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Recently I had the pleasure to interview poet Ben Berman. Berman is a thin, wiry man who sports an amused smile and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He has the look of a man who is curious about the world. I can picture him closely examining a leaf or an ant with his children for an extended length of time.

Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands (Able Muse Press, 2012), won the Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second book is Figuring in the Figure, forthcoming from Able Muse Press in 2017. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He is the poetry editor at Solstice Literary Magazine and teaches in the Boston area, where he lives with his wife and daughters.

I interviewed Berman on my Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer TV show on Somerville Community Media TV.

Doug Holder: Ben, you defected from Somerville to the environs of Newton, Mass. Why?

Ben Berman: My wife lived in Somerville for 10 years. We dated for four years, and lived together in Somerville. We lived in Teele Square for a while. After we got married and had our daughter we moved to Newton.

DH: Is Somerville a good place to reside for a poet?

BB: Somerville is a great place to be a poet. There is such creative energy. The Somerville Arts Council is such a good organization. It is very supportive. The city is very diverse.

DH: In your new collection, Figuring in the Figure, you explore the facade of the immediately apparent. In the suburbs – where you live now – behind the broad and manicured lawns, lurks the rawness, the unruly entanglements of the world.

BB: I think of this book as a follow up to my other book, Strange Borderlands. It is based around my experience with the Peace Corps in Zimbabwe and what it was like being a stranger in a strange land.

Figuring… deals with a very different place, the small, local life, but the rawness exists in this seemingly placid environment.

DH: Some say you have to be a wild, Charles Bukowski-like figure to be a poet. How does domesticity suit you?

BB: In some ways it helps, in terms of giving me some routines and rituals to keep me writing. There are many complexities, entanglements, being a father and a husband. Small moments of domestic life are entry ways into broader ideas.

DH: It has been said we detach ourselves to feel more fully. Do you detach yourself when writing?

BB: Writing requires detachment to feel the experience fully and write about it.

DH: How have your children affected your writing? Does their sense of wonder ignite yours?

BB: Entirely. My kids see the world entirely differently. They could spend an hour just looking at an ant. I try to see through my kids eyes. It gets me out of the “routine” of seeing.

DH: Tell me about your involvement with Solstice Literacy Magazine.

BB: It is an online magazine that has been around for eight or nine years. Lee Hope started it. It was connected to Pine Manor College. We produced two print anthologies. It is a wonderful journal. On staff we have folks like Regie Gibson, Richard Hoffman, Danielle Georges, and many others.

DH: Why do you write poetry?

BB: It is a centering practice. It is a ritual I need to engage in or I won’t feel right. It allows me to slow down and connect with my life. I love to play with language, and find meaning in the world. I get up around 3:00 a.m. every morning, check the web, have a cup of coffee, and free write. I go where it directs me.

DH: You teach at Brookline High, in Brookline, MA. Is it a help or hindrance?

BB: To teach is very demanding, so it sort of makes me make time for my writing. I am lucky to have bright and creative kids in my classes. I love to introduce kids to reading, and they introduce me to new writers. That can only help.

 

THE UNDERSIDE

 

My friend confides in me how his wife cheated—

well, not cheated, but sent racy photos

of herself to other men—how she created

some online profile with a phony

name—Lady Falcon—and how he stumbled

upon this one day when he used her phone

to order a pizza. They’d been so stable,

he tells me, maybe they needed this breach

to save their marriage from growing stale.

In front of us, a hawk’s perched on a branch,

calmly pecking at a squirrel’s entrails.

We’re sitting side-by-side on the bench

but see different things through the tangled

crosscutting of limbs in front of us. My friend

mentions that he’ll hide some of the details

from his analyst because the man can find

subtext even when they chat about sports—

which makes me feel bad about my own feigned

attention—how my mind spirals and spurts

like a squirrel getting chased up a tree,

then scrambles to piece together the excerpts—

it’s just that I’m tired of the puppetry…

my friend says …some childhood desire…

he adds …while residing on my property—

but what an impotent word—resides—

just hearing it makes me long for nude

photos of his wife. On the underside

of the branch, now—directly under

the hawk—is another squirrel, his floppy

tail pointed stiff—this must be duende,

I think—ready to spring at the slightest flap

of a wing. How should I have reacted?

my friend asks, as the squirrel fixes to flip.

 

— Ben Berman

 

 

 

 

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