Apr/May 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Poet Berwyn Moore

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Berwyn Moore is a poet and teacher whose work has been published in journals including The Southern Review, Shenandoah, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Runes, and the Kansas Quarterly. Her poem, "Glass," was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in November 2004 by Elizabeth Ross, publisher of River Walk Journal. Her poem, "Snake Pit," won 4th Place in the Chester H. Jones Foundation National Poetry Competition in 1992 and two poems, "Daily Offering" and "What I Want to Tell You," won finalist awards from Negative Capability Press in 1991 and 1993.

Berwyn is an Associate Professor of English at Gannon University in Erie, PA. In 1988, she received a National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts Teaching Award. She lives in Erie with her husband, Dr. Robert Brooker, and daughter, Emma.

Charlottesville, Virginia, 1960

I was six and the steam from curried rice
coiled yellow over my plate and I thought
of our family photos of pale cows idling

in crowded streets, monkeys hanging
on their backs; men chanting and children
watching snakes rise out of baskets;

women clustered together like pushpa,
their saris folding in petals around dark
faces, a tilaka dotting their foreheads.

I remembered the stories of my mother
with a broken leg that wouldn't heal, me
inside her, and the only doctor, my father,

across another border in Katmandu,
where dancing girls begged him to be
their husband; and stories of his solitary trek

over the boundary of legend where he saw
the yeti, hairy and huge with dangling arms
and hands, too human—I thought of this place

where I was born and at that moment when I
was six and eating dinner I knew I would
someday have to return, leave my family here

gathered around a candle-lit table, one
sister dropping crumbs to an over-fed cat,
the other choosing colors for the prom.

I gazed at them over supper, secretly
memorized their faces—my mind
filling like the trunk I would drag

but their features crossed over like double
and triple exposures: blue-brown eyes, lips
moving without sound, braces, glasses,

pointed nose, crew cut, and blond braid
all on one face—their images would not hold,
would not flatten to sharpness and color.

How would I be ready, not the infant
in a shoe box carried on an elephant,
but the one I would have to become

alone in two worlds? Now, years later,
the trip never made, that moment
holds as still as any picture, one which I

framed, but in which I do not appear
among the muddle of images, and I try,
again and again, to separate sister from sister,

hand from face, flower from bright fabric,
and legend from the clean, sharp edge
of a table, the border between two histories.

EG     I gather from the poem "Boundaries" you were born in India? Was your father a doctor?

BM     Yes. My dad was a public health physician assigned to work in Nepal in the 1950's. He was among the first Americans to enter Nepal in over 100 years, following the overthrow of a regime that had kept the country totally cut off from the rest of the world. He was a real pioneer. My mother and older sister, Barbara, accompanied him. I was born in northern India at a small mission hospital. He has amazing stories about his experiences, which I have been helping him to write about. We've had an article published in the Foreign Service Journal (2004) and two in Public Health Reports (2005) and have one forthcoming in April (2006) in The World & I.

EG     How long did you live in India?

BM     My family was there a year after I was born.

EG     The poems in Dissolution of Ghosts take place in many locations: "Sorghum" in Buggs Island Lake, North Carolina, "On The Rocky Top" ­in the Sierra Nevadas, "Angle of Repose" in the San Jacinto Mountains and "Skipping Shells with My Son" in Little Bay, Virginia. Have you lived in these places?

BM     I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, from the age of six until 19, when I moved to Wilmington, NC. When I was a kid, my family spent a few summers camping at Buggs Island Lake, on the border between Virginia and North Carolina.

EG     You've worked in hospitals. Please tell us what your jobs were.

BM     I graduated from high school at 17, but didn't attend college until much later. I had a variety of jobs, including one as a respiratory therapist at the Babies Hospital in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. I was trained on-site and was even head of the department for a while. I also worked as a pharmacy IV technician, mixing formulas, at the New Hanover County Hospital in Wilmington. I had an interest in medical issues growing up, because of my father's influence, and even spent hours poring over his medical books—including the horrific photographs of various diseases. (They were frightening!) Once I finally got to college, I first majored in nursing, but switched to English in my senior year. I teach at a university now and love teaching. It's interesting how the medical component has continued through the years—as a subject in my poetry and also in a medical humanities course I developed and teach called Literature and the Healing Arts. Students learn about the humane side of medicine in the context of stories, poems, essays and films. It's exciting. I also worked as a photographer's assistant for a few years.

