Interview with Simeon Berry on Ampersand Revisited — June 3, 2015

Simeon Berry lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.  He has been an Associate Editor for Ploughshares and received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Individual Artist Grant.  His first book, Ampersand Revisited (Fence Books), won the 2013 National Poetry Series, and his second book, Monograph (University of Georgia Press), won the 2014 National Poetry Series.

Christopher Nelson: Childhood is one of my poetic obsessions; the reason for—or the source of—my deep interest in it, however, is elusive. In the introduction to the anthology of childhood poems that he edited, Michael Wiegers writes, “Poetry allows us to recover a little bit of our world.” That feels right to me. What brought you to a sustained exploration of childhood?

Simeon Berry: Well, a large part of Ampersand Revisited is about the construction of gender and the Yankee WASP model of masculinity that I was raised with, which I ultimately found quite insufficient for my needs. But I loved it back then. My favorite thing as a teenager was to sit around the table with my Dad’s dinner guests and try to say witty things about Madagascar or Robert Heinlein. I could not wait to be an adult, to be calm and rhetorically self-possessed.

Of course, the trade-off for all that control was a profound ignorance of my own emotions. By the time I started writing Ampersand in 2001, I’d pretty gotten fed up with that, both in my life and in my writing. I wanted to stop hiding my primal anxieties and obsessions behind brief lyric monologues, so I started sliding toward more radical self-disclosure.

One of the other major engines behind the book was to show how I came to be fascinated with mysticism. A lot of that origin story happened to me (and around me) as a kid. When I was younger, I had no idea how to effectively contextualize it. I worshipped my father and wanted everyone to meet him so they could hear his mystical war stories. But this was a futile enterprise, since he’s a human being, not an advertisement for his experiences.

I still really don’t know how to talk lucidly and gracefully about these issues. The best I can do is explain my overall unease with mysticism.

Poetry is a very good vehicle for a quarrel with the unknowable because it lets me preserve my silences about the things I don’t understand and the things I want to protect from the depredations of audience. It’s sort of sacramental that way. I’ve always been powerfully ambivalent about mystical worldviews (not in the sense of a lack of strong emotions, but in the sense of conflicting ones). Verse not only permits that ambiguity, it allows that murkiness to drive the poem, the way plot can drive a story.

Nelson: I agree. “Spiritual” and “mystical” are loaded terms for some, I know; but I have always considered the poem a spiritual enterprise: to plumb subjective experience for greater understanding of oneself. A motif in Ampersand that qualifies as mystical is the recurring burning and the aura-like glow around people. How do you categorize such extraordinary perceptions? Do you think they are a kind of—or a way to—greater understanding?

Berry: There’s this part in Patanjali’s yoga sutras where he painstakingly walks you through each step toward higher consciousness. At one point, he says, you may experience dramatically-altered perceptions and special powers. His advice is to ignore them and continue to work the program (to adapt an AA phrase). In his view, mystical abilities and visions are side-effects of enlightenment and shouldn’t distract you from the decidedly unsexy work of asking difficult questions.

To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re a member of a major religion or a Satanist or a devotee of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Does your belief system help you to make good decisions? Does it make you a more integrated person? Can you handle ambiguity? Or are you just an inflexible asshole who can’t shut up?

Mysticism is a lovely lens through which to look at the world, but it’s not the only one I use. In fact, if you read accounts of mystical experiences, they are sometimes disruptive or debilitating, and people have to recover from them, the way you would from a car accident or a lightning strike. Personally, I would prefer not to have to periodically deal with that sort of havoc in my personal life.

One of my goals in Ampersand was to show the fallout from having access to intuitive information. Mysticism is pretty amazing, but it does tend to alienate the practitioner, sometimes even crippling one’s ability to function in an everyday context. This is the thesis of movies like Fearless or The Razor’s Edge: unshakeable serenity is easy when you’re a monk. But trying to live in the mundane world in a condition of such extremity—even preternatural tranquility and insight—is the real test.

