A Conversation with Ben Berman
Ben Berman is the author of two collections of poetry: Strange Borderlands, which was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards and won the Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry, and Figuring in the Figure, which was published in March 2017. Berman has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council and awards from the New England Poetry Club. In addition, he serves as the poetry editor at Solstice Literary Magazine, writes the monthly “Writing While Parenting” column for GrubStreet, and teaches in the Boston area, where he lives with his wife and daughters. In a conversation with Gina Consolino-Barsotti, Berman talks about the origin of his current work’s title, the interplay between language and meaning, and how parenting has influenced his poetry.
Gina Consolino Barsotti: Your newest work, Figuring in the Figure, was published this year. From where did this title originate?
Ben Berman: The title takes its name from Robert Frost’s essay, The Figure a Poem Makes, and much of the book explores figures—figures of speech, figures in terms of shapes and form, and the tension between figuring things in and figuring things out.
The entire collection is written in terza rima [tercets with the repetitive rhyme scheme aba, bcb, cdc and so on], and I was interested in exploring what it means to both think inside of a form and to take the form into consideration as I wrote.
GCB: The poems in the collection are segmented into three parts, each with nine poems. As you stated, the poems, themselves, are written in terza rima, and the final three poems of parts I (Figures), II (Transformations) and III (Shifting Centers) each have nine sections. Did you consciously choose to incorporate the numbers three and nine?
BB: I’ll try to answer this question in three ways:
1) I’ve been teaching a film class for the past few years and have been particularly interested in filmmakers’ use of “the rule of thirds” and the compositional framing of counterpoints.
2) Rabbi Eliezer Posner writes this about the symbolism of the numbers: “One symbolizes unity, agreement, simplicity. When something exists alone, nothing disturbs it. It remains completely at peace, without regard for anything else. Two symbolizes duality, tension and complexity. The number three symbolizes a harmony that includes and synthesizes two opposites.”
3) Much of the book is about the birth of my first daughter and what it meant to suddenly be a family of three.
GCB: You dedicate the book to your parents who “somehow offered me both roots and wings”; you also wrote a poem from the father’s perspective of parenting, entitled “Roots and Wings.”
You can only hush and hum for so long,
rock and cradle so much, before you’re ready
to admit that your newborn’s not nuzzling
into your chest but rooting at your dry
nipple, before you reluctantly pass
her to your wife and take over the laundry.
This inability to comfort and nourish a breastfeeding child can prove disheartening for non-nursing partners and fathers. Did writing this poem help reconcile your feelings as to what fathers and partners can do to nourish and support their children?
BB: I’m interested in the tension between language and meaning, and this poem began when I heard the words “letdown” and “self-expression” used to discuss breastfeeding. As a poet, I’m all about letdowns and self-expression—and here my wife was using hers to feed our newborn, while I could only use mine to articulate my loneliness in clever ways.
Shortly after my daughter was born, I came across the Hodding Carter quote that begins the poem, “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other, wings.” I thought it would be funny to contrast his wise advice—about giving our children roots—with the image of my newborn rooting at my useless nipple.
So, no, I don’t think this poem reconciles anything. I’m still jealous when my daughters run to my wife for comfort rather than me. But it did give me a chance to laugh at myself for wanting to complain to my wife—in those first few months—that she was getting to bond with our daughter while I had to sleep through the night. As for the dedication, I don’t think I truly appreciated my parents until I became a parent, myself.
GCB: What is your process in creating poetic works like Figuring in the Figure, wherein double meanings are so prevalent? For example, in your poem “The Game,” the visitors on safari in Zimbabwe are initially focused on the “game” or wildlife when, suddenly, the animals feel threatened: “Still, not until one hunched down on all fours, / lowered its gangly mane and then charged / did we see not furry, but fury, // realize the game had suddenly changed.”
BB: My first book, Strange Borderlands, detailed my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe. This poem in Figuring in the Figure came from a real occasion in which a wildebeest charged us, sniffed our feet, then walked away. (This took place shortly after falling into quicksand and right before getting arrested for picnicking on the grass.)
We often found ourselves in situations where we weren’t quite sure how to read what was going on. So the process, for me, involved finding language that spoke to the ambiguity of the experience and allowed for interplay both between and within words.
GCB: Can you tell us how poetry became an integral part of your life? Has your appreciation for poetry influenced your parenting?
