Nationality: American. Born: Hurley, Wisconsin, 4 October 1942. Education: University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, Madison, and Oshkosh, B.S. in English and art 1970; Washington State University, Pullman, 1970–71; Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1971–73, M.F.A. 1973. Family: Married Lois Behling in 1966 (divorced 1999). Career: Teaching assistant, Washington State University, 1970–71; teaching assistant, 1971–73, and lecturer in creative writing, 1973–74, Cornell University; assistant professor, 1974–77, and associate professor of English, 1977–84, University of Cincinnati. Visiting professor, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Winter 1984; instructor in English, Skagit Valley College, Mt. Vernon, Washington, 1984–87; instructor, Shoreline and Edmonds Community Colleges, Seattle, 1988–90; lecturer in creative writing, English department, Western Washington University, 1991–2000; visiting professor, Willamette University, Salem, Oregon, 1998–99. Editor, Abraxas magazine and Abraxas Press, Madison, Wisconsin, and Ithaca, New York, 1968–72; editor, Cincinnati Poetry Review, 1975–81; poetry editor, Eureka Review, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1976–81; co-editor, Cornfield Review, 1984. Member of the board of directors, Print Center, 1972–74; member of the editorial board, Ithaca House, New York, 1972–74; member of the board of consultants, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, from 1975; member of the literature panel, Ohio Arts Council, 1979–80; member of the board, Washington Center for the Book, Seattle Public Library, 1998–2000. Founder, Elliston Book Award, for small press poetry books, 1976. Awards: Hart Crane Memorial Foundation award, 1969; Book-of-the-Month Club award, 1970; YMYWHA Poetry Center Discovery award, 1972; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974; James Howard Taft research fellowship, 1976, 1980; Charles Phelps Taft Memorial Fund grant, 1977, 1980; Ohio Arts Council grant, 1979; Betty Colladay award (Quarterly Review of Literature), 1986; Quarterly Review of Literature book publication award, 1994; Bumbershoot Literary Festival Big Book Competition, Seattle, Washington, 1994; International Merit award in poetry, Atlanta Review, 1996. Address: P.O. Box 28907, Bellingham, Washington 98228, U.S.A.
Day of Change. Milwaukee, Gunrunner Press, 1968.
Drool. Madison, Wisconsin, Quixote Press, 1968.
Mr. Nobody. Marshall, Minnesota, Ox Head Press, 1969.
Ceremony. Milwaukee, Morgan Press, 1969.
Maize. Madison, Wisconsin, Abraxas Press, 1969.
Stone Marrow. Madison, Wisconsin, Anachoreta Press-Abraxas Press, 1969.
Becoming Human. Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Road Runner Press, 1970.
The Interim Handout. Privately printed, 1972.
Employed. Ithaca, New York, Ithaca House, 1972.
Edging Through. Ithaca, New York, Stone Marrow Press, 1972.
Soft Rock. Tacoma, Washington, Charas Press, 1973.
Making Space for Our Living. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1975.
Terminal Placebos. New York, New Rivers Press, 1975.
The Gestures. Providence, Rhode Island, Bonewhistle Press, 1975.
The Alleged Conception. Southampton, New York, Granite, 1976.
New and Selected Poems. Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1978.
Are You Tough Enough for the Eighties? New York, New Rivers Press, 1979.
Precinct Kali, and The Gertrude Spicer Story. St. Paul, New Rivers Press, 1982.
First Credo. Princeton, New Jersey, Quarterly Review of Literature Award Series, 1986.
21 Poems from First Credo. Guemes Island, Washington, Stone Marrow Press, 1990.
Like a Planet. Guemes Island, Washington, Stone Marrow, 1994.
Snail River. Princeton, New Jersey, Quarterly Review of Literature Series, 1995.
Goat-Footed Turtle. Guemes Island, Washington, Stone Marrow Press, 1996.
Editor, Quixote: Northwest Poets. Madison, Wisconsin, Quixote Press, 1968.
Editor, Provisions, by Anselm Parlatore. Ithaca, New York, Stone Marrow Press, 1971.
Editor, The Abraxas/5 Anthology. Ithaca, New York, Abraxas Press, 1972.*
Manuscript Collections: Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin, La Crosse; Ohio University Library, Athens.
Critical Studies: "Three Good Prospects" by James Naiden, in Granite (Hanover, New Hampshire), Autumn 1972; "Observations on a Book of Poetry" by Steven Granger, in Seizure (Eugene, Oregon), Fall/Winter 1972; "Employed" by Ripley Schemm, in Bartleby's Review 2 (Machias, Maine), 1973; "Facing the Eighties with James Bertolino," in Bluefish (Southampton, New York), Autumn 1983, and "The Binary Vision of James Bertolino," in The Duckabush Journal (Hansville, Washington), 1990, both by Jane Somerville; "James Bertolino: An Overview" by Edward Butscher, in Poet Lore (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1984; by Victoria Ballard, in Crosscurrents (Lynwood, Washington), Spring 1988.