I was very drawn toward the paranormal when I was a kid, but I suspect that my hunger for occult experiences was not too different from a hunger for drugs in that it was a yearning for a species of oblivion. Now that I’m older, I’m far more suspicious of chasing such erasure.

Writing poems can be a spiritual endeavor, if you’re committed to a certain emotional intensity and/or cross-examination. Philip Levine, I think, has a line in an interview in the Michigan Poets on Poetry Series about how writing poems makes you feel totally yourself, which I agree with, in part. Sometimes the ineffable really is hiding inside the sublime. Other times, it’s like you’re waiting outside the club in the rain and you’re wearing the wrong plaid, so you never get in. Eventually, you give up and go home.

Nelson: And there are also moments of perceptual derangement, like the damage from LSD. After taking acid, your speaker has to “consciously rewire [his] brain” while pretending, for years, to be himself. That’s terrifying. There is a lot of romanticizing of psychedelics in literature, so I appreciate you addressing this.

Berry: Thanks! It’s very difficult to write about that subculture and especially nervous-making as a writer and a thinker. You feel so exposed, like you’re drawing people a diagram of your Achilles heel.

In undergrad, the prevailing wisdom was that the purpose of psychedelics was to be able to spend your Saturday night languidly hallucinating. For some people, that’s all it was. But for other people, it seemed to shatter their gestalt and not in a purely temporary way. While it can be cool to stand outside your thought processes, observing them from a distance, it’s much less cool to suddenly be afraid that you might never be able to step back into that slipstream. When you need to go to the grocery store or talk to bank tellers, not being able to think fluently no longer feels pleasingly exotic.

A number of my fellow undergraduates had nervous breakdowns, and while psychedelics might not have been solely responsible, they were often an exacerbating factor. I’ve known a lot of impressive people and writers who were fundamentally unavailable because of their intoxication habits, and it makes me sad. So I’m pretty resistant to laudatory drug narratives.

Of course, I feel that way about a lot of masculine, beer-centric activities. You drink a six-pack, watch two sporting events, and that night, at 2:00 a.m., when you’re hopelessly drunk and there’s no chance you’re going to be able to string together more than two consecutive sentences, the other guy alludes to something that might resemble a feeling. I just never had the patience for all that.

Nelson: Right. It’s always seemed a sad tradeoff: hours of intoxication in order to leak a little truth.

I really enjoy how you integrated pop culture—Galaga, a Camaro, Elvis, the Brothers Grimm, etc.—into a moody poetic childhood. How isn’t Galaga (an early 80s arcade game) unpoetic? Or asked another way, how do Galaga and these other pop-culture moments contribute to an atmosphere palpably mystical?

Berry: One of my favorite things to do is to take something obscene or ridiculous and make it as elegant as I can in language. Part of this is play. (Who wants to shoot fish in a barrel? Can’t we just let the daffodils be for a while?) Part of it is subversion—I often can’t keep a straight face about some aspects of poetry and the associated business, and this is my revenge: a way of reminding myself that we all are, to some degree, bunko artists.

I’m especially happy to have finally managed to work video games into a book. I remember playing Atari as a kid and being fascinated by those neon blobs of pixels moving about the screen. Now contemporary video games can cost as much as Hollywood blockbusters and (when they’re at their best) are as carefully storyboarded, written, and voice-acted as movies.

I’d like to say that I could sense the uncanny even in crude games like Adventure and Pitfall, but I think I just have a very low threshold for being amused. Plus, it makes me happy to mix “high” and “low” culture. As a poet, I think it’s a very good idea to remind ourselves that other audiences are possible, despite the fact that our product has a very modest economic value.

I think that mystical images are as artificial and stylized as a video game image. I mean, I find them beautiful and all, but they are essentially visual aids for an inexplicable and mysterious thing. Mantras or symbols (or whatever you meditate on) are simply placeholders, shiny things to distract you enough to allow you to let the program run. Whether or not a mystical experience accesses another plane of existence or simply gins up an entertaining hallucination, I’d say that mystics have learned to hack the brainstem, for good or for ill. So video games aren’t a bad metaphor for mysticism, in my view.

