Interview with Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni
Interviewed by JoAnna Novak
I’m in the fairly unique position of having been a student in a workshop [at Knox College] that, Monica, you taught, and, Beth, you TA-ed, in 2004! Certainly, that workshop must’ve involved some collaboration, but what led to your artistic relationship as it is now? What was the impetus for your collaboration? What was your process like (i.e., emails, postcards, etc.), and what output did this collaboration initially produce?
Your thinking here is absolutely right, JoAnna: before we wrote together, we read together. And for many years. And while those long ago rooms were pivotal to our arrival here, just as pivotal is that we chose to keep having that conversation begun long ago in classrooms and across desks. We began exchanging poems for the first time, not as student and teacher and not as reader-to-reader, during a year when Beth had come to Knox as a visiting instructor. We were trying to enact the lessons we had been aiming to teach our own individual students. At the same time, we were also eager to get back to our own pages. We were trying to hold each other accountable, and also trying to return to the place of play where poems happen. We were thinking of Dickinson here: “The Brain, within its Groove / Runs evenly—and true— / But let a Splinter swerve—.” We were both in need of a swerve. And so the exchange began, through something not unlike the epistolary, poems addressed “to a you, who just might be listening,” as Ralph Angel has said.
A lot of the multi-authored work we’re familiar with often works that way—a call and response, as it were—the writers switching between and handing back and forth. We wrote those poems for several years when we could, but then they were always independent, in conversation and calling back to each other’s work over time and through distance, but not quite collaborative. In the early spring of 2012, however, some three years later, we were sitting together in a well-lit, well-windowed room and Beth said, Let’s try something. And we did. As our work evolved, that “exchange” between us moved off of the page. These poems began to do this other thing, began to be spoken in a voice that was neither of our individual voices, the voice of that “we,” who we found at the confluence of the natural world, the topical “happenings” that drive many of these poems, and our individual and collective response to all of that. That season, and for much of the nearly two years to follow, we made these other kinds of poems, completely together, word by word, line by line, couplet by couplet. When we could, we’d write in the same room or in the car—often somewhere not too far from the Mississippi River and making a poem was a way of marking that time and seeing what we saw and feeling what we felt—one of us driving and the other typing but always both of us writing; we’d write on the phone, both of us with our computers open on our laps, long gaps of quiet while we listened to the other, and trying to get back to those holy, holy places.
When did you realize that the poems you were writing together might become No Shape Bends the River So Long? What was the process like of putting together a collaborative manuscript?
We just kept writing the poems, kept turning back to the making of poems, and worried little or not at all about making something complete or coherent or book-like, and instead just made the poems we needed to make. After returning from a research trip to New Orleans and the Gulf, it was easier to see the whole of it, although we were still some months away from the full shape the book eventually took.
Putting the manuscript together was not unlike writing any of the individual poems in the book, in that we listened hard to the poems, to each other reading the poems, and then again to the poems. When we were in the same place, we’d spread them out on the floor, and sit with them there, walk around, be with them, move them around, pick them up, listen to them again. We’d then both be alone with the manuscript for a while, and could just sit and listen. Most of all, what we learned over all these years was to work together not unlike how one works alone. So, in that way, the process of putting together this book of poems—each poem written by two individuals—was like the process of putting together any book of poems, except that we didn’t have to do it solo.
How has your individual work been influenced by your collaboration with one another? What have you learned, Monica, from Beth’s poetry? And Beth, from Monica’s poetry?
When we started writing these, we were both a little weary of hearing ourselves. We both consciously felt the urge, independently, to try on a voice that we hadn’t known before, used before, so that we could surprise each other and also ourselves, and that’s likely one of the reasons the poems behave the way they do. So, our process became more and more about playing with language—unlocking an image or a turn of phrase in which we might discover something, something that we hadn’t quite conceived until we returned to it, on the page. At the same time, we had to figure out a new way of making a poem that didn’t entirely come from the individual self but from this other place where there was no “I” driving the work. We were always directed by the work of language, by the work language asked us to perform for the sake of the poem. We both have seen this shift continue in our own work, markedly so.
