Kasey Jueds interviews Monica Berlin

Kasey Jueds: I first found and fell in love with Monica Berlin’s writing via a group of poems that appeared in the Salvage/Selvage issue of Quarterly West. From there, I moved on, joyfully, to her books: No Shape Bends the River So Long (a collaboration with poet Beth Marzoni), winner of the 2013 New Measure Poetry Prize; Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live, winner of the 2017 Crab Orchard Poetry Open; and Elsewhere, That Small, published by Free Verse Editions at Parlor Press in early 2020. I was thrilled when Monica agreed to this interview. She and I emailed back and forth between April and early August of this year, from her home in Galesburg, IL to mine in Philadelphia.

KJ: Monica, thank you for being open to having this conversation with me. I’m excited and grateful. It feels important, first, to acknowledge where we are, in a large sense: in the midst of a pandemic, with stay-at-home orders in place in both your state (Illinois) and mine (Pennsylvania). What is bringing you joy these days, or pleasure, or comfort—what is helping you? I’m thinking of both poetry-related things (reading or writing practices, particular books or poems) and non-poetry-related ones, though I know there’s not always a meaningful distinction between the two.

MB: I’m delighted to join you, Kasey, and I hope you are taking care in this startling and scary time. 

Well, because I’ve long been prone to catastrophizing, and to taking in too much news, over the years I’ve had to teach myself to try to find something miraculous in the narrower sightlines of daily life. So, lately, I’ve been honing that practice. I feel immensely grateful that I live in a place where I can have a small patch of yard, a little room to stretch, to roam, and that I can loop my neighborhood on foot without too much fear of crowds. In addition to staring a lot—today, at the redbud coming into bloom in my neighbor’s yard—which is often my default position, to just look and keep looking, I’ve been comforted by Helen Rosner’s Roberto, a soup, which I started making around the time that early reports from Wuhan began reaching us, and which is very forgiving, flexible, delicious. I’ve been trying out new recipes, especially ones that include the fewest ingredients (with thanks to the internet for its wisdom on substitutions). 

Regarding poems, I start each day by reading the new selections from Poetry Daily and the Academy of American Poets, and then off and on throughout each day I’ll pick up a thread of something in my inbox and follow it for a while. So, my first cup of coffee is always accompanied by poems, and that’s been true for a long time. No day is exclusively set aside for poems only, but they do punctuate parts of each. 

Beth Marzoni, my longtime collaborator, and I started working on a new project when it became clear that the Governor would soon issue a statewide order here. As other measures of this time mark urgency and devastation and loss, this has been a way to structure some small part of my day-to-day, to gauge time differently. It also allows us to wave at each other in our separate homes, keeps us connected with each other through line. So, each day I try to make a poem, sometimes two, and I try not to turn in at night without having tried to do so.

Because my screen has mostly been a place of work for me, taking in art through that medium has required a bit of adjustment, but I’ve been pretty thrilled for the chance to watch performances from the New York City Ballet. I’ve been “strolling” through museums and galleries, seeing what I wouldn’t otherwise—an amazing textile exhibit at MoMA, for example. Sustained reading has been a challenge, which I suspect is true for lots of us. I keep circling back to Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, re-read Eula Biss’s On Immunity, read Jenny Offill’s Weather and Carl Phillips’ new collection, Pale Colors in a Tall Field (and then treated myself to the audiobook, so twice Phillips read to me while I prepared Roberto, and I think he’d approve). John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry and Marianne Boruch’s The Anti-Grief have been keeping me company, and I’ve been returning almost daily to the poems of Ralph Angel, a dear former teacher and mentor, lost to us this winter. O, there are books everywhere, although admittedly some days I just walk by them and turn away. Like The New Yorker stacked up, much of what arrived in the winter, mostly new collections of poems I’d been looking forward to, still await my attention.

KJ: Oh, I love all this. Thank you. I’m both comforted by the places where our lists overlap (the luck of a garden; fiddling in the kitchen; beloved writers and books) and inspired by the new-to-me details of yours (watching ballet online, reading Marianne Boruch’s and Carl Phillips’ recent books, making Roberto). And yes: for me, too, it’s been challenging to immerse myself in longer periods of reading—though I want to and am continuing to try.

Your response opens up so many possible questions, so many routes we could take. I want to begin everywhere. But since that’s impossible, and since you wrote above about your collaboration with Beth Marzoni, and since the book you wrote with Beth, No Shape Bends the River So Long, is, along with your solo books, a favorite of mine… since all those things are true, after I read your reply I returned to an interview with you and Beth on American Microreviews and Interviews. In it, you speak of “trying to recover or renegotiate a singular pronoun” and Beth speaks of the strangeness of “learning to say ‘I’ again in a poem” after writing so many poems together into a “we.” The poems in Elsewhere, That Small, your newest solo book, employ both singular and plural pronouns. I’m wondering how you know when a poem wants to speak of/from a place of “we,” and when it wants an “I”? At what stage do you make this decision, and how does that decision influence the writing and revising afterwards? Does it feel like your collaborative work has shifted your use of “we” and “I”—do those pronouns feel or mean differently now, in your own poems, as you continue to write with Beth? 

MB: Ah, of course, the singularity of a poem and the multiplicity of a poem, its individuality and its plurality—as demonstrated by point of view, by perspective, by voice. Right? Let’s see if I can figure out how to say this. 

So, Beth and I started working on the poems that later became No Shape Bends the River So Long at a time when neither of us wanted to talk about ourselves, and were exhausted by the “I-ness” of anything we would have said separately. Our impulse grew out of curiosity, in part, a figuring out how to make a lyric poem—a defining characteristic of which finds its roots in the first-person—in the plural. What would the lyric “we” sound like, and what would be the poems’ subject matter? One of the challenges of that book was learning to write in the plural first-person, which is—like much of the English language—a bit of an oddity in that “we” can mean “you and I,” or “all of us here in this room,” or, from an even wider angle, “we the people.” Those poems were written entirely in concert, always together, and although probably one of us could point to a phrase or a line break or a particular turn and be able to identify Beth’s hand or mine, for the most part that’s not the case. Those poems belong to us, were made by us, and came sequentially in our writing lives after we had each worked alone a long while. To the best of my knowledge, the pronoun “I” only appears once in No Shape, in the notes. 

Rarely in our lives (and I think Beth would agree with me) do most of us speak for such a sustained interval in a first-person plural—and that’s probably a good thing, oh my gosh, think how annoying such talk would become? So, maybe what we each meant in that interview was about having to learn to work alone again, without the agility and responsiveness that collaboration can bring to bear. The “we” was generative, part of the process and the act of making those poems, and part of revision as well. To shed that gift of not having to develop an image or an idea or a line alone was some of the challenge of writing poems after No Shape, and another challenge involved honoring what was distinct in that work, honoring what it taught us. We had to learn, as we all always do, how to make the next poem, one that recognized what we’d discovered but that was its own. 

