‘I have never understood a single poem’: Chi Tran Interviews Mei-mei Berssenbrugge

By and | 1 November 2017

CT: And by assemblage, do you mean finding words or sentences and putting them together?

MB: Yes, and it’s an intentional practice. Sometimes I’ll think of a subject that I want to explore, and I’ll choose some books to read that might give me a way into exploring that subject. If any phrase strikes me, I underline it, and then print and cut out each underlined phrase. Because I could never write anything directly, I could never describe a plant. But, by arranging these materials, I can write a poem about a plant. And I think it is surprising that it comes out in my voice, since I’m using other people’s words. And it takes a long time, because for some reason, I have a precise idea of form.

CT: What would that precise idea of form be? Because you have a very particular form that you use [long lines with spaces between each line].

MB: After writing Summits Move with the Tide (1974), I moved to New Mexico, and New Mexico has long, long vistas. It is empty land, and it has a spiritual aspect, and there is also something about how the light changes across the whole arc of sky and landscape. And I believe that bodily experience of space and the visual experience of the changing light across a wide horizon made my lines long. I was very, very involved with the landscape for 20 or 25 years, and it is still my landscape, but I think my involvement with landscape is bigger than the land. It moved up to the sky or something, and also because of drought, into forests.

CT: I see. In responding to your spatiality and how that informs your structure, or your form, I want to ask, do you believe that everything is sentient?

MB: Yes, absolutely.

CT: Have you always believed that?

MB: No. I think that belief is a process. I think it’s amazing how you can have an idea that seems so radical, and after your consciousness assimilates it, it just seems completely normal. You know, I always say I am an alienated person, so even though I believe everything is sentient and even though I love everything, it’s not like I’m on intimate terms with everything. But it makes life better when you can access that belief. I think if you perceive all things as sentient, the world is just better. Just today, I read a line that said ‘everything’s made of frequency, and therefore everything has spirit.’

CT: Does that belief extend to objects, or perceived objects, to you? For example, that cup you’re holding in your hand.

MB: Yes. I think some objects are sentient in ways more accessible than others, but yes, I do. It’s better if you’re nice to everything.

CT: I agree. In your poem ‘Glitter’, you communicate with the non-human, and in it you write:

Others embrace weather and wild land as their means to the supra-sensible;
in violets, it’s emotional desire for spring light: glitter, the mirror.

Connection, often the form emotion takes, appears to me as a visual image.

This poem is about the structures of identity, is that correct?

MB: Yes, but maybe not cultural identity.

CT: What kinds of identities do you mean?

MB: I think I meant, sometimes we fix an idea of an identity by using boundaries like, inside this boundary is me, and outside is not me. And I have a particular experience around these boundaries because I have a physical problem called Chemical Sensitivity, which means I react violently to a whole lot of normal things. And so my boundaries are not so clear. So, I think that in your habitual everyday existence, you can have a set of boundaries, but those are arbitrary and are always in motion. You can move your wish and who you are; your boundary can move. And I use these ideas because I think a lot about multi-dimensionality, how dimensions overlap with each other; in this life, we could be in this shape or this outline, but in another dimension, it could be half of you and half of a crow.

So I think I was thinking of identity in that way, in that there are more gestalts than there are divisions. But, you know, I’m also from a different generation, although the generation you identify with can be arbitrary. I do identify a lot with the ’80s.

I think another thing that happens as I get older is, I’ve made a commitment to the positive, and that the contribution I can make is for a vision that is life-affirming. It is a personal and intense struggle for me not to grieve for the landscape. In fact, I do grieve but I’m trying not to. And I don’t believe in it. I believe that the Earth is alive and a living being, and we are part of it. So, I would say, I try to use an energy that is not just positive, but increasing.

CT: So, do you mean you don’t believe in grieving?

MB: For myself. I don’t want to grieve for the landscape because it does not help me give what I want to give in my work. And I’m interested in exploring the idea of Arcadia, because it’s like a symbol of the ideal. But within it, there’s a lot of subjectivity. How can you quantify the beauty of today and of yesterday? You can compare, but one is not less than the other.

For example, we’ve been in a drought (in Abiquiú) for nine years, and all but one kind of tree died around our mesa. And I’m so sad about it. I just can’t stand it. I dream about the beetle larvae and everything! But then I just read yesterday that the trees that died, the beautiful piñon trees, are an invasive species that came down and displaced the sagebrush. So, it is better for me to have a wider vision. Though it’s not easy.

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