Where Coverage Stops: An Interview with Monica Berlin

If, as Monica Berlin knows, “the world makes ruin out of us all,” hers is a poetry with gauze and bandages, some human form of repair. In her latest collection, Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live (Southern Illinois University Press, 2018), Berlin rallies against this ruin — engaging with geographic, personal, and political landscapes — with compassion. I read this book 40 miles away from the Woolsey Fire in California; the breeze through my window was tinged with smoke. I felt utterly helpless and yet, reading Berlin’s poetry, I was reminded, wholly, again and again, how much we people can, and should, care.

Monica Berlin is also the author of No Shape Bends the River So Long, a collaboration with Beth Marzoni (Parlor Press/Free Verse Editions, 2015), and two chapbooks. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals.

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JOANNA NOVAK: I’ve been taken with the title of this book ever since learning it won the Crab Orchard prize. Now knowing the title poem, which opens the collection, I’m wondering about in new ways, in light of the Portuguese notion of saudade. Is the world for which the speaker of these poems is nostalgic one that exists or has ever existed?

MONICA BERLIN: Whenever I get stuck on a word, I try to take it back to its etymological roots — talk about the past! — so, from the Greek, of Homer, nostos, translated to “a return home” and algos meaning “pain” or “ache” or “suffering.” I’m convinced some people hear the word nostalgia and think of tintype portraits of people they’ve never met but feel some connection to or of a sepia photograph of a once-vibrant place they’ve never seen. The book felt a way to reckon with all those tendencies, to consider the past, yes, but through a very real and present present. I guess this speaker aches for a world that has not yet arrived, or where she has not yet arrived, but one that she believes is possible, the promise of it real, and for which we’ve established a foundation. In this way, I also think of that idea of home, of a return, which is somehow fraught because it implies not only that one has been away, but that one must turn in another direction to arrive there, and that wherever one has been living — in the present before any return — might not be home. That part of nostalgia has long been interesting to me, in that we often associate it with childhood or an earlier part of our lives, whereas here I’m pointing forward, toward a conditional world, a future where we could live. I’ve always been struck by what feels like a misunderstanding — or misremembering — of other times, as if they were some kind of magic, something simpler. What’s more true, to my mind, is that all times carry with them their own unique circumstances and joys and sorrows, which map a way forward. So, these poems wrestle with how often what we ache for is somewhere we’ve not yet been but that we can imagine and want as a result of what is in front of us, what is behind us. I guess I think we sometimes suffer the present, in part, not because we are trying to go back to another time, but because we are trying to move ahead toward a future, that world we promise ourselves we’ve been building all along.

To read the Table of Contents in this book is to read a sort of über poem. Yours are long titles, often comma-ed, the total opposite of newspaper headlines, beautifully voicey and askance. Describe the appeal of the long title.

I love thinking about the table of contents this way, and find it delightful. An über poem! When I was writing most of these, I needed to be thinking about the poem as essentially linked in every way to its name, and, additionally, I required the pressure or demand that I faced when trying to make a sentence, the first sentence, that could hold up as title while simultaneously charting how the poem would unfold. I wanted to be able to call back the first line as its name, by which I mean, I wanted and needed to remember it. I wanted and needed to require of myself, and of the poem, that recall. I wanted to ask the title to syntactically establish what I might do next, and in doing so it would also insist that I considered line — the unit of composition I most rely upon. I also wanted to see if I could make a poem that sought to redress our reliance on the title as some key or legend.

Making the choice to use the poem’s first line as its name is a compositional one, and it’s also a choice I make not to replace, later, that line with a name. And yet I do think about the reader, what the reader’s experience will be: maybe you walk through a doorway, sure, but the door was already open, and you weren’t asked to look for your keys. Come on in, the poem says. There, a reader arrives at a poem already in progress, absent the introductory, the prefatory. I suppose it requires a certain faith in a reader, but all writing requires that. I suppose, too, the approach is risky in that I am not only saying trust me, but I trust you, saying I’m just getting right to the heart of the matter, or maybe I’m also saying from the very start, hey, listen to this.

