A Poet’s Baker’s Dozen: An Interview with Margo Berdeshevsky
Born in New York City, MARGO BERDESHEVSKY often writes and walks in Paris. Her poetry collections are “Between Soul and Stone” and “But a Passage in Wilderness”(Sheep Meadow Press.) A woman of the world, her “Beautiful Soon Enough,” received Fiction Collective Two’s Innovative Fiction Award (University of Alabama Press.) Other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, and 8 Pushcart Prize nominations for works in Poetry International, Kenyon Review, Agni, Pleiades, New Letters, & etc. Word woman, photographer, actress, human. An experimental and multi-genre book, “Vagrant,” is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press, and a new poetry book is in the oven. For more detailed information, please see: http://redroom.com/member/margo-berdeshevsky
Margo Berdeshevsky has been a frequent contributor to Poetry International. Her “Letter from Paris” is a regular must-read feature of this blog. The following interview was recently conducted via email. Many of the questions refer specifically to Margo’s new book of poems, Between Soul and Stone (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2011), a collection Willis Barnstone has aptly called “a book of measured splendors.”
—B. H. Boston, January 2014
I’m as interested as ever in hearing about another poet’s practice. Would you care to tell us about the “gestation and bringing forth” of Between Soul & Stone, about how the poems in BS&S came to be and how they developed into this particular book?
I believe that I found the opening epigraph, (Eliot’s translation of a line by St.–John Perse,) very early on. I have halted my horse by the dove moaning tree. And those words offered me a thread that I would finger again and again. The sound of the mourning bird. That halt in a progress that needed to stop praying, to truly pause. To ask. To listen.
And, the book began in the middle of my life. That’s true. And it thought it was finished more than a few times before it actually was. I tore it apart and reshaped it. And then, again, over quite a number of years. I mean to say that a book has thoughts of its own, eventually—and an energy and a desire to come to life. And/but—sometimes it’s impatient. And sometimes I’m impatient. I showed it to some people too soon. And someone wanted to give me an award for it, and then I relinquished it because I understood that “it” wasn’t fully sculpted yet. But several times both of us, the book, and I— agreed to slow down and allow it to develop more fingers and toes and teeth, and to let its own soul grow larger. Because I knew from the start that in this book I wanted/needed to address at least some of my own questions spiritually, and my own questions about being a woman, and a woman growing older, and a human standing somewhere between the solid and the non—and that the book would help—if I helped it—to do so.
When I began doing readings from the book after it was published, a woman asked me a surprising question one evening. “Where,” she asked, “is such a place as – Between Soul and Stone.” With her question, I understood that the book could begin doing its task. But answering her was more difficult, because I’d now written the book, and once written, a book belongs to its reader. I’d already begun to let it out of my fists. All I was really able to offer to her that evening was that it is a book that is reaching, for the reader, and for this poet who wrote it — to a locus between what is grounded (in stone,) in the real, in the created, and reaching also to what is unleashed in the so-called spiritual realm—where there are few answers, but more questions, where the soul needs to grow.
(From what became the first poem in the book, the poet is trying to have some conversation with source, if you will, worrying, as did Rilke, if God cries in the dark. Challenging the received notion that God might dwell in an arc decorated by a plastic red lamp. And banging her long drum, for a truer appearance. A drum that is replayed, as a circular coda in the last poem of the book. Begging to be noticed, and, yes, loved. Begging to be allowed to be human, and woman, and child, and vulnerable, and to have some experience of the holy—whatever that might be.)
Would you care to talk about your experience as a traditional healer and the part writing and poetry play in the process of healing? What, if you’d care to discuss it, is being healed?
I know we live in a time where most people are terrified of what they can’t control. And we live in a time when many if not all—are trying to make it through the night, literal and non literal. And many are ill, and the planet is certainly ill.
