An Interview with Ben Berman

Ben Berman‘s name first crossed my desk about two years ago when Literary Mama decided to feature him in our Father’s Day issue. At the time, I remember being impressed with his ability to write poetry that spoke to me as well as his experiences traveling, something that’s featured in his work. He’s the author of Strange Borderlands, Figuring in the Figure, and Then Again, and he writes a (fabulous) monthly column for GrubStreet. Ben’s work has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council and awards from the New England Poetry Club, and I’m truly looking forward to reading more of his work in the future. As with all of my interviewees, I’m grateful that he took time out from his very busy schedule to answer my questions.

Christina: You write both traditional poetry as well as prose poems, and one reviewer called the writing in Then Again flash fiction. What can poetry and shorter forms accomplish that longer forms cannot?

Ben: I’m not sure if I’m drawn to shorter forms for artistic reasons as much as for practical ones. I teach full- time and have two young daughters, and it’s hard to find more than a couple of hours a morning to write, which often lends itself much more naturally to the intense concentration of shorter forms.

That being said, I’ve thought of all three of my collections as book-long projects. My new book, Then Again, for example, is a collection of short prose in which each piece’s title connects to the next, even as the stories bounce back and forth between very different settings and tones. So while each piece stands on its own, I was also always writing with the entire manuscript in mind, thinking about multitudes and how life can sometimes feel like it’s made up of all these disconnected moments.

Christina: In one of your latest musings on GrubStreet you write, “Literary movements come and go and isms wax and wane, but watching my daughters reminds me that we must always make room for both reverence and irreverence in whatever we write, find ways to accept that life is simultaneously ridiculous and filled with so much splendor.” Do you make a conscious effort to find “reverence and irreverence”? And if so, do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

Ben: I don’t necessarily think of it as a conscious effort, but I’ve always loved writers who might be described, to borrow a term from Kerouac, as “cosmic goofs” – whose stories or poems are both playful and serious at the same time. It’s one of the things that I love most about having little kids, too – one moment they’re expressing the most heartfelt and deepest of thoughts, the next they’re mooning you.

And this isn’t a tip, per se, but I like that you use the word musings in your question, which is so closely related to amusing. My favorite writers go back and forth between thinking deeply about the world and making people laugh.

Christina: Like many writers, you draw on personal experience to flesh out your poetry. You’ve taken readers to scenes set Zimbabwe, Boston, and Paris, to name a few. Is there anything or any place that you won’t write about?

Ben: I tend to be drawn to writing about those moments in our lives that unsettle what we think we know and lead us to reframe our understanding of this world. I spent a number of years abroad when I was younger – first in Nepal and then as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zimbabwe – and in many ways I think that traveling offered me some of my most formative experiences, made me question who I was and what I believed.

But I think that I’m less interested in writing about place than writing about those times in our lives when we feel out of place, and all three of my books grapple with our relationship to where we live. The title of my first collection, Strange Borderlands, comes from a poem about a trip I took to Morocco on a teacher exchange program. We were waiting for a bus when a stranger wandered over and slapped one of my colleagues across the face. Later, my colleague was crying quietly to herself and I was sitting across from her trying to comfort her. There was something about both the sudden intimacy of that moment and the distance of the aisle between us that seemed to speak to so many of the poems in the book. And so when I think about places, it those kinds of borderlands that interest me most.

Christina: It’s clear from your writing that you like to tinker with words. Have you always been drawn to words and what they can do? Is this tinkering something you set out to do, or did it arise organically?

Ben: When I was in high school, I used to love to make fun of my friends by rewriting famous songs about them. I liked to think of myself as “a little Weird Al Yankovic” though I think my friends just thought of me as “a little weird.” As I started taking poetry more seriously, I became interested in the way that language can reveal multitudes or speak to the looseness of our experiences. It’s what I love about great jokes, too – how a punch line can bring two totally disconnected ideas together in unexpected ways.

Many of my poems have started from tiny slips in language that make me rethink the ideas behind a phrase. When my older daughter was two, for example, she’d sit in her car seat asking, Are we here yet? Are we here yet? Are we here yet? And, given how hard it is to stay fully present in the world, that little substitution of here for there felt like some sort of Buddhist koan.

Christina: For you, parenting and writing seem to go hand in hand, and your writing is certainly inspired by your parenting. Is your parenting inspired by your writing? And if so, how?

Ben: I wake up well before dawn every morning to write and although that’s somewhat of an exhausting practice, I think that writing makes me a much better parent. Writing, for me, is often about getting myself into some sort of hole and then figuring out creative ways to get out of it, and I think that this is essential to parenting, too. Both require the ability to think flexibly because nothing ever goes as planned.

Writing is a form of escape, too, which can be really helpful, say, when you walk into the kitchen and find your toddler drawing all over the walls – that ability to step back and think, hey, this would make a great metaphor!

Christina: What do you consider your literary superpower? What literary superpower would you like to have?

Ben: Well, superheroes are really good at hiding their superpowers in real life and so with that in mind, I might say that sensitivity is my superpower. When I was younger, I was somewhat closed off and didn’t know how to talk about complicated or mixed emotions. My wife has really helped me come a long way. And since I’ve had kids, I’ve become a total mess. We’ll be watching football and some stupid father-daughter commercial will come on and I’ll start tearing up. It is pathetic, and I try my best to hide this from everyone. But as a writer, that level of sensitivity – to emotions and language and tensions – can be a real asset.

As for a literary superpower that I’d like to have – I would love to know how to use commas properly. I am sure that probably sounds like the lamest superpower ever but I am always throwing them around at the most random of places and it’s terribly embarrassing – like walking around all day with your shirt untucked or your fly down and having no idea.











Thanks to Ben for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.

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