EG     Please name a few stories, poems, essays and films that are part of the curriculum.

BM     I use two anthologies in this course. One is called On Doctoring, edited by two doctors, John Stone and Richard Reynolds, and contains stories, poems, essays, and a play by writers such as William Carlos Williams, Lucille Clifton, Richard Selzer and Kurt Vonnegut. The other anthology, Between the Heartbeats, is edited by Cortney Davis and contains prose and poetry all written by nurses. I have shown movie clips from Patch Adams, Awakenings, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Philadelphia. My syllabus for this course is posted at the New York University School of Medicine Database: http:endeavor.nyu/lit-ed/syllabi.for.web/inst.gannon.html. This web site is a wonderful repository of literature, art, films and syllabi in the medical humanities.

EG     Why is it important for your students to learn "about the humane side of medicine" and/or why was it important for you to teach this?

BM     A few years ago a friend and fellow teacher and I had discussed the possibility of developing such a course when she was being treated for cancer and I was diagnosed with MS. Our experiences with illness and also with a slew of health care workers—at times confusing and frightening—framed our interest in medical humanities. After she died, I pooled our ideas to design the course, which uses literature as a context for exploring ethical issues, the patient-physician relationship, that sort of thing. Some might not think that compassion can be taught; I am absolutely convinced it can be fostered.

EG     When did you start writing poetry?

BM     I wrote a few poems in high school, but didn't start writing seriously until many years later. By then, I had been married, divorced, and was a single parent to my wonderful son, Aaron.

EG     The metaphors and images in the poems in Dissolution of Ghosts are lyrical and vivid. There is a maturity, a richness of observation of the inner world, other people, and the natural world. Have you formally studied poetry?

BM     After graduating from the University of North Carolina, I attended the MFA program at Bowling Green State University. Since then, I've attended summer writers' conferences such as the Squaw Valley Community of Writers (twice), Bennington, and Port Townsend, which offered intensive writing seminars where I worked with poets such as Ed Hirsch, Cynthia McDonald, and Sharon Olds. Also, I've corresponded through the years with Dave Smith and Donald Hall, both wonderful poets whose feedback and advice have been vital.

EG     There are reoccurring images and actions in your poems, rivers, muskrats, dreamlike scenarios bathed in shades of light and darkness, trips, and surreal transformations. Some poems are obviously meant to have come from dreams or are parts of dreams but other poems' images are juxtapositions of both the dream and waking state. "The Bewilderment of Love" as an example contains both dream-like and realistic worlds. Who is the I in this poem? Are the women in the poems you, family members, strangers?

The Bewilderment of Love

Elegant people fill this country house
where friends will be married. Someone

has just moved out, bequeathing trash
in the corners and water stains on the ceiling.

No one seems to mind, at least not the bride
who's busy welcoming guests and looking

for her shoes. She assigns me laundry, piles
of sheets and towels, tablecloths, napkins

and frilly doilies to wash and fold while
the others sip pink punch and play croquet

on the plush red carpet. She's right—this
is what I'm good at, I tell myself, then glean

the ravaged tables for a few crushed cream puffs
and follow guests to the river. I toss in a stone

and a man dashes into the murky water, diving
and gasping for air until he pulls out a small girl,

shivering, her lips blue, her pale fist clutching
the stone like a forbidden gift. He wraps her

in a tablecloth, nestles her to sleep in a corner. It's time
for the wedding, but I can't find my shoes.

BM     Poems are about experiences, both real and imagined, and they also, through their "making," create new experiences for the reader / listener. The images in my poems come from both lived and imagined experience, which I believe is true for many poets, but my poems sometimes blend literal and actual experiences with those from dreams. The way our brain internalizes experiences is also important—not only in the way we remember experiences, but in how those memories affect our perceptions. Psychologists say that the actual verifiable event is sometimes not as important as our memory of it in shaping who we become. We've all probably experienced this; our memory of a childhood event, for instance, is different from a sibling's or neighbor's account of it. This in itself is fascinating, but what interests me even more is our emotional or spiritual response to those memories. I believe we can change how those experiences—particularly the traumatic ones—influence who we become. We can drown in self pity and bitterness or we can use them to foster compassion and a stronger awareness of ourselves in relation to others. The medium for doing this can vary, but for me, it's the making of poems that fosters this transformation.

