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

By and | 1 November 2017

CT: Well, earlier you mentioned that there are more neurons in the heart than there are in the brain. Do you differentiate at all between feeling and thinking?

MB: The purpose of a lot of my work – and maybe it’s because I was born in another country – is to make a continuum between polar things. I think the poetry I wrote maybe 10 or 15 years ago was me trying to make feeling and thought a continuum, so that they are not separate but different aspects of sentience. I’ve worked a lot with the idea that once you have a thought, it continues to live on, as a being or a life force. I would say my tendency would be to try and think of gestalts or continuums, though I’m a very mental kind of person. I try to honour my thoughts, thoughts as emotional entities also, and to have the same requirements of thought as you would of your feelings. They can’t be split off … I’ve never thought this before!

CT: And honouring your thoughts, does that feed back into intentionality?

MB: Yes. Well, for myself, as a writer, intentionality is important because language is the scaffolding with which I engage and interweave with the world. You know, I think, if I’m good to words and good to language in everyday life, then that virtue will strengthen the work. There is a lot of thinking nowadays that thought forms an energy that continues into the world after you think it. I feel that words are that way, too.

CT: Your new poem, ‘The New Boy 2’ was recently published in The Poetry Foundation’s Poetry MagazineJuly / August journal issue, focusing on Asian-American writers. There’s one line in the poem that I really love. You say:

I like that he expresses himself to me as a kind of witness in transition.

And those last three words really struck me, and I suppose it relates to this idea of thinking as a continuous energy, as well as back to that idea of understanding as ongoing.

MB: Emily Dickinson’s poems are like that.

CT: Yes! I want to ask, do you understand your own poetry, or do you think you understand your own work?

MB: Well, you know, I have a very, very poor memory. It’s hard for me to remember my work. When it’s a recent poem, I remember the process, I remember the sources, I remember the material, I remember what drew me to put it together, what drew me to make editing decisions that I made. And so in some ways, I understand the process and the history of the poem, and I understand maybe what I was trying to get at, but what the poem is, no I don’t think I can understand it or recapitulate it.

CT: Have you always been okay with that? Because there is this heavy sense of responsibility for me to have to completely understand my own work in order to share it with people, but I know I’m still very deep in navigating what it means to deeply understand something, whether it’s about or separate to myself.

MB: Well, on the one side, one does not understand any poems, and maybe by that I mean, one does not fathom it, or get to the bottom of it. But on the other side, I think historically, artists are not necessarily the best ones to understand their work. The point of view, or the stance that you take is the expression of your time, is the expression of the contemporary energies around you, and I don’t think one can necessarily have an objective understanding of that.

CT: Is meaning a constant process of discovery for you? Going back to the ideas of intention and understanding yourself. Is intention a constant process of discovery? When I ask you these questions, sometimes you preface or interrupt yourself with “but perhaps I mean …” and I love that you don’t feel the need to always be so sure about yourself, or you don’t feel that you have to immediately know what you mean all of the time.

MB: I am really not good in academic situations because they seem so immersed in denotation. But I think a lot about the quantum realities and materialisation of things, and in that way, when something is formed by the observer, the measurer, and the way it becomes a particle, and that particle almost becomes an entity in itself, and then it can observe the next wave, so it’s almost like an urge. And that’s how I think of intention. (Laughs)

And I think intention’s very important.

CT: Well, another line in ‘The New Boy 2’ is:

I think of myself in a service capacity.

I was wondering if you see your poetry as being some kind of home for you? Do you see your poetry within a service capacity whether it’s for yourself, or for other people?

MB: Absolutely. Yes. I wanted to say earlier, with the ‘witness in transition’ line … Well, first of all, my poems aren’t true, and I say that at one point in the poem; [‘He’s read my work, and thinks me more knowledgeable than I am, since my poems aren’t true.’] This new book I am revisiting is about the stars, and a lot of that involves encounters with visitors to Earth. So I became very interested in what a witness is, and how you listen to a witness, what a witness can have to contribute creatively to a truth or vision. I think of witnessing as a deeply innate quality of human expression.

I think in my first years of writing, I was trying to be a writer but I didn’t know what that meant. Now, I am deeply, deeply, deeply committed to writing as service. As an expression, as showing, as contributing to understanding, or as contributing to feeling, being a medium for expression of something that the times might call for.

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