Emily Berry is one of the most exciting young poets to emerge in recent years. Since her first collection Dear Boy, a ‘blazing debut’, she has won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2013, was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in its “40 Under 40” initiative, and became editor at the Poetry Review. I had the pleasure of questioning her about her latest collection Stranger Baby, in which she reflects on loss in her beautifully sensitive verse.
Your most recent collection, ‘Stranger, Baby’ opens with an epigraph from Sigmund Freud. “The loss of a mother must be something very strange …” Was this your starting point for thinking about grief?
The starting point was the death of my own mother. I came across that quote when I was working on a commission to write poems about Freud, and I read a lot of his correspondence. Some people have commented that it seems quite a detached way of describing loss, and I suppose that’s true – but it seemed to me to sum up my experience of it, in that I have very few memories of my mother (she died by suicide when I was seven) and grieving for someone whose memory is very faint, whose death has had a huge impact on your life, is very strange. The writing of the book was somehow both an attempt to reconnect with her, and to let her go.
For me the word strange is sort of key to the book, but in Freud’s original German the word was Merkwürdiges which is from merken (to notice) and würdig (worthy). I’ve also seen it translated as ‘remarkable’. I learned recently that Freud’s own mother didn’t die until he was in his seventies.
Your style is pared back in this collection and does at times appear to embody a Freudian detachment. This struck me as an evolution from your 2013 collection Dear Boy. Do you feel like your voice has changed? And if so, why?
Yes. Maybe one’s voice has to change/evolve over time otherwise you’d just be writing the same thing again and again. The poems in Stranger, Baby came from a place that felt sort of speechless so perhaps that’s why there is a lot of silence in between the lines.
You write about loss in a way that is at once fantastical and feels very real. Can you describe the interplay between these oppositions?
For me writing is about a kind of transformation, it’s happening in another realm. So if you write in response to something ‘real’, a feeling or an experience, when it goes into the poem it should become fantastical, otherwise the necessary transformation won’t have happened. People always want to know is a poem real, is it autobiographical, but I think that misses the point. The Canadian poet Anne Michaels wrote a beautiful essay about creative expression, Infinite Gradation, in which she says: ‘The source of poetry is intensely private, but it is not personal – poetry must lead the reader not to the poet’s life, but to the reader’s own.’
Your speaker is sometimes fractured, most evident in your dramatic poem ‘Tragedy for one Voice’. Who would you say are your different selves at play?
There are multiple speakers in the book who could be said to originate from one self, but there are also multiple separate speakers. I was reading a lot of literature on grief and loss when I was writing it and various phrases stolen from these texts found their way into the poems. I was thinking about something the psychoanalyst Darian Leader calls ‘a dialogue of mourning’ in his book The New Black, the idea that traumatised people might use the words of other people when they find themselves at ‘an unspeakable point’ in their narrative.
Water – especially the sea – is a fascinating motif which occurs in practically every poem. Can you explain the significance of this image for you?
I didn’t realise how much water appears in the book until it was pointed out. I just kept returning to that imagery for some reason. I believe the sea is often thought to symbolise the unconscious. I didn’t know that at the time, or maybe I knew it unconsciously…! Someone else commented that in French the words for ‘sea’ and ‘mother’ are very close, which is a nice link. It just seemed a natural (and of course hardly original) metaphor for an excess of emotion – isn’t it beautiful that the sea is made out of the same substance as tears!
You finish one of my favourite poems of the collection, ‘Now all my poems are about death, I feel like I am really living’ with the line ‘I knelt, I spoke, I cried, I wrote this down, regretted it.’ How would you describe your writing process?
First of all I chop and fry an onion… (I never know how to answer this question!) At the moment it’s maybe more like collage than anything else – sometimes a line or two comes to mind and I make a note of it, and at some point, when I’m in the right mood, I try to fit all these random lines together.
Did you feel like the process of writing these poems was healing?
Ultimately, yes, in some indefinable way, but two years ago I probably would have said no. The book came out in 2017 and I didn’t have any sense of it having healed anything at that point – quite the opposite. But over time it has begun to feel as if something has been laid to rest.
You reference a range of female artists: Paula Rego, Rose Wylie, Renee So, as well as poet Luna Miguel. What does their influence mean to you?
The three poems after artworks were for a commission where I was invited to respond to paintings in an exhibition (One Day Something Happens: Paintings of People). I didn’t set out to choose all female artists, these were just the pieces I was most drawn to. I felt like they all had a kind of mournfulness to them. I was already working on Stranger, Baby at the time, so my responses were refracted through my existing preoccupations. There is some kind of affinity between poetry and painting that I don’t quite understand. Luna Miguel is an amazing Spanish poet who has also written about the loss of her mother. I felt like her voice had influenced my poem ‘Song’, and I wanted to acknowledge that.
We are very excited to know if you are working on any new projects!
Over the last year or so I’ve been working on a lyric essay, ‘The Secret Country of her Mind’, responding to Jacqui Kenny’s photo series The Agoraphobic Traveller (you can see Jacqui’s work on Instagram @streetview.portraits). The essay includes poems and explores anxiety, agoraphobia and the unconscious, among other things. An excerpt recently appeared in The White Review, and it will appear alongside the photos later this year in a book called Many Nights. I’m also, very intermittently, working on a long poem called ‘Unexhausted Time’, parts of which have been published, but it’s not finished yet.