41.1 Feature: An Interview with Simeon Berry

Sep 22, 2014Archive, Interviews

Simeon Berry lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he serves on the Board of Directors for Salamander. He has been an associate editor for Ploughshares, and won a Massachusetts Cultural Council Individual Artist Grant and a Career Chapter Award from the National Society of Arts and Letters. Recent work appears in Hotel Amerika, Western Humanities Review, Gulf Coast, and American Letters & Commentary. In 2013, his manuscript, Ampersand Revisited, was selected by Ariana Reines for The National Poetry Series, and will be forthcoming from Fence Books.


Black Warrior Review: The poems we’ve seen from “&” deal intensely with the topic of father/son relationships, and the difficulties of real communication within this framework. Where do you see the concerns of familial relationships appearing elsewhere in your work?

Simeon Berry: I find it funny that—despite being someone who values communication very highly, and is quite confessional in person—I seem to write a lot about psychic isolation and the inadequacy of words as vehicles for feelings.

As a kid who grew up around a lot of familial dysfunction, I can say that hyper-vigilance and stoicism are amazingly paralyzing superpower. Add in some esoteric metaphors, and all that insight becomes not particularly easy to process, and a little exhausting.

That’s probably why negotiations with family are center-stage in “&” (as well as Ampersand Revisited as a whole), and also foreground the romantic dilemma in my second manuscript of prose poems/flash fictions. Both speakers have access to an enormous amount of intuitive information about loved ones, but feel profoundly uncertain about what they should do with all this data. Much like the collective unconscious—family history can provide you with stunning insights, but not necessarily the grace, nor the will, to act on them.

I also suspect the WASP culture of the Northeast is somewhat to blame, though I shouldn’t complain. When my Dad was a teen, he was already very liberal, intellectual, and artistic, and he had to cope with Texas in the 1950’s, so I had it easy by comparison. Plus, he tried very hard to provide me with a different model of masculinity—one that was emotionally available and not psychically miserly—for which I am enormously thankful.

I knew I was never going to be a diffident Yankee whose main method of dealing with difficult emotions is a bitterly sarcastic aside and a clenched jaw. Obviously, I’m not very good at being secretive about my inner life, and I could also see early on that I didn’t have the energy to worry all the time about conserving my dignity, a strategy which seemed like the masculine counterpart to Katherine Hepburn’s directive (amusingly also attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and Henry Ford): “Never complain. Never explain.”

I found the emotional landscape of New England to be a bit chilly, and not very supportive of difference, though I suppose every kid feels that way. For years, I had this irrational fear of ending up the modern equivalent of a Victorian child selling pencils on the street in the snow. An absurd anxiety, but there it is.

Thus, as I had neither a booming voice nor a strong jaw line, and didn’t enjoy the model of relationships as a form of low-level warfare, I decided to go a different way. My Dad was never anything but supportive of my fledgling efforts at writing and staking out my own little weird corner of the male gender, and I’m grateful every day for the relationship I have with him.

I think this culture of secrecy (about one’s emotional life and shared histories) is why a lot of my early work focuses on unfolding the origami of family scandal. Not really knowing the shape of the past catastrophes of your protectors and loved ones makes your own potential disasters loom larger.

For instance, my grandfather was high up in the ranks of the American Legion, a very conservative and very powerful organization at the time, and was headed for great things—possibly an appointment to a diplomatic post—but then there was a mysterious incident that killed his political career. No one will tell me anything about it, and it drives me crazy.

He was a very unhappy, inflexible, domineering person, and quite—as they say—unreconstructed. During the summers, I played Gin Rummy with a friend of mine from California who was Chinese-American, and my grandfather was incensed when he found out, because I was “gambling with Orientals.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that his mindset hadn’t changed at all since 1920, so we were destined never to get along. He wanted a dashing young aristocrat, and I was a shy nerd who read comic books. But if I knew more about his fall from grace, I think it would help me better understand him, which it might bring me a little closer to him. I suppose this is one of the reasons why I write: arriving at an imaginative understanding of stuff I can’t possibly know is better than no understanding at all.

