Prac Crit

Canopy

by Emily Berry

Interview

by Natalya Anderson

The first time I met Emily Berry I beckoned to her from a pub in Cambridge moments before she was due to read from her book, Dear Boy (Faber, 2013). With an expression on her face that I would now recognize as bemused, she kindly sat with me and engaged in conversation. I was so frightened of her brilliance, so excited to be near her, that I told her at least three inappropriate, personal stories that any person in their right mind would be unlikely to share with a loved one, let alone with a complete stranger. When she read her poems later that evening, a wave of calm came over the room, and the poet Kaddy Benyon, who accompanied me that night, turned to me and said, ‘Isn’t she something?’

Berry’s poetry, for those who haven’t read it, has hugely influenced a new generation of writers, and yet she never yields to the suggestion that she is revolutionary. Her tendency towards downplaying everything she produces is not false modesty; to know her on any level is to understand that she simply writes what she feels compelled to write, and she puts every instinct she has into what she creates. Whatever you think you’re seeing, however, when you read an Emily Berry poem, you would be wise to read it again and again. Her latest collection, Stranger, Baby (Faber, 2017), explores abandonment, loss, fear, and, ultimately, hope. It has just been shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection in the UK.

NA

You and I were talking recently about fear and art and whether they coincide. I have a special place in my heart for the poem we’ve chosen to represent fear, ‘Canopy’, from Stranger, Baby. Tell me about it.

EB

I think of that poem as a kind of lullaby. How the poem came about – a close friend of mine, her mother had recently died. I was staying over in her mother’s flat, where my friend was living. This was at a time when I was thinking a lot about my own mother’s death and trying to write about it – all the stuff that became the book. The flat is close to a very wild bit of Hampstead Heath, a part of the Heath where there are loads of trees. I couldn’t sleep that night. It was very windy and you could hear the trees swaying back and forth, swaying all night long. It felt like they were all around me. It was partly quite sinister and partly soothing. Like being inside something, but protected from it at the same time. On my way home the next day – which is this bus ride I like that goes along one edge of the Heath where it feels very rural and if you sit on the top deck you’re sort of up in the trees (and can peep over the fences of these crazy dilapidated mansions that are mostly owned by foreign investors) – the poem started to emerge.

As I’ve got older I’ve had a few friends lose their mothers and there can be a kind of solidarity about it. I wanted to write something that spoke to that – that’s why it’s ‘we’. Seeing other people lose parents got me more in touch with my own loss, because I was so young when it happened – my mum died by suicide when I was seven, as you know – I’d sort of blanked it out. It seems like whatever age you are, losing your mother can make you feel very small again, completely defenceless. I guess I was trying to take something menacing and turn it into something that might be comforting. You know that nursery rhyme, Rock-a-bye baby? Rock-a-baby on the treetop, when the wind blows, the cradle will rock, when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall… It’s a completely terrifying lullaby! This only occurred to me later, but I think ‘Canopy’ is meant to be the anti-Rock-a-bye baby.

NA

Going back to the idea of art and fear, and what you said about something being menacing and comforting at the same time – can art distil fear, or be a channel for fear in any positive way? You brought up the idea that you weren’t sure if art helped fear at all, and that it maybe makes it worse.

EB

I don’t know, really. I just read an interview with Maggie Nelson in which she said ‘there is no catharsis, the stories we tell ourselves don’t heal us’, but that writing about trauma can be a necessary process. I am a person who is on pretty intimate terms with anxiety and panic, as you know, and much of the writing in Stranger, Baby emerged out of difficult emotional states. But it wasn’t in the sense of, ‘Oh, I’ll do this and I’ll feel better.’ It was more a way of weighting what I was feeling internally. With this book, and with other poems that have come from difficult places, once they’re concrete and they’re existing, they become scary in a new way. I was really scared of this book for quite a while. When it was a manuscript I didn’t want to go back to it. I kept it under a pile of papers on my desk.

I didn’t always want to write these poems and at times it felt a bit like… being sick. But that comparison feels disgusting and shameful because a poem is meant to be a beautiful thing. There’s this disharmony between what a poem is meant to be – beautiful, transcendent – and the actual wretchedness of its source. The other day I saw Nuar Alsadir talking with Josh Cohen about her amazing book Fourth Person Singular, and shame was one of the topics, the shame of writing in the lyric ‘I’. In the talk, and in the book, she talked about the lyric being like ‘saliva in a glass’, based on something Slavoj Zizek said about us being okay with swallowing our own saliva repeatedly, but if we were asked to spit into a glass and then drink it we’d be horrified. When you write a poem you take something internal and make it external, so in that way you seem to be showing your insides to the world (and to yourself).

NA

Did she suggest it might be okay to keep the lyric ‘I’ in poetry, that this isn’t bad?

EB

That didn’t really come into the discussion; I guess it was more about her approach to the lyric, which is sort of elusive and shapeshifting.

NA

You said that ‘Canopy’ had the feelings of sinister and soothing at the same time. I wondered if we write poetry that way – with the knowledge of how scared we are, but also with a compulsion.

