Lauren Berry: The Lifting Dress

 

T

he Lifting Dress is no breezy summer read.

As award-winning poet Lauren Berry takes us through the after-effects of the sexual trauma experienced by her young narrator, the reader is chilled by the depth of the girl’s vulnerability. But then there is another layer which the author weaves in with equally potency: the growing sense that here is a girl who, despite everything, remains the narrator of her own self-identity. Colorful and eccentric and steeped in lush, figurative language, this story, however difficult, is unmistakably her own.

 

Lauren Berry, Photo credit: Emily Ries

Lauren Berry, Photo credit: Emily Ries

 

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: The title of your book, The Lifting Dress, is so luscious in the quandary it suggests. For a poet, and particularly a female poet, there is always this tension, isn’t there, between that ache to at last have one’s inner life revealed, but at the same time that shiver that comes whenever we experience our safety compromised? Is for you the experience of being a writer much like running naked through a public space?

Lauren Berry: I’d like to answer this one in a spider web sort of way. My family and I took a drive through the country last Sunday on our way to the lake and the landscape reminded me, pretty intensely, of Central Florida. As we wound through the small towns with their railroads and their barbeque cafes and their hardware stores, I wondered if it was the landscape of my childhood that led me to become a poet. If not, what one occasion, person, or trait guided me to write? Every now and then I try to pinpoint it for some reason. I have a hunch that it’s the environment in which I grew up —but there are a lot of other influences outside of the Spanish moss, alligators in the back yard, the dense, voodoo heat driving us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do, the threat and pleasure of the ocean. I wondered about different options: Is art in my blood? My grandfather was a writer and painter, my grandmother was a painter, my brother and father are musicians, and one of my sisters can sketch anything she envisions. Or is it because I grew up dancing ballet, which is a kind of practice in imagining a world other than the factual one in which we live. A hiatus from the reality that includes things like bottles of Drain-o and long lines at the DMV and the inner ear aches of small children. The ballet world was a step away from that. It was like: Dance in snow! Pretend you are the earth! Now you can fly! In the corner is a rat king, who wants you dead! I loved this imaginative, escapist play— so I kept signing up for year after year of dance classes, curious about the next season’s foreign world—what dreamy task it would demand that we complete. Never did I feel like I was running naked through a public arena, as I had deliberately taken the careful time to audition, practice, knot my hair up for the spotlight. I asked for it. In fact my father often jokes about how badly I wanted center stage. I suppose sometimes I get nervous before a poetry reading, but I’m only anxious that I won’t give my best performance. I’ve never been nervous that my inner life would be too exposed. I am the speaker in the book and in my new poems, I suppose—but it’s me wearing a costume, a mask, a smear of makeup. I gain comfort from the emotional distance between me and the Just-Bled Girl— between me and whatever figure I want to present. This distance provides me with a kind of safety net. I am more of an actress than a confessionalist.

I once watched an interview in which the nonfiction writer David Sedaris discusses this question of exposure. He responds to the people who think that they know him with the rhetorical question, “What do you think you know about me?” Even one who writes in a personal diary presents a version, an impression of the truth. If eight people go to dinner, there will likely be eight separate interpretations of the evening’s experience. Perhaps that’s the spike in audiences of reality television—the events are so literally recorded that those watching believe that they are actually peeking into the private lives of others. But poetry exits in a more impressionistic space than this: there’s no “nonfiction” or “fiction” label when it comes to poetry, so readers assume a lot when they come to the text. A funny example: one day not long after The Lifting Dress came out, my mother called to ask me about my poem, “The Year My Mother and I Mistook the Pool for a Father.” She read me the line, “We [the mother and daughter character] set up two chairs and cut our own hair / over the pool,” and then she said, “It’s funny—I only vaguely remember this, but I know that we did this.” I laughed. “Mom!” I said in a kind of you-know-better-than-that way, “We never cut our hair into a pool. That’s ridiculous! Why would we do that?” We laughed about it for a long time.  

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: That familiar saying, “The devil is in the details,” feels particularly apropos in the case of this collection, as you offer us such luscious description as, “the red carnation further into my throat,” and “I wanted stingers instead of leg hair.” I have to ask: Do you carry a notebook with you everywhere, jotting down evocative descriptions as they pop into your head? Are you inspired by visual clues around you as you go about your day? Or do these descriptions just come organically as the narrative evolves?