To that end, I eventually arrived at making the sonnets that became Elsewhere, That Small, which is—to my mind—such a private book, written alone and in a period where I had to learn to trust myself again, had to believe that I could hold onto a thought or craft an image by myself. Those poems didn’t come immediately after No Shape, took a while to arrive mostly because I did really struggle to figure out how to work again and differently, and because I was also revising and sending out Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live, much of which pre-dates or coincides with No Shape. In Elsewhere, That Small, I tried to make poems that didn’t seek or explore the drama (or melodrama) of loneliness, or alone-ness, as represented by any poem’s speaker. Those poems recognize that the “I” is constituted by the presence of others, always, and that’s how other pronouns function, even when “I” is always speaking, even when a “we” is brought in. In No Shape, “we” was the speaker, by which I mean those poems are spoken without the option or luxury or burden of an “I.” No Shape is distinct in its “we-ness,” but what we’re each making now, in conversation, is working differently, maybe self-consciously unconscious of how driven by singularity this time is.

In Elsewhere, “we” shifts—sometimes the speaker and a “you” (who also shifts throughout), sometimes that plural pronoun refers to whoever was in the room when I was writing, and sometimes that “we” is all of us, a community, a more general “we” among whom the reader is sometimes included. About how I know when a poem wants to speak of or from a “we” or of and from an “I”—yikes, I don’t know. Where and how the work is generated is probably how I’d best distinguish a collaborative mode from my solo practice. I do sometimes go back in revision and adjust pronoun usage in a poem if, when individual poems are put together in a sequence, the pronoun becomes problematic or risks confusing a reader, but I don’t know that I’ve ever decided in advance that a poem was coming from a particular vantage or angle. Maybe what I mean is that at this stage of my writing life—and this has been true for a long time—the line remains the compositional unit from which most of my poems come into themselves. Everything else mostly coalesces around line, likely a direct result of my collaboration with Beth, although she’d likely shrug that off and say that I’d done so before we wrote together.

Also true: point of view, perspective, and voice—as demonstrated in part through pronoun usage—are all elements I’ve often troubled and troubled over, and maybe part of what shifted as a result of my work with Beth is that I stopped tripping up or worrying too much about such things, by which I mean, I don’t know how conscious any of this is or if I deliberate at all about it. 

I guess I’ll also say that because I often spend my days in rooms with student writers—where we’re always deep in the process of the workshop, that collaborative space of play and insight—and because I’ve long admired (even envied) the genuinely collaborative dance and theatre and music and film and even the visual arts, I’m deeply committed to thinking about how writing can function not only as this private room but as a public one, where writers can honor all the ways in which we are always speaking to each other or inspired by each other or influenced by each other, not merely in a dedication or epigraph, but in the literal crafting of the work. In this way, I think about how in a workshop, if students are reading each other’s work from the beginning, usually around midterm (and sometimes sooner), their writing starts talking to each other. It’s not always deliberate or conscious, not always a choice. Rather, they draft pages that are generated in conversation. And like many of us these days, I came of age in the workshop, in that room listening to others, in conversation with others, with the pages of others. 

KJ: This feels like such an expansive response. Yes, particularly, to “all the ways in which we are always speaking to each other or inspired by each other or influenced by each other, not merely in a dedication or epigraph, but in the literal crafting of the work.” Just yes.

You mentioned that there’s overlap between No Shape and Nostalgia—that you were writing and revising and sending out both during something of the same time period—and that the poems in Elsewhere came about a bit later and arise from a more solitary place. I’m wondering if you would be willing to share more about the differences and/or similarities between Nostalgia and Elsewhere, your two solo books: maybe in terms of your process of making and shaping the poems, how Elsewhere came to be a book of sonnets (i.e., how you landed on that form), the publication process, what it has been like to have each of those books in the world, what differences you see and feel between the poems in both books—really anything!

MB: Nostalgia is a book of big poems, messy poems. It is very much a book that reckons with the 21st century from my little plot of ground in America, and was deeply informed by coming into new, distinct responsibilities and awareness during a time that was stunning in its destruction and from which much still reverberates. The shadows of September 11th linger, as do deep tragedies and particular horrors that define the time period in which those poems were written—the struggling landscape of rural America, the economic collapse in 2008 and the ruin that followed, natural and unnatural disasters, weather and then the aftermath of weather, and then personal loss permeates everything. A good portion of that book was written when I still watched the news on a television, and so in the background of much of my life during those years was the ticker tape on CNN. At the same time, my child was coming into language. At the confluence of all this, the poems in Nostalgia For a World Where We Can Live arrived, that book which I now think of as a catalog, an inventory of what we lose and what we find, the places where we live and the people we live among. That book also took more than a decade—the earliest poems date back to late 2004 or so, and the last ones were written in 2014, I think, and then it was published in the fall of 2018—so it covers a lot of ground. That temporal expanse, which is chronicled throughout, is also marked at the start with a child not yet speaking, a baby in a stroller in the title poem, the speaker looking ahead to a future where that child might say something the speaker hopes never to hear, and ends with what was really the last poem I wrote, where “everything [is] balanced/ on the edge of everything.” 

No Shape Bends the River So Long was a more moderately paced book, in that we began those poems in earnest in early 2012 and the book was in production in late 2014. In the timeline of my writing life, I think of Nostalgia as my first book although that’s not the sequence of publication. While we wrote, I did continue writing alone. Some of that was practical. Beth and I put certain restrictions on our poems, including that we couldn’t touch the page if the other wasn’t available to write. So, we had to be agile about writing time, sometimes not starting to work until very late at night, and we also had to be determined to work regardless of everything else. About half of the book was written, I swear to you, on the telephone, across state lines. Those calls were long and full of silence and listening. Nearly all the rest were written in the car, one of us driving and the other typing and reading back. We were always working on poems when we were in each other’s company, and that work was a raft for each of us.  

Between all of those calls or in the car along the river, there was also me in Galesburg, wanting to make poems and trying to make poems that were distinct from the ones Beth and I were making. The other very real part of all this is my absolute certainty that the best poems I’ll ever make are those I made with Beth, and so everything else is just practice, me trying something out, me testing out a phrase or a line, tuning my ear. Continually, I want to figure out how to honor what Beth and I made, want to honor what I learned from that project. I probably do that best by acknowledging how deeply that work imprinted itself on everything that came after, and by admitting that writing alone isn’t nearly as much fun, or challenging, or demanding, or curious. 

    The poems in Elsewhere, That Small were first drafted in a narrow window of time—from April to September of 2015—and never in a car or on the phone, always just me, solo. No Shape had been published at the start of that year and I was still struggling with not making those poems any longer. Then, in my work-work life, I was about to be appointed to a four-year term as chair of the English Department. I knew I had until the beginning of September to teach myself to arrive at the page in a way I’d never managed to before, and that I had to put in place a strategy for making poems that carved out room for writing when such room might not exist. The fuller picture is that I was genuinely afraid I might not be able to write for four years. I felt panicked. But then I let myself remember other ways I’d written in other times, strategies I’d employed over the years. The sonnet, loosely made, has been my go-to form since the earliest months after my baby was born when I was trying to return to the page at the exact time that I was trying to figure out how to be a mother. My arms were rarely empty, and so I learned to write without paper or screen, to work a line or a stanza in the air, a little song sung while we rocked or walked, and in this way I wrote a number of sonnets, the most lines I could manage to keep in my head until I could transfer what I was holding in memory to the page.