BWR: In reading these poems, I’m also struck by the divisions I see – between past and present, between the “real” and the “other” –and the implications that these divisions are not entirely there. How did you find these divisions working throughout these poems’ development?

SB: I’ve always been fascinated by the Mystery Schools (i.e. Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Gnosticism, Sufism, etc.), so mysticism has definitely inflected a lot of my thinking about consciousness and language, specifically how they intersect on the page.

Ampersand Revisited in particular does posit this problem of what to do about the stark divide between matters gross and ethereal, as well as personal and impersonal. Mysticism is rife with the unnamable and the unknowable, to say nothing of violations of natural law, all of which tends to get in the way of understanding.

Of course, in religious arguments—as with politics—people are arguing over the way they feel about the world, since people tend arrange their ideas about the universe in a way that satisfies them emotionally. As Miguel de Unamuno wrote in A Tragic Sense of Life, “While men believe themselves to be seeking truth for its own sake, they are in fact seeking life in truth. In effect, that which has existence for us is precisely that which, in one way or another, we need to know in order to exist ourselves.”

Frankly, I thought that this split between the real and the unreal (or supra-real) would always be with me. When I was younger, the world felt very much divided into the concrete and the spiritual, and I was overly concerned with validity of the latter. And, as a gawky, self-conscious adolescent, I utterly failed at explaining to people how moved I was by mystical thought. Many of those spiritual principles were embedded in stories that were not my own, and I am a very poor storyteller when it comes to reproducing the facts of other people’s narratives. My subconscious immediately starts making a Rubik’s Cube of the details.

So when I would talk to people about my spiritual background, about the war stories my Dad had from his career as a clairvoyant and healer (many of which are referenced in Ampersand and in my second manuscript), the conversation often quickly reached an impasse, and the other person would either have to provisionally accept the truth content of what I was saying, or try to gracefully conceal the fact that they had just concluded that I was a loon. This made talking about these issues into a kind of verbal, high-stakes face-off, which I found stressful. So for many years, I just shut up about it.

Needless to say, this pattern made it difficult for me as a writer to imagine an audience for this sort of material, and that’s sort of the dilemma I began with in Ampersand. I think the source of my objection to the idea of something being one thing or the other comes from my reading of occult thinkers like Manly Palmer Hall and Dion Fortune, and their idea that the astral plane is the product of the collective imagination.

This esoteric notion—along with William Gibson’s notion of cyberspace in Neuromancer, and Robert Pirsig’s almost video-game-like evocation of the topography of philosophy in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—contributed to my tendency to view the world of spirit and the world of ideas as near-identical terrains, as landscapes with their own conditional ecologies and ad-hoc tourist attractions.

Ampersand begins anxiously looking back at the icons of childhood and adolescence from a great remove, and with the speaker both fearful of and resigned to the alienation engendered by receiving (or longing to receive) intuitive material. Throughout the poems, I make a number of oblique attempts at demolishing a lot of binaries, in the hope that the reader will stick with me and become acclimatized to a more organic version of negative capability—one that applies to the world, not merely to art.

BWR: You make a lot of references to the unexplained and the mystical: astral projection, Atlantis, the I Ching. What’s your favorite unexplained mystery, and why?

SB: My favorite is the 1966 Lead Masks Case in Brazil, where the corpses of two television repairmen were found on a hill near Niterói. Due to delays in processing the scene and performing the autopsies, the cause of death was never determined, but they were wearing suits under their raincoats and lead eye masks. They also had towels, a list of parts, and an empty water bottle with them. But the best part was a strange note found by investigators:

“16:30 (04:30 PM) be at the agreed place. 18:30 (06:30 PM) swallow capsules, after effect, protect metals, wait for mask signal”

The men were identified as Manoel Pereira da Cruz and Miguel José Viana, who had traveled from a nearby city (Campos dos Goytacazes) three days prior for business purposes, ostensibly to buy electronics equipment in Niterói.

