10+ Questions with Ben Berman

10+ Questions! is a series in which we catch up with poets who have been featured in our programming. In this installment, we hear from Ben Berman, who recently led our 2018 Professional Development Summer Seminar.

It's been a while! What's new in life?

Well, now that I’ve reached middle age, every day kind of feels the same. But I am very fortunate that the three main focuses of my life – parenting, writing, and teaching – are always providing me with new challenges. My daughters (who are 7 and 5), in particular, are constantly unsettling whatever I think I know about this world and delighting me with their own discoveries.  

What are you working on these days?

I have a very (very) small book of short prose called Then Again coming out towards the end of November. It was inspired by the many conversations I have had with my daughters about words and their amazement that a single word could mean so many things.  I began to wonder what it would be like to try to write linked narratives where each section of a piece explored a different sense of the title word and each piece’s title connected to the next.

As I worked in this form, I became interested in how it allowed me to see my experiences, say, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in conversation with my life as a father or try to make sense of the relationship between who I was a student and who I am as a teacher. The differences often seemed severe and yet there was always this sense of a central me.

Is your poetry different now than it was then, and if so, in what ways?

I’ve been reading Frank Sulloway’s book on how birth order affects personality and I am convinced that this applies to book order, as well.

My first book chronicled the turbulent experiences of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zimbabwe and so my second book, like a typical second child, defined itself by being everything that my first book wasn’t -- coughing up small lyric meditations, say, on changing diapers in the middle of the night.

My third book feels like a third child – raised with love and a healthy dose of neglect. In some ways it shares the personality of both of its older siblings with stories that bounce back and forth between foreign adventures and domestic routines. But in other ways it’s entirely its own things, written in paragraphs and with much more of an interest in narrative and storytelling. 

Who/what are you reading lately?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about creativity, lately, and am particularly interested in understanding it from a neuroscientist’s perspective.

Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf is a fascinating book on how reading digitally has affected our brains and The Creating Brain by Nancy Andreasen is a really interesting study of what goes on in the “association cortex” part of the brain when we are working on creative problems. I’ve also been listening to a lot of podcasts about creativity and psychology with Scott Barry Kaufmann.

In terms of poetry, I am currently reading new collections by Terrance Hayes and Iain Haley Pollock, and am also very much enjoying Alexander Chee’s book of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

Any major publications, readings, etc. we should know about?

I’ll be launching my new book, Then Again, at the Brookline Booksmith on December 6th and will also be reading with Dzvinia Orlowsky and Mass Poetry’s wonderful Jan O’Neil at Trident on December 13th. 

And in the style of early 2000s email surveys…

What’s your favorite animal & why?

I love hawks because whenever I see them – circling the sky while I’m stuck in traffic – they remind me that there is this whole other world out there.

Rain or sun?

Well, I’m going to cheat and say that I love a hard rain that breaks a heat wave, and the sense of hope that comes with the sun breaking through the clouds.

Beach or mountain?

Mountain.

What’s the last song you listened to?

The soundtrack to The Greatest Showman is endlessly on repeat at my house. If anyone out there is actually reading this, please save me.

What’s the longest you’ve gone without sleep?

I’m not sure. But whatever the answer is, I blame my kids.

What are your current top 5 favorite books of any genre?

Between Angels by Stephen Dunn

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon

Are you a good dancer?

Let’s just say that what I lack in rhythm I make up for in exuberance.

If you could spend next year living in the setting of any book, TV show, or movie, where would you choose and why?

My wife and I have recently been obsessed with the Israeli TV show, Srugim, and I think it would be fascinating to live that life for a single year.

Tell us a joke you know by heart.

When my older daughter was three, I used to make her to tell this joke at parties:

What do you call an existential cough? Cough-ka.

I am sure that will come up in therapy about ten years from now.

What’s your favorite flower?

Crocuses. 

I always like words that offer a tension between sound and meaning, and I find crocus to be one of the least pleasant sounding words in the English language. And yet I am always filled with such hope and relief when I see them poke their purple heads through the ground in March.  

What’s a habit you’re proud of breaking?

Blurting out Dad Puns in mixed company.

What’s a word you hate?

Utilize because it’s such a pretentious and uptight synonym for use.

If you could have a super power, what would it be?

The ability to get both of my kids to sleep through the night on the same night.

Is there a poetic form you feel strongly about? Love, hate?

My second book, Figuring in the Figure, was written entirely in terza rima (or variations of it), a form that I both love and find endlessly challenging.

A New Poem from Ben Berman

This is a piece from my new book, Then Again, where I try to incorporate various meanings of a single word into a three-part narrative.

When my older daughter was three, she used to love to draw all over the walls. And no matter how often she got in trouble, it was almost as though she couldn’t stop herself from doing it. As I was working on the piece, I started thinking about the rebellious and subversive nature of art – what it means to draw but also what it means to be drawn to pushing boundaries

But for a long time, I struggled to figure out how to incorporate a third meaning of the word to complete the piece. And then one day my daughter and I had the following face-off in the kitchen – and I couldn’t help but imagine us as characters in the Wild West, dressed in our ponchos and preparing to duel.

Draws 

I’m focused on stirring the sauce and don’t realize what else is stirring,
don’t notice that my three-year-old is no longer coloring in pictures
of princesses at the art table but has moved on to drawing
abstract representations of rainbows all over the wall.

*** 

I clear my throat and she immediately drops her marker and promises
to never ever never do it again. But the artist in her is drawn
to pushing boundaries – refuses to accept limitations –
and as soon as I return to playing chef, she returns to her chef-d’oeuvre.

*** 

I raise my wooden spoon and count to three, and it’s as though
I’ve challenged her to a duel – ten paces away, marker tucked into her hip,
she meets my gaze with a squint – both of us locked into this battle
of wills and will nots, waiting to see who’ll draw first.