Those long-ago sonnets—two of which appear in Nostalgia—were instructive and served as a model for a practice that could be sustainable, forgiving, that honored the particular challenges I faced at any particular time, and that recognized the limits of any day—its pressures and weight. So, in 2015, I told myself, okay, fourteen lines and a volta every day until September. I set other practical parameters: I couldn’t go to bed unless I’d reached the natural end of the poem; no revision until after September, not even any fiddling; I’d try not to go back to look at what I’d said the day before. But I had no other formal constraints in mind, and I’m not sure I had an idea what I would write until I was pretty deep in it. 

In the months before, I’d written a handful of longer poems that trained themselves on this building going up, in the dead of winter, behind my house. When I started the sonnets, the building was mostly finished, but the building—or rather the idea of buildings—lingered because that structure fundamentally changed what I saw every day. It altered the light in my house, shadows, sightlines, everything. So, those earlier poems served as guide, certainly sharpened my attention, and ultimately what I think happened with Elsewhere, That Small is that I was trying to figure out how to consider, roughly, the same view every single day in order to make something that built on repetition and on the ordinary changes of the natural world around human-made structures.  

In Elsewhere, chairs and buildings and windows and doors and trees and some birds and always sky and always weather all feature heavily—really, they are the stars of those poems!—and most of it seemingly unremarkable, or rather most of it goes unremarked. Because that struck me as something toward which I could turn my attention—what makes up a life—I think the poems try to ask something of those objects, even though the poems don’t answer or expect an answer. Sometimes they proclaim something that otherwise seems obvious—like “Every built thing learns to lean & buckle…” or “Each table can hold its shape,”—but those proclamations weren’t obvious when I hit on them. Rather, they seemed astounding to me. As an object in the world, for example, a chair is both functional and beautiful, but its sole purpose is related to our sitting on it. What becomes of a chair if we’re all gone? I imagine that the chair, like weather, thinks little of us. Yet, such objects compose much of the rooms of our lives. 

So, there’s me, the writer, at my window, or me in a doorway, or me studying something, then remembering something, circling around a thought that’s threaded itself into whatever it is I’m looking at, seeing, me studying a chair or a doorframe from the position of my here. With those poems I wanted to honor Galesburg, the Midwest, the small towns of America, the places where we live, and I wanted to do it really by looking as often as I could at the exact same thing, day after day. Which is how so much of life is—the same rooms, day after day. And that’s not a criticism or complaint so much as a notation, something I think we can understand more fully during this time of sheltering-in-place, the focused and deliberate act made to small our own paths and footprints. Not incidentally, I was also thinking about antidotes to claustrophobia, how we might find in the narrower rooms of our lives an expanse. Throughout that work I made a focused effort to recognize what may, at first, appear as contradiction: in a form, restricted by fourteen lines and the couplet, spaciousness is possible, bears itself out, inverts or upends or redefines any rote expectation of smallness. 

Something that’s been continually startling to me in the last decade of my writing life is that everything I think I know about making poems or making a book of poems might be wrong. Actually, that’s true about every single thing, not just poems. I’d started to explain that Elsewhere, That Small was an outlier for me, but in fact, almost every day I think to myself, oh, I’ve never done this before! and that’s true and not true about our whole lives, because the circumstances are always distinct, we’re different, etc. So, what I think I can say now with confidence is that each of these books arrived distinctly, and each taught me something about making poems, perhaps the most essential of which is that every poem is a new and different poem and that what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow, or it may. Or, more succinctly, we build on that practice, a lifetime of practice, to figure out another way, to try to say something which may, in fact, be the thing we were also trying to say yesterday or ten years ago.

KJ: It’s fascinating and moving to me, what you’ve written about our daily vistas and rooms and experiences and the objects we live with and being able to understand those things differently as we shelter in place. I first read Elsewhere when it arrived at my door in February, and then reread it in late March/early April. That second reading, I had a visceral sense of the poems seeming to have emerged from the experience of quarantine, a sort of radical, ghostly, tender quietness. So, in other words, the poems felt like they were about the pandemic, although I realized of course they couldn’t be. But they felt, and feel, prescient. And like a balm at this particular time, though I think I’d find them so regardless.

Sort of along those lines, I want to ask about something else you touched on, one of the things that most draws me to your work: the concern with the small, with smallness. It’s obviously part of Elsewhere’s title and of the poems there, both in terms of form and content (I love the way you write about the sonnet as a small-enough-to-hold-in-the-mind form, and the helpfulness of that). And it feels like a focus in Nostalgia, too. I’m thinking especially of a dear-to-me poem, “The linens soften, now threadbare, just as I’m waking, small, in this” (“. . . we know it as verb, this sometimes prayer. Small my hands. Small our hearts in that emptying out. . .”). (from “[If all the love we’ll know is the kind of love]”) Could you talk more about small, in your work? What is it for you? Has it always been important?

MB: Thank you, Kasey. Elsewhere is such a tucked-in book, I’m not surprised it reads that way right now. Poems can do that somehow. They manage to be alone with themselves, and can remind us to be alone with ourselves. 

Your question about small, about smallness, is so interesting. Obviously, that word appears in many of the poems, is likely a preoccupation of mine, probably bordering on obsessive or irritating, but I’m sure I have good reason for it. I don’t know that I’ve figured out small yet, for what it’s worth, which is probably why it haunts, nor do I think the word or its approach always functions the same way, interrogates the same set of questions or angles toward whatever predicament troubles a particular poem. All the books consider the micropolitan city, the micropolis, because that’s where I live—places often referred to as small towns, but which aren’t exactly that. The population in the city where I’ve spent my entire adult life is around 33,000, the county about 50,000. Just down the road are places with populations considerably less and even smaller unincorporated areas—those are small towns. Because I grew up in the city of Chicago, ranged wide there in my coming of age, moving to central western Illinois startled. When I made the choice to stay here, I also had to make a choice to deliberately learn the place, the area, the region, and to do so in a way that considered what makes anywhere distinct and what makes anywhere the same. To those ends, I think I started off thinking about how smallness, as it related to a place and its people, was often used to dismiss or to condescend, and certainly I’d been guilty of the same thing. And then I thought, what if small towns had what they needed in equitable proportion to larger, more resource-rich locations? What if the poem is part of how we arrive at that balance of equity? Everywhere doesn’t need the exact same reservoir, but everywhere and everyone deserves what is proportionally necessary, to scale. And then I heard Muriel Rukeyser anew, from The Book of the Dead’s “Gauley Bridge”: “These people live here.” And then I thought, oh, people live everywhere, and everywhere is a place, is mappable, is real and worthy of our attention. In part, it’s all so obvious. But when we consider some of this country’s predicament now, even the obvious might be worth stating and restating. And so my turn toward small. 

