When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
In high school, I read Eliot and Plath and Donne and Shakespeare and so forth, but I didn’t connect with any poets who were still breathing until a friend of mine showed me her poems in my senior year. They weren’t rhymed or in meter, but they moved me, and some block inside me shattered. It was like I’d been eating vanilla ice cream all my life and someone informed me that there were other flavors, like salted caramel and basil blueberry. Before then, it never occurred to me that poetry could be exciting and/or relevant.
So I wrote 60 poems in two months, slapped dot-matrix print-outs of them into a binder, and gave it the organ-failure-causing title of The Dreamer: Shards of Crystal Soul.
Right around that time, another friend lent me Stephen Dobyns’s Cemetery Nights, and I fell in love with its morbid humor and plain style. I thought to myself, “Hey, I can write these poems!” I was wrong, of course. It would be years before this belief became even slightly less ludicrous.
But I did realize that I knew squat about contemporary poetry, so I started systematically reading through the poetry section at my town library. There I found Mary Oliver’s Twelve Moons and American Primitive, Li-Young Lee’s The City in which I Love You, and James Tate’s Viper Jazz. Those were my early touchstones.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
My routine is whatever desperation and practicality allow. After I started writing in high school, I basically lived in the computer lab (I didn’t have a computer of my own), drafting and revising whenever I wasn’t playing Bard’s Tale on the Mac Plus. During the summer, when I worked as a waiter in the country clubs, I’d write on bar chits, endlessly trying to make everything I saw into an image.
When I moved to Boston in 2001 and was unhappy in almost every area of my life, I’d arrive at my temp gig at 6:30 am so I could go home early and have about 45 minutes alone in the basement efficiency we were renting. Our cat would settle on my lap, I’d eat some string cheese as a snack, and knuckle down. That’s where I started writing what would become my first book.
Now, after 14 years of city living, I’ve gotten to the point where I can write under any circumstances: on my iPhone, during a noisy concert in a bar, on the T, etc. Ideally, I like an empty house and some music, perhaps a little preliminary dancing, but those are luxuries. The only thing I don’t ever do (and haven’t done for 20 years) is handwrite first drafts. I am irrevocably wedded to the luxury of revising as I go.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
My first book, Ampersand Revisited, grew out of a line about an iced tree branch clicking emptily in the wind, so it was an image that really kick-started that book.
Monograph began with a wisecrack about the irony of a pacifist and a militant lesbian both liking the terrible G.I. Joe cartoon from the 80s. This aside was exactly the sort of sentiment I thought could never work in the high seriousness of a lyric poem. But I saw that I needed a whole book to see if I could pull off this far-more-casual voice.
Nowadays, I only work on book-length projects and revise the book as a whole (when I’m in a revision groove), so it becomes harder and harder to determine the genealogy of any given poem.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Kenneth Patchen, Mary Oliver, and Yusef Komunyakaa taught me how to write an image. Larry Levis helped me to move in time and space. Anne Carson and Brian Teare showed me how to think inside a poem. Lynn Emanuel demonstrated how poems could be self-reflexive and lyrical at the same time. Brenda Shaughnessy proved how avant-garde sonics could be. Norman Dubie taught me that no one is truly strange or evil, and Jack Gilbert and Maggie Nelson allowed me to quit worrying about stopping short without telling everything.
Tell us a little bit about your new collections: 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.
Before Ampersand Revisited gradually morphed into three long poems over the better part of a decade, it was mostly just an assemblage of the best poems I’d been able to write prior to the millennium. Then Richard Siken gently suggested in about 2008 that I might consider having it be just one long poem. I didn’t quite get there, but, over the course of the next 5 years, I reworked and expanded the remaining 50%, so that, by the time it was accepted, it was like one of those cars you inherit from your parents, where so much has been replaced that only the chassis is original.
Monograph was originally 150 pages, then shrank, Tommy-Lasorda-style, down to 50 pages, then added a paunch to bring itself back up to 90 pages. This sounds like a cautionary tale for the textual equivalent of Slim-Fast, but it was actually exhilarating to write.
Both books owe a lot to my life-long disbelief that more people don’t talk openly about sex. The vast majority of us seem to struggle with navigating erotic issues, but there’s this kind of omertà, where you’re supposed to figure it out in silence, or only with one person. More often than not, sex is a source of institutionalized unhappiness (or at least asymmetrical satisfactions) in a couple, and I suspect that many people file it under, “Problems That are Basically Unsolvable,” and thus come to believe that talking about it won’t do any good. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The other major driver of these books were the awkward conversations I had in the past when I tried to explain that my Dad was a healer and clairvoyant in the 70s and that we lived on a spiritual commune. People got this blank, panicky look in their eyes, and I’d hasten to add that he was a school psychologist and special ed teacher for 25 years later in life.
It was incredibly frustrating to try to communicate how much he’s always been very grounded and practical about his career as a mystic. He took great care to impress upon me his powerful ambivalence about the costs of being a psychic and the types of personalities who are drawn to it. Thus, for me, good occult principles have always been consonant with sound medical and mental health best practices.
This seems to be a rare combination in mystical literature. I wish I could simply say that I was in a cult or am a New Ager, but I can’t. The world view that I inherited from my Dad is just too complex and ambiguous, and I’m happy that I finally found a way to capture that tension on the page.
Read and watch live readings of sample poems from Simeon Berry's new books:
Thought back to that first
October after moving to the
city. Both of us temping.
Broke and in debt. Barely able
to afford the rent on a
basement efficiency next to
the elevator. Our sole
extravagance a bonsai tree
stiffening on the window.
Fairly certain we were
doomed as a couple.
Repeating this to myself every
night as I walked home in
darkness through the close,
suburban streets, the smell of
the sea infiltrating the fog.
Utterly ecstatic with rage.
When my grandfather
tried to tell my dad obliquely
that my mother was mentally
ill, he had to take him out on
the water in his rowboat to do
There they were safe. Or
at least equally in danger.
He—like other New England
fishermen—could not swim.
These are the people I come
R. says C. has been
dredging up a bunch of sexual
trauma. This is the second girl
he’s dated who was raped in
Last night, he came home
stoned. C. was enraged, and
when he turned his back on
her, she punched him.
He just said, I can’t
believe you did that, then
She rushed after him,
shouting, Wait! Don’t you
want to know why I hit you?