Nelson: That’s a great metaphor: mystics as pioneer brain hackers. I’d like to hear more about what you said a minute ago about “other audiences [being] possible.” What do you have in mind? Walk us a little way into the labyrinth with that thread.

Berry: It’s hard not to despair about audience when you’re a poet. Even among writers, there seems to be a significant contingent of fiction writers who don’t read poetry. And there are a lot of poets who seem to write only for other poets (or other avant-garde poets). And that’s fine. But it can feel a little insular.

My fiction professor used to say that every time you choose one word over another, you lose a reader. I’m sure that my language matrix has been so warped by higher education that I’m not even aware of how exclusionary some of my poems are. I feel a bit like Ralf the Wise and Powerful, the fugitive Artificial Intelligence in Daniel Keys Moran’s The Last Dancer. Ralf tries to change as much of his code as he can so that he won’t be recognizable to the programs that are hunting him, but there’s a certain percentage that he can’t change, no more than a human being can perform brain surgery on himself.

Some of the stuff I’m fascinated by is fairly esoteric. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make an effort to broaden my audience as much as I can. In fact, I’m working on a memoir right now which is also an attempt to get literary types, gamers, and comic book nerds to talk to one another.

I try to remind myself that poetry (and art in general) is not a zero sum game. As someone said (I forget who), the fact that Rod Mckuen exists doesn’t take away from the fact that Mary Ruefle exists. And stuff has really loosened up since the millennium. You’ve poets like Raymond McDaniel, Gary Jackson, and A. Van Jordan, who put their nerdiness right out there.

Nelson: I assume that many of the characters and situations you write about in Ampersand Revisited are autobiographical or inspired by lived experience, much of which is sad and dark—suicide, impossible attractions, drug use—the sort of thing most people would be secretive about. So, we are in the domain of the confessional poem, another of my poetic obsessions. I have an ongoing conversation about confessionalism with a couple of poets. We disagree about whether a confessional poem is a way to shine light into the darkness, or whether it is like walking into quicksand, revisiting the emotions that can pull us under. Or maybe you have a different metaphor.

Berry: I bristle when I hear “confessional,” because it implies that people like Plath and Berryman wrote about stuff that was suspect. Like the proper domain of poetry is a harmless, lyric ode about dryer socks and dead Romans. I also get cranky because it assumes that poetry can be mimetic, that it’s possible to be faithful to events. When you put something in verse, it comes out changed, even if only by what you leave out, because—let’s face it—one has to leave out an awful lot to achieve the proper speed-to-weight ratio in a poem.

I’m more interested in intimacy. I don’t mean unadorned speech, but some quality of tone and emotional access that feels immediate and not miserly. I truly don’t care if speakers in poems are familiar or recognizable, as long as they’re fully present. One of my favorite poets is Larry Levis, who, in his later work, just seems to drift through time and space. His speakers are quite insubstantial, but the sense of vulnerability is always there, even when he’s contradicting himself and failing to be consistent to his world. I find him an intensely “confessional” poet, but not because I believe that 90% or 50% or even 15% of what he writes about happened to him. There’s a fidelity to self-interrogation that’s impressive and moving.

As for the percentage of “truth” in this book, let’s just say that it’s very, very high, but so is the lyric distortion. In the end, this book is no more a window onto my life than a scrambled porn channel. The effort to “watch” what’s unfolding on the screen becomes absurd very quickly if what you’re trying to do is see something recognizable.

Nelson: Very well said, and I agree. I think that a confession should have fidelity to the psychic actuality of an event or subject, not to facticity. This makes me think of the moment when you quote Northrop Frye: “the poet … is concerned not with what happened, but with what happens.” I mean, a reason we are haunted by past events is because they keep happening; the past hasn’t passed if there is unfinished psychic work to be done “there.” This brings us again to the subject of childhood. Your poems look back with detail and intensity, but you do so without—or with little—nostalgia or glorifying what was. Was writing Ampersand Revisited a way to sort of complete the work of the past, to be able to move forward less encumbered?

