Your day is about to get better. Or at least more grotesque and badass. Guest blogger and generally brilliant hellcat Arielle tells you why you need to know about Washingston’s late “punk poet” Steven Jesse Bernstein:
Steven “Jesse” Bernstein is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated punk poets, in line with greats like Patti Smith and Jim Carroll. Unlike them, his work is “punk” more in attitude and style than explicitly involved with an overlap in the punk scene. He is probably best known today for his participation in the 90s grunge music scene and his grotesque suicide (he stabbed himself in the throat), but he left behind an impressive body of work that deserves attention (especially if, like me, you do not often normally enjoy poetry).
He performed at shows with many of the bands of the time—Nirvana, Big Black, and Soundgarden, to name a few. His most famous work, and arguably most important was Prison, which was put out on Sub Pop. It’s features a collaboration between Bernstein and Steve Fisk (who worked with Unwound, Nirvana, Wedding Present, among others), finished after Bernstein killed himself. Certain parts of the album are truly amazing. Bernstein’s bitter, acerbic voice is met with jazz or sometimes a startling cacophony of grunge noise. The music compliments the poems in a very concrete way, although personally I like just hearing Bernstein talk. Standout tracks on the album include: More Noise Please—a sort of desperate sarcastic plea for more noise in the city, Party Balloon—which examines a deflated balloon as if it were a corpse, and Face—about the cruel ridicule Bernstein endured all his life for his face.
What I like about his poems is that they never try to be cute, pretty, or flowery. Bernstein greatly admired William S. Burroughs and experimental writer Kathy Acker, and you can see their influence in his writing. His poems come from his experience as a Jewish man living in the 90s Seattle grunge scene and struggling with mental illness. They are real, visceral, and in-your-face. Even so, Prison is almost rather light for Bernstein. Some of his other poems in the chapbook “Choking on Sixth” are overflowing with pain, hate, and disgust. You palpably can taste and smell the darker side of city life in his descriptions.
Bernstein also branched out and did more weird/innovative types of things with poetry; he had one poem printed on a hand-rolled piece of pasta, and one that was a continuous thin strip of paper sealed inside a glass bottle.
In his brief career, Bernstein created lots of unique, original work but never really became the star he could’ve been. And maybe it’s better that way—with his work remaining important in an underground sense, having achieved cult status. I’d recommend his writing to those who like their poetry raw, angry, and subversive. It’s a slap in the face of the often-pretentious poetry world that is very much needed.
Thank you, Arielle! You can download selected works by Bernstein at Kick To Kill right HERE. Good advice to end with:
You hear this shit in your head. You want to HEAR
Go to a war, go to a concert, go to an earthquake. Get
out of your chair and quit reading this.
–Steven Jesse Bernstein, excerpt from “JANIS JOPLIN’S DEAD VALENTINE”