Restraint, Dear Boy: Emily Berry Interviewed By Sam Riviere

Fellow Faber poet Sam Riviere speaks with Emily Berry about her much-anticipated and highly-lauded debut collection, Dear Boy, the difficulties of political poetry and the idea of submission

Emily Berry’s poems have been appearing in magazines and journals such as the TLS, New Statesman and Poetry London for a few years now, and have consistently attracted attention for the work’s vividness, peculiarity, and precision. Her use of imagined speakers in her poems is developed to an unusual degree, and has marked her out for her imaginative and ventriloquizing gifts, as well as providing a stage for the emotional sophistication of her writing. Winner of an Eric Gregory Award in 2008, she studied English Literature at Leeds University and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths.

Emily’s first collection, Dear Boy, published by Faber and Faber in March this year, contains poems that are by turns playful, anxious, surreal, troubling, and bereft, and is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated debut of recent times. Taking as its theme the provisional and unsettled struggles for power and love in a startling range of relationships, it has been described by the Guardian as a “dramatic, honest, unstable and beautiful” book, and is already making a pronounced impression.

I’m always interested in how people became interested in writing poetry: was there a definite moment when you started writing poems? As a sort of companion question – some reviews have described a few of the poems in Dear Boy as ‘microfictions’ (though I think there’s much more going on than that)…did you ever imagine that you might write fiction instead?

Emily Berry: I’ve been writing since I was a child. I can’t remember the first poem I wrote, but I remember writing some very heartfelt ones about homelessness when I was about eleven, and I recently came across this masterpiece I produced around the same age for some sort of school assignment about nursery rhymes:

Ring a ring a dole queue,

Pocket full of family benefit,

A sack you, a sack you,

All become couch potatoes.

In case it needed explaining I’d added: ‘This is about unemployment, and what happens when people are sacked’. So. My social conscience or at least the idea that poetry was an appropriate medium for expressing it vanished when I became a teenager and from then on (until now!) I wrote poems mainly about boys. But there were long periods of not writing anything, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I decided to start working at poems more seriously. Before that I did write fiction, probably an equal amount, but in retrospect I think it was like trying to communicate in a language I didn’t really speak. I’ve always read a lot of fiction though, so I’m sure that has contributed to my poetry having this narrative, character-driven aspect that people are maybe getting at when they talk about ‘microfiction.’

The opening poem of the collection features a predatory but somewhat naïve biographer who attempts to document the speaker’s life. In the same way that the protagonist of the poem flirts with the biographer, this poem seems like a flirtation with reader expectations, a way of mocking a tendency to interpret lyric poems like autobiography. It’s almost as if a reader’s intentions are compared to the biographer’s clumsy prurience, his desire for ‘facts’… This sets up the book, with its shifting narrators and cast of voices, in a particular way. Did you consider anything like this when putting the collection together, or are you often aware of it when writing?

EB: I like this way of looking at it! I guess the poem is asking questions about where the lines are drawn between apparently discrete genres like (auto)biography and fiction, maybe even poetry and fiction. I read something someone said recently about there being no distinction between fiction and non-fiction in poetry (it might have been @lemonhound on Twitter), which is an interesting thing to think about. I think there is this idea that poetry is so rarefied that such categories have no bearing on it, but that’s to suggest that prose is never anything but straightforwardly representative. Also, a way of criticising a poem can be to say it’s too ‘prosey,’ yet describing prose as ‘poetic’ can only ever be a compliment. I guess it’s all to do with maintaining the sense of poetry as this mystical, elevated form, which only contributes to it seeming inaccessible and elitist. (I realise none of this is answering your question.) I don’t know if I was consciously thinking about these things in putting that poem first, but I’m happy if it diverts the reader away from assuming that the ‘I’ is always confessional (also ‘confessional,’ ie the poetry term for ‘autobiographical,’ is uncomfortable because there’s something slightly insulting, even shameful about it, implying no work has been done on the part of the poet, they’ve just sort of splurged – and I suppose it forces the reader into the prurient position you describe. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we all like being a bit nosy, but it shouldn’t be the primary approach).

A selection of the poems, I think among the book’s the most recent work, are presented almost like letters, but with odd spaces appearing in the lines between phrases, that feel to me like gaps, or pauses or breakages, as if the poem is a sort of notation of an emotional predicament over time. Could you describe how you started using this technique of spacing and what about it appeals to you?