The poem you refer to in Nostalgia is really a kind of plea to myself, or to whoever is listening, to try to make manageable these things that are sometimes unmanageable, like grief or like the river above flood stage in the rainy season, although it starts off playfully enough by making fun of what’s trendy—having been written at a time when we kept hearing the phrase “____ is the new black” (like polka dots are the new black or grey is the new black)—and the cultural obsession with size, smaller bodies, mini things, etc., even as many cultural artifacts would undermine that claim (the super-sized soda, automobile, mega-mansion or mega-church, skyscraper). Pretty quickly, the poem dispenses with what’s in fashion, and argues for small as a verb, a way to reduce risk or hurt, to make what is vulnerable in us less like a wound. In other poems, small absolutely turns toward measurement, a gauge. Or it’s an approach toward looking, or it selects subject matter, image. Smallness can equal or it can focus the way the attention of the poem works. Smallness: a provocative strength of poetry, the unexpected power of something so concentrated. We expect a large machine, for example, to be able to haul something twice its size. We do not expect the inverse, and yet more often than not, most hauls are achieved by ordinary people in their ordinary lives. Here I think of a poem, another sonnet no less, that does the work of a whole world, Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” What Hayden achieves in fourteen lines—. Unbelievable. Geez. That poem is perfect. 

So, maybe the poem’s concentration, that undiluted quality, that compression, is part of what draws me to it, and keeps me there. How a poem attends to its subject matter, and how in turn we, readers, can attend to the poem. And that attention is part of what stays with us. The miniature, long an obsession of poets and essayists, of artists, is certainly at play here too. I’m guilty of getting lost in that kind of thinking too, the remarkable quality of anything reduced to impossibly small, replication that puts something enormous or life-size into the palm. That’s extraordinary, and also weird, right? 

Or maybe because we live in a culture where noisy, loud spectacle is often what we’re told should draw us toward something, a poem isn’t or needn’t be. Rather, it seems to me, the poem does its best when its allowed to be what it came for, what we show up for again and again, which is likely the opposite of a spectacle—though of course it can include a parade, or evoke a parade, or ride on a float if it wants to, and any poem that wants to be the Grand Marshal has my full support. 

But the small is also, in Elsewhere especially, just the ordinary. And I mean just as in “it equals” not “only.” Again, what is a life and how might we honor the less notable parts? I don’t know. I think Elsewhere tries to get there, tries to focus in. All around us, every day, unspeakable horrors and catastrophe at a scale that is unfathomable, and yet, also, at the exact same time we get out of bed, if we’re lucky. We put the coffee on. Move about our days. Such dissonance is a defining aspect of being alive—and may also be what I see as one of the great struggles of being alive right now. Sometimes there’s a sense of selfishness there, that across town or down the street someone is dying, and someone is being treated unfairly, unjustly, and someone is suffering terribly, and someone is hungry, and someone is scared, and someone may be you but is also not only you, and meanwhile, you, you’re about to walk out on your back stoop, sit with a cup of coffee, gather your thoughts, maybe make a poem. How can we do that? How can we live our lives and not feel shame or risk undermining the suffering of others? How do we sort through the distinctions between shame and guilt, empathy and sympathy? It’s always been this way, of course, and to check my privilege there at that moment risks undermining the fact that amid great tragedy there is also great joy, that the two states run concurrently but needn’t always be understood or diagnosed as causal. So, I guess the small for me is also about saying everyone in the world deserves moments in time where they can sit, can walk outside and not think about their own predicament or someone else’s but can instead look at a bird or a leaf or the sky if they want to. Everyone deserves to live a life that is notable in all the ways they want to define what is notable for themselves, a life that is honored. And so I return to small and ask, what if small were an occasion? What if small were occasion enough for a poem? And in the poem, a document? And in the document, a recognition or a celebration or an elegy, or all of that at once. How the poem, in its compression, its concentration, can and often does make an occasion of everything. And how we can see there the ways in which our experiences—unique and individual—are also the experiences of others. Which is to say, small doesn’t mean unimportant, insignificant. Rather, again, I think about miniature, and how in the details, through attention, we can see from other angles, to scale, take it all in differently, and consider our own proportion to the rest of the world, to others.   

So, maybe small is most of all a reminder to myself to focus, to pay attention, to attend. Here’s something: the first poem I ever felt I taught well was Rita Dove’s “Ars Poetica” from Grace Notes, where she writes: “What I want is this poem to be small, / a ghost town / on the larger map of wills.” The clarity of the speaker’s want has stayed with me all these years, and has probably become a defining feature in my own want of a poem. The ghost town, an essential quality to understanding what the speaker’s after, paired with “to be small” conveys what the art of poetry here for Dove offers, and has long since offered to me, as a reader and as a writer, which is not to say a poem can’t be big, can’t be messy, more that I think of the small as what leaves trace, can imprint.  

KJ: I’ve read this response multiple times now, and each time I latch onto something slightly different and carry it with me for the rest of the day, turning it over lightly. Your poems do this for me, too.

You said earlier that “the line tends to remain the key choice I make when I begin to work and line remains the compositional unit from which most of my poems come into themselves.” I love this idea of the line helping the poems to grow and develop, to come into themselves. Can you say more about this, in terms of your process—how working with the line supports your poems in becoming your poems? And perhaps, also, how the line and the sentence (which also feels essential to your work) interact in that process?

MB: O, line—. Hm. I think it’s Marianne Boruch in her brilliant Poetry’s Old Air where she refers to Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, his urging his students to “take line on a walk.” (Forgive me, I’m doing this from memory as both books are in my office on campus where I am not and haven’t been for a while.) Of course, Klee is talking about drawing, about being a visual artist, but Boruch takes that notion into poem-making, and probably when I first read that essay I thought, yes. Thought, that. Likely, it took me a while to figure out how to actually work in such a way. I imagine I read Boruch, then read Klee, then thought a lot about how other poets made line enact, made line walk, and probably that was around the time that I just wanted to play. 

You know the paths we tread on unpaved areas? If we tread them often enough they are called “desire lines” and that naming indicates an importance to where we want to walk, where we walk, regardless of what is paved—and while surely it also evidences our selfishness or obliviousness to sidewalks or paths, I find it fascinating that urban planners and landscape architects and designers, for example, track desire lines when looking at where to put new sidewalks or where to replace a sidewalk with green space. Anyway, in that walking, we annotate our own patterns and habits. So, how might the line in a poem recognize this, push up against such an approach? Could I find a way to make line teach me how to perform the work of the poem by guiding me forward? Could I let a poem come into focus that way? Could the first line establish what would become the experience of the poem, and could that, then, become part of the reader’s experience? Could I make a poem that sought to redress, in its craft, my own reliance on knowing what I was doing? I thought so, and maybe I have. 