In the Notes you write: “For most of this heart-wrenched century, I’ve kept vigil with the news.” What did, and does, that look like? How has that practice, or commitment, informed your writing? In more practical terms, would you discuss your process for writing in conversation with the news?

I remember news anchors on September 11, 2001 — several of whom stayed all day and all night at their desks, felt an obligation to the viewers and to the story, to those lost. Years later, I’d re-watch — from the digital archive — as much of the footage as I could bear, particularly from the smaller, darker hours. I was looking to see if it was, in fact, as I remembered, but I was also trying to reckon with that commitment — on the part of the anchors, reporters, the teams of people involved in covering the news — to stay with us, even if we were no longer there. Could the poem do that? Could the poem demonstrate that kind of unwavering attention? In those days, and in many days, I sat with the news as one might sit with a loved one in their final hours. It’s true to say I was haunted, not only by what’s happened and keeps happening, but also by how we tell the story of what’s happened and by what it might mean to be a person others depend upon to hear the story.

So, I say vigil and mean that I stayed up, stayed awake, sat with, often alongside, whatever breaking news was coming in, and I tried to follow a story through to its end, whatever that means or meant. Often, a poem begins for me when and where coverage stops. When the news turns toward something else, when I’ve gathered as much information as is available to me, then I turn to the page.

Typing that word again, “news,” I can’t help hearing it as combative, almost anti-past (i.e., the ultimate diss of something being “old news”). Is this in conflict with the speaker’s tenderness, almost reverence for nostalgia?

Oh, no, I don’t think of news as being in conflict with tenderness at all. Seems to me that kind of knowledge, of information, should and can and does heighten tenderness. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of days I wish I could have turned away before I saw what I saw, and it’s certainly true I’ve had to learn to not look at everything, but like most of us, probably, I begin and end my days now reading on a screen what, in other times, I would’ve probably had delivered to my house or picked up at a corner stand. Sometime after another disaster, in late 2012, I made a deliberate choice to be done with having a television, cancelled cable, and so the news I take now is almost always print journalism, and almost always self-curated. While I think it’s true that the evolution of media in the 20th and 21st century, how we receive our news, has altered the experience for many of us, my coming into consciousness as a writer in the world is tied to news cycles that coincided with great national and international tragedy, and I want to honor that.

I worry more the days when I don’t pay attention to what’s happening in a life beyond my own, that tunneling or narrowing of perspective — and I worry how more recent portrayal of news media might turn people away from genuinely important learning. It’s also true that the “old news” is just as essential to our reckoning with this world as any developing story. I don’t think it’s dishonest or hyperbolic to say that my deliberate choice to take in the news, and to keep it company, has allowed me a fuller range of tenderness, born, I believe, out of a more complete awareness of elsewhere and of others — the predicaments of every life, not just my own or of the people in my immediate sightline.

What relationship do you see between nostalgia and sadness? In poem “What the wind kicks up, what the waters trouble, even,” you write: “In sadness there’s no scale, & no need.” This poem (others, too) suggests the speaker’s resignation, a feeling of futility, and yet a determination to care.

I hope I’m careful not to conflate the concept of nostalgia with a feeling of sadness, or to imply that they are interchangeable or even dependent upon each other, although they often coexist. I do think, though, that what I’m trying to navigate throughout is this idea of scale, of comparison, of not out-grieving or out-disastering each other. I hope the poems demonstrate, by considering so many sorrows side-by-side, often stacked on top of each other, my belief that we should in the face of catastrophe, stop quantifying catastrophe, stop measuring it against other disasters. We’d realize then that what is a total loss for one person is also a total loss for another person — even when that tragedy is distinct, is personal, which they always are. Every flood or fire or drought is a catastrophe to someone. Any town destroyed by a tornado is a town gone. A love lost is lost. Every loss a loss, and of equal proportions: “disaster is always disaster.”

