I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
My first experience of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s writing was hearing her read at an event I hosted for the New York City Opera called “The Color of Sound: A Conversation on Music and the Visual Arts.” She was magic. I was instantly reminded of all those old poets endlessly calling on their muses, because suddenly I knew precisely what they were talking about. And I understood: theirs was, after all, no dusty literary convention. As Berssenbrugge spoke her poetry, she was transformed—as though the words came through her from another place. The audience, hypnotized, bent forward to catch the meanings in her soft voice. She read two poems that were completely different from each other, and although I cannot remember the words of either, I can still easily invoke the vivid and distinct experience of each: in the first, perhaps because of her facial expression, I imagined that she had become her poem and for the first time saw her as a person who was also ethereal. As she read the second, I remembered Homer and how he was said to sing his verse. And so I began to wonder if and how we are all, perhaps, connected to some collective historic past.
Putting together a book of selected poems (I Love Artists came out from the University of California Press in 2006) was for Berssenbrugge what discovering how to keep a collection of wildly dissimilar rare butterflies alive and beautiful inside a glass case would be for me.
Berssenbrugge says of herself that she is not someone who can act in groups and that her publishing until now—or as she would call it, “expressing poetry in the world”—has been very personal and consequently chiefly done in collaboration with small, forward-looking presses: Burning Deck, Station Hill and, most recently, Kelsey Street Press. Working with a university press was thus a challenge, and interesting to her.
Certainly interviewing Berssenbrugge was a challenge, and interesting to me, not least because for her, as for many other artists, her work does not really exist in the realm of conversation and is itself the best, truest articulation of her intent. Or as Berssenbrugge herself might express it: poetry is an engagement beyond emotion, discovered, not made. Unsurprisingly, her answers were often figurative, seemingly isolated vignettes, or little stories designed to illustrate particular aspects of what an experience or thought might mean to her. It was not until I began to transcribe that I understood the natural metaphorical congruency in everything that she had to say.
Michèle Gerber Klein I think it’s a good place to start that you are putting together this new collection of your poems: I Love Artists. When you’re pulling together the poems, you’ve said there are some you can’t leave out. What are your criteria?
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge I keep the ones I can stand (laughter). I tried to find a narrative line that would run through from my early poems to the present. It’s a narrative I don’t know yet, one poem touching the next, like beads. My early work is very naive and romantic. It interests me to bring the romantic forward, now. I made a leap to my mature work with the book Empathy, in my late thirties. I can see these poems, now.
MK What do you mean by that?
MB Those poems were written below my conscious mind, with their own connections, like dreams. I cherish them, because I was writing beyond what I could understand. They seem clear now.
MK Do you arrange them chronologically?
MB Each book is so different, if all my books were in a room together, they wouldn’t know each other (laughter). But the development is sequential, so yes, they are arranged chronologically.
MK You said to me, I do not love my poetry. Is there a common thread in what you choose?
MB It’s outside emotion. I try to expand a field by dissolving polarities or dissolving the borders between one thing and another. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m from one culture—I was born in Beijing—and grew up in another. I’ve tried to feminize scientific language, to make continua between emotion and thought, between the concrete and abstract. Lately, my interest is in quantum physics and in vibrational energy, where matter can be seen as condensed light. Looking back, I see that all my poems are written with an intimate voice that’s also an instrument for dissolving borders.
MK I was reading “Fog” this morning. You talk about she. I thought the narrator and she were both you, but maybe one is your daughter.
MB “Fog” predates Martha by many years.
MK So both were you?
MB Yes, it’s a fragmented self.
MK You go into a scientific description of what fog is and from there to what one can see or feel, and then you return to the scientific description: Fog is a kind of grounded cloud composed like any cloud of tiny drops of water or of ice crystals, forming an ice fog. Suddenly the fog becomes ice.
MB Yes, it’s about psychological closeness and distance between people. “Fog” was written as a text to accompany choreography, and that’s why it’s more like prose poetry than set lines. There were three dances, “Water,” “Ice” and “Fog.” With “Ice,” I was examining spring breakup in Alaska, where I taught for many years. “Fog” was the last of these performances. This was an early collaboration. I find when I work with another sensibility, I grow larger and clearer.
MK Who were your collaborators?
MB I was very involved with the multicultural movement in the ’70s, which was a time of wonderful energy and discovery. “Fog” was produced by one of the first Asian American cultural organizations, the Basement Workshop, over here on Lafayette Street. The choreographer was Theodora Yoshikami.
MK How many dancers danced in it?
MB Four dancers. There was a set of shifting scrims. It was good for me, because I performed the text each night. The words became embodied, I said them so many times.
MK What do you mean by embodied?
MB I know them very well outside myself.