I, also, through poems, try to internalize others' experiences. I believe this is what Keats meant by "negative capability," the ability of poets not only to identify with subjects and characters, but in a sense to embody them. The voice in my poems invariably represents me, but sometimes it's a collective voice, representing others as well. The speaker in "The Bewilderment of Love" is a collective voice, representing many who have felt as this woman does - hungry, wounded, and excluded. She is also in a sense the child gasping for air.

EG     There are other examples of internalizing others' experiences in the poems in Dissolution of Ghosts.

BM     The first poem and the last poem in the book are about a woman referred to as "she," someone who represents the before and after of the experiences contained in the poems between them. Most of the other poems are written in first person; some of these poems are based on my own actual experiences, some on the experiences of people I've known, some on dreams, and many a combination thereof. The "I," then, is a construct, a part of the artifice of the poem—and in the process, part of my own internalized perceptions.

Another poem, "Her Mother's Funeral," is a poem based on an experience a friend had after her mother died. At the funeral home, she shooed everyone out of the room, then lifted her mother's body out of the coffin. It was a spontaneous, heartsick gesture—too late for her mother, of course, but necessary for my friend's sense of reconciling with a woman whose animosity toward her daughter had been even more tragic than her death.

Her Mother's Funeral

After three hours of watching others parade
         by her coffin, I was still afraid to look,
convinced they'd used the wrong shade of lipstick
         or dressed her in the ancient tweed suit
she wore to my father's funeral. In the year before
         she died, she called to me as I stomped
from room to room, dusting and scrubbing the house
         she neglected, searching for the mason jars
of gin she hid in cupboards or behind the furnace,
         I couldn't confront her, but I made sure
she heard me breaking the glass jars. She called
         my name from her gloomy room, her voice
as thin and shrill as a cat's, but I outwitted her
         with my silence. Finally, after the visitors had left,
I looked: her skin was not as pale as I remembered it,
         her hands not as frail. I bent over her, eased
my arms under her neck and knees, and lifted her
         wasted body from the coffin. I was the parent,
cradling my wayward child, keeping her from harm,
         singing hush, hush, it won't be long,but when I
pressed my lips to her forehead, the shock of cold skin
         pulled me under, the icy currents dragging us both
down. Only my breath rose to the surface:
                                             Mother, I'm here.

"Naming the Days" is about a woman who has a miscarriage, which I've never actually experienced. "Sigh, Pant, Gasp, Wheeze" is about a little girl I treated and fell in love with when I worked as a respiratory therapist at a children's hospital in NC. For years after she died, I dreamt about her. Images in the poem blend the actual girl with my dreamed version of her; details changed, of course, but the essence of who she was and of our relationship with each other did not. The poem helped me to work through my grief and create a picture of her that resonates with the happy, mischievous—though extremely ill—child she was. She taught me something about myself; I hope that is conveyed in the poem.

EG     What writers and poets have influenced your style?

BM     I adore Elizabeth Bishop's work. Her poems are technically dexterous, encompassing both formal and narrative structures, and her images are precise and evocative. I especially like the way her literal pictures evolve into surreal and suggestive tapestries, as in "The Man-Moth." I connect with Bishop's poems, and sometimes feel as though I'm collaborating with her, as in her poem, "The Waiting Room." After reading this poem the first time, I empathized with Elizabeth's (the child's) epiphany and thought, yes—that's how I felt when I almost fell off the edge of the world, too. I also love the fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Toni Morrison.

EG     What do you mean "that's how I felt when I almost fell off the edge of the world, too"?

BM     Figuratively only, of course! It's that wondrous and scary feeling that comes from realizing the world is a lot bigger than our backyards.

EG     When I finished reading your poems, I felt more in touch with my own life. It must be that I have had such feelings as these poems elicit. Do you think a reader can "love" a poem that does not fall within their emotional experience?

BM     It is gratifying to know that a reader connects with the poems. Women seem to connect more readily with my work—or at least they're more willing to say so. It may have something to do with the sense of a unified or collective voice that covers a range of experiences, especially traumatic ones. Your question about "loving a poem that doesn't fall within one's emotional experience" is intriguing. I would think any form of art has this capacity. In fact, that is probably a primary function of art—to provide a "safe" way to feel something otherwise risky or to rock us out of our comfort zones. My poem, "The Decisive Moment," is based on a 1942 photograph by Victor Sergi called "Suicide." It shows a woman who has just jumped off a building. It's an old black and white photo that probably was taken by a camera perched on a tripod. The woman's jump is tragic, of course, but the more I looked at the photo the more outraged I became at the photographer, who must have taken his time to get his camera set up for the shot. How dare he, I thought—as though both he and the camera were complicit. But then, I realized that this photo—a work of art—holds this woman perpetually in mid-fall; she doesn't hit the ground. And for that I felt oddly grateful to the photographer for "catching" her. The title refers to the woman's decisive moment, but it's also a term coined by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson for the action the shutter catches in a split-second.

