In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Stephen Eric Berry
Tell us about your poem “Monster” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
For several years I have been engaged in a series of reading-response rituals based on the sonnets of Shakespeare. The ritual involves writing out each sonnet by hand, recitation of the poem, a study of scholarly commentaries to better understand Elizabethan English, and a freely associative textual response to elements in the poetry that I find intriguing or perplexing or both. “Monster” grew out of the collaging of two 14-line texts that emerged through this ritual applied to Sonnets 19 and 22.
“Monster” developed out of the presence of hummingbirds feasting on hostas outside of my writing window and the emotional resonance I felt from three words in the Shakespeare sonnets: “glass,” “paws” and “raiment.” The subject-scene-cluster that found shape out of these words became a reenactment of the absolute panic that I remember feeling as a ten-year-old viewing myself in a mirror and realizing everything I loathed about my appearance was egregious and irremediable. From an even wider vantage, I feel like semantic complexes develop out of processes like this and whatever texts emerge are a series of triangulations between the writer and the words on the page. I would suggest that, for me, the poem is not what is on the page but is the collective of invisible lines between the text and the unconscious complexes generated by its formative processes. What happens in the reader is beyond me.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
Hearing Joseph Brodsky’s incantation of “Nature Morte” both today on YouTube, and in person when I was 17-years-old. Listening to Paul Celan recite “Todesfuge.” Besides improving my listening skills, I’m excited about exploring obsessive feelings on the page with experimental techniques from the visual arts, for example, what Rachel Rose does in work such as Everything and More, Palisades in Palisades, and Lake Valley. Now as a translator of Emily Dickinson into Italian, the most rewarding activity is translations, especially when English words begin to “sound foreign” and Italian begins to feel like Eden before the seraphim showed up with the burning swords. I am turned off by writing primarily focused on impressing me with its cleverness, by writing created to communicate a particular thought or idea or story, and by prose placed in linear notation so that it appears to be a poem when it is not.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
Definitely having a stream of poets come to my junior high and high schools in Ann Arbor. This included getting one-on-one time with Joseph Brodsky, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, William Stafford, Tom Raworth, Donald Hall, and many other writers who visited our school and hung out in our classrooms.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
For the last three years I have been working with Italian poet Pamela Proietti to translate her work into English. Working through her poems and helping her submit her work to Anglo-American literary magazines has been rewarding, for example, in helping her place one of her longer poems in the journal Asymptote. Besides Pamela’s work, I would have to say that I have recently been very excited by the work of Amelia Rosselli (Locomotrix), Alda Merini (Love Lessons), Alex Lemon (Another Last Day), and Robert Alter’s new translation of The Hebrew Bible.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I compose music and often play the instruments for which the music I write is composed. I love making films that explore poetry as a multimedia event, particularly creating dialogs between the work of visual artists and composers who have received little or no acclaim. Examples of a few of my recent projects are:
Clogged only with Music, Like the Wheels of Birds (2018)
The Minotaurs of John Elkerr (2014)
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I am challenged by the extreme gravitational influences of hierarchical prose syntax infecting my work. I feel like the more focused I can become on the smallest phonological elements in what I hear before it goes down on the page, the more likely I may be in overcoming my current limitations. Translation is remarkably effective in keeping one’s mind focused on phonological elements. One of my quirks is to read texts I am working on into stereo microphones at very close range wearing headphones. This approach allows me to hear nuances in sound at a very low volume.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
Currently, I feel exhausted, hamstrung, and traumatized by the swirling barrage of neo-Fascist, Orwellian rhetoric going on around us here in the United States. The situation gives me renewed empathy for the fawning silence that becomes normalized across populations frightened and assaulted by autocratic regimes. I suspect that I will be writing about this period for the rest of my life.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
Obsession, madness, and the disturbing.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
Chaotic, intermittent, and unpredictable.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I am collaborating with Donna Mancusi-Ungaro Hart on an English translation of Eugenio Scalfari’s new book L’ora del blu. Donna is a Dante scholar and an absolute joy to have as my collaborator. I was preoccupied with preparing a presentation for the MLA Annual Meeting in Seattle on translating Emily Dickinson into Italian (“Is Translation a Loaded Gun?”). During the week I am busy on my job as a Research Associate on the Monitoring the Future Program at the University of Michigan.
Stephen Eric Berry is a writer, filmmaker, translator, and recipient of a Jule and Avery Hopwood Award from the University of Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Aji, Puerto del Sol, Sukoon, Tampa Review, The Ilanot Review, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. In the summer of 2018, his film Clogged Only with Music, Like the Wheels of Birds was screened at the Emily Dickinson International Society annual meeting in Amherst, Massachusetts. He lives in Chelsea, Michigan.