A Virtual Interview with Lauren Berry

Background

Thursday, November 11, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. CST

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-w-lauren-berry-tickets-184367276487

The Interview

CH: How would you describe yourself as a reader? What is your first memory of reading poetry?

LB: I would describe myself as a fleetingly obsessive reader. I get hooked on a genre and submerge into it for a couple months and then the wind will shift and I am onto something else. In the past year, I’ve leapt from children’s literature to erotica to biographies to Russian literature and now Lauren Groff’s new historical fiction novel, Matrix, which has absorbed my imagination.  

CH: How did your interest in writing develop? When did you begin to think of yourself as a poet?

LB: I knew even as a child that I wanted to write. For fourth grade career day, I dressed up like an author – black velour turtleneck, black leggings, black beret. Also, my elementary school had a “Young Authors” program and if you wrote a story by each Friday, you earned an orange button that said, “Young Author,” and had a drawing of a quill on it. Once you collected so many, they framed your school picture in the library. I remember when I made it to the library wall. It was my first real milestone as a writer.

But I didn’t think of myself as a poet until I was a teenager. I used to ride horses but when I got mono in tenth grade, I missed six weeks of school and was told it was too dangerous for me to ride, so I signed up for a poetry workshop at a fine arts center a few miles from my house. I loved it. Sitting there at sixteen, in the middle of a group of retired women, I felt a flicker inside me. My teacher, Timothy Juhl, saw that light and encouraged me to get a degree in Creative Writing. I still think about him often, and I’m so grateful for his influence in my life.

CH: What motivated you to pursue an MFA? What changed most about your writing practice as a result of the experience of the MFA?

LB: The MFA felt like a natural step for me. I loved being a student and I just felt hungry for more knowledge. There was never a point when I considered not getting an MFA.

My time in the MFA program at the University of Houston changed my discipline as a reader more than my practice as a writer. Since I was young, I wrote constantly, but I was not as dedicated of a reader. However, when I got my first apartment in Houston, I discovered a wonderful stillness in living alone for the first time. I would sit on my porch for hours, curled up with a book.

CH: I understand you held the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute. How did you become aware of the fellowship? How did the fellowship impact your writing?

LB: The fellowship at Madison was one of the best years of my life because I taught for two hours a week—and that’s it. The gift of time to write made it possible for me to really get lost in my writing and reading. As a Floridian, I had also never seen snow and the winter wonderland that is Wisconsin opened a new realm in my imagination.

CH: Your first book, The Lifting Dress (Penguin, 2011), was selected by Terrance Hayes for the National Poetry Series in 2010. Tell us a little about how that collection came together.

LB: One of my favorite quotes about art is Michelangelo’s “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” When I began The Lifting Dress, I started with a scene that features the Just-Bled Girl the day after she endures sexual assault– and then I started “carving” my way through her narrative journey until she found her power again.

CH: The poems of The Lifting Dress contain a strong sense of place, as well as the gendered impacts of that place on the poems’ speakers. Please tell us a little about the role of place in your work.

LB: For me, there is no place in the world as inspiring as Florida. I love its swamps and its beaches and its forests. It is the most intriguing landscape because of its tension between beauty and danger. It sets my imagination ablaze. When I am home, I feel more alive and more anchored in who I truly am.     

CH: The use of epithets for characters (“Big Man,” “The Just-Bled Girl”) in The Lifting Dress felt to me as if it moved them into the realms of archetype and myth. How has myth influenced your writing?

LB: For me, there is no place in the world as inspiring as Florida. I love its swamps and its beaches and its forests. It is the most intriguing landscape because of its tension between beauty and danger. It sets my imagination ablaze. When I am home, I feel more alive and more anchored in who I truly am.     

CH: Tell us a little about your most recent collection, The Rented Altar (C&R Press, 2020). How does it compare thematically with The Lifting Dress?

LB: Both collections are invested in portraying the experience of a female speaker in conflict with her own body. In The Lifting Dress, the speaker struggles to find her own voice in the aftermath of sexual violence. In The Rented Altar, the speaker searches for validity as a new wife and stepmother who cannot conceive her own child. I find the female body endlessly fascinating, and this intrigue has carried me into my third collection which is a book of persona poems from the point of view of Typhoid Mary.

CH: Both The Lifting Dress and The Rented Altar came to publication on winning a contest. What advice would you give to poets preparing manuscripts for contests?

LB: After sending your book out into the world, be patient. Trust that your readers are out there, excited for your book to come along. Be kind to yourself while you wait.

CH: What is the most recent book you’ve read?

LB: I undertook the Russian literature marathon that is Anna Karenina in August and September, and I am still digesting its lessons. Tolstoy’s ability to capture the emotional interior of a character and communicate their point of view in such a believable way was an absolute gift to me as a reader.  

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