I’ve been blessed to meet and to learn from some traditional healers. To observe, and to be helped by them, sometimes. I would not call myself one. But I have been a good observer, and I have sought them for my own healings. And still do. And through them, I began to recognize the offering and the presence and the transmission of energy that does not need a name; and that a person who hopes to be helpful in that way has to get out of the way, and cannot own it or claim it, but may allow it in. And sometimes I have felt such an energy between my hands, and have been able to offer it. That sounds very mystical, I know. And it is. It’s about humility. And about surrender to something that one can’t control. I think that’s a true thing to say.
Poetry—I think of it as the language of the soul. A different language. Not Latin, not French, not Chinese, not Sanskrit, but yes, language of the soul. If poetry can be any part of the process of healing, as your question asks me if it might—well, we need to hear through it—something else, something that has no name. And then, maybe, we need to hear one another say what hasn’t been said. Maybe these days are our last chances to do so. I don’t know. Sometimes it feels that way to me. As though these days are all we have to do something right. And if that’s so, and if poetry will be of some use in that—then I suspect it happens when and if—it uses language in a different register. One that might open us. One that might let a healthy water in. A healthy blood in. A new color or image or breath. Maybe it can be such a conduit. Maybe something needed can come in. That’s a hope, not a certainty. I’m certain of less and less. Aren’t you?
How do you conjure poems? Where do they come from? What part does intention play in your writing process?
No. I don’t conjure. I listen. I watch. I read my own scrawl. I steal from my notebooks. I steal from my own letters. I make lines. I unmake them. Sometimes I pray, please, let it be good! And I mean that. Because my writing is sometimes dyslexic. It comes in backwards and forwards and sideways, and it expects me to find what it really wants to be and to say. And sometimes, as Williams’ Blanche Dubois says it, “sometimes, there is God so quickly.” Little ghosts. Little miracles. But more often, I wait, and get afraid that the “it” will hide from me forever. And then, it gets to be clean water. Or the stone gets carved by my words. And it feels good to be writing.
I’ve been reading about the Amherst/Harvard collaboration which will provide Internet access to all of Emily Dickinson’s poems, including those pieces often called “scraps,” some of which appeared in the November, 2013, issue of POETRY magazine. Would you care to comment on Dickinson’s lasting power and presence in our lives and on any way in which she may have touched your own poetry? Would it make any sense to consider a poem such as “Among the Trumpets” in this light?
I have a very elderly and dear to me person who told me she woke once, deeply believing for a moment that she had written the “Because I could not stop for death” lines. Maybe they are so timeless, so classically true—that many of us feel they could be our own whispers. Certainly their stark honesty can be ours. I’m deeply ambivalent about collecting a poet’s scraps. I know and understand the scholarly value, but I believe that what a writer wants to publish is her respectful legacy, not a buried chest, not meat for a post mortem treasure hunt. So I think I won’t further address that part of your question.
But as it so happens, I have a poster scotch-taped to a wall just to the right of my desk. It arrived in my mailbox in 2005, from the Academy of American Poets. Black background with an empty, (that is bodiless,) ankle-length and period gown, open-wristed long sleeves to its sides, hanging patiently, demure and frightening, both. Alone in its dark field. And above it is the quote:
Nature is a haunted house—
But Art—is a house that tries to be haunted.
The poster has been there for some eight years, now. I let it haunt me sometimes. Its promise and its whisper. The world I live in does often haunt me. As a writer, I allow it. Maybe I ask it to. And I accept that it does. Solitude is a ghost. The daily shifts and tragedies, huge, and tiny, are spirits, I want to say. We live with them, maybe as Dickinson lived with her ambivalent relationship with finality. And in these times I can’t ignore or pretend that I don’t feel witness to something none of us is ready for. Not really. My poem, Among the Trumpets is my surrender to the dance. A world that has such presences in it. Planetary ones, disaster ones, and the dust of stars that are part, I suspect, of worlds that have ended. I don’t want to quote very much from that poem, because I want you to read it. But the last line is:
Among the trumpets, it is not music, it is only light.
I will be looking for God’s love and hoof and star.
