Saturday, September 19, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Simeon Berry

Simeon Berry lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.  He has been an Associate Editor for Ploughshares and received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Individual Artist Grant.  His first book, Ampersand Revisited (Fence Books), won the 2013 National Poetry Series, and his second book, Monograph (University of Georgia Press), won the 2014 National Poetry Series.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Since my books were accepted, I feel like more strangers say they know my work, though I just could be imagining that.  Before my first book was published, I found this very weird.  I still have a difficult time believing that anyone reads poems by someone they don’t know and isn’t famous, though I myself do it all the time, of course.  So I guess the books have made it easier for me to maintain the hallucination of feeling like an actual writer.

Having both these books come out in the same year is a little disorienting, since Ampersand Revisited is actually my third manuscript and Monograph is my seventh.  I’m sure that this arbitrary publication order implies some kind of wildly incorrect evolutionary narrative, but that’s a champagne problem.

Ampersand is fairly ornate and has a pretty relentless argument, and Monograph is stripped-down and elliptical.  Ampersand goes all the way across the page and Monograph is a string of small paragraphs that hang out in the middle, so spatially, they’re at opposite ends of the maximalist/minimalist spectrum, which makes me happy.

I find it funny that actors worry about being type-cast, but a lot of poets can’t seem to wait to do it to themselves by coming up with a unique brand and sticking with it until they die.  My ambition is to write books that no one would be able to identify as mine in a blind taste-test based on the last book.  This is probably a fruitless endeavor, but oh well.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I used to feel supremely underqualified to write fiction and non-fiction, in that I am congenitally unable to remember huge categories of facts: flowers, plants, trees, you name it.  And my margin for chronological error before the twentieth century is plus or minus 80 years.  (This is a big part of why I chose not to be an academic.)

However, I think I just wasn't thinking smartly enough about structure, persona, and argument in prose, and now creative non-fiction is very much a part of my writing life.

Poetry grabbed me because the bar seemed very, very low.  In high school, I dated this very nice girl from Lowell, Massachusetts, who wrote poetry.  She wasn’t an intellectual, but she knew what not to say and when to stop on the page, and it changed my life.  Before that—despite having read T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath—I still thought poetry had to rhyme and be in meter.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I used to free-write all my first drafts, relying on speed to trick myself into a good image or line before I knew what I was doing.  So all my poems had definite birth dates, like cans of beer. 

All the individual poems I wrote before and during grad school either died or found themselves assimilated into the Borg-like inevitability of Ampersand Revisited.  Now I only work on a book as a whole, rather than mess around with individual poems in isolation.  I got tired of having to cut published poems that were simply redundant or tangential.

The initial shape of any poem is almost never the final one.  I'll put a piece into 15 to 20 different shapes, trying to find one that has the perfect trade-off of clarity, organization, and musicality.  Sometimes I’ll just futz around with them forever until the white space feels right.  Or, as they say in the construction industry, abandon them in place, like a burned-out conduit behind dry-wall.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I went into grad school worshipping the short lyric and came out as someone who wrote long-ass things, having appropriated as much tech from fiction writers as I could.  So my books are always a project now (whatever that means) because I find epic structures more rewarding and challenging than one-offs.

As for the origin of said projects, it’s often as much an ambition as an irritant.  I wrote one book because Brian Teare challenged me to investigate the origin story of the femme fatale in my early work.  I wrote one for Justin Petropoulos because of an argument we had about the compromising effects of audience, and I wrote another for Julia Story because I thought she might enjoy a good Midwestern gothic.

Every few years, I’ll NaPoWriMo for the core of a new manuscript (and then sometimes NaPoWriMo again to replace the 50% that I end up cutting), but it’s usually about six months before I can even stand to look at what I wrote and try to shape it into a book.  Until that point, I sort of treat it like a toxic waste dump from an overheated nuclear reactor.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Reading to people who are probably sitting in uncomfortable chairs and resisting the urge to check their phones helps to remind me of the stakes.  I feel like some poets think about the audience as an afterthought or like they’re civilians.  But no one is putting a gun to people’s heads and forcing them to read poetry.  Readings help me to remember that. 