Lauren Berry: I carried a tiny Moleskin notebook around with me in college and grad school, but back then I had great, pensive swaths of time between classes, and my mind could wander more than it can now that I teach high school English. Now I have a different process: when I think of an image throughout the day, I walk around with it for a while and see if it sticks. If after a few days I can’t let it go, I know I have something that I need to capture on paper. But that image normally serves as the catalyst for the poem. I’d say that at least half of the images appear during the actual process of writing. I don’t know where they come from—some kind of weird, inner oracle I have inherited. I’ve learned to listen carefully. I get quiet and put the lightning rod up. Those images do come easily. And then when I finish writing, I step back and wonder at them, like they’re my little soldiers or children or something.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I am always in awe of poets who create evocative and fresh metaphors, such as with: “the red yawns of ambulance lights.” Is this a skill you have had to work hard to develop? Or does it come rather effortlessly? An extension of connections you make every day as you move about your world?

Lauren Berry: I feel like I “have to” think in metaphor in order to process new information. I think that’s why teaching high school English is a perfect fit for me; my students work well with precise and illuminating metaphors to bridge gaps in understanding. Analogies. Examples. These metaphors need to click pretty instantly in such a fast-paced environment. This is a skill that I believe I can offer my students.

This question makes me think about a recent story. My fiancé and I recently met up with some friends in a bar called Mongoose Versus Cobra where I told the bartender to surprise me with a cocktail. “Something with citrus in it” was my only parameter. The gentlemen then poured about eight bottles into an old-fashioned punch glass in order to craft something which he called an “Aviator”. It seemed illuminated from within by soft, green light. It tasted indescribable. When I came back to the table and sat down with my friends, they asked, “What is it? What does it taste like?” But I couldn’t answer. I said, “I can’t describe it. I think I’ll write a poem about it. I’ll get back to you.”  I now realize how ridiculous this sounds as I’m telling this to you, but the thing is that I will likely draft something about that enigmatic flavor. Until then, it will nag at me. I feel inarticulate – and perhaps a bit inadequate until I can craft a metaphor about a new experience.   

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Throughout this book, you explore two landscapes: the world the narrator inhabits; and then the landscape of her body, as you give us phrases like, “I knew there were red wolves in my body.” What makes the female body so much more of a tricky landscape than the bodies of men? What drew you to wanting to explore this?

Lauren Berry: I believe that I can only write about what I know— and I feel that I know women better than men. But I still wouldn’t be so bold to say that I even know women yet.

Even as a woman I think that ladies can have a snarled, unpredictable mode of coursing through the world. There are a lot of things I do and reactions I have that I don’t even understand. I am utterly fascinated and frustrated by women, the endless complexities. Writing about women might be a way to nail down my own identity or “tricky landscape” as you said. But we’re an interesting topic, wouldn’t you say?

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you think it is ever possible for women to not have their bodies scrutinized as they move through their day? Is there a consequence to the psyche when this is attempted?

Lauren Berry: I’ve been thinking about this a lot this summer, because I’ve been trying to work out at the gym before I go back to work for the school year. The gym, or at least the one I go to, is a unique and odd microcosm, something akin to a nightclub in broad daylight. Two weeks ago I was perched up on a stationary bike, and I watched a stunning, olive skinned woman do pushups on the floor near the bicep machines. A gentlemen in his sixties actually stopped mid-curl, got off of the machine where he was working, and walked over to her. So close that he was standing over her. The man then stared down at her for a solid minute before licking his lips somewhat devilishly, smiling, and returning to his machine. Because she was facing the foam ground of the gym as she did her pushups, she didn’t necessarily witness the act—but I wonder if she was cognizant of being the subject of so many people’s attention—including my own. That’s what makes this complex—I was watching her too. But was my act of watching her scrutiny? I felt no judgment looking at her. I felt only admiration. She was beautiful. More than most people you see in a given month. Was watching her the appropriate response to her beauty? And what is the difference between the gentleman’s gaze and mine? What do the nuances matter if she knows that he and I are looking at her and she feels distracted or uncomfortable? I don’t have the answers to this one yet.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What have been some of the responses you’ve received from your readers? Do reactions vary widely among different demographics?

