Getting To Know Ben Berman and His Book Figuring in the figure

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A Woman in Pieces Crossed a Sea, winner of the Patricia Clark Smith Poetry Prize, was published by West End Press in June 2014. The Telling, a book-length poem, was published by Cervena Barva Press in January 2014. Seeing Annie Sullivan, poems based on the early life of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, (Cedar Hill Books) was translated into Braille and a talking book. Denise conceived and edited the anthology of urban poetry City River of Voices (West End Press). Her poetry has been wisely published, and she has been a Split This Rock Poet of the Week. The first stanza of her poem Red, about a neighborhood near a slaughterhouse, is permanently installed in a public park in Cambridge, MA.

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?

In high school, I weighed about a-hundred-pounds-soaking-wet, so while all my friends were on the field playing sports I would sit on the sidelines and rewrite famous songs to make fun of them. I turned Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion into Sweet Imodium, for example, to tease a friend with chronic GI issues. I didn’t think of it as my initiation to poetry at the time, but there I was – an outsider, playing with language. I wanted to be thought of as a Little Weird Al Yancovic. But mostly my friends just thought of me as a little weird.

 

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?

I teach full time and have two young kids, so I try to get up by three every morning to write for a few hours before my daughters wake up.  I’m not sure if I can keep that up in the long run, but I have come to love writing in those liminal hours. 

Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?

My first book, Strange Borderlands, chronicled my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zimbabwe and was filled with poems based on somewhat unsettling experiences – slaughtering chickens with knives duller than spoons, falling into quicksand, getting bullied by a pack of three-year-olds who’d throw rocks at my window and yell, White Man, you are ugly!

My life is a little less exciting these days, so I normally just start free-writing until a phrase or image surprises me and my mind starts tingling with mischief. 

Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?

Other than Weird Al, I really loved Chris Berman (no relation) in high school. He was the master of truly great sports puns. Bert “Be Home” Blyleven.  I didn’t read poetry until college but was immediately drawn to Lawrence Raab, Mark Halliday, and Alan Shapiro. I recently fell in love with Roxanne Gay’s remarkably measured voice. I keep a picture of Stephen Dunn in my wallet but would never admit that publically because it makes me sound kind of creepy.

Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc. 

Figuring in the Figure takes its name and architecture from Robert Frost’s essay, The Figure a Poem Makes. The entire collection is written in terza rima, a form I was initially interested in when writing about my return home from the Peace Corps, as it offered me a way to travel forward, as Edward Hirsch writes, while looking back.

But eventually I came to love the form for how it curbed some of my worst habits as a writer. Writing in such a tight rhyme scheme meant that I couldn’t know too much about the piece before I began. I had to let go of where I thought the poem was going and follow the energy of the language instead.

In terms of themes, much of the book focuses on the domestic life and, in particular, the birth of my older daughter and the transformative (and bewildering) experiences of becoming a parent. 

Read a sample poem from Figuring in the Figure and watch a visual interpretation:

Roots and Wings

There are only two lasting bequests

we can hope to give our children.

One of these is roots; the other wings.

– Hodding Carter

You can only hush and hum for so long,

rock and cradle so much, before you’re ready

to admit that your newborn’s not nuzzling

 

into your chest but rooting at your dry

nipple, before you reluctantly pass

her to your wife and take over the laundry,

 

wondering what it would be like to express

your letdowns – to let them flow freely

from your body – instead of all the repressed

 

whimpers you make when your daughter falls

asleep and you step on those windup

chattering teeth and have to flail

 

about like an upturned tree in the wind,

your roots flapping so hard they look like wings.