Spectacular Endlessly: An Interview with Emily Berry

By Ralf WebbMarch 7, 2017

Spectacular Endlessly: An Interview with Emily Berry
EMILY BERRY’S DEBUT full-length collection Dear Boy was published by Faber & Faber in 2013, following the success of her pamphlet Stingray Fevers (tall lighthouse) and the 2008 Eric Gregory Award (a highly esteemed UK prize for poets under 30). A sequence of epistolary poems runs throughout Dear Boy, addressed to an absent lover: “My bird, since you left I have loved strangely” (“Love Bird”). Several of these use “tabulation”; large blank spaces appear mid-line, as if the poems’ sutures had been ripped out, creating irregular, staccato, breathless rhythms, so that to read them is to enact and experience the urgency of the speaker’s appeals:

dear palms, dear faithful     body                         I have wants […]

I lost your voice                  in dark places                              it is written

over and over                              that                         please come

                                                                                                     (“Letter to Husband”)

These fast-paced poems sting the collection with electricity. They are the quick-fire reports of an ecstatic new voice in contemporary UK poetry.

At its core, Dear Boy is concerned with power structures. There are several dramatic monologues in the collection, through which Berry creates a cast of characters involved in complex — sometimes darkly comic — relationships of control and submission. In “The Incredible History Of Patient M,” a doctor unsettlingly asserts his authority over a “closely monitored” patient: “He slapped my face with his penis. / ‘To get you going,’ he said. My heart is now / on red alert, apparently.” In “Our Love Could Spoil Dinner,” a father skirmishes with a biographer-cum-lover over his daughter —

[…] “Go to your room!”

he shouted. “You shabby daughter.” “You worthless

excuse for a story,” the biographer added. They played

cards to settle a debt

— before the biographer puts his tongue in the daughter’s mouth. And in “A Short Guide to Corseting,” a woman recounts how, under the ever-present eye of her boyfriend and male trainer, she began to wear a corset: “My boyfriend held me / firm while the corsetier laced me in. I drew my / last deep breaths and I gave myself up, then, / standing between them.” The men in these poems are undoubtedly engaged in acts of misogyny — they are uncritical and exploitative of their structural positions of power, and uncaring or negligent about issues of consent — but the women who speak the monologues do so directly, unambiguously, and in a way that, at times, endorses their circumstances. The speakers’ cognizance and forthrightness underscores their autonomy, and gazes back at readers who would seek to place them into basic and problematic categories of victimhood, fragility, or enfeeblement. Despite the outwardly submissive roles the women speakers occupy, they ultimately retain a relative power over their situations, not least because of their power over the reader.

Now, four years after the charged and transgressive poems of Dear Boy, Emily Berry has published her second full-length collection. Stranger, Baby (Faber & Faber) — colored an intense, eerie blue, as though it might glow in the dark — explores the experience of grief and loss, frequently through a psychoanalytic lens. Where the poems of Dear Boy were written over the course of eight years, those of Stranger, Baby were written over just three — the most prolific period of her writing life, Berry tells me.

The poems formed part of, and were informed by, Berry’s Creative and Critical Writing PhD at UEA. Quotations and excerpts from psychoanalytic and critical texts — accompanied by quotations from a variety of other sources, including D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf — are embedded in Stranger, Baby’s elegiac poems; this collage technique serves to create a prismatic, Hydra-like portrayal of grief. Berry’s speaker might conceptualize death as “a flat plain spectacular endlessly” (“The End”), but to live with someone else’s death is a fragmented experience. In “Picnic,” the sea provides a metaphor for that experience: “Watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continually / striving to be whole / Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person / I tried to do that / All that year I visited a man in a room / I polished my feelings.” Living with the dead breaks us, irrevocably. 