Lauren Berry: Most people ask a team of questions that are fun and easy to answer: Where did the idea for the book come from? How long did it take to write the book? Did you get to design the cover? How did you come up with the title of the book? Do you get royalties? But then a lesser number of people want to know more intimate information. Some people ask about my relationship to the Just-Bled Girl. A few readers even want to confirm that she is a carbon copy of me. That she is literally Lauren Berry and that I have experienced everything that she goes through in the book. I actually had one interviewer call me repeatedly asking if I had been raped. The journalist didn’t seem satisfied knowing that the Just-Bled Girl is more my puppet than my representative.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What makes a poem powerful? What is the target you set before you as go about your writing? Favorite poet who exemplifies this?

Lauren Berry: Right now I have the blessing of teaching a summer poetry class for Inprint, which is a non-profit literary organization in Houston. One of the main ideas we’ve been discussing in class is the balance between access and mystery within a poem. By this I mean that a writer must allow the reader enough access to the poem’s topic while still challenging him with the unsaid. If there’s too much access to a poem, a reader may feel spoken down to or bored by the poem. And if there’s too much mystery, a reader may feel ostracized from the narrative center of the poem—or possibly, interestingly enough, bored by the poem. Consider: how long will we stand outside the locked door before we grow tired of it and move on? Even a poem based in lyric and image, a poem interested in as much resistance of narrative as possible, must send the reader an invitation into its enigmatic world. Give a clue: a familiar setting, emotion, or situation. That will be enough to maintain the engagement of the reader.

Like any student of any subject, we desire to learn and grow and be moved and energized by whatever frontier a great poem offers. We want the frontier. We want the tools to uncover it. But we don’t want the map.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Where do you hope to go next with your writing? New themes you wish to explore?

Lauren Berry: I am working on a new poetry collection that explores marriage and motherhood. I have the pleasure of marrying my best friend this October, and then I will officially be a stepmother to his ten year old son whom I adore. Tray and I have been together for half of a decade, but until recently I’d never considered that I would actually have a wedding and get married one day. As a little girl (and as a twenty-five year old as well), I never pictured walking down any aisle in some big white gown. But one day I just woke up and looked at him, “Ok, now I am ready. I love you. Let’s get hitched!”

Now that I am engaged, I have a very unexpected and new panoply of curious visions to examine for my writing. I think part of my wedding planning is writing poems in order to process my thoughts about marriage. I’d been absentmindedly writing around these subjects for a couple of months before I finally realized that I was writing a book about them. One night I was teaching a poetry class and I asked my students to take ten minutes and draft a poem that modeled the personal ad structure of CD Wright’s, “Personals.” It was supposed to offer a humorous litany of our best qualities. When time was up I looked down at what I’d written and said to my students, “Umm… I think I did it wrong—I wrote a list of everything that I can’t do.” We laughed for a minute, and then my witty student Leigh Anne joked, “You should make that your wedding vows.”

Well. The idea lightbulbed in my brain and I thought, “That’s it! I am going to write a series of marriage vows from different personas.” Right now I have “Marriage Vows from the Lightweight Virgin Boxer” and “Marriage Vows from the Woman Braver at Night” and “Marriage Vows from the Motel Receptionist with a Crucifix Swinging Between Her Breasts” and “Marriage Vow from the Widow with a Soldier’s Uniform in her Bureau.” I’m having a lot of fun playing around with the promises of different brides.

 

Lauren Berry, Photo credit: Emily Ries

Lauren Berry, Photo credit: Emily Ries

 

 

Further Notes

Lauren Berry received a BA in creative writing from Florida State University and a MFA from the University of Houston, where she won the Inprint Verlaine Prize and served as poetry editor for Gulf Coast. From 2009 to 2010 she held the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute. Her first collection of poems, The Lifting Dress, was selected by Terrance Hayes to win the National Poetry Series and was released by Penguin in 2011. She currently lives in Houston where she teaches AP English Language for YES Prep Public Schools, a charter school whose mission is to transform the low-income communities of Houston through college-preparatory education and community service.

 

 








One Response to “Lauren Berry: The Lifting Dress

  • i have always found that poetry takes one deeper into the human psyche and the feelings of its writer. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *