Monday, July 7, 2008

This Body: Raymond Berry on Writing and Risk

Raymond Berry is a writer, poet, and educator. His poetry is published in Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas and the Amandla Literary Journal. He earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Chicago State University. His manuscript, Diagnosis, was selected as a semi-finalist in the Seventh Annual Elixir Press Poetry Awards. Berry, a native of Chicago, is at work on a new poetry collection entitled Fire of My Breath.

Below is an excerpt from an interview I conducted with Berry earlier this month.

Tell me about your writing process.
My writing process changes with each project. I did not map out Diagnosis, like I did with my current manuscript. I didn’t say, “I’ll write a poem about this, then I’ll write a poem about that.” Nor, did I make a list of prompts. I wrote when I was most vulnerable. In the late hours of the night. When memory comes back to haunt, and shadows return to remind us of our choices. I dreamt a lot. And I would wake up and try to record what I saw and heard, if I could recall it. I would hear the ancestors speak. Somehow, I felt what they felt—when they were in that moment, facing death. Realizing that they would be next. And I used that. This passed on fear. This passed on emotion. This passed on knowledge. Our fire. It’s interesting because I used this “emotion” in the writing of this book, yet in the poems, there seems to be a disconnect between the speaker of the poem and the action that occurs. Sometimes there is not enough emotion. Almost as if the speaker wears a mask. So, I had to revisit those places, and fully capture who this dominant speaker is. The poem “journal” was written from a dream. Or should I say in a dream-state. I felt this young kid who was in pain, and I thought I imagined it. Or rather, that is was some manifestation of my own insecurity. I believed him to be real. And I had to tell his story. He would not “let me go” until the poem was written. After producing a publication-ready version of this manuscript, I began to feel alone. Because I could no longer hear the ancestors. It was as if they were done with me, and that I no longer needed them-like I to continue the journey on my own.

Let’s talk structure. I was not sure how I would open the book. If it would begin quietly and end loudly, or vise versa. I always certain the title of the book would be Diagnosis. To me, it represents a transformation—a knowledge other than an HIV diagnosis. There were some who expressed a disinterest in the title. But one goes with what feels right. To me, diagnosis is a process. There are many processes in this work, especially involving the main speaker.

Can a poem stop someone from putting themselves at-risk?
Okay, so here’s the real question. Can art prevent death? Can it save?

It took more than four years, more than 40 encounters, and more than 6,000 pills to finally understand that loving does not mean accepting. So, I will say no. If someone would have told me “this can happen,” or showed me his or her scars, or made reference to the uncontrollable shit, then maybe I would have slowed down-became more cautious of who I allowed In my circle. Pun intended. When one is searching for worth, it takes experiencing the worst to understand. Again, knowledge is a process.

At the end of the day, risk is the life we live. It is there everyday, like the memory of what you’ve done. Like gas. Like a bowel movement. It’s eventual. To ask if art can prevent death is like asking:

1.) Can mammograms prevent cancer?
2.) Do condoms prevent pregnancy?
3.) Does donating food eliminate hunger?

Of course not! Art provides us with another way of seeing. It can change us. Help us tap into our humanity. Ultimately, our actions are up to us. Certainly, it gives us something to consider. I consider it a cure to ignorance. Again, when we are trapped inside ourselves, the rational no longer matters. Knowledge becomes irrelevant. Control becomes invisible. Whether we are infected or not, as long as we come into the knowledge that we can be more, then change can occur-before or after diagnosis. Art helps us to know. It does not matter when, as long as we grow, and become better. And come into the peace we’ve always longed for. I can say that poetry saved my life. Sometimes it saves us before we make choices, and sometimes after the moments. As long as we get there. A poem can only work if we embrace it. If we are open to seeing what it has to show us. If we are not open, then the poem is just lines on a page, soon to be forgotten. Words drowned out by the silence of our lives. Literature only has meaning when we are engaged.


And now, a poem by Berry, which appears in To Be Left With the Body.


as he pounded between my cheeks, i smelled my own shit. went to wipe
for another round. feces covered white cloth. realized i was dirtier.
returned to bedroom. decided to ride. sat on top of him moving toward
someone i never wanted to be. showered in the morning. afraid to take
home the smell.



G. Winston James said...

Raymond, I found myself nodding in affirmation as I read your interview responses. I thought they were thoughtful, realistic and wise. I'm glad to have been exposed to your poetry as well. I'll be putting my hands on this volume and looking out for your others.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mr. James. I am please to hear that you enjoyed the work. I used "The Damaged Good" as inspiration. My favorie is 'Expectation.'