Perhaps I do sense that—about E.D, and what she may have been looking for. She is/was, will remain slant, humble, lost, found, and proud, in body and out of body. A poet’s poet, certainly. I’m not nearly formal in the ways that she was. But I do identify with her “slant,” both in breaking conventional styles, and in truth. And importantly, she was a woman of her time who can remain potently in our own. Conscious of the harsh constrictions on her living, being a woman, and conscious of the nearness of yes, death. And yes, an inspiration.
How has living in Paris affected your work?
It’s where I hang my hat, these days. I’m a bit of an alien anywhere, in some ways, in that I’m not nationalist, anywhere, truly, I don’t much love that concept. But Paris is good to me, it always has been. It’s rough and impressionistic and right now it’s cold, but the light is a factor. I like that it’s so often a pewter kind of light, even in summer. (Argentée, the French say.) It’s both a city of light, and a city of dark, to me. A walking place. It can be a lonely place, and sometimes that’s good for the writing. And it’s a global crossroad where old and new grind their hips against one another. And, it has the beauty of history and seasons and world consciousness and some grime and old ghosts—all that. And during those times when I am most deeply critical of, or disillusioned with America’s errant paths, it’s a place where I haven’t had to pretend to agree with some of the madness. (Yes, there’s madness elsewhere, but just sayin’…)
Also, to write in a place where my daily language to buy milk and get on a bus and repair shoes is all in French, and for that language to not—be the language I write in, makes for an interesting disruption of predictable thinking. So, a different kind of circuitry can come for the poetry.
And, I’m not of the ooo, “Midnight in Paris” told it like it realllly was, ilk. Not at all. I actually thought that film was annoyingly kitsch. But I’ve loved Paris just because it’s here, like an old mountain; but it’s a city, and a very beautiful one. And, because it’s not always comfortable even though it’s gorgeously dressed in old light and older architecture and a few remaining good bookshops and people who love to read. And, it’s one of my guardians, maybe. Maybe! It is one of my taskmasters. It keeps asking me what I’m doing.
I lived here when I was small, and then went away for many years, and discovered that I was keeping a part of “self” that had, yes, been content in my own skin, here—in the closet, and I needed to get her back out. So here I am. At least, right now.
Would you tell us a little about your apartment in the Marais, your daily routine, your life as a writer now? Do you have a favorite place you prefer for writing or a preference for a particular time of the day?
I like to tell people that I might be having conversations with the ghost of the old letter-writer, Madame de Sévigné, who might be hiding in the climbing ivy. I have a very very small desk that looks into a courtyard, and I may spend far too many life-minutes and hours here, computer and me, or notebook and me, or torn envelopes and me—and now, the vine leaves are falling and I love their slow golden death dance. The inside walls are full of my own photographs which I rearrange sometimes, so I don’t forget to still see them. There’s a fat red velvet couch and a chandelier for real candles and some painted lampshades and some old oriental carpets and some dark wood chairs and an airshaft outside a double window where I whitewashed the walls to make a sort of a tiny garden. Actually, the neighbor’s skylight sticks up in the middle of it. There’s bamboo plant and lots of potted greens out there, and I like to water them. I’m wondering if I should tell you that I used to have a cat. No. I won’t tell you about him. I’ll just leave that for the imagining.
Daily routine? Oh, there’s that writer-ly question. No. I don’t like to reveal routines. Time of day? Silence. And awake. Sometimes curled. Sometimes, crouched. Sometimes, straight-backed.
Would you care to elaborate on your extensive travels and the impact they continue to have on your artistic consciousness, your being-in-the-world, your writing? You’re soon on your way to London by train! Would you care to discuss your life as a poet en route, as a troubadour for our age? Would you like to discuss a poem such as “Beachfront” or “Rupture” in this regard?
