Simeon Berry Interview
As part of the Dixie State University Visiting Writers Series, on October 3, 2016, poet Simeon Berry visited the campus and read a selection of poems to students, faculty and community members. He also gave a craft talk entitled, “Absolute Narcissism and Crippling Self-Doubt: Lying on the Page” on October 4, 2016 in the Frank and Alice Holland Center for English Studies Collaborative Lounge. Simeon resides in Somerville, MA. His first book Ampersand Revisited, won the 2013 National Poetry Series. His second book Monograph won the 2014 National Poetry Series.
1. How does your childhood and early-life education affect your writing? Do you believe your college education had a positive influence on what you write today?
I really don't have very many memories from before I was 7 or 8. I was trying to be neurologically conservative, I guess. Maybe that's why I didn't start speaking until I was 3 and a half. Now, I'm no longer a minimalist, which is for the best, I think. Maximalists have more fun.
I'm always astonished at the degree to which we re-litigate our childhoods. Maybe memory has calcified those injustices precisely because we were so powerless then. Forty years later, I still remember my humiliation and resentment at being kicked out of a drugstore for reading comic books.
I think everyone's childhood is kind of like Greek mythology. It's all about feats and contests: going so high on the swingset that you almost take flight, risking death by combining Coke and Pop Rocks, trying to divine what it means that your hand is bigger than your face. The powers above you seem capricious and perverse, and your body is always threatening to turn into a tree or a flower or a boar. Appetite, reward, and punishment structure all interactions. Everything is shot through with mystical significance, and most things are dimly understood. Even if you're a strident atheist, you're still contending with the echoes of those primal experiences, remembering those tableaux of boredom and terror.
The way I dealt with growing up in a household with toxic personalities was to submerge my emotional life into books, and thus to feel things deeply on the page that would have been dangerous to feel in real life. Therapy bills notwithstanding, I'm grateful that my dysfunctional childhood primed me to have a complex relationship with the written word, and, as a result of the aforementioned toxicity, I developed my emotional intelligence as an early-warning system for the mood swings of the adults around me. I would prefer not to have to live with the remnants of that hypervigilance that came from feeling like prey for most of my early years, but I am grateful for the additional psychological insight it granted me. Empathy is the Swiss Army knife of a writing career.
College and graduate school gave me many of the tools that are integral to my writing: Socratic reasoning, a facility with different rhetorical flavors and strategies, and (as Salinger noted in The Catcher in the Rye) a passion for following my thoughts through to their end. Plus, it exposed me to many books and thinkers that I otherwise would not have found my way toward, and which were essential fuel for starting the cognitive nuclear reaction that is a writing sensibility. I used to say that, if nothing else, a degree in literature gave me the patience of a lizard, which allowed me to get through some ultimately-rewarding texts that others would have thrown out the window. Plus, the increased mental stamina and concentration from higher education allows you to be able to become a good editor who can stare at an unwieldy prepositional phrase for half an hour.
Of course, education is a double-edged sword. To quote the Spanish Existentialist, Miguel de Unamuno, “This language was not made for you and me to understand each other.” I think Unamuno means that words are not intended to be a simple conduit for conveying information and instructions, but to point toward deeper meanings, to create mystery rather than resolve it. But he's also reminding us that language is alienating. The more exotic your diction becomes, the less (and fewer) people actually understand you. As my undergrad fiction professor said, every time you choose one word over another, you lose a reader.
2. How, if at all, does your professional life influence your poetry writing? Please give us some examples of how and where it has happened.
Some of my life in managing contracts has bled over into my writing. I have a section in Monograph about a legal principle in contract law called contra preferentum: any ambiguity in a document shall be construed against the drafter of the document. I note that in poetry, this is reversed. There's a fine line in verse between being suggestive and being withholding, between being elusive and simply frustrating. Poets are often given the benefit of a doubt as far as implicit meaning, and sometimes we abuse it.
I've always been pretty Latinate, but I'm sure that the legalistic and bureaucratic writing I do for work has influenced me. Even a government memo is a genre and has an invented (albeit invisible) self. A few years ago, I wrote a book of poems entitled Legal Pads, which was a surreal fantasia on office culture, but now it occupies a berth in my extensive graveyard, next to the book of poems I wrote about recovering from dental surgery on Percocet in Florida while being haunted by the ghost of a writer friend who overdosed.
3. How would you say that the poets you enjoy reading have influenced your own work? Do their styles appear in your work, or did you try to create something never seen before?
I owe a great deal to many writers, but I try to disguise my influences as best I can, or at least subvert them. Mary Oliver, Linda Hogan, Linda Pastan, and Kenneth Patchen taught me how to write an image. Yusef Komunyakaa and Brenda Shaughnessy helped me put tensile strength into my music. C.D. Wright and Robert Bly showed me the wisdom of leaving things out. Anne Carson and Brian Teare gave me permission to think feelingly in my rhetoric. Larry Levis and Lynn Emanuel demonstrated the necessity of destabilizing the camera eye of the poem, and Stephen Dobyns and Norman Dubie taught me radical empathy in the persona poem.
I think everyone's style is, to some degree, crowd-sourced from both the living and the dead. The most successful poets just brush away the footsteps in the snow behind them, so you can't see where they've come from.
4. What types of challenges do you face when you write poetry? How do they affect your writing strategies and ability to think critically in your poems?
The most challenging aspect of poetry (or any creative art) is its de facto injunction against mastery. As soon as I feel like I've figured out how to do something stylistically or structurally, I start to get bored with it. Left untreated, this boredom grows into self-contempt. In my experience, you get two-and-a-half books before you need to do something new, or you start to get diminishing returns. I realize that not all poets seem to feel this way, but some of them are geniuses and some of them... aren't. And certainly many people still like to watch Al Pacino, Robert De Nero, and Christopher Walken, despite them having turned into encyclopedias of their acting tics.
