to seek permission every time they want to try something new.

Amy Susan Wilson

Amy Susan Wilson

ASW: Who are some of your “go-to” poets that you read and re-read? And, what draws you back to them as a reader?

WB: I doubt if my list is much different from anyone else’s. I always return to Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney. I think you can see a little Billy Collins in my work. And there are many other contemporary poets who I think are very, very good. I read Wallace Stevens sometimes, too, even though half the time I have no idea what he’s talking about.

ASW: What is the intersection of your imagination with a real life event, person, place—and the creation of a poem for you?

WB: So much poetry comes from memory, doesn’t it? Looking back over your past, the highs and the lows, and trying to make some sense of it. And if you finally have gotten it down on paper and gotten it right, sometimes, you can let it go.

ASW: What are some writing projects we may look forward to from you in the near future?

WB: I’ve got another novel coming out soon, a Dust Bowl-era novel between two mismatched men that begins in Oklahoma and the pair travels East (I figured Okies traveling West had already been done). I also have another of the Red Sneaker books on fiction writing coming out soon. And much more poetry.

ASW: Oh good! More poetry! Thanks, Bill, for taking the time to chat this afternoon. I look forward to your forthcoming novel, all the while rereading, again and again, The White Bird.

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