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Paul Bernstein’s debut book of poetry, "What the Owls Know," chronicles a fully lived life

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 9:15am by christopherporter

Paul Bernstein and his book of poetry, What the Owls Know

A blurb on the back of What the Owls Know, Paul Bernstein’s book of poetry, says that the reader is guided through the “ground of a fully lived life.” There is no question that Bernstein’s life, like his poems, is fully realized.

Born in New York, Bernstein came to Ann Arbor in 1959 and returned to the city in the late 1960s seeking a Ph.D. in History. “I first published my writing while an undergraduate,” Bernstein says. “But then I got involved in politics. … I was involved with anti-war politics and at some point thought that I should give it up to focus on writing poetry but then protests heated up, the Weathermen began … and I realized it was not the time to get out.”

Bernstein was a Students for a Democratic Society activist and part of the counterculture in Ann Arbor, giving support to union strikers and offering other community assistance. He didn’t give up writing completely, having his work published in an underground paper called Up Against the Wall Street Journal. “It was called that not only for the Wall Street pun, Bernstein says, "but because [the paper] started as a poster that was literally put up against a wall.”

Since then, Bernstein worked as a radical newspaper’s staff writer and columnist, and later as a medical writer and as an editor. “In the 1990s, I met someone who got me back into writing poetry,” Bernstein says. Since then, he has had at least one poem published nearly every year in publications such as the New Plains Review, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Front Page Review, and Third Wednesday.

These publications culminated in Owls, released by Kelsay Books. The poems span Bernstein’s fully lived life from the 1960s up until now. “I wrote the first stanza for 'The Withering Elms and I' when I was in Ann Arbor in graduate school," Bernstein says. "I wrote 'Sideshow' [about Coney Island] in the late '90s … others are much more recent.”

Bernstein’s poems often are based around a single image. “I consider myself a contemplative poet,” he says. “I often write about inner space, that stuff going on inside people’s heads.” Other times, Bernstein painstakingly researches his topics. “When I wrote 'Costume Party,' about a person making a mask of themselves for Halloween, I had to read up on how you make paper mache masks so I could get it just right.”

Sometimes this research leads to pleasant discoveries. “While looking up trees for 'Footfall,' I learned that the inside of trees, the middle part, is called heartwood," Bernstein says. "Isn’t that lovely? Just perfect … practically writes itself.”

When deciding which poems to include in his book, Bernstein says he selected “paired poems, with corresponding themes that run throughout the book” while leaving out some political writing that “was a different style and just didn’t fit with the rest of the material.”

Many of Bernstein’s poems bring the reader full circle, bringing them back to the first stanza. This theme runs through Owls, including the dedication.

“My mentor at U of M was a man named Jerome Badanes. He won a Hopwood Award and was later a well-known teacher and novelist," Bernstein says. "[He] had a poem I loved called 'Passages' that ends with the scene of a subway train coming out of a tunnel, flying over the Manhattan Bridge and then going back into the tunnel. At one of his last readings, he dedicated that poem to me and later said he wanted to give me a plug. I was just a tadpole then, when it came to writing, and was quite touched. I wanted to repay that debt to him, for that kindness all those years ago." 


Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and cat.


Paul Bernstein reads from "What the Owls Know" on Thursday, October 10 at Bookbound in Ann Arbor. The event begins with an Open Mic where area poets can read from their work or share a poem written by someone else. This event is part of a monthly series on the 2nd Thursday of most months in partnership with Les Go Social Media Marketing and Training.