Monday, April 02, 2012

5 (or so) Questions with Monica Berlin

First, I have to apologize for things being so quiet here on the blog post AWP. I came down with the now infamous AWP plague and it put me behind on just about everything. Now on to the good stuff. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Monica Berlin, author of "On Beds or Where We Sleep" from the current issue. Below is our conversation. Enjoy!

9L: The essay is fragmented, telling a few different stories about grappling with change throughout the various sections, but they link together in a kind of Tetris like way. Can you talk a little bit about the process of putting the sections together. Did you always have it in mind to write it in that manner or did that evolve as you worked on it?

Monica Berlin: Hm, thinking about the essay’s structure in relation to how it works to best utilize space in such a way as to protect other later usage of space, to move the pieces in such a way as to not close off any pocket that might be required later, no? I’d love to claim that was a conscious effort, but the truth is, I’m just a remarkably slow writer. In the case of “On Beds,” I worked on it occasionally over a period of about four years. Because I started writing the essay when my son was still quite small, I was thinking about sleep a lot—this thing we have to teach babies to do, and that we have to keep teaching them to do, even as we feel we may never sleep again—at the same time as I was reading a lot about water in that so much of his life has coincided with global catastrophes involving water. Earlier drafts were certainly more linear in nature, but at some point I cut away most of the scaffolding of the piece and was left with these fragments that only seemed to be connected by their thinnest relationship to beds—these strange places where we spend a great deal of our lives, and where our lives also sometimes end. In my own sleeplessness I must have conflated beds with everything. I remember consciously thinking about how “go under,” which we use to describe submersion in water, also describes being anesthetized, also describes financial collapse, also describes grief, also describes how sleep feels sometimes, and I remember wondering if I could make an essay that somehow replicated that—although I don’t know if I actually set out to achieve such a thing or if its ridiculous to think anyone could.

Returning to a draft after having finished a book about the floods in Iowa in 2008, I started thinking a lot about rivers, about what was beneath rivers, about why we call the place where we sleep by the same name as the channel through which a river flows. And then I went back and looked at what I had written, turned toward my research, kept reading the dictionary. I suppose the connectivity linking together the essay’s sections was organic, as in I didn’t set out to organize the essay a certain way, as in as I wrote and re-wrote, read and re-read, I let the essay’s formal gestures instruct what came where, what fell away. Because I believe in making something—an essay, a poem, a story—without knowing what it will find until I find it, in hopes that I might learn something in the act of making that, ideally, the reader may also discover in the act of reading, those gestures also sent me back to exploring how we discover any single thing: how we make room for anything, how time passes, how we sleep, how we live in the places where we live, how we live at all.

9L: I'm curious how your prospective of the essay evolved as you worked on it over that four years. Also, did writing this over years make you write about the characters differently than if you had written it in say a few months?

MB: Some of the earliest sections of this were written when I wasn’t writing nonfiction. I kept trying to make poems about beds, and they weren’t working for me, for themselves, weren’t stable in that genre. First I had to learn how to write an essay, had to read a lot, had to learn how to recognize that sometimes something wants to be a poem and sometimes it wants to be an essay, and I had to figure out how that could happen and how the work would ultimately lead me to discover that. Early on, I set the beds aside to write other essays, to figure out how to write essays. Surely that’s what evolved the most: my thinking about genre, how any one thing can insist upon its poem-ness or its essay-ness or its story-ness, and my discovering that whatever I was writing I couldn’t—at the time—write any other way.

As to the characters, the evolution of characters, I’m not sure how to answer that. My son literally grows while he sleeps and wakes taller, more mature, than when he went to bed, is still at an age when such change is striking, noticeable. How he figures in my work is very much tied up in this fact and in these tender years. My father, on the other hand, is held still in time, will forever be the age he died, will never now change except in memory’s fickleness--there's no new information to draw from, no new memories being made or remembered, and yet how I understand what is there alters based on my own changing and changed-ness. Maybe what I mean to say is that the characters are based on real people, people who, in real life, change every day, who are changed by every day. In that way I guess my sense of them evolved in so much as we are all always the same and always different, right? Like the river. Like the landscapes where we find ourselves. The local, the familiar, is informed very much by the predicaments of our times and the predicament of time, and by every single other aspect of our lives. It’s the same with the people around us, isn’t it? The people who become the figures and fixtures of our writing, whose very presence elicits from us curiosity? Whose very presence, even in memory, allows us to turn inward? They are strangers to us and yet we've always known them, or we've known them their entire lives and recognize them without even needing to look up. Sometimes we are unrecognizable, even to ourselves. Sometimes—in a storm or in the dark or if the road’s under construction—we get lost on the same streets we’ve been driving for two decades. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror and we’re the same we’ve always been. Sometimes we arrive somewhere we’ve never been and it’s familiar. Sometimes we find our way by rote, by memory, through repetition.

9L: As you were working on those early sections and going through the process of figuring out what the material wanted to be, poem vs. essay, were you ever, out of frustration, if you had any concerning that issue, tempted to give up on the subject and move on to something new? If so, what got you to stick with the material?