EB: I think some people call it ‘tabulation’ – I got the idea from Ahren Warner who uses this technique a lot (though maybe with a different intention), but of course it’s been around forever. The first time I used it was in the poem ‘Letter to Husband,’ which is based on the story of a woman called Emma Hauck – she wrote these ‘letters’ calling to her husband from the mental hospital she was in, just one phrase repeated over and over, one word on top of another, and they were never sent, and he never came, so she seemed to be in this kind of frozen state of yearning. You can see pictures of the letters online. The story really affected me and I wanted to somehow add more words to her letter. These spaces appeared initially as a way of indicating a kind of stutter or inability to speak/write except in a fragmented way (which is probably a textual representation of how I feel when trying to talk about emotions!). They started appearing in other poems I wrote, mainly the ones about dealing with absence and I guess you could also see them as symbolising the way in which someone’s absence can seem so physical. I don’t seem to be using them so much any more. I like the way they give you a bit more freedom in terms of line breaks, but they’re also quite annoying to work with, you end up spending ages deciding how many spaces a particular gap should be, which is not the greatest use of one’s time.

As the title suggests, the collection makes a feature of poems which directly address, variously, a father, a doctor, a daughter, a husband, a city, an island… I kept being reminded of a phrase, I think on O’Hara, where a critic says something about how ‘the “I” of the poems is entirely dependent on the “you” in order to speak.’ Does having this range of recipients in some way demand the impressive range of ‘ventriloquisms’ your voice accomplishes across the poems – does the ‘you’ come first for the poem – or does your use of changing voices or positions emerge in a different/less conscious way?

EB: The ‘you’ is always there at the outset, not always a specific ‘you’ but definitely a notional one. For me writing a poem is a form of speaking, so somebody is being addressed – even if you’re only talking to yourself, you’re still talking to somebody. But the ‘you’ is often created or imagined by the ‘I’ so I wouldn’t say the latter was dependent on the former, more that the instinct to communicate is very strong, and if there is nobody there to talk to, someone will be invented. If you’re really asking what is behind my writing poems in different voices, I can’t really say. I wasn’t actually aware of this as being a feature of my work until I read my editor’s blurb for the book! I think I just really like creating different characters, and in a way it’s a bit like acting in writing – you always put something of yourself into the ‘performance’ and it gives you a bit more freedom of expression since you don’t have to worrying about people recognising you…

I know that we both admire Kate Kilalea’s long, mysterious poem ‘Hennecker’s Ditch.’ She has a line: ‘the trees walk backwards into the dark,’ which I heard you speak about at a poetry festival once. It strikes me that both of your poems knowingly operate in a kind of untestable space, that is, sort of at two removes from us, half in the dark, where an emotional truth, if I can call it that, might be best described fantastically, obliquely. The poem ‘Dear Boy’ seems to be about this: ‘Nothing worthwhile is explainable…we can make something up’. There’s that other line in the same poem: ‘Don’t be so literal’ – kind of a warning about ‘reading through’ to some second order of meaning, or regarding the masks you use as a way of being truthful, or w/e. I wonder if you could talk a bit about the role of obscurity, or perhaps it’s better to say discretion, in these poems?

EB: Yes, I love that poem. It communicates so directly, on some level that is beyond any literal interpretation. It makes you feel a lot, without you having a clue what it’s about. Kate speaks about it really interestingly as well – she always says something completely different, which adds to the mystery! I think there is sometimes too much emphasis on ‘understanding’ a poem – people who don’t read (or don’t like) poetry often talk about not ‘getting’ it, but I feel that’s the wrong way to approach it. You can’t ‘understand’ a piece of music, but it can still make you feel something. It’s hard for me to think of my poems as discreet (I often think they are way too indiscreet!)… However, I do often find it very difficult to elaborate on them beyond what is written in the poems and that may be partly that I have worked so hard to produce each poem to explain (to myself as much as to anyone) or work through whatever emotional impulse prompted it, that to do all that again in a different form seems exhausting – but it may be also that I don’t really know either, so I guess they are obscure! There’s this idea that writers should have important, explanatory things to say about their own work but I think the best interpretations are made by readers.

The act of writing recurs as an image in the poems, and always seems to come with an attendant anxiety about its consequences: of ‘pressing too hard with the pen.’ Another image that repeats is of thoughts or pages ‘torn off’; of a person being something that can be ‘cracked open’ or ‘opened up’… In all of this there’s a sense of reluctance about firm endings, a kind of willing deferral – a letter can remain unsent. I realise I might be about to ask the last question in a different way, so – how has the experience been of your book going out into the world?

