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8 Questions For Poet Lauren Berry

Our first interview for National Poetry Month features a Houston poet who describes the South as “a haunted house in the middle of an exquisite garden.”

Lauren Berry received a BA in creative writing from Florida State University and an MFA from the University of Houston, where she won the Inprint Verlaine Prize and served as poetry editor for Gulf Coast. From 2009 to 2010, she held the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute. Her first collection of poems, The Lifting Dress, was selected by Terrance Hayes to win the National Poetry Series and was released by Penguin in 2011. It’s set in a feverish swamp town in Florida where a teenaged girl has been raped. Berry lives in Houston where she teaches AP English Language for YES Prep Public Schools, a charter school whose mission is to transform the low-income communities of Houston through college-preparatory education and community service.

Fellow poet Zachary Lundgren interviewed Berry about the importance of poetry in today’s world and what she’s working on next.

What sparked your initial love of poetry?

I can’t identify a point of origin for that spark, but I fell in love with writing at a young age. On fourth grade career day, I dressed up as “an author.” I donned black leggings, a black turtleneck, a beret and a facial expression marked by profound existential crisis. I always knew that I wanted to be involved in the arts. My grandfather was a writer, my grandmother was a painter and my childhood home was littered with musical instruments, some of which my father made by hand. Creative pursuits were welcome in my family. I am still surprised that when I told my parents that I wanted to be a poet they didn’t immediately urge me into a more secure or lucrative profession.

In what important ways does poetry differ from fiction?

liftingdressI love this question. I’ve only taken a couple of fiction courses, so I am not sure I can speak with great ethos here, but my initial reaction to this is that the genres differ in terms of labeling one’s work. What I mean is that fiction writers traditionally identify themselves as a science fiction, magical realism or fantasy writer in order to bend the rules of reality, but a poet doesn’t necessarily have to classify her work this way.

For example, in The Lifting Dress characters make choices that don’t always make logical sense; within the collection a young woman dreams of climbing into the coffin of a deceased lieutenant, a pine tree says, “It will be hard for me to die,” and a girl and her mother mistake a pool for a father. And yet I don’t feel responsible for defending character motivation or articulating what is real from what is surreal — or even what is fiction from what is autobiographical.

Who are some of your favorite authors/poets?

My favorite writers are not necessarily Southern writers; I am drawn to those who have an interest in the lyric narrative and who often address the same topics in which I am interested. Some of my greatest influences include Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Susan Mitchell, Mark Doty and Laura Kasischke. But I’ m also influenced by whatever I am reading at the time, which this week is Victoria Chang’s Circle and Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. I am deeply charged by reading — by wandering through the gallery of another’s work.

While reading The Lifting Dress, I couldn’t help but feel that the book is heavily influenced by region and place. How do you feel the theme of place influences the book?

The South is endlessly fascinating to me and I suspect it always will be. It’s something of a haunted house in the middle of an exquisite garden. It’s a complicated setting and I will likely spend my life fighting with language inside of it.

Is there a second book in the works? What do you find most informs your current writing?

I got married in October of 2013 and overnight I became a wife and stepmother to my husband’s 12-year-old son. While I had been in my stepson’s life for five years before he walked down the aisle with our rings, I had never lived with him or formally identified myself as his parent. Becoming a stepparent changed my life and offered striking joys (as well as challenges) that I hadn’t experienced before. In short, I fiercely love a child who both is and is not “mine,” and this dynamic is my current focus. The collection is tentatively titled, A Competition of Yearning, which is a response to the distrust and confusion that society sometimes feels toward stepparents.

To you, what are some of the most prevalent ingredients that go into the concoction we call a Southern poet?

To be a Southern writer is to be concerned with the tradition of storytelling, attention to a simultaneously beautiful and wicked landscape, and at times … well … the celebration of poor decisions.

Your poems have amazingly detailed titles. What role should a title play for a poem? For beginning writers, what’s important to consider when titling a poem?

My titles serve to anchor my poem narratively — this allows me the freedom to play more lyrically within the poem and to orchestrate images that lean more toward the surreal. These types of titles give me more leash to run around the yard of the poem without worrying that the reader won’t be able to follow me. Beginning writers should consider the balance between disclosure and mystery; a narratively-driven title can allow for more lyricism in the body of the poem and vice versa.

In 2015, why is it important that we celebrate National Poetry Month?

This question is bittersweet. At times I am discouraged by how seldom poetry is a part of our everyday lives. I think it puts our society at a cultural and intellectual disadvantage. In some countries poets are held up as celebrities, but we have progress to make in America before this will be the case.

Earlier this year I read Tony Hoagland’s essay, “Twenty Poems that Can Save America,” which suggests that contemporary Americans should understand poetry as a more approachable antidote to what ails us instead of as a Rubik’s cube of esoteric music. I hope that National Poetry Month can open up a conversation about this and serve to invite reticent readers into the wild and wonderful world of poetry.

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