BB: I always wanted to write a really great origin story (a Berman Begins, if you will) and even tried to mythologize such a moment in one of the poems in the book—in which the speaker notices the image of a “lone ember” and “the radiance of its self-possessed glow” and then realizes “the quiet power of turning inward.” The real story involves grand dreams of being the next Weird Al.
I’m not sure how poetry influences my parenting, but parenting has certainly influenced my poetry. Just recently—after a reading—a woman came up to me and said: “That was the most endearing poem about poop that I have ever heard.” Only a new parent writes endearing poems about poop.
GCB: I read that you awaken at 3:30 in the morning to begin writing every day. How do you manage to maintain balance and connection with your parenting, teaching, and editing responsibilities?
BB: When I was in the Peace Corps, I used to get up early to run before it got too hot and came to love being awake in those liminal hours.
These days, I’m up around three every day in order to write for a few hours before my daughters wake up. It’s not ideal, and I am totally useless after nine at night—but I’m a much better parent and teacher when I am immersed in my own creative work.
GCB: Which poem was the most challenging for you to write and why? Which poem was the most fun for you to create and why?
BB: At some point, I felt like I was writing the same poem again and again, so I started seeing how far I could push the form—how my concerns would shift, say, if I rhymed the first word of the line rather than the last word (“Takeoffs”) or if I wrote the poem in columns (“Gap Years”) where the left-justified lines had the freedom to establish the rhymes, and the right-justified could only complete them. All of the poems in the second section are written in two forms—they maintain the rhyme structure of terza rima but also take on their own organic form.
Of the all pieces in that section, “Re Form” was probably both the most challenging and fun to work on, simply because of the formal constraints. The poem, which was inspired by W.S. Merwin’s Asian Figures, is a collection of meditations on the theme of reform (i.e., “There are turns in patterns, / a seed in proceed”). Each figure is a very tightly constructed play on words—but because of the intricate rhyme scheme, if I cut one, I had to revise five others.
GCB: Who is your favorite poet, and how has he or she impacted both your poetry and your parenting?
BB: I’ve had a lot of different favorite poets and influences over the years. But who I am as a writer is very different than who I am as a parent. Writer Me is always seeking “utter solitude,” as Kafka writes, and “the descent into the cold abyss of oneself,” while Parent Me likes to stick around those drop-off birthday parties just in case my daughter gets a booboo.
GCB: As an editor for Solstice Literary Magazine, what advice can you give to writers when they submit to your journal?
BB: Solstice is committed to diversity in all its forms, and one of the ways that we go about that is by having a range of readers with varying tastes, so it’s hard to offer specific advice in terms of what we’re looking for.
Part of our hope at Solstice is to continually stay open to a variety of styles and voices and life experiences. I like this definition of diversity by Danielle Legros Georges (one of our consulting editors), that she offered last year in a panel at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival:
Diversity is not the people of color or queer people. We do not bring “the diversity” and are not in and of ourselves carriers of “diversity.” Diversity implies a context; exists in a context in which difference is celebrated and is considered useful and edifying. White people have race and are part of diversity, not the encouragers of diversity.
So although this probably isn’t helpful advice in terms of submissions, we love seeing different voices in conversation with one another.
GCB: What projects are you currently working on?
BB: I’d like to write enough “Writing While Parenting” columns to fill a book. And I’m also currently revising a manuscript of prose poems called Disambiguation, which came from the many conversations that I have had with my daughters about words and their many meanings. I started working on it when my younger daughter was an infant and I needed a way to write that didn’t demand being in front of a computer—and these pieces would play out in my imagination as I bounced her back to sleep.
GCB: As you already know, the heart of the Peace Corps mission is to “promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
1) To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2) To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3) To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”
In what ways do you think poetry could play a role in promoting a greater peace and understanding of people during these fractured times?
BB: Fractures are an essential part of poetry—we write in broken lines. But “the poem,” as A. R. Ammons writes, “is an existence which can incorporate contradictions, inconsistencies, explanations, and counter explanations and still remain whole.”
One of the things that drew me to terza rima is that the form—with its intertwined rhyme scheme—seemed to serve as a counterpoint to all the disconnects of modern life. My experiences in the Peace Corps unsettled everything I thought I knew about myself and the world—and, in doing so, opened me up to new understandings.
I see great overlap in travel, poetry, and parenting, in terms of how they complicate our narratives. It reminds me of that quote by John Wilmot, “Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.”