EB: Wow, it’s really great when people read your book and pick up on all this stuff! Yes, I am afraid of being ‘cracked open’! I was very anxious about the book being published before the event, I’m not entirely sure why – it was less about how it might be received than the idea that this thing that had sprung from something quite personal was now going out into the world. But I think I am beginning to realise that the book is not me, and so far it has been a really good experience. I like hearing people’s take on it – as I’ve kind of already said, often people seem to have a much better idea of what my poems are about than I do!

This is probably a harder question for a writer to answer than a reader, but how do your feel your work has developed or changed over time? Were there any key moments/discoveries?

EB: I think the best discoveries are when you read something different to anything you’ve read before and you think oh right, you can do that. I’m impressed by writers who don’t seem too constrained by genre – reading Anne Carson was a big moment for me, I think, in retrospect, and also more recently Lydia Davis. Here’s this amazing short story writer who, to my mind, writes poems, and no one is saying anything about it, so that means we can basically all do what we want! Another important thing was getting to the point where I was engaging with other poets – when I started writing it was just something I did relatively privately and so to find other people who were up for talking at great length about the validity of a particular line break or something, that was good.

You’ve always lived in London. Do you feel like it has a presence in your work, or somehow provides an imaginative context for your writing?

EB: I did actually live in Leeds for four years when I was university – does that count? But yes, it has a presence. I’m quite a diehard Londoner – I find it hard to imagine living anywhere else. It’s a bit of a handicap, actually. So London does sometimes appear as a kind of character and is certainly a backdrop a lot of the time. I’m a very home-oriented person and I feel like (I hope) there is as much in knowing one place really really well as there is in discovering new places. I sometimes visit the countryside and think godammit, I’m going to write a nature poem! – but somehow it’s just not in my vernacular. It’d have to be a poem about a bird sitting on a traffic light or something. I really like pavements.

I’m interested in how the notion of submission seems important for a number of your speakers, and that at the same time the poems refuse to invite an explanation outside of that basic condition. Part of what these poems seem to do is to somehow reclaim submission from a sort of fantasy setting and reposition it in a real one: the kneeling Korean women, the ballerina with bloody feet. ‘Characters’ like Patient M. or the corset wearer feel at once passive and knowing about their situation. Could you say anything about how the idea of a kind of ‘restraint’ works for these personalities, and how it seems to be at times safe (a kind of relief, almost) and to become dangerous elsewhere…I don’t know, maybe there’s an argument about how ‘in control’ a submissive really is, when social reality echoes the fantasy? (Sorry if this is a weird question.)

EB: Not at all a weird question, it’s one of the few themes I was actually conscious of when putting the book together. There are a lot of characters in the book who take on a ‘submissive’ or restrained role and use it somehow to (what they think of as) their advantage. So it seems to become a position of power and also a means of self-protection (I think this would be the case for the narrators in ‘A Short Guide to Corseting’ and ‘Devil Music’, for example) – but I’m not suggesting this is a satisfactory situation! Often the choice is made because it seems to be the least painful option – it’s easier for the corseted girl to relinquish control than to have to take control herself – but that doesn’t mean it’s the right one. I’m generally interested in the way power dynamics work in different relationships so that’s probably why there are a lot of submission/domination set-ups in the book – the outward trappings of that, like those you mention, are also a metaphor for different kinds of emotional arrangements between people.

The last poem in the book describes itself as a ‘political poem’ and at once discards itself from that category: the poem ‘is also (always) about my love for you.’ What’s moving about this poem to me is that this statement at once chooses not to speak politically but demonstrates a ‘political’ choice in what it will speak about/to. The statement is more meaningfully political for that, perhaps. Do you have a stance on political poetry as a category (if that even exists), or feel any connection to such concerns with your own work?

EB: A few years ago I was having a conversation with an older poet and I was saying, slightly regretfully, that I couldn’t see myself ever writing a political poem. I’ve always felt a bit guilty about not feeling very politically literate, but it’s really a failure to engage with party politics, rather than the issues as such. He said, Oh well, wait till you get a bit older. ‘Bad New Government’ (the poem you’re referring to) is speaking to that and the line ‘I am writing my first political poem’ is meant to be a joke because of course by some people’s terms it would be considered a very poor political poem. Instead it’s responding to the idea that ‘the personal is political.’ In terms of my stance on overtly political poetry…I don’t read much of it, so I guess that’s a stance. I think sometimes one line in an apparently unpolitical poem can be more powerful than a whole overtly political one – I always think of a line from Luke Kennard’s poem ‘Plethoric Air’: ‘I lay back, bumping my head on the war.’ That made me sit up.

Dear Boy is out now, published by Faber & Faber

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today