In the days after the tsunami that struck the Asian seas and shores in 2005-2006, I went to help in a survivor’s clinic in Sumatra. I have a very dear friend in Indonesia (who is now doing her work to save women and children in the Philippines, her name is Robin Lim, a CNN hero.) And she asked me to come to help her in Aceh as she created a clinic for the living. The world looked then, there, so much as it does now in the Visayas region—broken and thirsty and angry and surrendered and fighting to still say that it was alive. It looked simply as though we were witnessing the end of the world. Something which we apparently are going to do again, and again. And poems in “Between Soul & Stone,” such as “Beachfront” and “Rupture” were born in that bleak light. Swimming in the sea of souls. Knowing that a girl in a headscarf was holding the only candle. Being a witness in my time, I hope that as a poet, I may have been able to do that, sometimes. Hold some small candle, I mean.
Elsewhere in “Soul & Stone,” I wrote listening to the hills where French troubadours once sang, while the about-to-be-slaughtered sheep bleated. Hills where W.S. Merwin’s modern poems have meditated and sung. In that section of the book I sought to merge my voice with the echoes I met there and to hear their stones, and mosses, and questions.
… I’m now writing this in a British sitting room. The near winter light is different. Last night, an after-theatre throng and chaos of London’s Leicester Square was all elbows and sirens and aggression and high heels and I wanted to hide from it all. Claustrophobia, 1-0-1. But this is modern London, I whispered to myself. I listened to high and low British accents and Russian and Hindi and Spanish and Italian and French all swirling Saturday-night-drunkenly around me. People pushing to get through to the tubes, and men with umbrellas saying “excuse me.” I do have, always have had since early childhood, wandering soles. And that’s been a probiotic or at least a wise defense against xenophobia, both in America and anywhere. To have listened to other words for a word that’s in my head, to have swallowed strange-to-my-mouth foods, to have removed my shoes at foreign doors, to have bowed or knelt, or been afraid…all open me, and have always opened me to humanity in ways that wearing the blinders a single address—could not. Simply, being in the world changes me. And I want to—I like to—I need to be changed.
There’s a wonderful scene in Henry V (which I had just seen last evening here in London,) where French princess, Catherine of Valois, and the newly war-victorious Harry of England are sparring, and he is seducing. She tells him, Your Majesty has false French enough to deceive de wisest lady in France. He bends to kiss her and she refuses. It is not the custom for the maids in France to kiss before they are married, is that what she says?… Oh, Kate, prudish customs bow before great kings. You and I cannot be held within the confines of a country’s arbitrary customs, dear Kate. You and I, Kate, we are the makers of custom, and the freedom that goes with our position silences all who would criticize, as I will silence you for upholding the prudish custom of your country in refusing me a kiss. Therefore, willingly and yielding. (kisses her) You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate. There is more eloquence in a sweet touch of them than in the tongues of the whole French council. They would persuade Harry of England sooner than a whole assembly of monarchs.
I don’t consider myself “entitled” by monarchial rights, or by being a “maker of custom;” and I don’t believe in wars of any kind, to win love or land or lips; but I do allow and invite all I see to impact my poetic consciousness. Yes. I hope to meet more than I can imagine, or have imagined, and to let it into myself, and to give it back in the best poems and images I can make.
Would you talk about the presence and the power of the mythic element in your poetry? Perhaps you would touch on the mythopoeic as it appears in a couple of specific poems, in poems as varied as “America Poem” and “Of the Owl: Stripped of,” for instance?
A single line, “I think I hear America screaming,” came once when I stayed beside a cross-country railroad track in the Midwest. And the line stayed with me for years until I would write the larger poem it could belong to, “calling if I have a home, a history.” Living sometimes outside of the States has let me look at America both symbolically, and (maybe) at its mythos of a self; let me mourn for it, as it must so often mourn for itself—like one of the ancient tragedies where the hero or heroine is doomed by its own pride and fate. I often see America as such a hero/heroine. That’s one answer. And there are animal forms and presences, such as the owl, that have appeared in numbers of my poems. Sometimes they are real, but often they are somewhat more. In the owl poem you ask about, I was looking at the myths of women and the myths of aging, and how both feed on themselves until there is a raw nakedness left. (Like an “owl stripped of its feathers.”) There’s another poem in the book, “Wind and a Hill” that also looks at the cannibalizing of selves in such a way, but in that poem, in the service of love, or death. Having some education in classical myths, there are symbols that hover in the consciousness and are available to a poet in the present. I’ll say that they have served me, sometimes, as a path to a new element, arriving at something a little larger than a simple narrative, which might be read as mythic.