They also serve as a supplementary editing stage for me.  If I read a poem and I want to skip a line or a section, the knives come out.  Much like submitting to magazines, I find the prospect of the potential indifference of strangers to be very sobering.  Any poems that can’t handle either of those stress tests get tossed out.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I know a lot of writers who are theory-driven and have a single-minded devotion to the experiment, but I find that merely trying not to repeat myself offers up plenty of problems to be solved.  I try to make my next manuscript a whole new ecology, with life forms that are silicon-based, say, as opposed to carbon-based.  There’s nothing more tiring to me than reading someone who feels a little bored by what they’re writing.

This has no relation whatsoever to my work, but I’ve been thinking about Conceptual Poetry a lot this past year, and I read someone very smart (I forget who—there were so many articles on Facebook and Twitter) who said that when you appropriate something, you have to pay it back with interest.  Otherwise, it’s just theft.  You’re trading on the power of the cultural material you’re quoting without having any responsibility to that material or being thoughtful in the piece itself about the implications of what you’re doing.

You can perform (as it were) those intentions off-line from the piece, but I find that to be a little like a terrible poem being read by a magnificent actor.  The art lies elsewhere than on the page.  If the justification required for the work is far more complex than the piece itself, then maybe it should be in the work.  Otherwise, the work kind of devolves into a press release for the artist.

Looking back over the manuscripts I’ve written, I do see a preoccupation with gender construction and a generalized silence around sexuality, as well as the discontinuity between people's interior, Akashic mansions and the relative poverty of their speech.

There’s a pleasure in subversion which I think is still (and always will be) inadequately understood and under-implemented, so I’m mildly obsessed with the types of permission we both grant and withhold from ourselves.

I also find myself wrestling with how to negotiate confrontations with The Other, however you want to define that, which, of course, has only been going on since the Stone Age.  My first two books have a strong thread of spiritual difference, which kinda makes me feel like Stephen Vincent Benét, what with his unfashionable patriotism and all.

Frankly, I’m more invested in how theoretical tensions are embedded in people and history. No anxieties but in things!

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Obviously, writers can speak in a timely fashion to issues that are causing turbulence at the culture at large.  Just look at Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Eula Biss’s On Immunity, and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which speak to the debates over police violence, the anti-vaccination movement, and transgender rights.  And there’s stuff like Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” going viral on social media and being read by over 100,000 people or Richard Siken’s Crush selling 20,000 copies.

I think our ideas about culture (or race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sex, etc.) are often woefully inadequate, and our relationship to history is tenuous and/or erroneous.  The job of writers is to complicate and destabilize these fixed ideas.  Sometimes that can be done by speaking very publicly and being inclusive of other people’s experiences, and sometimes that can be done very intimately and confessionally.

There’s this Arthur Miller quote I love: “Data is a lot like humans: It is born. Matures. Gets married to other data, divorced.  Gets old.  One thing that it doesn't do is die. It has to be killed.”  I think writers need to take down bad cultural data.  You can do that by looking at what memes society has given you and making them absurd, threatening, or irrelevant, or (conversely) investing them with a beauty, power, and meaning that was not intended by their makers.

I’m suspicious of writers who point a way forward, but I’m grateful to those who demonstrate that what I thought might be true simply isn’t workable, whether for me or for everyone.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love being edited.  My favorite thing is when someone absolutely dismantles one of my poems in a concrete way.  Then I can see what was making the fan belt underneath that stanza wonky.  Certainly, taking a bunch of fiction workshops in undergrad helped me be less precious about my work.