EG     It is too hard to pick a favorite poem. They are all, and I mean all of them, so wonderful in imagery, feeling, and original juxtapositions. Dissolution of Ghosts reads like a novel in that it is clearly a journey of discovery with a final chapter of resolution. I liked the Rilke quote under the title of the poem dedicated to your husband near the end of the book:

"Nowhere, beloved, can world exist but within. Life passes in transformation. And, ever diminishing, vanishes what's outside."

This poem reads as a celebration of the healing power of sensual love. Were the poems written at different times in your life or in a short span of time from reflection?

BM     The Rilke quote seems to synthesize much of what I hope the poems figuratively reach toward: a sense of healing, of reconciliation between the external experiences that wreak havoc on our psyches and the emotional self that internalizes them. Poetry—both reading it and writing it—can indeed be transformative. Poets can write about divorce, grief, illness or other type of trauma and translate it into an objective or symbolic mass of words. We take something unbearable and render it into something beautiful or harmless or both. Or we ball it up and toss it in the trash, if we choose. The poem, "What I Want to Tell You," suggests the power of human love and intimacy to re-establish an ability to trust—in oneself as well as in someone else. The "dissolution of ghosts" in this poem is indeed transformative. Other poems in the latter part of the book suggest the importance of spirituality in achieving emotional healing or reconciliation with the past. Some poems include Biblical epigraphs. I wrote many of the poems at different times of my life, but tweaked them to fit the book after I recognized how its overall plan was unfolding.

EG     You framed the book with two poems of different emotional tones yet the second poem seems to answer the dilemma of the first. The poem mentions a lump in the breast that disappears. How deliberate is the arrangement of the poems in the book? Is this experience yours? Is it breast cancer or a symbolic lump? There is another poem about a woman with MS. Who is she?

BM     The arrangement of the poems is very deliberate. These two poems that frame the book, "Pallor" and "Pomegranates," actually started as one poem. I decided to use it as two poems to frame the book because of their different tones. The woman in "Pallor," her frailty and closeness to death, suggests the trauma in many of the poems in the first part of the book. The woman in "Pomegranates" is strong, connected with others, able even to carry children to safety. I can identify with both women although I've never had breast cancer. I had in mind the friend I mentioned earlier who died from cancer several years ago. She was an inspiration to me in that even when she knew she was dying and that there was no physical cure for her, she achieved a sense of healing—through her faith in God, friendships, and writing. At the time she was going through this, I was diagnosed with MS.

EG     How are you doing with your MS?

BM     Sometimes I hear people with a chronic or debilitating illness say they're a better person for having the illness. I'm not one of those! I think I was just fine before the MS and didn't need it to help me "see the light." I deal with it; I'm in what's called the secondary progressive stage, which means there is a gradual decline without remissions. I have some trouble with balance and limp a little, and I don't jog or hike mountains anymore, but I try to keep strong and positive.

EG     The cover of the collection is beautiful.

BM     Isn't it? The cover art, a painting by my sister, Devi Anne Moore, shows luscious, healthy red pomegranates on a table with a whisper of a woman's figure—a ghost—walking away. The image beautifully reinforces the thematic progression of the poems.

EG     Thank you for pointing out the symbolic intent of the ghostly figure in the cover painting. Where is the original image?

BM     It's framed and hanging in my living room.

EG     What is capturing your poetic imagination these days?

BM     I've been working more with formal poems lately, in particular, sonnets. I'm also working on a narrative poem dedicated to David Citino, a wonderful poet who died last fall. And lately, I've been intrigued by bugs; I read that a cockroach can change direction up to 25 times in a second—and I'm wondering how to work that in a poem.

EG     "A cockroach can change direction up to 25 times in a second." Who knew they had this enormous talent! Do you know what purpose it serves?

BM     It's a funny image, isn't it? It must be to fool or escape from predators. I love the notion that literally anything is fodder for poems.


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