Collected Works Bookstore interviews poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
CJJ: Hello, the Roses is your latest in a long line of poetry volumes, but it is your first work to appear on the New Directions label. Some folks such as myself, would consider this an honor as New Directions has had a long and famous history in the publication of American Poets: Robert Duncan, H.D., Ezra Pound, Hayden Carruth, William Carlos Williams, and Kenneth Rexroth, to name a few, have all shared the label. Among your many distinguished accomplishments, how does this further one make you feel?
MMB: The black and white New Directions classics are a big part of my literary history, including great works in translation. It is an incredible honor to have this book. I do feel that. But it was also an honor to be published by Kelsey Street, a small press collective for new women’s writing for over forty years. I like to think about time ahead and how my writing will participate with innovation in the contemporary, and I like to think of New Directions as a venue for that. They are a spirited, idealistic and free-minded publisher.
CJJ: Scholars and critics have housed your works under the moniker of a Language Poet. What does this mean exactly? Or is it a term, like so many terms, that has a center, but edges that blur in obscurity. Do you agree that you are a language poet? Is there such a thing?
MMB: The Language movement began with a specific group of writers in NYC and San Francisco in the late 70’s, with L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E magazine and a community of writers and artists who were developing a theory about language as a material, and in the beginning their writing was abstract and utilized juxtapositions. I’ve always written in sentences, but I learned from my friends who were language writers, and I share some of their influences in French philosophy and the visual arts. I believe you can feel the heft of language even with grammatical sentences, and I think ideas can be continuous with emotion. I think it’s interesting to move in a continuum from language as material to language as illusionistic, back and forth in one poem.
CJJ: You frequently collaborate with visual artists such as Kiki Smith and Richard Tuttle. What does poetry add to the visual arts and, transversely, what do the visual arts add to poetry. Is poetry an art form that is conducive to collaboration? Can you give us a few dreams that you’ve envisioned of such collaborations between poetry and other arts?
MMB: With collaboration, the space between two artists opens out. You have material or content from the other person and permission and communal energy to create in that new space, and you can give something to a particular person, a particular artist. Since I spent a great deal of my young adulthood living alone, I welcomed opportunities to be with others in this way. Today, I would “dream” of collaborating with perhaps the spirit of a cloud or a plant. I would love to do that.
CJJ: Your poetry is very distinct and not quite (speaking visually here, about your line) what many readers expect to see upon the page when they open a book of verse. In a certain sense, your lines give an immediate impression of aphorisms (which are brief philosophical ponderings), maxims or fragments. How did you come to this distinct use of line? Is it just part of the language poetry inheritance (I am reminded of My Life by Lyn Hejinian, but far more controlled) or else, how did you come to this use of line?
MMB: I make many, many notes before I write and arrange them with pictures on a big table. When I am ready to write, I start arranging the notes as if they were a large collage on the table, and I write from that. It might feel natural to juxtapose an aphorism-note next to a note describing a cat, just as a visual artist would juxtapose a pink with green. I follow a sense of the energy of the composition. I don’t usually include all the steps that lead up to a thought, so as not to be boring. Even though I leave out some links and make jumps in a composition, there is still for me a logic of the whole, as in a film.
CJJ: Of local interest, your latest book has a lot of New Mexico landscape imagery. You have, in fact, lived in Northern New Mexico for quite some time. Certainly the landscape here continues to inspire you, but could you talk a little bit about New Mexico and its influence on you as an artist?
MMB: I’ve lived in New Mexico for almost forty years. The light and landscape are very, very important to me. I believe I developed the longer lines to accommodate the wide sense of the horizon and long span of changing light we experience in the high desert. The cultures and the writers and artists I have known here have been seminal. Also, there is a sense of time I experience, when the sun crosses a wide space every day, which becomes cyclical. Trying to describe the changes of light on the land has led me to using nuance as a way of proceeding through a poem. When you live on one mesa for a long time, you come to trust your experience of a place, and then you can use that place as an opening, a portal, to other explorations of time and space and relations with people.
CJJ: You also create visual arts, do you not? When you are working on a literary form as opposed to a visual form what, to you, is the major creative difference?
MMB: The visual arts are a source for my work, but I do not make visual art. Seeing is a way of creating the world, speaking with the world. Now, I am working with the idea that seeing itself is a kind of description or expression of the world, but I don’t know quite what I mean by that. Looking at art is joyful exercise in seeing.
CJJ: Lastly, what is, right now, in your book bag or on your coffee table?
MMB: Selected Poems of Keats, Ooops! by James Sherry, Wallace Stevens by Charles Altieri, Molecular Consciousness Alchemical Medicine by Clare Goodrick-Clarke, Bone Horses by Leslie Poling-Kempes, Denver Review, Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Silko.
Interviewee Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Interviewer: Christopher J. Johnson