Jacques Vallée mentioned the incident in his book, Confrontations, arguing that the men (who were known to be interested in UFOs) went up the hill with the hopes of a creating a close encounter. Other theories include a plot to purchase radioactive materials, a ritual double suicide, or robbery by poisoning (based on reports of other unknown people at the scene).

There’s something sweetly silly about the combination of the raincoats and the hand-cut lead masks—as if Paddington Bear had wandered into a scene out of Aleister Crowley—and I’m beguiled by the military precision of the instructions.

The case has everything: fantastical technology, mysterious codes, unspecified hazards, missing strangers, and intrigue. It’s my kind of joint: sci-fi and Victorian at the same time, with a touch of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

BWR: Where do you go to write? What is your ideal writing atmosphere?

SB: In the past, living with a romantic partner and having a 9-to-5 job have necessitated adjusting to less-than-ideal writing conditions, so I’m not much bothered by writing on the subway, on the plane, or in a cubicle. I didn’t own a computer of my own until grad school, and I still ended up writing in the computer lab because it was air-conditioned and had a printer. So the vast majority of my writing has happened in an office-like environment. I’ve also written on my phone on a bus, and during a very loud concert in a bar that I wasn’t enjoying very much.

My preferred locale is writing at home on a huge wooden table where I can spread out poems and rearrange them. Under ideal circumstances, I like to get in the mood by listening to music first, usually to a handful of tracks that I happen to be obsessed with that month. Currently, these happen to be: “Cassiopeia” (Sara Bareilles), “Joy to You Baby” (Josh Ritter), “Lover’s Eyes” (Mumford & Sons), “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” (Iron and Wine), and “Sons & Daughters” (The Decemberists).

BWR: We at BWR are always seeking out new work and new writers, so what’s your favorite recent publication—say, in the last year—from somebody we probably haven’t heard of yet?

SB: There are a number of strong contenders that have fallen into my hands over the past year. Sara Peters’s debut collection, 1996 (published by Anansi) is a stunning book, filled with poems both tactile and terrifying, fearlessly engaging with sex and the difficulty of having a body in this world, of trying to make metaphors of things that resist easy lyricism.

Another powerhouse of a first book is Cecily Iddings’s Everyone Here, due out this year from Octopus Books, which has the best kind of plurality about it, switching from first to second to third person with dizzying mastery. I love the way her poems are intimate but oblique, terse but effortless, and not afraid of a mélange of riffs and refractions.

Justin Petropoulos has also put together an amazing second book, a collaborative effort with the visual artist, Carla Gannis: <legend> </legend> (from
Jaded Ibis). The combination of Petropoulos’s textual fragmentation grenades and dissociative intimacy makes for a wonderfully elusive duo with Gannis’s disquieting figuration and mutability.

BWR: What are you working on right now? Can you tell us a little about its germination?

SB: Since I work on nothing but long projects these days, I have several in the hopper right now. One is a sequence of poems that I started a few years ago on Halloween in honor of a friend of mine, Julia Story, who hails from Indiana. I have no trouble being a specialist in the New England gothic, and importing all kinds of eldritch business from H.P. Lovecraft’s spidery accounting of cosmic weirdness. But I thought it would be fun to do a Midwestern Gothic. Sort of like Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, but with upsetting evangelicals, and more sex and booze.

The other manuscript I have is straight prose (or at least as straight as I can make it) that’s a sort of hybrid essay/memoir on comic books and literary subculture. Part of it is a defense of genre (along with some complaints about it), and part of it is my struggle with the performativity of being a writer and a fallen academic, as it were. I resisted writing about this for a while, but I found that I just couldn’t shut up about superhero comic books, especially in the presence of literary people, who often look at me as if I’ve grown antennae when I start to rhapsodize about the pleasures of reading comics subversively. I’m entertained by the absurd amount of overlap between geek culture and literary culture, and I finally realized that it was either write the book, or continue to have mildly disastrous conversations about it at literary events. This seems to involve less potential liability, but we’ll see.