Berlin: My work with Beth made and still makes and keeps making me braver, more curious, more willing to take the kinds of risks I’d always wanted to take but that I wasn’t always able to take by way of craft, especially. I envy Beth’s ear, always have, and so when we are working together I often try to push myself to think about the sonic quality of the poems differently than I normally do. I envy, and always have, Beth’s use of the idiom, her vocal range, alongside her careful attending to the world of the poem and the world of the world. I love, too, how she allows her poems to inhabit image. I love that unrelenting devotion to the fact of the poem itself and how Beth manages such devotion without any self-consciousness, by which I mean that her poems never seem to need to remind us that they are poems, never announce their poem-ness. I guess, more than anything, after all these years of our conversation, I’d like to think that Beth’s poems have taught me to be more true to myself, less apologetic, less hesitant, to write the poems I need to write when I need to write them, and her poems have always just absolutely and completely knocked me over, knocked the wind out of me, and often when I turn back to my own work, Beth’s poems are never far from me, and I think to myself, How can I do that? and then I try. So maybe Beth has been, for much of the last decade, my dear reader. I know if Beth doesn’t get it, no one will get it. I know that if I’m struggling with something, I can talk it through with her and she’ll help me clear the path to it because, likely, all our work together has meant that she follows the logic and the trajectory of my thinking, even if I can’t articulate it. She is the one, too, I know I can trust to listen, to hear.
Marzoni: I tell Monica sometimes that I feel better about the world when I know that she is writing in it. I don’t know if she believes me or if she thinks I’m exaggerating. But it’s true. I intend no hyperbole. I need Monica’s poems. They were some of the first poems to show me how, exactly, a poem could be a way of being in the world and what that meant—for the poem itself and for its author. She taught me patience. She taught me a thousand ways of looking and listening without which, well—. Her poems have taught me a lot about listening to my own intuition. She’s one of the poets whose work I turn to when I need to be reminded that a metaphor isn’t just a fun trick but, rather, a type of inquiry and, thus, a way of knowing. I adore and envy and covet Monica’s understanding of and agility with the sentence, how she can make one stretch, then twist, then double back on itself—a hairpin turn and we’re two counties over and in another lifetime. What a gift it is to listen to her slash and mend a ho-hum, first-draft syntax into something more startling and supple and nuanced than I thought possible. I feel so confident and open to strangeness and risk when we write together in large part because I know that she won’t let the sentence break, but boy will she make it bend. And maybe, at its most essential, that’s what I’ve learned and keep learning from Monica: how to weigh the poem word by word and phrase by phrase and to realize the moment the thing crystallizes. Whenever I feel a poem sputtering on me I just try to do what Monica would do. And then I try to remember to send her a thank you note when the thing inevitably comes back to life. All of that and she’s also my trusty reader, the one who, I often think, knows my poems better than I do.
Will you continue collaborating in the future? What plans do you have for No Shape Bends the River So Long’s release?
God, we hope so. The collaboration is a way to be less alone, to turn away from the tumbleweeds of days. The reprieve is significant, as we spend so much of our lives working solo, moving through the days by ourselves. Also, because we’ve spent most of our adult lives observing other arts—the performing arts, especially—how they always look like they’re having so much fun during rehearsal and performance, how something seems to happen in that togetherness that can’t happen alone, we wanted writing to be able to replicate that, the trading of fours or the way dancers rely upon each other’s bodies, that organic physicality or action and reaction. On the other hand, one of the drawbacks of such a long-standing collaboration is that it makes the days when we have to write on our own more difficult. It makes them so quiet. We sometimes struggle to remember how to put together a line or a sentence alone. Working without each other, somedays, makes us swear to god we’ll never want to stop working with each other.
The truth is we’re not ready for the work of No Shape Bends the River So Long to be done. We weren’t done making those poems when the book was accepted for publication, and we’re not sure we’re done making those poems now, even as those poems might be done with us. But one of the things that has happened over these years is that we have learned to let our collaborations evolve organically. When one of us has stopped being able to speak back, to write back, the work has changed, and we hope that will happen again. No Shape… was very much the book we needed to write at the time that we needed to write it, and so poems we’ve written since completion of the manuscript might evolve into something over time.