As long as an editor can communicate what they like and don’t like in a piece effectively, I can get a sense of how their ear is working and where their strengths are, and I find that enormously helpful.  I’ve always found revision to be the most gratifying part of the process anyway.  That’s where you can get forgiveness for all your sins in the first draft.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In the Oughts, when it seemed like all my contemporaries from grad school were getting their books taken and I was racking up the rejections, I got pretty dispirited, and Justin Petropoulos passed on this gem from Susan Briante: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

She’s right.  There are quite a few poets on my shelf who only published a book or two, and I read a lot of second books that feel like they were rushed into publication with imperfect structures or placeholder poems.

The pressure to publish seems at least partially responsible for this hurriedness, and I know that I have the luxury of being able to set my own timelines without worrying about tenure, but that doesn’t stop me from wishing the books were better.

At the time, it sucked, but I’m glad in retrospect to have had all that time in the wilderness to make the books the best they could be.  Both Ampersand and Monograph didn’t find their final shapes until a year before they were accepted.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have no writing routine whatsoever.  In undergrad, I wrote almost exclusively after 10 pm, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I wrote my creative writing thesis entirely by candlelight.  In grad school, I wrote whenever the computer lab was open, since my basement room had no air-conditioning and lots of spiders.

Since I got a real job, I write whenever I have a spare fifteen minutes.  When I’m doing NaPoWriMo, I write a poem at 7 am and at 5 pm (if I’m doing 2 poems a day).  I’ll go months without writing, and then I’ll spend weeks revising on the train into work, during lunch, on the train home, and until I go to bed.  So my creative life is less orderly and more the equivalent of binge and purge.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’ve found that I have to read poetry more or less constantly to believe in the whole endeavor.  Otherwise, it starts to seem like riding a unicycle or knowing how to speak Esperanto.  You begin to feel surplus to requirements, culturally speaking.

When I really need to jump start my enthusiasm, I find myself re-reading books like Jack Gilbert’s Monolithos, C.D. Wright’s Translations of the Bible Back Into Tongues, or Brenda Shaughnessy’s Interior with Sudden Joy.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

In order to get to my grandparent’s cottage in Connecticut on Long Island Sound, you had to drive through this huge salt marsh.  I have incredibly vivid memories of being in the car on summer nights and feeling comforted when we hit the swamp and the smell of skunk cabbage and mud flooded through the windows, along with the thunderous sound of peepers.  Basically, I grew up in a Lovecraft novel.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My dad is a photographer, so I spent a lot of time in the darkroom hearing him talk about composition and light.  My favorite thing as a kid was to go to the movies with him and debrief each other about our likes and dislikes later.  After we saw A Midnight Clear, he gave me a journal entry on it.  I’ve never forgotten how beautifully he wrote about its carefully controlled palette of white, grey, and brown; how this emphasized the gold accent of light on a pair of wire glasses and the red of a bloody cross on a sheet; how the movie gracefully lingered on a statue of a bishop with his head in its hands without ever having to tell us that this meant the bishop was wrongfully executed.

I have no doubt the DNA of these talks with him is all through my poems.  It’s why I saw Saving Private Ryan and The Piano four times in the theater.  The former because it made me cry and unable to form a coherent thought afterwards and I wanted to study my reactions.  The latter because I wanted to break down the lyrical argument in the cinematography.

I always wanted to be a visual artist, but a pen-and-ink course in undergrad confirmed that I have all the sense of proportionality and symmetry of an addled sloth.

I love science and have jacked all kinds of great stuff from its diction.  I feel like it’s a high risk-activity though, since a good portion of what’s cool at one time or another turns out to be false within 10 to 15 years.  In undergrad I wrote a poem about the six flavors of quarks: up, down, strange, charm, top, and bottom.  Now I fully expect to discover that there are 50 or more.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy blew my mind in fifth grade, and I did a low-rent version of him for many years.  Similarly, my book club recently read Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, and one of them gave me possibly the best compliment I’ve ever received by noting how much they could hear my voice in the style.  That book rearranged all my furniture.