Who are some of the poets who continue to excite and inspire you? Whom should we be reading? To whom do you return most often?
There are hundreds. And, I don’t think there is a “should” for reading. But there is a guidance of affinities. I have an affinity for the lyric (in opera,) as in poetry. And, for the emotional. I came to poetry through the theatre, I was a child actress, and so I knew an elevated sense of “voice,” early on. And simplest and most complex for me: my first guidepost was and remains Shakespeare. When I was being trained as a very young actress, and when I could hold his lines in my mouth, and in my brain, I began to know that I would and could love his poetry, and maybe all poetry. I found GM Hopkins also, very early, and what he so strangely did with words excited me, and what he did with the spiritual urged and whispered to me. Merwin has been a deep river for me. His “The Folding Cliffs,” is, I believe, the great epic poem of the 20th century, its passionate Native narrative soars—and I learned from it, as from his other works, how the breath can move, with or without punctuation. How it is a music. And a meditation. Forché and Hacker have each guided me toward poetry that can and must so often stand up to be counted in our world. I return to each, to help me to remember. Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva made me wish that my “Russian” was not only attached to my family name! Unfortunately, I only know them well in translation. But reading them however I can, I’ve known that I am in rare presences that make me catch my breath. Plath was important to me as a younger poet. I loved her ferocity. And then I found that in so much of A. Rich, and in a poet who left the planet far too early, Akilah Oliver, who often moved me deeply. Today, there are so many of us—poets, I mean. And we all want our little measure of recognition. And many deserve it. And, there’s something sad about that. (It also may mean that poetry belongs to the many, now, not to the few. And that like all arts, it is malleable. And how can that be a bad thing? It can’t. But…the yearly lists and lists of “bests,” and 100 notables are absurd, in my opinion. They are marketing schemes for egos. Sigh. Big sigh.) Finally, in this paragraph that could go on, but shouldn’t—for me, there’s the inspiration of Rilke who wrote: Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. [“Letters To A Young Poet.] I’d like to have such a courage and such a beauty, in poetry, and in my life.
Some of your poems are persona poems. What does the adoption of an alternate persona offer the poet (and the reader) that other points of view do not? Are all poems “persona poems”?
I haven’t written many, but yes, there are some. “Lilith as a Babe,” conjured as an unrepentant woman of the streets; and “Or…If She Were Heard…After Death” which explores a dead mother’s eye on the memory of her husband Abraham’s obedience to sacrifice their son, her “bone-scream”—and the poem asks, both in her voice, and in an objective one, “did she die of ache?” And, “The Tent,” does in fact speak in the voice of Sarah’s tent, “where the light above it is said to have gone out, then shone again, when her Isaac wed Rebecca and he brought her inside.” Each of these was an experiment in exploring a Biblical persona that I believe worked. And yes, I sometimes speak with different forms of address. The “I.” The je est un autre. The “You.” The “We.” Poems are each voices—the giving of voice to the personal and to the collective, sometimes. But I take responsibility for my own voice. When I do speak for the larger body, it is from a deep will to be in this world, even if or when I am not of it. And when alienation overcomes me, as it sometimes does, then I do feel not “of it;” but I am trying like hell to comprehend it. One of the reasons I write is to comprehend my world. In that sense, I’m listening to many heartbeats in it, and if that leads to persona—okay.
There will be another panel at AWP this year discussing the qualities of “accessibility” and “difficulty” as they relate to contemporary poetry. Do you have any thoughts regarding accessibility and difficulty as they apply to your own work?