EB

That’s a beautiful idea. Is there something about fear being harnessed by a kind of discipline? I don’t know what place I write from, though. I go to talks and readings and I often get the sense that many writers, or indeed artists of any discipline, have these really clearly thought-out ideas about their process and how they write and what they want to write about – and I don’t have any of that. I don’t really think about my writing process. If I try to think about it, my mind just sort of bolts itself shut. When I write it’s just because it… arises. Almost like a physical process. Trying to answer that feels like thinking about ‘what’s the approach I would take to eating?’, or something.

I mean, obviously, there’s structure. Sometimes I sit down to write when I haven’t got the urge just like sometimes I eat when I’m not hungry, just because it’s been pre-arranged, or whatever. In terms of what I like to read… I want a poem to make me feel like I’ve been stabbed in the heart! Not literally obviously. I want a very powerful non-physical physical feeling…

NA

So, when you’re writing your book, you have the same powerful feeling, but – in your comparison with being sick – once it’s out there, your body is still in a purging state even though the sickness is technically gone. Why do we do this? I mean, not just you and your book, but let’s say any of us who write poetry. We feel we have to get a festering gremlin out, but, as you said, once it’s out there, there’s a sort of resentment towards the body of work because of how it leaves your physical body reeling.

EB

I ask myself that question a lot, especially lately because I haven’t written anything new for quite a long time, and I am wondering what it might mean not to write, as well as what it means to write. During the process of writing Stranger, Baby – writing a book about a grief that is over 25 years old – some people said to me, oh that must be an important and necessary thing to do, and some were like, are you sure it’s a good idea, raking up the past like that? I still don’t know. Right now, I feel fine about not writing, I’m enjoying the silence.

NA

It is a physical thing. It’s not something you plan. Either the spirit is in there moving you to write, or it’s not. If it’s not, you’re not out there searching for your ‘muse’. It’s inside you, agitating you, physically moving you around, if it’s there at all.

EB

Yeah, but I think my experience with that has changed since my last book. With Dear Boy, when I had a period of not really writing afterwards, I did think ‘What’s going on? I need to produce new things.’ And I was frustrated. I felt like I’d had this skill that I somehow couldn’t access anymore, whereas now it doesn’t feel like that at all. The spirit analogy feels accurate. The spirit has gone on holiday, thankfully.

NA

Do you think poetry is an inevitable build-up towards writing about the most terrifying or most painful thing we have lived through? Is it that you needed to write about your mother all those years ago, and now that you have, it’s the release you were building towards with your previous book?

EB

Loss was sort of haunting my first book in some ways. I had one poem in Dear Boy called ‘Her Inheritance’, which was about not speaking about my mum’s death – that was my approach for the first, maybe 20 years after she died. I thought that was maybe going to be my permanent approach. The fact that that changed was a huge personal crisis and sort of continues to be. There’s a way in which writing a poem is another way of not speaking. The process of writing Stranger, Baby was very different than writing Dear Boy, in that it all came very quickly and in various absorbed emotional states of being compelled to write stuff down. The first book felt more architectural. Like, done in many stages over a long time, plans first, then slowly being built in parts; whereas Stranger, Baby felt more, I don’t know… sculptural? Like working with clay or something. Not that I have skill in either of those fields!

NA

It’s all the terror becoming something beautiful. I’m always amazed by how people can experience such pain and yet go their entire lives pretending it never happened. But a lot of people function that way. Perhaps that’s the starkest acknowledgement of pain. Either you repress it and you’re exhausted, or you lay it all out there and you’re exhausted. And then if you’ve written this exquisite book, which you have, you have to answer questions about the subject matter. And then you’ve talked about it so much since its conception that you’re back to looking at it wondering if it’s a cat or a fox or if you’ve ever seen it clearly in the first place.

EB

Exactly. That’s the weird thing about it. I haven’t talked about it all that much actually, because I don’t know how to. I already talked about it in the only form I was able to talk about it in… Some people are really brilliant at talking about their work. Ocean Vuong was in London a few weeks ago for the launch of the UK edition of Night Sky with Exit Wounds. I saw him speak about it and he was so incredibly eloquent and said all these insightful things – at one point he even broke into song! For me, when I talk about my work, it feels like a hard task, but sometimes I learn something.

Canopy

by Emily Berry

The weather was inside.

The branches trembled over the glass as if to apologise; then they thumped and they came in.

And the trees shook everything off until they were bare and clean. They held on to the ground with their long feet and leant into the gale and back again.

This was their way with the wind.

They flung us down and flailed above us with their visions and their pale tree light.

I think they were telling us to survive. That’s what a leaf feels like anyway. We lay under their great awry display and they tattooed us with light.

They got inside us and made us speak; I said my first word in their language: ‘canopy’.

I was crying and it felt like I was feeding. Be my mother, I said to the trees, in the language of trees, which can’t be transcribed, and they shook their hair back, and they bent low with their many arms, and they looked into my eyes as only trees can look into the eyes of a person, they touched me with the rain on their fingers till I was all droplets, till I was a mist, and they said they would.

From Stranger, Baby (Faber, 2017).

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