At the risk of undermining the quality of my own process, I have to admit that line is all there is when I’m in the initial drafting stages of a poem. Sometimes, there isn’t even line, just a phrase or, smaller still, just one word, and then the one that comes after. I rarely begin with an idea, or rather I can’t remember the last time I sat down to write with a set idea in my head. Maybe I have a vague sense of something, a thought I’m circling, but I don’t know if anything is deliberate when I sit down to work. Maybe I think, what did I see today, or what did I read or hear or what did someone say or how did they move their body or what was the sky up to, and then I just push words around until they take the shape of a line that functions as a map, a blueprint to what might follow, and then I follow that line to the next one. Until I return to a poem for revision, I couldn’t even tell you what it is about or what it’s after or trying to say. The aboutness comes later, if at all, in the revision process. Maybe a series of poems leads to a sense of aboutness for me, as in I’ve made a dozen poems that circle around a phrase or an image, and then a thought, an idea, comes into view.

I’ll also admit honestly that I have no idea how other people write, and mostly I just assume this is how everyone gets to the page: one word after another until there is line, then that line defines the next line, and so on. In one part of my secret dream life which is not so secret, I’d like to make a poem that functions like a Rube Goldberg machine, or like a sequence in a Buster Keaton film, where one thing leads to another then to another, and every action is propelled by exactly what came before, that kind of force or pressure. So, it’s also probably true that I think more about how to make poems than whatever the poems themselves say, am really so interested at this time in how the craft of a poem functions, and in that functioning, how the poem becomes itself. The poem: a made thing. 

Maybe this approach will also expose, as well, my dependence on the running title, or the title as first line of the poem. This choice, a deliberate one, has been productive for me, and again, though it appears to be a common feature among the books, a tell even, those titles establish the work each poem sets out to perform. I prefer to think about the poem as essentially linked in every way to its name because that name or title establishes, again, the compositional unit relied upon, and if the poem relies upon it, so too can a reader. 

For a long while, I’ve required the pressure or demand that I face when trying to make a line, or a sentence, the first sentence, that holds up as its title and that simultaneously charts how the poem will unfold, but it’s equally true to say that making poems for me is a little bit like taking a car trip without a map or smart phone, where you just follow the road, sometimes read the signs, recognize landmarks. This feels like a natural or simple accommodation of language, really, and again at this time for me, the truest way I can work. 

I also just love the sentence, care deeply about sentences, and my complicated and unbridled love of literature finds its roots there. I remember writing in books for the first time, and how all my marks were notations of affection for what a sentence was capable of achieving. I have a very clear memory of someone borrowing a copy of a book I’d been assigned in high school, and how when they handed it back to me they said, “your underlining and highlighting makes no sense.” Then, they explained I was supposed to mark character development or plot points, dates or locations, but how instead I’d just underlined things they assumed I must’ve thought were beautiful, which is exactly what I’d done. 

KJ: I’m curious about the very practical details of process, e.g. when you write, where, how, with what (you mentioned writing in cars with Beth and that intrigued me) – in other words, what does “Monica writing” look like, literally?

MB: Regarding process, I learned fairly quickly that I was better served as a writer by not making sacred ritual of the work, but more treating it as a practice. In truth, I can write anywhere and at any time of day. I tend to write later at night, after the rest of the day’s work is done, but I take what I can get, and if I find myself with a slower morning, I’ll fill the time. Admittedly, if I start writing earlier, I can lose myself in that work differently, and suddenly it’s dark and I only moved to put on a pot of coffee, or if I have more time, I’ll start overworking a page or image, so I try to be careful there too. In that way, I think writing is a lot like most other things—it takes up as much space as it’s given, or alternatively, it only needs as much room as there is. 

If I’m home, I prefer working on the computer, usually on the couch, but sometimes in bed and on my phone or in the kitchen and on whatever is handy. If I’m in the car and driving, I scribble notes against the steering wheel without looking at the page, usually in a small notebook or on scrap paper, or if I’m smart I have a pad of post-its in the pocket on the door. I started doing that decades ago when I was commuting on mostly empty roads and minded the lost time or rather minded losing hold of something over the course of a drive. Sometimes I’m in the car and sitting in a parking lot and waiting, or stopped at a crossing, and again, I just make do. I write on receipts and renewal cards in magazines, gum wrappers, those sleeves that come on to-go coffees, on invoices, my grocery list, napkins, whatever is available. 

If I’m with my students, usually I keep a notebook with me, but sometimes I scrawl on the back of the day’s reading or in the book we’re reading, my copy of the syllabus or our workshop schedule, really whatever surface is available to me. In the notebooks, which I return to irregularly and often forget about, I’ll find a line or stanza that repeats and revises and turns over itself sometimes for years, forgotten about, picked up again. Anything handwritten is usually just a fragment of something, and that’s true of anything I jot down in transit. Because my life is mostly divided into academic terms, I tend to rediscover all the scraps when I’m filing papers at trimester’s end or in summer, and then, maybe I transcribe them, but more often I just make a pile and forget about them for a long while, maybe come upon something a long time later, and then try to retrace whatever I was thinking, or follow a thread’s development over seasons. I tuck post-its into books, stick them on my office desk, attach them to just about everything, but generally when I’m working, there’s just me and the computer, and only sometimes will I get up to dig in my school bag or notebook or wherever. So, maybe all those notes are just a kind of collecting, a gathering or exercise or throat clearing that I rarely return to when I sit down to work.  

What else? I’m always looking up words, what that bird is called or what place borders what other places, and if I’m not careful—especially when I’m at home working on the screen—I can get seriously distracted, but mostly I’ve trained myself to allow for productive distractions and to push the rest away. If for whatever reason I’m trying to finish a poem at the office or in the few minutes before a faculty meeting starts, I’ll put on my earphones so people are less likely to interrupt me, but I’m not usually listening to anything at all—maybe I shouldn’t admit that, but it’s true. I don’t tend to write well when listening to music, and if I’m outside I’d rather be staring at the world, but again, if I’m in a situation where I don’t get to choose, I adapt. Of course, I want natural light, big windows, somewhere to sit, but we’re also always writing in the dark, right, and so at a certain point the view and the tools we use, whatever they are, for me, may just risk becoming precious. Which is to say, anything that keeps me from working is a thing that keeps me from working, and sometimes that’s fine, that’s life and its many demands, but not being able to find a suitable pen or a particular kind of paper or whatever shouldn’t be one of those obstacles. 

These days when I’m just generating new work, I tend not to revise for a stretch, tend to work on revision when I’m more quiet. That’s not always the case, but it’s how I’m working right now. Generally, because early drafts of poems tend to be more topical, and because I’m working in longer series, keeping that momentum and leaving room to discover what the poems are about as I’m moving forward, I find it better to not turn toward revision too early, more productive to not ask too much of the poems at this stage. When it’s time for revision, I print off and work on the page, usually with a pencil—I prefer a simple #2 with a good eraser, old school, much like when I’m with my students and their poems. I tend to draw a lot of arrows and boxes and circles and shapes, and the paper looks more like a strange sketch for some half-formed architectural idea. I don’t tend to write words on those revisions unless I’m rethinking a line or a series of line breaks, or if there is some kind of sonic disruption caused by word choice, so mostly the scribbles are directional for me, notations in shorthand.  

