Training Ritual for Threat: A Conversation with Lauren Berry
part of our Emerging Poets Interview Series
by Eric Higgins
Lauren Berry is the author of the poetry collection The Lifting Dress (Penguin, 2011), a National Poetry Series Winner selected by Terrance Hayes. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Denver Quarterly, Iron Horse, and Cream City Review. She lives in Houston, where she teaches twelfth-grade English for YES Prep Public Schools. Read two new poems by Lauren Berry.
Eric Higgins: When collected, the sensuous lyrics in The Lifting Dress combine elements we might expect from a bildungsroman, post-traumatic narrative, parable, portrait of sisterhood, collage of possible femininities, and even an evocation of place (i.e., saw-grass-and-magnolia Florida). If not squarely in one poetic tradition, what traditions do you think this book straddles? How would you yourself characterize this book?
Lauren Berry: I characterize this book as something more tangible than an evocation—the poems are more like a traveling puppet show or a photo album of a twin who died when I lived. To me, the poems bear a certain physicality. A burnt edge. An overstuffed arm. A juice-stained lip. I struggle to view them as pieces of literature to be put under glass, although I am certain that they are.
I agree that this book strides through several literary traditions, though the most dominant would be Confessionalism, Southern Gothic literature, Absurdist drama, and Feminist poetry. Yet, like any real teenage girl, the book is too fallible, too untethered, and too mercurial to belong to a certain categorization for too long. I imagine that the dominant tradition shifts with each poem—as do her moods.
EH: Among the very real pleasures of the book is an admirable sense of coherence. In part, that would seem to derive from overlaying and braiding together recurring symbols. I’m thinking here of the collection’s wasps, bruises, sugar, pearl/opal, tongue, water (as ocean, then pool, and also bodily fluids like blood and spit), throat, and dress. It’s almost as though the poems build up a community or a habitable world, only instead of landmarks we have these fraught, recurring objects that act as touchstones. What did you want to achieve by spreading these symbols throughout the book, and what was your drafting or editing process to keep all of these surfacing symbols in a kind of order?
LB: Secretly, I have delusions of grandeur that I can sustain a story long enough to compose a novel or a memoir, though if I am honest with myself, I can’t escape my poet mode. The book is evidence of that struggle between the weight of narrative and the vapor of lyric. I think that a “braid” is a generous word—I would think of it more like an edge of cold air approaching warmer air. Though some days the cold front is the narrative, and some days it’s lyricism.
As for ordering the symbols, I couldn’t have ordered them if I had set out to do so. One craft book that gave me permission to let them croon all at once was Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. In the book he argues that poets should cultivate private obsessions—protect them fiercely, be unafraid to wave them openly. I never intentionally constructed a mobile of images that fit the character, though I did deliberately get out of the way of their existence—and their desire to surface over and over.
EH: Besides symbols, The Lifting Dress includes a cast of recurring characters—Big Sister, Big Man, Big Man’s Wife, and The Just-Bled Girl—but there are also diverse forms: notes, a song, a history, an invitation, a dream, a conspiracy theory, a petition, a letter. About half of the titles in the book mention either the characters or these forms, so a sense of coherence is apparent before we finish reading the Table of Contents. What motivated your titling? Are you counterbalancing the mystery of the poems with grounding in the titles? Or are your titles a reaction against the kind of disparate and scattershot assemblage we see sometimes in poetry collections?
LB: The world I create for a poem makes more logical sense to me than to anyone else. Or at least that’s how it feels. Perhaps that’s how all writers feel? I didn’t realize this until I had classmates review my poems in graduate workshops. When I turned in a poem, readers offered interpretations of the narrative that were bemusedly distant from my vision. And for a few workshops I endured the feckless workshop game which plays out like this: I say, “I meant for the poem to [insert meaning],” and then the reader politely responds, “Really? I didn’t get that at all.”
I quickly figured out that my desire to write poetry based in ethereal lyricism conflicted with my yearning for readers to access my desired interpretation. And so I began to craft titles that would provide my audience with a vivid anchor. Each ten- to twelve-word title became a kind of theater program for a furious and obscure ballet. I wanted the reader to know the purpose for the performance and be able to swirl up in its drama without the anxiety of wondering why it’s dramatic.