So, yes, that poem might be one of the lowest moments in the book, and of course the speaker feels resigned. All this terrible stuff is happening in the world and she walks into a bathroom to find someone she knows has been beaten, literally — a victim of domestic abuse. That’s the breaking point — futility and exhaustion take over, and then manifest in genuine despair. There are so many things we can’t control, and she thinks — I think — this is something we should be able to. Floods are what rivers do, and devastating though floods can be, rivers need to flood. But no one ever needs to raise a fist to another, and certainly not under the guise of love. The acts of violence we perform against each other — in a world already often naturally brutal — make no sense, are unconscionable. A hurricane making landfall is violent, but it is not unconscionable.

Does caring inspire poetry?

I believe the capacity to care is not unlike the capacity to engage with art, whether as part of an audience or as someone making art. When I care about something, I am moved to share that with others, but I don’t know if I’d call that inspiration. I believe poetry — all art — opens up something in us that our every day lives often ask us to keep closed off. I believe art encourages us to pay attention, gives us the opportunity to practice that kind of attention, shows us how, teaches us other ways to care. But I also believe there are many other expressions of care, unrelated to poetry.

One of those expressions, I noticed, was apology. These poems might be reclaiming the “sorry,” a word that’s fallen out of fashion. (I can’t believe I’m quoting Demi Lovato, but there’s her line, “I’m sorry, I’m not sorry.”) Appealing to me about the apology in your work is how often it’s object-less. The speaker isn’t sorry for X: sorriness is enough.

Probably many of us remember a phase of childhood where we started apologizing for everything, and then being told, at one point, that our apology wasn’t enough or that if we were truly sorry we’d stop doing whatever we’d done. Some of us probably also can recall a shift in our sense of apology where we started saying sorry for things we couldn’t possibly be accountable for or to — injury or illness, weather, traffic, etc. It makes me sorry to hear that “sorry” has fallen out of fashion, and I do think we should reclaim it, and I’m glad to take the lead on that, if such a move is in order. In the act of apology I find a necessary humility, an awareness that we are each a very small part of a larger world where everything is connected to everything else. The book’s approach to apology is, of course, my own. I am genuinely and often sorry, but I’m not always or only or even responsible, and I’m not always sure exactly to or for what, to or for whom I should address my apology, but vocalizing it feels important. The poems grapple with this, too — “Apology is something worth // practicing, & I’m trying to get it right” — and at the level of craft through repeated attempts. To apologize is not to claim guilt or to establish a clear causality — here, I’m thinking about how people ask for a reason why something happened, as if one single cause can be at the root of any change — but to acknowledge our sorrow or regret about something. Apology seems to allow for that acknowledgement.

Maybe that acknowledgment tethers a person, even in smallishly, to the moment. In Nostalgia for …, the speaker is in communion with a town and a home, places that exist amidst or in spite of the time (the times, even), represented by yes, the news, but also the more personal news: the growing up of a child, remembrances of a deceased father.

Like almost everyone, I live in a place where people come and go, but probably because I work at a residential college where those patterns are built into the fabric of every single thing, I sometimes feel a heightened sensitivity to such changes. I also happen to live a city that was hit hard by collapse of industry, by a range of economic shifts that marked the end of the 20th and early 21st century, then was double-whammied by the recession. For these reasons, and also because it’s far enough away from dramatic natural features in the landscape — no mountains, no oceans, no bluffs even — and is quite subtle in its beauty, it’s a place I found myself regularly apologizing for. And then I grew exhausted by that apology, or rather I found myself up against the limits of the kind of apology I was making. When I first started writing these poems, I wanted to figure out how to turn that apology into something else, not quite action, but maybe a corrective rather than an excuse or erasing, to recognize that every place is a place and everybody lives somewhere. I also wanted to find a way to love this gorgeous, scrappy town in central-western Illinois where I’ve lived my entire adult life, where I have chosen to live, and where my son was born. I wanted to learn to look at it differently, to pay attention in a different way. To learn this place meant loving it for what it is, not what it was or could have been, and my hope was that if I modeled that genuine affection, if I learned to speak of here by first paying attention to it, my son might learn to do so, my students might learn to do so. If I could speak of it honestly, I might offer all of us a way to look forward to returning to it when we’re away, or if we should leave it in the future, to be proud of where we are and were and what we make and made here, to love its big sky and its quiet streets and its idiosyncrasies, its scrappiness, its stubbornness, its refusal to give in or surrender. To do that, I also had to look elsewhere, and this might be one way the news enters, and how my coming of age in Chicago — another city of complications (what city isn’t?), but a city very dear to me — surfaced. When I could, I took to the road, and the poems consider elsewhere, too, but always return here.