Mary Oliver, Kenneth Patchen, and Yusef Komunyakaa taught me how to write an image, and Raymond Chandler and William Gibson showed me the wisdom of leaving enough space and silence to let an image breathe.  I didn’t know how to think in poems before I read Larry Levis’s The Widening Spell of the Leaves, Brian Teare’s The Room Where I Was Born, and Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.”  Likewise, I was far more of a dolorous bastard before I encountered Lynn Emanuel’s Then, Suddenly.

As far as intellectual positioning and identity, I remain awed by the courage of Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and her way of raising questions about difference without seeming merely provocative, ducking the issues, or falling back on solipsism (i.e. despair).  I also love Philip Levine’s non-fiction (especially his “Part of the Problem” essay) for the way it's vulnerable, frank, and combative all at the same time, as well as its ability to touch the third rail of the literary world—class—without being fried.

Finally, I owe a huge debt to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets for making me realize that I just don't give a fuck about whatever container writers put the content in, as long as it's good.  Genre is bunk.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d love to learn sign language, go bungee-jumping, and take a train across the U.S.  Before I die, I'd also like to visit Gaudi's cathedral, have a slice of Sacher-Torte in Vienna, and see every Vermeer in the world.  (This last ambition is stolen from Thomas Harris.)

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
My day job is as a contracts person, which has given me the unexpected benefit of feeling like I'm contributing usefully to society.  Believe me, no one's more surprised than I am that I ended up dealing in numbers and forms.  Back in undergrad, I couldn't fill out a financial aid application without breaking into a cold sweat.  Now I can warp time and space with complicated spreadsheets.  Economic desperation gives you wings.  I also wish that I could have succeeded as a painter, actor, or astrophysicist, but those were not in the cards.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I have a mania for detail—the more upsetting and weird, the better—but a terrible memory for things at the intersection of time and space: facts, dates, history, the harder aspects of how science works.  In other words, I’m obsessive, but not usefully so.

I just don't function very well in a Cartesian universe.  Once we hit calculus in high school math class, I knew I was fucked.  I couldn't memorize the 21 identities without knowing why they were identities and where they came from.  (I've never had a nightmare starring a differential equation, but I expect to someday.)

Failure is a big part of my writing career.  I can be very performative and I tried acting, but I'm still an introvert.  Being raised by a photographer instilled in me a love for the image, but I don't have an aptitude for visual problem solving.  I love the diagrammatic nature of physics and science, but can't think mechanistically very well.

However, all those thwarted impulses harmonize when I'm making a poem and I need to find an urgent voice, populate a landscape, and make sure everything that's set in motion works well linguistically and dramatically.  I love the absolute control that the page gives you—nothing is too past tense or beyond your reach if you have enough guts and thoughtfulness.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The best book of poems I’ve read recently was Cate Marvin’s Oracle.  I love its bleakly hilarious tableaux and its chorus of dead girls.  It's like a David Fincher movie starring Tilda Swinton on mushrooms with a Wes Anderson script and an Edward Gorey production design.  Or maybe that's just me fantasizing.

As for prose, I loved Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl, a piece of dark fiction about a schizophrenic painter in Providence being haunted by a contagion of ideas and historical facts.  I’m a sucker for the New England Gothic, and Kiernan’s updating of it is masterful, a fugue of unreliable narration, unsettling lyricism, and gender fluidity.

The last great thing I saw was The Secret of Kells, this sweet and ominous fable about illuminated manuscripts and why you should always listen to girls with fantastic hair in the woods who tell you about wolves.  I've never encountered another animated film where the physical movements of its characters were so unmistakably its politics.  It's like someone decided to live in a world made of medieval mandalas.  See it!  Hear Brendon Gleeson be the best gruff monk!

19 - What are you currently working on?
I'm working on a memoir about comic books and literary gatekeeping.  I found that I just can’t shut up about superhero comics around writers, especially when they furrow their brow and look confused, as if (to quote Douglas Adams) I had just asked them for a lightly-fried weasel on a sesame seed bun.  The literary world seems chronically short of such weasels, so my hope is that writing this book will relieve me of this particular compulsion, or at least give me something heavy to hit them with when they look askance at me.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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