Margo Berdeshevsky’s book of short stories Beautiful Soon Enough received Fiction Collective Two’s Ronald Sukenick/Innovative Fiction Award (University of Alabama Press). Her most recent poetry collection is Between Soul and Stone (Sheep Meadow Press.) Her But a Passage in Wilderness was also published by Sheep Meadow Press. Honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, the & Now Anthology of the Best of Innovative Writing, 8 Pushcart Prize nominations, 2 Pushcart special mention citations, the Chelsea Poetry Award. Her works have appeared in literary journals including Kenyon Review, Agni, Pleiades, New Letters, Poetry International, Gulf Coast, Cutthroat, Poetry Daily, Cerise, Meena, Cimarron Review, The Southern Review, and in Europe in Poetry Review (UK), The Wolf, Europe, Siécle 21, and Confluences Poétiques. Her new poetry book, Square Black Key is at the next gate, and a multi-genre novel, Vagrant is forthcoming.
Here, Margo Berdeshevksy talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about the hunt for wisdom, the hope for love and her dyslexic approach to poetry and prose.
Both of your stories deal, in part, with the disarray that time creates. You write, “I who have always thought of myself as a woman sitting at some elder's knee, listening to wisdom. She and I are old enough to advise one another. I say nothing.” How has the issue of time in your writing evolved with time?
Yes, I always thought of myself as younger than others. Odd. Maybe it was being an only child who could not communicate with her parents. Or maybe I just believed that wisdom should, and or would appear, if only I was a good hunter. I felt that for a very long time. And yes, that there was someone older, wiser, who could or might guide me. If I was a good girl. I often have made friends with people much older than myself. As though I might learn from them both how to live, (somewhat,) and even how to die. It has taken a long time for me to begin to teach myself.
But ‘time” is at best, to me, nonlinear. It is rarely only sequential. It interests me in the sense of trying to comprehend the global, historically. And, because I have travelled a good deal in the world, I am interested that cultures evolve differently. That some cultures cling to what they believe is the past which was wiser than the present. And how some believe that everything has begun with themselves, as though nothing ever existed before them.
But it defeats me, if I think of it that way, because I’m forced to admit that time on earth, for humans, has not made us wiser. Only more in need of the tiny shining thing that might come with the continuity of breathing. That might come with an experience of peace, however long that (might) last. The cynic in me says that time on earth has not made us better . . . but just more in need of love. Who are we, and why have we changed so little, in terms of our capacity for that ideal we think of as “humanity?”
Near the end of “My Own…My White Plume,” you write: “Everything forgotten, everything remembered, the lake received all I gave it. A thousand of mine, and then everyone else's sorrows.” I love the way it goes from the individual to the community. Many of your characters experience this: a feeling of complete isolation, only to find others just like them. Can you talk on this?
That’s a keen observation and I appreciate it very much. Yes, I think many of my characters are aware of their own dark corners of isolation and loneliness. But frightening as that solitude can be—and I feel it along with my characters, to be honest—I know that we are all desperately trying to make it through the night. We think we can’t. The times we are alive in are too fraught. We are afraid of being left with no answers or our answers prove useless after all—and so we go out into our days feeling there is or may be no closure, and hoping for a little peace. Maybe a little love. That’s our challenge, as humans, as souls, if I may use that word not in a religious sense but in a sense of what in ourselves we are most deeply trying to evolve in, and from, and to.
And then sometimes, as Blanche Dubois whispered it in “Streetcar,” sometimes there is God , so quickly. And again, I don’t quote that in a religious sense. What I mean is that sometimes there is some other being, some other shadow, something that allows us to feel the heat, or the connection, some place where others have also been lost, and through the shared grief(s), or through the shared dance . . . well, hopefully, there are a few dances to share.
You write both poetry and prose. How does your process differ for each?
I’m often dyslexic in both. What I mean is that words and or lines begin in one form and may morph to become another. Or the end comes in the middle of a page, and I have to excise it to find where it belongs, and that process applies to both prose and to poetry, for me. And rewriting is as important to me as early drafts. It may take months or years before I see what something truly wanted to become.
I could say that my ear in poetry is more tuned to a lyrical voice, and a concision of image. I find I’m writing shorter poems these days. Except when I start writing what I think is a story, and I realize that actually it is a long prose-poem. That has happened recently also. And then I may feel that I don’t know if it belongs in the new collection of poems or the new collection of stories, because I’m working on both. And sometimes I decide to put it (in two different versions,) in each. That might be confusing for an editor, but I like not being pigeon-holed as poet or prose-ist. Some critics of my prose have actually raised the question as to whether a certain book or story is poetry or prose. And that’s fine with me. I like to let the question hang.