MK Since we’re taking it chronologically, let’s take another poem that’s a little later: In “Chinese Space,” you write “human memory as part of unfinished nature is provided / for the experience of your unfinished existence.” You don’t think that existence is imagined?
MB Well, whether it is or not, I don’t think you feel that it’s imagined. I’m reading about reincarnation, and one of the ideas I like is that all our incarnations happen at the same time, like parallel lines. And karma, rather than cause and effect, is the resonance of a theme or similar themes across these simultaneous lives.
MK I wonder if it is memory that exists. If you believe we’re all leading these parallel lives, then memories happen in the present.
MB And you can form and reform your experience by remembering.
MK Well, yes, if you relive your lifetime, you also change it in your imagination. You use it to re-form your present experience.
MB I’m very interested in that. Memory has been a subject of my work, because of its changeability. Now I think you can go back, and if something is traumatic you can change your response to the situation in your mind. You just relate to it in a different way. Then your body can experience it differently.
MK What about this poem “Daughter”?
MB I’m the daughter. My mother had just died. Richard [Tuttle] and I were in Hawaii. We had just finished Hiddenness, our collaboration, and had decided to get married. We went down to the beach one night. The coral reefs were close to the surface, so we had to swim using extra senses in order not to touch them, and my senses became very acute. I swam far out to a rock where many birds were sleeping. The end is about an angel based on Marcel Duchamp’s last work, Etant Donné, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
MK Is it your memory or your foretelling of an angel?
MB She represents an ideal of the contemporary or daughter. Today, at lunch, Kiki Smith told me Duchamp was involved with Quan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, who is important to us both and whom I’ve written about. I’m wondering about the relation of Quan Yin to Etant Donné for Duchamp. But when I used her in “Daughter,” I was responding visually.
MK Will you talk about your connection with visual artists?
MB I use visual images like patches of concrete experience in my poems, which I collage with abstractions or ideas. When I lived as a hermit, I was immersed in images of landscape and light in New Mexico. I met Richard when he asked me to collaborate on a book for the Whitney Museum. One of his subjects was the relationship between the visual and verbal, two different mental planes that a collaboration might align. Our book, Hiddenness, unified visual and verbal planes by breaking out of the normal page margins. There was a unification like water spreading out in space. When you open the book, which has an indigo cover, it feels as if light is pouring out to you. Richard’s literary perception of me is something more vivid and glamorous than my perception of myself. He’s designed very beautiful covers for my books, and he designed my book Nest.
Endocrinology, my project with Kiki Smith, began with a coincidence. The publisher, Rena Rosenwasser of Kelsey St. Press, asked me to consider a collaboration on the same day Richard brought home a beautiful catalogue of Kiki’s (whom he’s known since she was a child) from Amsterdam. When I called Rena back, Kiki was staying at her house. That was the beginning of Kiki’s coming to New Mexico. It took a long time to make the book, which U.L.A.E. co-produced, as an artist’s book. So we became friends, and our work continues to connect. By chance we bought our first statues of Quan Yin on the same day. She’s the hearer of all the cries in the world. One day at Kiki’s house, the wind blew and all the figures of Quan Yin on a shelf across her window fell to the floor. Kiki, Anne McKeown at Rutgers and I just finished an artist’s book of my poem “Concordance,” which was inspired by a dandelion bookmark that Kiki made. She compares reading to dandelion silk floating to fill the air. Kelsey St. Press is publishing the trade edition, which includes “Red Quiet.”
MK One of the issues your writing evokes for me is the idea of microcosm and macrocosm.
MB I’ve tried to get free of the dialectic for a long time. It would be typical of me to make a continuous scale between macrocosm, microcosm, outer will, inner will. Though I try for a continuum, my scale is large.
MK Yes, huge, like the Chinese general who solved his problems by looking at them through different ends of the telescope as big or minuscule.
MB Yes, the scale is still large, though the subject may be small. And then my New Mexico landscape has a horizontality similar to Beijing.
MK Do you think that in writing about something you come to know it better? Or do you think that in writing about something you give yourself a window?
MB Well, a poem has its own intention. I’m tempted to say that writing helps me know something, but in fact I may use trying to know something as a way to set a ball spinning in the air.
MK When you think of the ball spinning, do you think of it as attached to something?
MB Spinning, just there spinning.
MK Like magic? Tell me about your relationship to magic.
MB Sometimes I think of a poem as energy like a crystal, and it can act on the world in a way that’s akin to magic. Where I live, magic and the supernatural are part of the daily fabric.
MB Well, there are traditions of witchcraft, the spirit world and incarnation in both the Spanish and the Native American cultures.
MK And the other culture?
MB My latest passion is so-called New Age philosophy and its correlations with ideas in quantum physics. I think of this as opening out the connections between the person and the universe. The European cultures would call it naturalism. (laughter)
MK When you write your poetry, what do you discover?