KJ: I am loving picturing all this—and also inspired by writing anywhere, anytime, not being precious.

Monica, I’m curious about your origins as a poet—when and where and how you first started making poems and how your poetry life has grown and shifted over time. I remember reading, in another interview, that you started out as a fiction writer, and I know you are also an essayist. How did poetry, specifically, enter your life?

MB: Some origins are easy to identify and others messy to trace, and maybe our whole life leads us to poems or to art or to wherever we arrive. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where my mother nurtured all our inclinations toward the arts, by which I mean she taught my sisters and me to pay attention, to gather up what we could, and to honor what we saw and heard and experienced in whatever way we were able. She taught us to look, to look closely, and to listen. I grew up in a house of exploration and play, and although we were limited and challenged by circumstances, my genius and brave mother taught us to build the world where we could be who we wanted to be through books and imagination, through making things with our hands, through language and music and play and cooking and existing in the natural world of our urban childhood, best we could, and by making do, by showing up, by being open to whatever situation we found ourselves facing or engaged in or that we stumbled into. I probably started writing seriously in high school, following the death of my father, although I was a better student of history at the time and thought I’d probably continue to study history and literature if I could. I loved reading, always loved reading, and I assumed I’d continue to write but I don’t know that I knew what that meant until I was in it. Some days I still don’t know what that means. 

As an undergrad, I found myself suddenly in a community of writers, in the place I’d return to teach some years later and that I’ve never really left. I didn’t know when I first arrived here that Knox was unlike other undergrad English Departments, then and now. I didn’t know I’d enrolled in the single most successful undergrad writing program in the country or what that meant. I just knew that I loved what those rooms offered, although it would be years until I fully recognized the lessons learned there and the gifts given to me day after day. Throughout those years, and then in my first graduate program, I’d primarily identify as a fiction writer, and I gravitated toward reading experimental prose, lyrical prose, anything beautiful, and I studied the American short story almost exclusively, and was well trained in short fiction. I had the great fortune of working with extraordinary teachers, many of whom became dear dear friends, including but not limited to: the late Robin Metz, a giant and the long-time director of the Program in Creative Writing at Knox; the now-Pittsburgh-based poet and essayist Sheryl St. Germain; the late novelist and musician Bob Hellenga; the premier Lincoln Scholar and Americanist, Doug Wilson, my first great teacher. All of the faculty at Knox, then and now, were so generous, their thinking expansive, their engagement legendary. I also wandered in the Departments of Philosophy, and History, and German, and for a number of years worked in the Art Department as a model, where I spent long and very still hours listening to the art faculty, whose approach to form and critique and light and object were and still are essential to my thinking. Then I went to grad school where I studied fiction with the brilliant David Stevenson, who honestly changed my life, and I truly fell in love with reading and writing about poetry with the poet and scholar John Mann, and with John I read, for the first time, poems that would upend my thinking about just about everything. Even then, though, I was trying to make stories. 

So, a few year later, having fully thrown myself into studying poems, I began another graduate program, working with Ralph Angel, as I mentioned, and Nancy Eimers, Bill Olsen, Roger Weingarten, Betsy Sholl, and Robin Behn (who once, long ago, taught at Knox, though we’d missed each other by a few years), among others. It was a transformative time in my writing life, and again, in the company of such a rich community of writers I tried really hard to listen. By then I’d been teaching for a while, and what I think is most telling of my evolution as someone who makes poems is my work with my own students. It’s most honest to say that I learned to make poems alongside my students, learned to make poems talking about poems. When my students did something I’d never done before, I tried it. When they asked about something I didn’t know, we learned together. And that continues to be true. Most days, I wake thinking that I have no idea what a poem is, and then I walk into my classroom or sit with a student in my office, and they show me a page and the whole world opens before us.  

In those early years of poem-making, I clung to narrative, in part because of my background in fiction. I understood the sentence, or felt I did, whereas line and stanza—complete mysteries, all wonder. But my prose was always more lyric, and that sensibility has returned in time, with practice. As I’ve said elsewhere, I really do think of much of the work as practice. My writing life is informed, still, by the prose I read and teach, as much as by the poems I read and teach, by the art I see and return to as often as I can. Recently I heard the phrase “genre omnivore,” and I guess I align very much with that label. The short story is my first literary love, what I reach for. Nothing achieves what a short story does or can, and nothing else needs to. All the genres and forms are remarkable. I have a complicated but long relationship to the novel. I try to keep up with established writers I admire, and I work hard to read first books as they are published, am continually discovering new writers in poetry and nonfiction and fiction. I love reading letters and writing about writing and big art books—all those pictures!—and stranger books that I never know how to categorize, but which I think of as primers to a particular topic, like this ancient volume a friend gifted to me about stuttering and another on sentence diagramming. Mostly, I’m a purist though, in that I read almost exclusively what they call literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and then the news. I deeply admire visual artists and musicians, as I’ve said, and am often trying to figure out how a poem can do what a painting does, what a horn player achieves. But mine is mostly a life a books, of language, and so I try to learn to make new poems by studying the poems of others. I’m always asking the page how did the writer do this? and then I try to move backwards from my experience as audience toward the craft of the work, best as I’m able. I’m always asking what happens if this happens? 

What else has evolved over the years has likely been my own commitment to making. In my early years of teaching, I struggled to manage my work with students with my own work. Which is to say, I’m a better teacher when I’m writing, but have not always felt able to write as a result of the demands of teaching. I use the same energy talking about a student’s poem as I do writing one, and that’s probably true for a lot of us. I’ve learned over time to adjust or to adapt to those pressures, and in ways that seem productive for me and for my students. Or so I hope. In many regards, I’m more generous with my students now than I’ve ever been, but I also maintain exceedingly high expectations of them and of myself, which does not mean that I’m unforgiving, but rather that I’m trying to teach them what I had to teach myself, which is that the writing comes when we make space for it. We can choose not to make room, but doing so means we don’t get to punish ourselves for not working nor do we get to complain about it. You make poems or you don’t. You write or you don’t. Thinking about being a writer is not the same as writing. And while I spend a lot of time thinking, I’m not usually thinking about being a writer. If I’m not writing, I hope I’m accomplishing something else. Early in each trimester, I offer my students this advice: the more you write, the more you write. It’s true of most things, actually. And I’ve tried to live by that. A good kind of excess. A productive more-ness. 