Of course, the idea of home — or where we live — is wrapped up in all of that. Everywhere is both spatial and temporal, memoried and present. It’s also true that everywhere I’ve ever lived has been near trains, and so if there’s a common feature to all the wheres, it’s that constant rumble, which can’t help but call up other times and elsewhere. A train is always heading somewhere else — always an arrival and a departure, and almost always simultaneously so.

Couplets abound in Nostalgia for…, but there are a few prose outliers. “By rote the body learns nearly everything, after” is one of them, and what I adore about this poem is its insistence on lyricism, especially the caesura, often summoned by the long dash. Is the composition of prose poems different than poems in verse? Does punctuation, like the dash, shape your speaker’s voice?

I’m never sure why we assume any paragraph of prose need be absent of lyricism. If the subject requires lyricism, let’s be lyrical! Any distinction between the prose poem and the others in composition, for me, probably bears out in revision, in so much as I do still work in line even when I’m working on a prose poem, however unintuitive that might be. Sure, a block of text is differently compelling to me than a poem in couplets, but when I’m making any poem of any size or shape, most days I’m thinking about the line and what that unit of measurement says or does or is.

Oh, the dash — . Yeah, I’m sure the voice of these poems is a voice dominated by the dash and by the comma, sometimes breathlessly so, running on and on, sometimes stilted by fragment or incompleteness. Of course, I love the caesura. I love a long sentence. I love a sentence with stacked clauses, internal punctuation, and the dash sometimes lets us hinge a sentence in a way that can change the direction or pressure of it.

You’ve also published as an essayist. How does your nonfiction practice diverge from your poetics?

I came to the essay later than I came to poems, but I came to poems after studying fiction writing for years. So, for me, the essay is really a way to honor both traditions. That practice is fairly fluid, in that I don’t always know in what genre I’m writing until I’m pretty deep into the work. Time itself — the way time works on the page — seems, to my mind, to be what distinguishes one genre from another, and often I recognize what I’m writing when I realize how time is moving.

The only considerable difference for me in practice manifests in how slow a prose writer I am. The last essay I wrote took me almost three years of research and thinking and sitting and staring. It is not a long essay — certainly not three years long.

But I do like to consider a subject in multiple genres, and to move back and forth between them when I’m trying to work something out. I find an expansiveness in nonfiction, whereas it may take me a dozen poems to cover that kind of ground, but because I’ve taken to writing poems in a series lately, moving through a long thought over distinct poems, I may have collapsed another distinction between the two modes in which I most work.

I have on a notecard slipped into your book a list that could be lifted from a glossary of literary terms: anaphora, repetition, metaphor, enjambment. Which is to say, your poems showcase such facility with poetic technique. Do things like repetition occur in your first drafting of a poem? What emerges (and disappears) in revision?

Thank you. I try to remember, especially in revision, that the poem is a crafted object, is made. Maybe because I was first trained in fiction, as I mentioned, I feel a particular fondness for elements of craft and technique that felt fresh to me, that still excite me. My early drafts are lousy with repetition, weighted down by it, and it’s something I have to keep an eye on, keep my ear tuned to, as I revise, lest the poem become burdened by it.

To honor the craft of making a poem is also to honor subject matter, and because these poems pay attention to things in the world that happen and keep happening, to our straddling, literally, all the lives we’re living or could be living, it always made sense to me that the work would formally replicate what it was grappling with however possible.

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