This “breaking” is phantasmagorically rendered in “Tragedy for One Voice.” Berry halves that one voice into “Me One” and “Me Two,” who exchange dialogue “alone onstage with a coffin.” Me One/Me Two are fragmented further: their dialogue contains quotes from Sandra L. Bloom, Al Alvarez, and Wilfred Owen, so that the “One Voice” ultimately splits, like forked lightning, into many. After Me Two quotes Al Alvarez’s description (from “The Savage God”) of the Freudian process of mourning — “in some locked cupboard of the mind, he carries the murderous dead thing within him, an unappeased Doppelgänger” — Me One, in a sobering reification of Alvarez/Freud’s contemplations, replies:


   let it go to swimming pools, meditation sessions, take it

   on train journeys during which I feel ABANDONED and

   ALONE —  

The collage technique also spotlights and complicates any instinct the reader might have to term the collection “autobiographical,” or to anchor the “I” exclusively to Berry. The personal pronoun is used throughout Stranger, Baby, but because this “I” contains, projects, and engages in atemporal conversation with the experiences and memories of many other voices, it is plural rather than singular — a vehicle for representative rather than purely subjective experience. I met up with Emily on a slate-gray January afternoon, in a pub in Bloomsbury, London, to talk more about Stranger, Baby.


RALF WEBB: Given the predominant subject of Stranger, Baby — loss, grief, and elegy — and its use of the “I,” it seems inevitable that some will term it “autobiographical.” In an article on “Poetry and Autobiography” (Life Writing, vol. 6, no.1, 2009), Jo Gill and Melanie Waters note that, particularly in the case of poetry written by women, “to label a poem as autobiographical” has been “tantamount to denying its creative or aesthetic value.” What do you think about the application of the term autobiography in this context, and would you embrace or reject it for Stranger, Baby?

EMILY BERRY: Generally, I reject that term in relation to poetry, because it doesn’t seem to fit. An autobiography is meant to be an account of a person’s life, and, on the whole, you’re not going to get a poem that is a straight description of a person’s life — it’s usually an essence of that. Say you’re making a cake and you have various different ingredients — you put eggs in it. But the cake is very different from its ingredients; you don’t say that the cake is an account of the eggs. Yet you couldn’t make it without the eggs. Most of my poems are in some way about feelings, but as a cognitive behavioral therapist would say, “Feelings are not facts!” So “autobiography” doesn’t seem like a relevant term. At the same time, some people really want poems — specifically poems written in the first person — to be about someone and something “real,” and they can feel cheated when the poem isn’t. There needs to be a different way of talking about it aside from “autobiography.” I’m interested in how Sharon Olds has spoken about her work as being “apparently personal.” The things of her poems do seem like her “real life,” but she didn’t used to own up to that. But even then — I say “own up” as if I’m accusing her of not admitting something.

Another issue with “autobiography” is its potential untruthfulness — in “Freud’s Beautiful Things,” you quote Freud: “what makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity.” Is autobiographical writing any more “honest” than other modes?

Truth is something different — something can be factually untrue but emotionally true. It’s like Rita Ann Higgins said, “To get at the poetic truth it is not always necessary to tell the what-actually-happened truth; these times I lie.”

You also quote and reference object-relations theorist Donald Winnicott — where did you first come across his writing?

A friend of mine said I’d enjoy his writing because “he’s quite gentle” (unlike a lot of psychoanalysts!). And then through Adam Phillips, who has written about him a lot. There’s also a graphic novel, Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel, which I loved, which looks at her relationship with her mother through a psychoanalytic lens. Each section opens with a dream she had, and Winnicott appears a lot in the book. The quote of his that I used in Stranger, Baby — “I have already said that the baby appreciates, perhaps from the very beginning, the aliveness of the mother” — I had this one-line poem, and I was looking for the right title, and that quote was perfect.

Where did the one-line poem responding to that title come from? It reads, “We all have to die sometime, Your Majesty.”

That was taken from my mother’s writing — she was an academic but also wrote novels. I have several unpublished manuscripts of hers — and somehow I ended up putting some of her words into the poems. So she gets a bit of a voice. That line felt like a fitting response to the Winnicott quote. Maybe it’s a way in which the mother-daughter relationship gets to continue across the life/death divide. I actually found out later that Freud talks in one paper about “his Majesty the Baby” as a way of describing the interaction between a baby and its parents.

Quotations from other sources — from major writers to academic case studies into grief — are scattered throughout the collection. What was the process behind gathering and collaging in these quotes — did they stem from your PhD research?