I guess what’s also changed is my thinking about time, and the poem-in-a-series strategy that I’ve been working in for a stretch now has been essential to my navigating these passages, how much time it takes to arrive somewhere with our art or in our lives. Nostalgia took a long time to find a home. Long enough that I almost shelved it. Long enough that between earlier drafts, and when Beth and I were in deep with No Shape Bends the River So Long, I almost threw up my hands and said, okay, I’m done with this other work. I wasn’t done making those poems, but I could’ve been, and if I had let myself, I might have stopped writing after Beth and I finished our work. In the lulls between No Shape and Nostalgia, then the poems that became Elsewhere and the other manuscripts that are finished and waiting and the poems that are not yet housed in a manuscript, I can sometimes find myself struggling to figure out what’s next. If I’m honest about that struggle and honest with myself, I should always be okay with saying I don’t know. That not knowing can be scary, and frustrating, especially when a good portion of academic life is dependent on publication, success measured in part by the systems of merit in place in academia—and further complicated of course because as a faculty member I’m expected to write, it is part of my job, but it’s a different part of my job, more private and not necessarily determined in the same way my classrooms are or my service to the college is. Nonetheless, that not knowing is pivotal to our growth as writers and artists. If we knew, I’m not sure I’d know what the point was of making art. What’s also changed is maybe that I’m older now, which is obvious, and true about all of us. Although there is a different urgency to carving out time to write, I feel no particular urgency to “figure out” what a poem wants to say, am satisfied and challenged enough by the making itself, that looking and looking and looking. 

Maybe the most productive way I can think about origins and evolution is by thinking about the trains of my life, another thing I’ve written about elsewhere. I grew up near the end of the line, the Kimball Station in Chicago’s Albany Park. The el was an integral part of my coming of age. I knew all the lines and routes by heart, learned to traverse a city by rail, above and below ground. I moved to Galesburg, a great train city, once home to two Amtrak stations (I believe only NYC has such a distinction now), and where freight moves through at every hour. The tracks that cross this place are in many ways one of the measurements of my life—except that I don’t ride these trains to get around town, I just live alongside them. Like the trains I grew up riding and like the ones that pass through here now, a poem propels forward. A reader begins, like a train, in one place, and arrives in another. A writer does too. We are always in motion, even standing still. There is always a view—what’s up ahead, what’s behind, what’s in the periphery, all around. Maybe the writer stays in one place, but the poem is hurtling through time and space, and carries the writer and the reader with it.

KJ: Mmmmm. I feel like trains, and the way they move in all directions out from Galesburg and back again, criss-crossing in so many different places, is an apt way to think of poems in general, like you said, and also your own practice, this rich, deep sense of community you’ve described here, a practice that moves back and forth between your own teachers/mentors and your students-as-mentors and artists in other disciplines who’ve inspired and moved you.

I’m happily struck by the phase “genre omnivore.” It’s making me think of the visual artists you call out to, with obvious admiration and gratitude, in your poems and essays: like the sculptor Rachel Whiteread, whose art is central to Your Small Towns of Adult Sorrow & Melancholy, your chapbook of essays from Tammy, and the installation artist Doris Salcedo, whose work is woven into “Tonight finds the chair again, but this time elsewhere,” one of my favorite poems from Elsewhere. I have the sense that there are many more visual artists who are close to your heart. Would you be willing to pick one or two—Whiteread and/or Salcedo or anyone else whose work you love—and talk about how your connection with them came to be and came to shape your writing?

MB: Doris Salcedo is an artist whose work moves me considerably, but I’ll admit to not really knowing how to talk about her influence on me these last years. I lack a vocabulary to truly discuss art in any way that honors its complexity of medium. What I can say is that Salcedo’s art serves, for me, as a reminder of the kind of serendipity I often find when I approach the other arts. Which is to say, sometimes I’m circling something—an image or an object or a structure—in my own writing, unable to fully arrive where I hope to, and I walk into a museum or see an article about an exhibit, and there is someone else achieving the work through an approach so uniquely theirs and that somehow speaks to whatever it is I’ve been grasping toward. In Salcedo’s intricate work, I found a clearing and a new perspective, a complication I hadn’t considered and a vantage I couldn’t have known, and ultimately, I guess that’s one of the things art can do and often, for me, does. After seeing an exhibit of Salcedo’s work at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I started looking into more of her site-specific installations, what she sometimes calls “interventions.” The piece that “Tonight finds the chair again, but this time elsewhere,” takes up, “Noviembre 6 y 7” was a memorial in Bogotá in 2002, on the seventeenth anniversary of a siege of the Palace of Justice (in 1985), and in the footage and stills I saw of that piece, I was struck by the extraordinary attempts she made not only to honor the dead but to honor the historical record, one chair after another being lowered from the roof at intervals that sought to mark time of death. However approximate any death certificate, Salcedo eschews the approximate. Rather, the work is exacting, even as a chair does not equal a body. And yet, the chairs serve as this haunting reminder of what is lost, of who was lost, and as a stunningly startling visual display of grief— both private and public. One of the questions I see Salcedo’s work asking is about how to live amid a constant state of mourning.  

It just so happened that I learned about that 2002 project as we were coming up on an anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombings, and I read with attention about the public memorial there. I was just a month or so into writing Elsewhere, where—as I’ve said—the chair figures heavily as an object in the poems. Maybe this is actually the best way to explain my constant return to visual arts: I’d just seen Salcedo, just immersed myself in thinking about her exploring how art can help us remember, help us reckon, help us see; then because of the memorial in Oklahoma City, I started thinking about how many times we have to hear of or witness unspeakable tragedy before we can begin to change or make changes. I hadn’t gone to see Salcedo with any goal in mind, but in her rose petals or use of textiles, her reconsidered and recontextualized furniture, what I found there magnified or illuminated something I’d been turning over. Her chairs were and were not my chairs. Her work about tragedy and violence in Colombia, her identification as—in her words—a Third World artist, let me more fully reckon with what is tragic and violent here—and although these references tend to be quite subtle in my work, the epidemic of mass shootings and violence in America runs as one undercurrent in all three of the books and continues to haunt me as a person, as a teacher and a mother, as a writer. Making art may not stop or prevent a single horror. But an installation or a painting or a poem can bring a different awareness, a consideration of the similarities across time and geography and circumstance, and can both honor the dead and the living, can demonstrate how remembering—like looking, like reading—are part of, in Salcedo’s words, how we are responsible to each other. And if that responsibility holds, if we honor that and learn from that, eventually—art says—we may be able to minimize or eliminate such acts through, in part, recognizing the patterns of such horror. And if we cannot, in addition to all the intimate private loss, the fear and risk remains, of course, that the whole world will be memorial after memorial, and then the planet itself an eventual memorial to itself.   