James Bertolino comments:
I think my poetry has gone through stages that conform to William Blake's three stages of personal evolution: innocence, experience, and radical innocence. I like to feel that my work has entered the third stage.* * *
James Bertolino's work exhibits a variety of directions that are continually developing, expanding, and even doubling back onto themselves. His poetry can be divided into several distinct types, very loosely chronological but also, more importantly, based on subject, theme, and technique.
The subject and viewpoint of Bertolino's earliest work are often distinctly Midwestern and marked by a flatness of language and a matter-of-fact tone. Regardless of the regional focus they display, however, their themes are universal: sexual awakening ("I Had a Packard"), love ("Storms"), maturation ("Changes"), loneliness ("Mom & Sally"), and death ("Salmon Fishing, Boundary Bay"). The poems of this group are solid, quiet, finely honed observations that as often as not owe their success to Bertolino's ability to suggest his meaning effortlessly, or so it seems, and to his remembering to eschew the overt statement.
Bertolino's sociopolitical poetry, the second division of his work, has appeared chiefly, but not exclusively, since the mid-1970s. It does not owe allegiance to any specific political cadre or support any particular group or strata of society over another. Rather, Bertolino's motivation and chief theme is his concern with individuals'—and humankind's—ability to survive the various forces that threaten them. Particularly strong examples of this work include "Killer Chemicals," a found poem; the disturbing, strangely brutal sequence "Modern Lives"; and "The Nice Guy," the conclusion of which is shocking. A bitterness rivaling that of Weldon Kees's poetry underlies many of the poems of this group, even those in which Bertolino assumes the persona of the malefactor, as in "The Library," which begins chillingly:
I am Harry Truman
& have hurt you more than
you can know.
In his middle period Bertolino's work often takes on a mystical surrealism characteristic of much of his poetry of the 1960s. In such poems he makes a conscious effort to accept—even to embrace wholeheartedly and, at times, blindly—the odd, the quirky, or the bizarre. In "The Eleventh Hour Poem" he perhaps offers a reason for this facet of his work:
is the formal accident we
will have no part in.
The language of these poems is their most striking characteristic, running the full gamut from a wacky playfulness ("Oh Avis it Hertz!" in "Ontological Pornography"), which is evident even in the serious work of this period, to a high-tech diction ("fear is the black chute,/the nanosecond that never ends" in "St. Irwin, the Martyr"). This work contrasts sharply with, and ultimately satisfies less than, the earlier, more lyrical poems.
Despite their topics and themes Bertolino's later collections remind the reader, to a large degree, of what he produced in the 1960s. There is much in them to admire. Many poems reveal a mature artisan at work, one as conscious of craft as of vision and one capable of combining the two in his most powerful poems. "The Professor," for example, is a double-edged portrait of a man with good intentions who, because of his idealism, is doomed to failure. Similarly, "Home in Ohio" is both succinct and superficially simple, each characteristic camouflaging the complexity of the poem. Unfortunately, however, a number of the poems in his middle period leave much to be desired. While some are strained ("Wine"), pedantic ("Manifest"), or vapid ("American Poetry"), many are simply sophomoric, among them "Fruits and Vegetables."
To some degree Bertolino's full-length volume Snail River combines the strongest techniques and characteristics of his previous periods into one collection, revealing the poet at his very best and serving as a capstone to his career. Ranging from the more typical, midsize narrative poems to very short, terse near lyrics, the volume offers precise observations about the experiences of an individual life—sometimes a human being's, often an animal's—that become investigations into the human condition. "Creation Dance," for example, acknowledges a need for order in both nature and society, while simultaneously and ironically recognizing the beauty and, at times, desirability of disorder.
Bertolino also offers the mystical and surreal, the quirky, and the bizarre as metaphor for the human condition, often with shocking results. In "Broken Things," for instance, a young boy's trust in his oddball neighbor is purposefully, inexplicably shattered by that neighbor. "A Boy and His Dog," a coming-of-age poem, not only characterizes the very best of this collection but also of all of Bertolino's poetry. What in a lesser poet's hands might bog down in unrestrained emotion becomes instead a portrait of triumph. At once tense in emotion but never strained, concise yet complete, heart wrenching while never sentimental, this poem, along with others of the collection, deeply affects us by an unexpected, subtly dramatic turn of events, which leaves us clamoring for more.