Yes, that’s how I came across most of them. In most cases I didn’t pick them out with the intention of putting them into poems, they just resonated with me. But they enabled me to say things I couldn’t say in my own words, maybe because I hadn’t even been able to think them; for that reason, the subject started to seem very suited to the collage technique. In The New Black, Darian Leader talks about a Holocaust survivor who was unable to articulate her experiences until she heard other people talking about their trauma — then she was able to tell her own story by telling theirs. Leader called this a “dialogue of mourning.” For me, Stranger, Baby is in conversation with many other voices — it seems like a monologue but it’s actually a dialogue.

All of this language, all of these voices, seem at times oppressive rather than expressive: in “Picnic” you write, “Stop, language is crawling all over me.” Given the excess of information and language we are constantly bombarded with — Twitter, 24-hour news media, et cetera — do you think the role of the contemporary poet is, in part, to be a curator of language?

It definitely seems as though we have a lot more “readymade” language at our disposal than was once the case. I think that line in “Picnic” was about struggling with the tension between wanting to stay silent and wanting to speak. These poems emerged from a place that had been completely mute for a long time, and that was (and is) very overwhelming. Winnicott said, “artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide,” which makes a lot of sense to me.

In your poem “So,” the speaker rhetorically asks, “is / it / not / so / terribly / gauche / to / die”? Why do you think we sometimes find death embarrassing?

This makes me think of a phrase from Anne Carson’s Nox, “Why do we blush before death?” She also says, “If you are writing an elegy, begin with the blush.” I guess there must be some kind of connection between embarrassment and death — I mean, to be “mortified” literally means to be put to death. Personally, I felt huge embarrassment about my mother’s death when I was a child. She died when I was seven — it’s rare for kids to have a dead mother; when you’re a child, your parents are mentioned constantly, and I found it so embarrassing to have to explain every time. We’re still embarrassed as adults, because our particular culture hasn’t developed very sophisticated ways of responding to it — the language is very limited. Perhaps it’s also something to do with the way that death — and suicide especially — implicates the living. It reminds us of our own mortality, which is embarrassing, because everything to do with the body is embarrassing, and it shows us how thoroughly we have failed to keep another member of our species alive.

Dreams also recur throughout Stranger, Baby — in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud says that dreams are “brief and laconic in comparison with the range and wealth of the dream thoughts” — positing that vast trains of dream-thoughts are condensed into and represented through singular images within the dream. This condensing and representation seems a not inadequate metaphor for poetic writing. Do you ever dream poems?

I have a few poems that began life as dreams. I have this ambition to write down my dreams, but I don’t often manage it. I love the combination of ordinariness and weirdness that you find in dreams — it’s a good combination for poems, too. Actually, in my thesis, I try to compare the process of interpreting dreams with interpreting poems. The psychoanalytic mode of interpreting dreams involves picking out parts of the dream and free-associating what they bring to mind; that’s similar to interpreting poems. Freud said that there’s a point in every dream that is completely unfathomable, which you’ll never work out, and I think it’s the same with a poem.

I’m interested in the relationship writers have to their work once it’s externalized, printed, and distributed. Can you talk about how you see the writing now that it is here in front of us as a bound book? Would your relationship to it differ if it were only reproduced online?

I have a strange relationship to Stranger, Baby — I feel both too close to it, and really far away from it. Because the poems came from such a painful place, I almost can’t believe they exist independently in this new context. In terms of the difference between online and print, it feels more significant having an actual object. That’s part of the process of writing for me — somehow making something abstract into something you can hold. Like when I started writing this book I made little artworks, with the idea that the book would be a handmade object. But it turns out I wasn’t very good at making artworks, so I had to abandon that idea —

Except at the end of the book — there’s a minimalist collage of black marker pen scribbled over a page, with torn typewritten lines overlaid.

That was the one piece that stayed in. I was attached to it. I’m not sure why, but writing this book in particular, I wanted it to feel like a very physical process.


Ralf Webb is a writer currently based in London. He co-edits the Swimmers pamphlet and event series, and is poetry editor at Ambit magazine.

LARB Contributor

Ralf Webb is a writer based in London. He is managing editor of The White Review.


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