Although numerous individual artists move in and out of my thinking, in and out of my sightline when I’m writing, I don’t know that I ever set out to specifically write ekphrastically, which I admire an awful lot, envy a lot—and here I think of my dear Beth Marzoni, who is masterful at such work, and of Keith Ratzlaff’s angel poems after Paul Klee, or a number of lovely ones by Marianne Boruch, or prose! Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” or Dime-Store Alchemy by Charles Simic or… I could go on and on. Still, I’m not sure how to talk about the way art brings me to the page. More often than not, I’m struck by how visual artists talk about literal process, how an idea or impulse will direct the work, and how the artist’s hand (or artists’ hands) makes itself visible and sometimes seeks to erase itself. Of course, this all happens in the language arts and I’m equally full of wonder for that, but there is compelling value for me in considering the physical craft of visual art. 

For example, I’ve always loved Edward Hopper’s paintings, but when I saw an exhibit that included drawings and studies paired with the painting they led toward, I began to experience the quiet of that work very distinctly. Hopper informs Elsewhere, That Small in ways I’m not sure I can pinpoint, but I was thinking a lot about attention, how we can train our attention to see every detail, even if the study of such details isn’t ultimately what the work is about, but those details reinforce how the artist comes to know their subject, how we—as audience—experience the work, and ultimately such nuance becomes how the piece conveys to us a way to move through our experience. We feel the experience of aloneness or solitude in Hopper’s paintings because of how light is rendered, how the room or landscape holds that light, the position of the figure in relation to the window, the texture of the bedspread or shadow, and not necessarily because there is only one figure in the painting. So, Hopper, yes, and maybe always. 

And then almost to the other extreme, Olafur Eliasson, another artist who works large scale, is for me a touchstone. I saw his work for the first time in 2003, and honestly, for most of the years since then I’ve returned to the experience of being with “The Weather Project” and how changed I was by it. That piece makes a brief appearance in just one piece, that Beth and I wrote together, and I’ve continued to follow Eliasson’s work, and his permanent installation in the Des Moines sculpture park shows up in Elsewhere, too. 

Whenever possible, I plan travel around seeing art, specific exhibits or installations or projects, including Eliasson, but often what happens is I find someone else I didn’t purposely go to see. I think of these trips as research, and since stepping back from the river and its many crossings, museums and public art have served as a kind of field work. It’s productive for me, for all of us, to get out of our own heads, right? And o, how I miss strolling in museums, walking through new places and finding art. I never formally studied art or art history, but did spend a good deal of time in museums during my formative years—thank goodness for free admission days and student discounts. Sometimes museums were a way to get out of the weather or to pass the time and sometimes they were the destination, always an escape, an elsewhere, but I can’t recall ever being in a museum and not seeing something that moved me. In that way I suppose the museum is for me much like a library or bookstore, a place to discover the thing I didn’t know I was looking for. Georgia O’Keeffe might be the first artist whose name I knew, and then van Gogh or Matisse or Chagall—likely because of the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. So, my inclination here is to just offer you a long list of artists I admire and to say, “Look! Look!” or to point. Since a research trip to London with Beth in late fall, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Steve McQueen, Dóra Maurer, Lucian Freud’s self-portraits, and Kara Walker, but I’ve also returned to Salcedo. Almost every day, I think about Lee Krasner’s Umber paintings. Almost every day I think about Louise Bourgeois. I very much love David Hockney and also Sally Mann’s photographs. Also, Gerhardt Richter. Magdalena Abakanowicz. Maya Lin, continually, and especially her “Rock Field,” and how near those stones at the Des Moines Art Center I saw an incredible piece by Ai WeiWei, and another by Rachel Whiteread, and their proximity to each other—not too far from a Giacometti sculpture and a little Morandi painting—is not unimportant although I’m not sure I could say much more. In that same museum, at a different time, I first saw an installation by Abakanowicz, and I think about it with considerable frequency, although I’ve never written about it. That’s true of most of these giants. So, the art informs my thinking about subject matter, approach, craft, but I don’t know that I’m writing in response to it so much as listening to it all as I move about my day. Maybe that’s not true. I’m not sure. 

My colleagues in the art department at Knox—Tony Gant and Lynnette Lombard and Mark Holmes and Andrea Ferrigno and Greg Gilbert—remain at the forefront of my mind, in part because they are wonderful artists and thinkers, and also because through them I’ve been exposed to other artists I might not have known, including Laura Newman, whose painting graces the cover of No Shape Bends the River So Long and Mario Moore. The now-Atlanta-based María Korol gifted me a painting a handful of years ago that I spend a lot of time eyeing, and it recently moved from my studio to my foyer, where it catches the most lovely morning light. Locally, Carla Markwart, who recently finished a large mural, has brightened many of the darkest days. About an hour from where I live, in Davenport, Iowa, the remarkable Figge Art Museum, with its view of the river, was temporary home to some of the University of Iowa’s incredible Peggy Guggenheim collection after the 2008 floods and there I saw remarkable work and also the startling John Deere collection, including Hedda Sterne paintings that I return to often, but there is also a Deborah Butterfield horse there that I love, what might be the first of her horses that I saw “in the wild.”

I also really love architecture, buildings and bridges, structures where we live and work or which we travel across. Again, there’s no vocabulary there and no training, on my part, just an admiration, and I’m perpetually interested in that field and in how the built structure might teach us something essential, something that is transferable to the other arts and transferable to the practical. It might be through architecture, reading about it and eyeing the built thing, that I arrived at my thinking about the intersection of form and content, of form and application, of beauty and utility—and here I think of Wright and Gehry and Pei and Hadid and Johnson and van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, and, O, I should stop—and when I found Whiteread, I was really struck by her interrogation of space, domestic space and public. But I also spend as much time thinking about the anonymity of other structures, how we often don’t know who designed a bridge we walk across or drive over, but how its aesthetic beauty is as essential as its soundness of engineering. I find myself incredibly moved by that, and always by bridges, parking garages, underpasses, subway stations, all the things we’ve built because we needed to figure out a more effective or productive way to do something, to traverse a distance or to reconsider how we were utilizing space. In time, what will appear to be folly, and what might last as genius, structurally efficient and aesthetically miraculous—these are things that keep me alert on the road or as I, myself, traverse the places I inhabit, however temporarily. All of which is to say, maybe this is part of what it’s all for—art: new ways of thinking or considering or connecting, of demonstrating all of the ways we are and have always been inextricably linked to each other and to every single other thing in the world. 

BIOS:

Monica Berlin is the author of Elsewhere, That Small, Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live, No Shape Bends the River So Long, a collaboration with Beth Marzoni, and three chapbooks. A professor at Knox College, in Galesburg, IL, she serves as associate director of the Program in Creative Writing. 

Elsewhere That Small. Free Verse Editions | Parlor Press, 2020. 

112 pages | $14.99

Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live. Southern Illinois University Press, 2018. 

88 pages | $15.95

With Beth Marzoni. No Shape Bends the River So Long. Free Verse Editions | Parlor Press, 2015. 

114 pages | $14.00

Kasey Jueds’ first book of poems, Keeper, won the 2012 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize

from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her written work can be found in journals

including American Poetry Review, Crazyhorse, Narrative, Beloit Poetry Journal, Ninth

Letter, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Pleiades. She lives in Philadelphia

with one human, a spotted dog, and many houseplants.