Our plans for the release? Well, we had thought about renting a boat and going up and down the Mississippi, a floating poetry reading that moved through all those tiny river towns and then the larger ports of call where we’d refuel and pick up new guests, but we’ve decided it’s probably more practical to have a party, and well it’s not unreasonable to want to have an excuse to buy pretty new dresses. But all that’s still up in the air. Obviously, JoAnna, you are invited. As for the book’s release, we’ve had a mostly quiet debut, which will be true until March, when we’re scheduled to give several readings in a row, in Illinois, and then we’ll be at AWP, and have several more readings lined up in the months following. Obviously, it’s complicated by the fact that we don’t live in the same place, and further complicated by weather, that unpredictable fact of winter, and time, our different academic calendars, and the demands of our jobs on our time to devote to a fuller commitment to the book’s promotion.
Both of you work in multiple genres. Can you speak to how the themes you explore in No Shape … resonate with or depart from those your nonfiction tackles?
Berlin: Well, the natural world—weather, the Mississippi River, all our bodies of water, really, the sky, our shared landscapes, our private landscapes, our middle-of-the-country-ness, the local, the regional, the national—these all factor heavily into No Shape Bends the River So Long, and they are also very present in my own work, too. When left alone, I find myself considering place a lot, what it means to live somewhere, what it means to live here and what it means to not always be looking to there as a place of someday, a place of periphery or of impossible, but instead with a knowing that there and here exist as part of a whole. When left alone with my poems or the essay, I guess I’m always trying to figure out how to be in a place and how to stop apologizing not only for that place but also for my being in it and also for my not being able to change it or to leave any kind of noticeable imprint that might make it better. There’s a different kind of room in nonfiction that allows for a different kind of looking, a different kind of examination, or mapping of these subjects. Time works differently in an essay, too, although I’m not sure I can say more about that here. I guess I’ll also say that every essay I’ve written also helped prepare me to write, with Beth, the poems in No Shape Bends the River So Long, taught me how to tend to our subject with care.
Marzoni: Like Monica, I think that my nonfiction shares our poetry’s fascination with place. How does that work? Well, it is a mutual interest, a subject we talked about for many years before we began writing about it, and neither of us are done thinking it through or turning it over and, really, at this point, I’m not so sure that either of us ever will be. In addition, though, I also often write about visual art, and that is a departure from No Shape…, though I think that the book brings a similar, meditative “looking” to bear in the way many of those poems sort of burrow into their lyricism by thinking through image.
What are you working on now?
Berlin: We’re both just trying to make new work, and trying to recover or renegotiate a singular pronoun again, no small thing when each of us has learned this plural first person, has come to think we before any predicate. The return to my own writing now, as well, changed as I am—as we all are, each day—felt a considerable and difficult departure. The act of collaboration, and all it taught me, concurrently edged my solo work forward in unexpected ways. But without that collaborative work pushing me, I keep finding my own lone voice pretty much unbearable. So, some of the last year has just been spent remembering how to speak from the position of having considered a more plural perspective of the natural world as I return to a singular pronoun. I’m mostly just trying to carve out a line or two, a sentence or two, and am still, and mostly always, surprised to have the luxury and privilege of making art in the first place. In sum, I’m making new poems again, slowly and not always easily, and have an essay in progress, although I’m a notoriously slow prose writer, and always have been. So, we’ll see. Some poems are forthcoming, an essay is forthcoming, and Beth and I have a small handful of poems in early drafts that I hope we’ll return to before too long.
Marzoni: Ditto: those early drafts. And ditto: the singular pronoun. Learning to say “I” in a poem again has been so strange that for a while I wrote with the task of avoiding it as much as I could, and finding ways around the thing became a way of generating a draft of a poem. Similarly, I had to abandon line all-together for a while, too. So, I’m working on a series of prose poems that are slow going, but now that winter’s settled in for a while maybe I’ll be able to settle in, too.