BWR: I’m excited by the concept of Ampersand Revisited, your forthcoming book. How do the poems that we’ve seen so far work as representative of the rest of the book? And where, for you, were the surprises in writing it?

SB: Like everything else I’ve written for the past sixteen years, Ampersand is a book-length project. I blame a fantastic long poem course I had in graduate school with Roger Mitchell. The rhetorical expansiveness that the argument of a long poem allowed became very attractive to me, and I was easily seduced by the lovely examples of Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband and “The Glass Essay” from Glass, Irony, and God; Nicholas Christopher’s 5 Degrees; and Hayden Carruth’s The Sleeping Beauty. Of course, I did my undergrad thesis on Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, so I should have seen it coming.

I started what would become the title poem when I was living in a basement efficiency in Boston. I had just moved there from Indiana after getting my MFA, arriving less than three months before 9/11. I was laboring under the delusion that I would get a job in literary publishing, despite the fact that the vast majority of what was available in the areas was scientific, medical, and textbook publishing jobs. While I gradually discovered the futility of this plan, I temped. It was kind of a grim period. I lived off credit cards, and was terrified about losing my temping gigs, so I only took one sick day (for which I was roundly chastised by my temp agency) in a year and a half.

One night, I found myself writing about how I fell in love with a tree in my grandparents’ yard when I was little. It seemed sentimental and ridiculous, but it was a change from the darker place my poems usually started. From there, I just gave myself permission to write about anything that caught my fancy, but it became clear to me that mysticism and sexuality were going to be the twin poles of the book.

The book evolved very, very slowly. (Actually, all my books evolve slowly. This is the problem with long poems/sequences—the individual quality of a section has to be subordinate to whether or not it makes the overall arc of the sequence shapely.)

While it only took a few years to finish the other two poems, “&” stubbornly resisted my efforts at divining its final physical arrangement. In fact, it wasn’t until the winter of 2013 that I finally hit upon the fractal-y, cruciform shape. It’s a good thing that the manuscript got taken when it did, because I had already started to change its format, probably for the worse.

For someone who has spent most of his writing career thinking intensely about stanzas, musical units, and line length, I’m amused by the fact that my first book has the absolute minimum number of line breaks in it, since two of the three poems have almost no line breaks as such, and all three poems are variations on a deconstructed paragraph. For years in workshop, people commented (often accusingly) on my habit of using fictional devices in my poems (like characterization, plot, dialogue, etc.), so I should not have been shocked by the fact that I ended up writing a book that looked a lot like aerated prose.

After the manuscript was a finalist four times in 2005, I took it out of circulation and put it in dry dock, thinking that the holes in the book were why it didn’t win. Despite this dubious proposition, it turned out for the best, because right around then, I had started to write the long sequence that ultimately became “&,” and which was explicitly about being raised inside a mystical tradition.

I was very skeptical about it succeeding, though, because, for much of my life, I had been very allergic to any poems that attempted to deploy anything remotely resembling wisdom. Yet here I was, tentatively offering conclusions and being rhetorical.

Gradually, it dawned on me that the best way to convey these experiences was to have the speaker neither challenge nor apologize to readers for slinging some spiritually exotic material their way. If I treated mystical material and lyrical material as interchangeable parts of a poem, the poems themselves would make the argument for me. Or rather, they would replicate an experience, not construct a proof. Thus, all I had to do was convincingly portray my struggle with the content, and include all my doubts and ambiguities about such. In a way, it’s an analogue of how Eminem wins the final rap battle in 8 Mile: the best defense is no defense. I criticize my own reliability before the reader even has a chance to. You push unreliable narrators far enough, and they come out the other side into trustworthiness.

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