I’m not a great fan of the recent poetries that leave me with a solid block of chill language, unable to find a center or a thread to follow, emotionally. I tend to love a certain lyricism and a certain emotional openness, even nakedness. Some people have said to me that my own poetry is “difficult.” I don’t intend it to be so. But I believe that reading slowly and with a little effort on the part of a reader is not a bad thing. One critic (Chris Faatz) wrote of “Between Soul & Stone,” : …like a gossamer web: intensely beautiful, painstakingly crafted into textually dense strands of poetic light. This is not an easy book to read. It demands, it rewards, every ounce of your reading attention. It is also deeply transformative. If nothing else, you’ll emerge from your reading with a more exalted sense of what beauty means in our lives… I admit that I was very, very moved and appreciative of his words and his understanding.
Would you elaborate on the importance of translation in your development as a poet? Do you translate poems from other languages?
I’ve done much too little translation. I need to do more. Once, I was invited by the former Soviet Writers’ Union to come for a month to their “House of Creation” (Dom Tvorchestva) in Yalta, to work on English translations from daily literal pages, in Russian. I found that all I could hope to do was render a good poem in English. My Russian was not worthy, and I had very little confidence. I’m grateful to so many fine translation of course, because without them, how would we know Chekhov or Basho or Celan or Corbière or Borges or Shvarts or Confucious or or or or…. And there are great translators and translations that serve us well. And there are dreadful ones. The over-modernized, the overly “British,” the overly pedantic. I wish I could say that I followed Pound’s advice to the young Merwin, to translate daily, to become a better poet. The best I can do is to quote Lisel Mueller, in her “The Blind Leading the Blind,” one of my favorite poems: There are two of us here. Touch me.
Would you elaborate upon the open and subtle exploration of the mystery of human sexuality, of what it means to be a woman, in your work? Would you discuss one or two specific poems in this regard? (Poems from the “Light Unrepentant” section of BS&S immediately come to mind.) Do you have any advice for young writers regarding writing about human sensuality and sexuality?
The fourth section of Between Soul & Stone, which is titled Light Unrepentant, begins with an epigraph by Hayden Carruth. … almost the quality of disappearance/ In its cage of visibility. And I chose it because of how those words hold some of my questions about being woman, which the poems speak with. The challenge I’ve known from men who wondered why I wasn’t a mother, when was I not a poet but just a woman. What is it to be flesh? Am I only one, or part of the huge festival of women, aging, waiting, we—/ all unsure of a body. Now, and later. What is it to desire flesh, younger, or older? What prayer was of use/ making me of skin? What happens to beauty when illness cuts into a life like the sculptor, leaving its scars? What’s hidden in the egg of a life? Is it an unending war, or survival, or reinvention? What is a woman pleading for, when she opens her legs?
For women—or—men, sex and our sexuality are nutrients as much as driving forces for the psyche and for the heart. The “I” that I am— feeds on sexuality, my own and that of others, and feeds on sun and rain and tragedy and comedy and the wild elements, and fantasy, too. And sometimes, it’s all quiet, silent, and has no needs at all. And who’s left—then?
These are some of my questions. The book holds them for me, and for its readers, I hope.
I don’t write “as” a woman, I am a woman, and a woman who has been very young and is less young, now. A woman who has been filled with quests, and whose questions are only deepening at the same time that they are quieting. My body and my heart and my sex and my brain are informed by that. But being a woman in my time in history means I’ve struggled with image and independence and freedom and role and fear and illusion and pride and competition and insecurity and beauty and lust, and un-knowing. In so many ways, the feminism that belongs to my generation and that I belong to—is still—young, still underachieved, still defining and redefining what it may be to be woman. These are concerns. Of the mortal, of the human, of the poet. My humanity is seeker and hunter of intensity, and of something un-nameable, and of passion, and of love. And that’s common to all genders.
For your last question, for a young person writing about human sensuality and sexuality… I can only dare to say get naked. Get humble. Vulnerable. Find your own song to undress the skin. Be as brave as the December amaryllis breaking its thin, thin bud into utter red. But be as subtle as love. Even then.