Interview with Emily Berry

Picture of Emily Berry
Photo by Peter Barry

Emily Berry is a poet and editor living in London. She is the author of two books of poems, Dear Boy (Faber & Faber, 2013) and Stranger, Baby (Faber & Faber, 2017). A selection of her work appears in Penguin Modern Poets 1: If I’m Scared We Can’t Win (Penguin, 2016). She edits The Poetry Review. You can find her online at http://www.emilyberry.co.uk/

Shauna Kosoris: What first drew you to writing poetry?

Emily Berry: I’ve been writing ever since I was little. I used to write both poems and stories but when I started taking my writing seriously, when I was in my twenties, I decided to focus on poetry. I’m not entirely sure why. It felt like a natural preference, the way you automatically reach for something with one hand and not the other.

That’s a very interesting way of putting it.  Since poetry is so innate for you, do you have a favourite poetic form to write?

I’m open to all forms of poetry. My brain doesn’t seem to work in a way that allows me to write in traditional forms but I’m very interested in how a poem looks on the page, what kind of relationship it has with the white space, its architecture. I love the way Sharon Olds has talked about the forms of her poems, that she thinks of the left-hand margin as being like the trunk of a pine tree, a solid structure, and the right hand margin, which is freer, are its leaves reaching out. And beyond the left-hand margin there is this uninscribed space – what she calls the ‘spirit-body of the poem’ or an ‘honorary place for what’s unsingable in the poem’. I’m interested in that kind of way of thinking about form.

What was your first published piece?

I had to think hard about this one! Now I remember I had a poem published in my school magazine when I was maybe 17. It was called something like ‘Consequences’ or ‘Comprehension’. Then nothing for ages until I had a poem I can’t recall in this curious little London-themed journal called Smoke: A London Peculiar.

In your newest book, Stranger Baby, you quote a lot of psychoanalytic and critical texts.  What drew you to those?

The poems in Stranger, Baby were written as part of my Creative and Critical PhD. I wanted to explore my own loss and find ways of writing about it, and it felt safer to do that within a kind of structure. For the critical component of the PhD I was looking at elegiac writing, so I read as much literature (creative and critical) around the subject of grief and loss as I could. I’ve always been intrigued by psychoanalysis because the emphasis on metaphor, symbolism and interpretation seems to me very relevant to the study of literature as well as to the study of the self.

In your first book, Dear Boy, you wrote about several different relationships.  Stranger Baby focuses on just one (the loss of your mother).  Why did you choose to focus your poetry in this way for the second collection?

It felt more like an imperative than a choice. I think often with first collections of poetry people are peeling back a layer of something, and once that’s taken away there’s something more intense available. Sometimes when you’re in one thing there is no possibility of it being diluted by anything else.

Along with writing poetry and working on your PhD, you’re also the editor of The Poetry Review.  How did you end up working with them?

I had the opportunity to co-edit an issue of the magazine in 2016, when it was still being edited by Maurice Riordan. He left about six months later and the job was advertised, so I applied!

How fun! So what are you working on now?

Nothing much. The editing job takes up a lot of my time, and I only recently finished the critical part of my PhD, so in terms of my own writing I feel like a period of rest and reflection is necessary…

And very much deserved! Let’s finish up with a few quick questions about reading.  What book, author, or poet inspired you to write?

Sylvia Plath.

Is there a book that you think everyone should read?

I feel like things might get quite boring if everyone had read the same book.

And what are you currently reading?

The Unloved by Deborah Levy; The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk; Transit by Rachel Cusk; The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, OK Mr Field by Katharine Kilalea; See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism and Commentary by Lorrie Moore.

Stranger, Baby cover

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