I have an essentially “poetic voice,” that I admit And that voice functions in both modalities. And I am also a visual being, visual artist, maker of images. In poetry, I try to condense the images to a harder substance, and allow the reader to do more of the work of unpacking them. In prose, I —might—say that I allow my exploration of language to unpack, to hold more imagery rather that less, to add more detail. It allows for a slower ride. But as a story person, I am rarely plot driven. And I often have no idea how a story will end—until it does. I’m still in the poetic voice, image driven, language driven, following a thread where it is leading me often, rather than where I am leading it. That might be considered a fault, by some. But I write what I am able to. And pray that it’s good.
I once heard the poet Robert Bly reading, and stopping in the middle of his reading and saying a line again, completely differently, and saying to the audience, there, that’s much better. I like the idea that we no longer carve our words like petroglyphs into stone. They may remain living beings, as long as they come through our own breath . . .
As for process, most writing begins in my notebooks, one line that is worth keeping out of many margins and stains. And I have more than a few unfinished notebooks. Some pieces begin in e mails that I realize are actually the nub of a day’s writing, and so I cut and paste and begin to find what I really wish to save that time. Also, I often make notes when I’m reading, and that leads me to new poems, some days, borrowed images that transmute into something else. And of course I most like the work that comes from total silence in myself, and that work surprises me and makes me grateful to some source I can’t name.
Could you tell us a little about your forth-coming, multi-genre novel, Vagrant?
VAGRANT is modernist, some will say. Passionate, lusty, pensive. Some may say: a thinking woman's "Eat, Pray, Love." It is a multi-genre stand out of the box book.
I love an approach to literature that is not nailed into a box. I think of a line from Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play, “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,” . . . because you’d be helpless in there, wouldn’t you, stuffed in a box . . . I mean you'd be in there forever.
So, Vagrant is a book that does not want to be stuffed in a box either. That’s one thing I can say. It is an avowedly experimental narrative echoing 64 cryptic changes, abstractly suggested to me by the I Ching. The multi genre aspect is a continuous play between the narratives merging with created visual imagery (my own photographic montages are spliced in between pages,) and the poetic voice. With Paris and a middle of nowhere Hawaiian island, literally and mentally, in the book’s sites—a femme-Colossus asks her questions. Her essential question returns and returns to this one: How close is death, how near is God.
It is obsessive, dis-illusory, womanly, edgy, poetic, and again, modernist, some will say, experimental, some will some say. A memoir poétique, some will say. All these are apt. There is a passionate, lusty, pensive, a narrator who will likely be considered a lost and found spiritual seeker—at 50. With worldliness in her blood. Sexy sometimes, womanly, a little desperate, a little wise. A leg in two worlds—and always hunting. The book explores a bravery of finding & not finding, on the way to a center of self that is—before completion. It begins with decay, ends with the stars, or fallen stars.
The first chapter begins in a jungle and jumps to an unorthodox one night ménage In Paris, and then the Vagrant walks from there.
In the book are Filipino psychic surgeons. There are unsuccessful Parisian seductions. Decaying paradise. Balinese bats. A key to the beds at Shakespeare & Co on the shore of the Seine. Old men. Statues. Old Russian tea. An awareness of the collapsing globe that is more important than the self. Nights alone in the dark. And so yes, it’s stand-out of the box book. I hope she and I—get out of the box—often, and soon.
Who are you currently reading?
This might not be totally pleasing to my fellow writers, but I’m very often half-reading some things, and often not finishing until later, as I open something more, and new, and other. I read, I'd have to admit, like a collagist! The result is a way in which my mind and eye overlap and merge what I read into different patterns. So my room is filled with open or closed pages with bookmarks.
OK. A list:
Samuel Beckett’s collected letters (1957-1965.) Rereading Joyce’s The Dead, maybe because I’m feeling haunted—and Joan Halifax’s Being With Dying, because it is one of the best spiritual texts I know. Rereading Lance Olsen’s Head in Flames. Kawabata’s Palm-of-the Hand Stories. Saramago’s The Double (after seeing the film Enemy.) Hilary Plum’s they dragged them through the streets. Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur Le Commandant.
More Gerard Manley Hopkins. More W.S. Merwin. Sam Hamill’s translations of The Poetry of Zen. Pascale Petit’s Fauverie. More Lorca. More Shakespeare. Rereading Lear.
And I reread my own work in progress so many times I forget sometimes who wrote it. That’s a lie. But I like how it looks, here. Smile.