In the Margin, Fertile Things Happen: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in Conversation
The following conversation is excerpted from one of three transcribed conversations I had with poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in New York City. This conversation took place on an October evening in 2003, after Berssenbrugge had just given a poetry reading for the InterRUPTions reading series at City College of New York, where I teach. Most of the audience members were students enrolled in my "Experimental Women Writers" seminar, and they had gathered together over coffee and tea to listen to Berssenbrugge speak about her aesthetic views and the writing process.
Laura Hinton: We've been discussing the use of the term "experimental." What does "experimental" mean? A lot of us are bothered by this term – and yet we use it because we lack another term that can identify a writing that works against tradition.
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge: I'm generally delighted to be included in anthologies of innovative writing like We Who Love to Be Astonished or Women Poets of the 21st Century and I esteem the other writers who are included. I have a natural interest in new forms because I've been trying to learn to discern poetry in terms of energetics. If a given form loses energy, becomes entropic, then I try to feel my way to a new form that embraces or embodies where that energy went. Eventually, the kind of work I and many others are writing will no longer be called "experimental."
One thing that would qualify my work as "innovative" is my interest in abstraction, that I explore abstraction in poetry. I was thinking about a Goya painting the other day – the little boy in a red suit with a birdcage on one side and a cat on the other. There's a sense that this is a "representational" painting, boy, birdcage and cat. But Goya selected these elements. He placed that birdcage on that gray ground. Why did he want it there? The cat and bird cage create a kind of abstraction. They are formally innovative objects you can recognize.
LH: So is there a kind of unity in abstraction?
MB: I have an ideal that there could exist unity in a poem – the way a bird opens its mouth and sings. Even though I can't "sing," I imagine that's possible. But also with inside and outside, woman and not-woman – these don't necessarily need to be dichotomies. They can also be continuities.
LH: So what do you feel is your principle goal of your work in terms of this "unity," aesthetically?
MB: I would say the ethos and aesthetic of my poetry aspire to be holistic, continuous, or one thing. I intuit an unknown edge of alive language exploring a question, perhaps an existential question, but to which is attached strong feeling. And perhaps this can become a beautiful, formed energy nexus of a poem.
LH: One fascination that arises today in literary scholarship on the "experimental" is the use of so-called hybrid genres, those kind of poetries that can't be defined by traditional categories of lyric or narrative, the ballad, the epic – which are supposed to be so distinct. The poet Harryette Mullen has called "inter-genre" writing "the mongrel text." There are many colloquial, speech-like elements in your newer poetry that violate "lyric" convention. Do you see your work as a "hybrid" kind of text, combining literary genres and discourses?
MB: Technically, my poems are collages. The parts are appropriated. While reading, I copy down notes, then cut them out and put them together in a collage, smoothing out the grammar. So it interests me that a sick cat and a woman with large arms could come together as something resonant. That is the kind of narrative I deal with in Nest. I call it a linguistic surface. If you're going beyond modernism, in many ways you're going beyond a three-dimensional space. I don't like to call it "hybrid," because I like to think of it as one surface, a continuum.
LH: I am especially interested in your use of the collage method, which includes the use of photographs, laid out on a table along with words and other images. Are you still working in this manner, as in, say, Nest?
MB: My process has evolved slowly. I find books that are contingent to my idea. I like French philosophy, Deleuze, Derrida. I like historic Buddhist texts – anything I read that strikes me as pertinent to my poem I underline. Then I print the notes and cut them out. I add pictures that seem to fit in some way, without questioning too deeply. Sometimes I take Polaroids. It's an unconscious process. When I'm ready to write, I arrange these pieces of text, photos, notes across a big table and compose the poem. I used to appropriate texts directly. Now I alter them more. I work from a "map" of the poem, and I find it's a good way to get more breadth, more horizontality. I also find that the light and landscape in New Mexico, where I live, inspires horizontality.
In "Nest," the title poem of my recent collection, I decided to write about how, in the margin, fertile things happen. When things are fixed, things can't grow. I was specifically interested in the minor mode, instead of a major, victorious tone. I was interested in the shadows, the not-quite-successful – to re-cast failure as convex, positive. I had the urge to explore this minor key and also to include the audience. I used to think just about what "I" wanted to write. Now I've started to think about my audience, what I call the genius of the audience. I was interested in not looking down on that and seeing where I could go. I'm trying to discern what people 'like.'
LH: So in writing the collection Nest, you were concerned about audience. And yet there's also something in the breakdown of communication, or "rupture," like margins, that happens in this work, the creative space that "rupture" creates.
MB: It is most productive. I guess if you know what you're doing, you're not in a good space for art. I don't think artists are happy with the world and they feel a need to make another world. So you're at the edge, trying to make this world. It's more about resonance, frequency, energy, movement, flux, dynamism, than any fixed object.