MB: No, not really. I don't get frustrated with my writing in the way, say, you'd get frustrated by a flat tire. If I'm not writing well, I turn to something else--fold the laundry or read, check something off my to-do list, do my other job. I only get frustrated by writing when I'm not working at all for long stretches, and that frustration has less to do with the writing than with what is keeping me from it or with my own lack of discipline. When something is slipping through or I'm too close to see what the work is performing or not performing, I turn to one of my few trusted readers, someone I know will help me clear away the clutter, as it were. Teaching can help with this, too. Often, the very advice I'm giving to a student turns out to be the thing I need to try, something I can't always see until I'm thinking about it on someone else's page. As I said, I'm a pretty slow writer, so it's not uncommon for me to have a handful of pieces, all drafty, all in various stages, at any given point. Nor is it uncommon for me to walk away from a particular subject or piece that I'm working on for a while, but I'm not sure I've wholly abandoned anything I've been working on for the last ten years or so (though certainly I probably should). Moving back and forth between different genres has been an asset to my writing, in this way. Sure, I cut away things, or tuck deep certain drafts, but I guess more than anything I find I'm always writing the same few thing anyway--just looking at them differently. Which is to say, when I set aside something I'm writing because I haven't yet figured out how to make it, I write other things, try to construct it differently, circle around until I make a discovery, learn something new, see something I hadn't seen before. I'm thinking here of something Bachelard wrote about how the poet always sees the same thing, whether looking through a microscope or a telescope. Sometimes, a wide-angle lens, a long-focus shot, a fish-eye, sometimes a polaroid--that hazy coming into clarity, so quick.

9L: Have you read anything recently that you just feel in love with? Also, if someone asked you to recommend a book or two, what would be your top three recommendations?

MB: It's hard to pick just a couple of recent reads that have knocked me over, as I've been pretty overwhelmed by most of what I've been reading. Off the top of my head, Marianne Boruch's nonfiction The Glimpse Traveler and her unbelievable new collection of poems, The Book of Hours, both published in 2011. I kept loaning The Glimpse Traveler to friends, even before I finished it. I'd read fifty pages and then hand it to someone, and then it would come back to me and I'd read fifty more pages. Etc. I ended up buying an extra copy so I could read it again, and all at once, and my god. Nancy Eimers's newest, Oz, her most perfect book of poems yet. Also, Don DeLillo's The Angel Esmeralda, Peter Orner's Love and Shame and Love, Lia Purpura's new collection of essays, Rough Likeness, and a lot of Dean Young--I've been carrying around Fall Higher since it came out last spring, am waiting very much for another new book of his poems expected out this year. I keep renewing from the library a marvelously delightful book called, Homes for the People in Suburb and Country by Gervase Wheeler, originally published in 1855. For months I kept it in my car and read it when I get stopped at a train, which happens, but then I wanted to read more of it and finally brought it in the house, which Wheeler probably would have preferred. Oh, and the Federal Writers' Project's guide to U.S. 1., and my son and I have been reading Milne's Winnie the Pooh and House at Pooh Corner. My top three recommendations, ever? Oh god. They're all game changers for me. Three? Okay, today I'd probably say: Virginia Woolf's The Waves, everything by Marianne Boruch, and Ralph Angel's Exceptions and Melancholies.

9L: Here's the last question: any advice for poets or fiction writers who are considering starting to work in nonfiction?

MB: As I said, I learned to write essays by reading a lot, and by looking closely at the genre. I was also lucky in that around the time I was doing this enrollment demands in nonfiction at the college where I teach tripled, and so I had to get up to speed very quickly and become proficient in a genre I had only admired from a far. Because I had to feel I was a legitimate practitioner in the genre, too, I started making essays, keeping in mind everything I knew about story, from my years of studying, teaching and writing fiction, and everything I knew about poems, from my years spent in poems. John D'Agata's two anthologies from Graywolf, The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay, were marvelous guides for me, as was the special issue on the lyric essay that The Seneca Review put out a few years ago. Equally valuable was (and still is) looking at work from writers who either work in multiple genres or whose work seems to defy categorization of genre in any strict sense--again, Lia Purpura, Marianne Boruch, James Baldwin, Larry Sutin, Paul Auster, Eula Biss, Jenny Boully, Claudia Rankine, oh, gosh, and Rilke--that lovely newer book out with Godine--The Inner Sky--thinking about his poems along side those prose pieces, sometimes fragments, sometimes whole essays. Oh, I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot here. Forgive me. Reading letters helped too--Bishop's letters, for example--and also, thinking about the letter as a particular kind of place where a particular kind of work might be excavated or a foundation laid.

Around the time that I was trying to teach myself everything I could about nonfiction, I also re-organized all the books in my office. Originally, they had all been shelved alphabetically according to genre, but because I wanted to think about merging genres, bringing all that I loved and knew about each genre together, I spent a month of mornings re-shelving everything so even my bookcases wouldn't distinguish genres. Now, all of Ander Monson's books are together, as they should be. Now Charles Simic's little book of essays on Joseph Cornell is right beside his poems. Woolf's essay are beside her novels, not over in a separate shelf with the other nonfiction. And thank goodness. It probably would have taken less time if I hadn't taken it as an opportunity to open those books up side by side, to think about what choices we make as writers on any given day, to think about how sometimes we don't get to make the choice, to think about the evolution of writers and their craft over time. Finally, I'm also fortunate to have colleagues and friends who work in multiple genres, who move in and out of different genres, and so I could turn to their work and to their generosity in exploring this essay thing. So, my advice: re-shelve your books, read a lot, make friends with artists who work in multiple genre or mediums, look closely at craft--of essays you love, of essays you don't think you can love, of essays you'll never write, of essays you wish you had written--and then be asked to walk into a room where you are expected to be able to talk articulately about nonfiction. Do what the word asks us to do: try.

Thank you very much to Monica Berlin for taking the time to answer my questions. To read "On Beds or Where We Sleep," pick up a copy of the current issue (vol. 8, no. 2) in our webstore.

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