EH: The book begins with an epigraph from Anne Sexton: “I am mad the way all young girls are mad, / with an offering, an offering…” Certainly, some of your poems share the tension between sexes that we find in her Love Poems. Was that book in particular important to you, and were there other writers whose choices—about form or otherwise—informed your own?
LB: There is something recognizable to me in that quote. The experience of looking at a stranger’s face and seeing my own. When I first read it, I had that garden-variety pang of jealousy that whimpers, “I wish I’d written that.” It seemed to be the boiled-down bone of everything that I wanted to say. And so I selected Sexton’s quote with the hope that it would set the tone for the book—which is to say that the poems are a response to trauma. “I am furious, but I offer a kind of art out of my fury.” I never wanted The Just-Bled Girl to be categorized as either a vixen or a victim. Instead, I intended for the poems to show how the details of one’s world translate into another language after trauma. No longer is the palmetto plant still the palmetto plant kind of thing. To put it another way: the book is a collection of Rorschach tests.
EH: Do you think of these poems as arising from the consciousness of one character? Or is the collection closer to a spectrum of (primarily) female speakers/voices?
LB: Readers have told me that the book appears like a chorus of different female voices speaking toward the same end, though I have never understood it that way. The heart of the book belongs to The Just-Bled Girl. Everyone outside her is peripheral.
EH: What I’m taking to be the main speaker gradually assumes some of the traits, manners, and characteristics of her elders. This gradual coming-to-resemble in the form of ingesting the red wolves of calories, counting her ribs as her father’s girlfriend does, and even meditating on her impulse to commit a violent act seems to usher into the book an undercurrent of threat. In your mind, what is the function of threat in the collection? How does it operate in these poems, and why were you drawn to it poetically?
LB: The red wolves and the counting of ribs are a kind of training ritual for threat. This preparation involves collecting the different versions of women from which one could garner courage. The Just-Bled Girl is less a woman born out of herself and more of a collage of back-porch stories, dusty Polaroids of ambiguous relatives, and Technicolor pornography (as one reader in a workshop described it).
The Just-Bled Girl didn’t grow out of the ground like one flower—to create her, I constantly swept up images that I encountered in my daily life and added them to her. The trick was to pick up shiny somethings and figure out how they could offer her identity. Or perhaps, how they could confirm that strength was a part of her identity.
EH: In the Acknowledgments, you thank your editor, Paul Slovak, as well as those at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing who aided this book in growing “into adulthood.” Can you talk about your efforts to age or mature this book? What were the phases of revising and adding—or perhaps layering—that brought this collection to its final form?
LB: The Lifting Dress grew to completion much like a teenage girl with an identity crisis grows into adulthood—it’s no accident that I thanked my generous readers and mentors for guiding the book toward that end. Although it began in the place where it would one day end, it traveled through a Candy Land maze until it got back there five years later.
Earlier I mentioned that I have obsessions, and I meant it. It’s part of my family’s heritage. The book left its starting place from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old who has been raped, but then it transformed into a book about historic hotels, a book about Floridian swamps, a book about possessed horses, a book about father-daughter relationships, a book about breast cancer, and on and on. I was convinced that each new obsession was the one, but now I think that I had to go through all of those phases in order to get back to the original story. The true story.
In fact, I didn’t even name The Just-Bled Girl until the last year of drafting. My main character changed her uniform every time I unearthed a new fixation; she went from wedding dress to dead animal skins to billowy nightgowns to Catholic school girl uniforms and on and on ad nauseam. It was difficult to follow her, though the book came back around with one of the first poems that I wrote for the collection—the ode to Tallahassee entitled “The Just-Bled Girl Writes A Petition on Hotel Paper.” In that poem, The Just-Bled Girl manifests her identity through a panoply of the city’s images, and thus her sense of herself is grounded in an external collage. It never emanates from her core. Like many young people, she is a magnet for meaning. We don’t exist in any one room.
Eric Higgins has poems appearing or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, Guernica, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. A recent recipient of a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, he has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston, where he was awarded the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry. (6/2012)