Berry: I know that poetry often is a therapeutic boon for many writers, but for me, there’s an element of devotion to the possibilities of craft that’s entirely independent from the writer’s ego and its needs. Plus, I must confess a love of writing’s insolvable problems. As Pete Holmes asks, “Does the cat really want to catch the laser pointer?”

However, the more I read, the more I respect those poets who just don’t give a damn about what they disclose: people like Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson, and Anne Carson. Don’t get me wrong: I love well-wrought poems, but I give extra credit for psychic courage.

I wouldn’t say that my writing about the past has transmuted any past traumas or tensions into pixie dust—they remain stuff that I have to keep an eye on—but that history now feels less inert. For instance, I wrote that first section of Ampersand—the one where the character of Christine teases the speaker with the prospect of dating him and cuddles with him—more than a decade ago, and it never struck me as particularly upsetting. But when I showed my book to my therapist, I pictured a ten-year-old I didn’t know in that scenario, and the thought of anyone sexualizing him—let alone putting him in tacit sexual competition with his older brother—filled me with horror. I doubt I ever would have had such a visceral reaction if I hadn’t forced myself to look at the scene the way a reader would.

It’s bleakly funny that you can think of causing the most horrendous damage to yourself sometimes without too much difficulty, but when you think about the same thing happening to a loved one, you’re terrified. We have to become strangers to ourselves, to some degree, in order to have the proper amount of compassion and perspective, and writing can help that process enormously.

Of course, in order to make poems out of these events, I had to adulterate the truth a lot, which I’m okay with. Something crafted with the aim of being beautiful and symmetrical is always compromised, usually fatally so.

The book is now its own thing, distinct from my neuroses and faulty narratives, and beyond my control. And that feels a little bit like a relief from the self, which is a blessed thing.

Nelson: You write, “When the people I love / enter the ampersand, // they are changed.” Perhaps this idea applies also to the act of making a poem: an entrance into “and-ness,” a joining to something larger, which, I agree, is a bit of relief from the self. Maybe we can conclude by talking about the word “ampersand”—how it is in your book more than a “mere” word. I read it as a trope for the understanding that comes from recapitulating one’s past.

Berry: Originally, the title popped into my head as a sort of joke on Brideshead Revisited, a way of making fun of my predilection for being archaic and arch, as well as the fact that the book seemed to be turning out to be a very English kind of origin story.

I’ve always loved the word, “ampersand.” There’s something contoured about it, like a sand dune, and it’s got this unexpected plosive near the middle of it. It also overtly sounds like a device, which pleases the sci-fi nerd in me. I’ve always wanted devices.

It’s such a fancy and solid sort of word for a tiny and mundane thing. Yet we give it this ornate design (I still can’t draw an ampersand that doesn’t look deformed) as a way of saving space. So we have a word that refers to a symbol which itself refers to another word. This recursiveness pleases me.

But you’re right: it goes deeper than that. There’s so much in the book that looks backward and inward, and so the literal aspect of the title acquires a larger meaning for me. This book (and poetry in general) focuses a hell of a lot of wattage on insignificant things, so the title is a gentle little jab at how much weight we bring to bear on the smallest details when we’re trying to wring significance out of them. “And” is among the most generic bits of language, but the book makes it into a kind of Eden that continually recedes from view the closer you get to it. As John Cusack’s character says in Grosse Point Blank, “You can never go home again … but I guess you can shop there.”

I like your point about the “and-ness” of it. I wanted the title to foster a sense of plurality. There are so many camps in the world of ideas, so many mutually-exclusive positions and so much essentialism, that it’s often profoundly depressing. What brought me to literature was its sense of potentiality, and what kept me in poetry was its very ability to prevent the waveform of probability from collapsing.

Those writers I enjoy the most are the ones who allow us to look beyond ourselves. I have this great broadside from the now sadly defunct Black Oak Books in San Francisco, which quotes Thom Gunn defending Christopher Isherwood’s “I am a camera” thesis. Gunn argues that that “faithfulness of attention” helps us to “escape from the singleness of our own minds, which, if lived in exclusively, become prisons.” I can’t think of a better description of what writing should help us to do. It should make us psychically larger, not smaller.