The challenge of the first part of your career is figuring out how to write the poems that no one else could write (rather than just churning out mash-ups of other voices or the stylistic equivalent of a McDonald's Happy Meal version of your favorite poet). The challenge for the rest of your career is to avoid ventriloquizing yourself (a phenomenon Louise Gluck described as a form of spiritual lip-syncing).
I think this is why I have a love for formalists who explode in the mid-to-late career and let it all hang out: Galway Kinnell's Book of Nightmares, Hayden Carruth's Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises..., Donald Hall's The Museum of Clear Ideas. Books where they shed their corsets of polite, tightly-strung stanzas, and were playful and dark and strange. My love for that friction between self-control and daring led directly to my first book, Ampersand Revisited. Hopefully, the contrast between the rigidity of the cruciform prose blocks, and the gloss of sex and mysticism bubbling up in those narrow margins is pleasing.
5. The poetry you write is pretty thick with imagery and metaphors; when you are writing, where do you find the inspiration for those connections? Do you have a method for finding those connections, or is there a particular area of your life that allows you to see those connections? What is it that allows you to find significance in what is sometimes considered mundane?
I've always been jealous of visual artists, because I have very feeble spatial problem-solving abilities. I took a pen and ink course in college and demonstrably had the least talent of anyone in the class. So that's probably why my poems tend to be highly imagistic. When I was starting out as a writer, my boot camp was just walking around all day and trying to make metaphors out of everything I saw. That's what I thought a writer did: describe the world. (This seems more like the training of a fiction writer, but I held out hope that I could also be one of those.)
But an aptitude for figuration is just part of the equation. You also have to cultivate a kind of gut instinct for what you're fascinated with, and be willing to follow that impulse wherever it leads. After you've been writing long enough, you begin to get a sense for what ideas and images will dredge up stuff in you that you don't quite understand, and which things will have enough of a psychic charge to make something out of. I used to obsess over this one Lorca line: “I know a ceremony so secret it requires an old rusty pin.” I still don't understand it, but I know that it has some kind of hermetic quality that is connected to those impulses that drive me to write. I think anyone who reads and writes long enough will develop this sensitivity and start to recognize those things that throw off that kind of inner bioluminescence.
6. It seems that many of your works have been influenced by personal experience and your past. Do you feel that current events also influence your work? How do your poems engage with the wider world?
While I enjoy and respect poets who deal with history, I tend to engage with national (or civilizational) trauma more on an individual level than a collective one. Whenever I'm confronted with an imperative to address a political reality, I freeze up the same way that I do when I'm asked to write a poem for someone or for an occasion. I know from long experience that there's usually no substitute for the excitement of discovering something obliquely, and my efforts to make a poem arrive at a preordained destination usually lead to swearing and property damage.
That said, I have had poems come out of researching certain events or historical personages. I've noticed (rather nervously) that they usually tend to involve immense suffering (such as the WWII siege of Leningrad, in which one million people died, or the Troubles in Ireland), or dramatic and morally-troubling personalities like Joan of Arc, Albert Speer, Lord Byron, Sir Richard Francis Burton, and Oppenheimer—people who were pretty contradictory, and/or simply should not have been able to accomplish what they did.
I do feel a constant sense of disbelief at how much history is elided or just outright erased, and this outrage
has been with me from a very early age. I remember reading textbooks in school and being incensed at bland assertions that it was television that defeated McCarthy, or a brief paragraph about the war in Vietnam that was clearly engineered to give no offense to anybody (and no useful information either). I'm astonished that the country seems to have forgotten that we hanged people over evolution and machine-gunned striking workers. There are always events that need to be recovered, because a lot of people would simply prefer that we discard the parts of our history that make us uncomfortable. We want to remember the heroics of World War II, but not how the bombing of civilian Dresden was deliberately engineered to create a firestorm throughout the city.
7. How has your work changed after you started to become a published author? Did you notice that some of your work was more widely-accepted that you didn't think would be and vice versa? Looking back on your first poem that you published, how do you feel that your writing style has changed to cater to a larger audience?
I don't think that publishing work changed the type of work that I was writing. When I imagine an audience, I always imagine my writer friends, and I try to write poems that they would enjoy reading, or at least poems that I wouldn't be embarrassed to show them.
I will say, however, that sending my work out for publication has made me a better editor. There's something sobering about realizing that a person who has never met you or gives a damn about you will read your work, and I find that it allows me to cull those last few indulgences and clever gimmicks that have withstood previous revisions. There's also a charge that comes from committing to putting your work out into the world that raises the stakes just a bit, and I think some of that extra electricity comes through in poems that you relinquish to the tender (or not-so-tender) mercies of unknown readers.
As for what I thought would or wouldn't be successful, I've relied on the wisdom of my fellow writers to nudge me away from unfortunate choices. As Miles Davis said, sometimes, it takes you a long time to sound like yourself, and it's certainly true in my case. I'd been writing for 10 years before I wrote a poem that wasn't the stylistic equivalent of mumbling, and I never would have gotten there without my friends letting me know what was or wasn't working in my poems.
Having an outside consensus helps to combat the oscillation between the intoxication and loathing you feel for something you've written, and helps to internalize the critical eye of your friends into an approximation of Hemingway's “built-in, shockproof shit detector.” And I think it's important to always be a little bit nervous about your audience, to be a little unsure of your gifts. There's a depressingly-long list of writers whose success (it seems) has created a power imbalance between themselves and their editors. They have become, essentially, uneditable, and tend to produce work that resembles their early, exciting work, but somewhat deflated or malformed, like they left it in a hot car for too long.
More information and online versions of Simeon’s work can be found at simeonberry.com