MB For a long time, I wanted a poem to exist all at one time. But I didn’t know how to write that way. Then at a concert, while I was listening to Alfred Brendel play Schubert, I experienced all time being simultaneous and rising to the surface. One of my sources is Buddhist poetry. I aspire to bypass the struggle of the individual and make a poem that expresses beauty without individuation.
MK It’s true. When I think, for example, about a sonnet, I think about a dilemma.
MB And also the individual hero, the poet as empowered, separated agent. I’m trying not to be separated. I like trying to be a medium. In fact, my creative process is laborious and very much about struggle, but I don’t identify with struggle.
MK How do you do it? Do you talk your poems, or do you write them?
MB I think of an idea, a subject, and I read books that are consciously or unconsciously pertinent—Lacan, Chogyam Trungpa, artist’s writings—and I mark phrases and print them and lay them out in strips on a big table. I cut out pictures and I take photographs and I arrange everything like a giant map of what I think the poem will be, perhaps 300 elements. It’s impossible to hold that many details inside. Then the writing itself is very intense over four or five days.
MK Well, it seems to me that you put your gestation out on the table instead of sort of living inside the poem.
MB It feels as if the gestation is in the reading.
MK Do you channel when you read?
MB No, but I think writing by channeling is an underrated form of literature. (laughter) There’s a tremendous richness in this kind of literature being published outside the mainstream.
MK I’m reminded of turn-of-the-century automatic writing.
MB I think a concept like channeling presents a fantastic solution to the philosophical problem of skepticism. Constructing portals between reality and personal experience.
MK You speak so often about New Mexico. Are you able to write in New York?
MB Agnes Martin used to say that whatever she made in New Mexico and brought to New York looked good because critical intelligence, critical light illuminates it. Critical light is a great natural resource, here.
I fell in love with New Mexico when I was 18, and went there to live in my twenties. Then, it was about the mysticism and beauty of light on the land. I lived in a rural village. Georgia O’Keeffe lived nearby. There’s a kind of phenomenology in my writing of that period. I used light to talk about philosophic issues or issues about relations with people and how a person is connected to the world. I find a correlation with themes in Chinese poetry.
MK What is the correlation?
MB Chinese poets also used personal observation of the landscape to reflect larger questions about life. After our daughter was born and we built our house on the mesa, I expanded into thinking about the world more holistically, in context. I began to explore how there could be traces of many things at the same time that are not oppositional. When we came to New York, I tried to keep that scale of the landscape.
MK What about “Nest”?
MB That poem was influenced by my studies with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the great philosopher and teacher at Columbia. It explores themes of the immigrant nomad, feelings of uprootedness, how to connect to a home and to a home in language.
I want to tell you what’s difficult to admit,
that I left home.
Change of mother tongue between us activates an
immunity, margin where dwelling and travel are
Artifacts throw themselves toward light without
Telling you is not an edge of the light.
There’s no margin of a shadow to imply interior.
In my childhood house was a deep porch covered
Look past our silhouette to silhouettes (like shadows)
of guests arriving in a bright yard.
Light in the next room falls on her, as she bends to
Skylight pours down, then covers the mud wall,
I observe a lighted field seem to hang in space in
front of me.
Speaking, not filling in, surface intent, is a cabinet
of artifacts, comparisons, incongruity.
I transfer the light in New Mexico to light in the nomad world. The mother tongue of your mother and your own mother tongue might not be the same.
MK Yes, because you may be someplace else.
MB The end reads:
It’s said, illustrious persons lead parallel lives,
which join in eternity, but some lives veer off the
straight path to community.
So, I speak with care, but prove authority won’t
take me far, because the area’s too large.
In this, daughter, you see more than I did at your
age, because you see me.
And then the daughter’s mother tongue is not the same as mine.
MK When you are going through the editing process, what is your goal?
MB My editing process is arduous. I think I need dense resonance in a finished work for people to continue to respond in the future. So I make a book as a condensed object, an energy object that can continue without my presence or my voice. When I was younger, I didn’t think about the reader. I didn’t even think of myself as the reader, because I didn’t always understand my poems. Now the culture is moving faster, and I’m interested in what that pace is, what moves with the culture, what I call the genius of the audience. So I’ve simplified my poems.
MK How do you feel about putting your poems together for I Love Artists? Is it a way of keeping your early work in print?
MB Yes, and also, it’s a retrospective, a way of looking at myself or seeing myself, so I can go somewhere new.
Michèle Gerber Klein, vice president of the Liberman Foundation and a founder of Joan Vass U.S.A, is a trustee of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian National Design Museum and the Bronx Museum of Art. She writes frequently about art and fashion and is currently researching a book project on the last tapes of legendary designer Charles James.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee