Photo: Margo Berdeshevsky
MARGO BERDESHEVSKY’S most recent poetry collection is Between Soul and Stone, (Sheep Meadow Press.) Her But a Passage in Wilderness was also published by Sheep Meadow Press. Beautiful Soon Enough, (University of Alabama Press), her book of stories illustrated with her own photo-montages, received FC2s Innovative Fiction Award; other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Chelsea Poetry Award, the & Now Innovative Fiction Award Anthology. Her works have appeared in journals including Kenyon Review, Agni, Pleiades, New Letters, Poetry International, The Collagist, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, Tupelo Quarterly, Cutthroat. Forthcoming, a multi-genre novel, Vagrant. At the gate: a new poetry manuscript titled Blason Pour le Corps. Born in NYC, Berdeshevsky is currently writing in Paris. Her Letters from Paris can be seen here: https://pionline.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/letter-from-paris-in-february-2015/
And For more information, please see http://margoberdeshevsky.blogspot.com/
Geosi Gyasi: You’re often regarded as a Writer, Photographer and Voyager. Is that a true reflection of what you do for a living?
Margo Berdeshevsky: Reflection is a good word to begin on—
I do see myself as all of those, yes. And I know that others may see me that way also. But first, I need to see myself as a human, trying her best to make it through each day in the world, with a little grace. As for what I do for a living . . . when I was a teen and was hell-bent on having a career as an actress, my scientific and business-minded father said I could never make a living as such, and suggested I view my life the way a violinist does . . . that is, to know that one of the strings of her bow will surely break. It was his challenge to me (which I absolutely did not appreciate at the time.) A challenge to have many strings to my bow to keep alive and afloat. Ultimately, I have cultivated my avenues of what I can do for a living. That helps in a world that is rarely supportive enough of any of us who live in the arts.
Geosi Gyasi: In what way do you see yourself as a voyager?
Margo Berdeshevsky: A voyager to me is one who steps out and crosses bridges and cultures and belief systems. And I have done that quite a lot. Also, I have lived for shorter or longer periods of time in numerous places, by choice. And that path began when I was very young.
And so notions of patriotism and nationalism and where one lives or does not live and such were never what was most worthy to me. Rather, the idea of learning the world as much as possible, has always been important to me.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you engage in the art of poetry too?
Margo Berdeshevsky: Yes. I think of poetry as one of the arts I love most, and engage in it deeply. When I taught poetry in grade schools, I would often say that “poetry is the language of the soul.” And by that, I did not mean a religious thing, but something far beyond any one faith or cult. I meant that I see poetry as a language of its own. And yes, it requires my engagement and respect.
I recently began to add this phrase to the bottom of my e mails, a phrase that I found in an interview with the editor, Michael Wiegers. I love what it says in so many ways . . . “I like W. S. Merwin’s contention that the first poem was the first time a mother screamed at the death of a child. We all need something that says something just beyond what words can say.” — Michael Wiegers
Geosi Gyasi: I’m wondering if one requires a special skill to become a photographer?
Margo Berdeshevsky: Yes. Photography is about the ability to see the light and the dark and shapes and the shadows, and to have a deep sense of composition. It is not about ‘selfies.”And it is not about snapshots of the family cat. It requires an ability to see a particular part of a scene or a face or an object, perhaps, and to concentrate on it, or to eliminate or crop away what does not serve the image being finally selected and offered. At least that is so for the artistic photography that I am most drawn to do. It requires using a rule of thumb that was once given to me, and which I practice: “take a hundred pictures with your eye, and one with your finger. It saves film and time.” Photography is an art of selection from the vast array of images that constitute the world around the photographer. Selection, and the cultivation of a particular esthetic, and a desire to communicate something personal and beautiful, or not beautiful, but essential to the act of being alive. Documentary photography, which includes the more socially conscious acts of image making, and which I also do — requires an instantaneous ability to grasp the moment and to find a way of expressing it so that the viewer will feel that they could have been present at the given moment.
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in New York City. Were you raised there too?
Margo Berdeshevsky: I was raised both in NYC and in parts of western Europe as well, because my family traveled, and we spent quite a good deal of time in France. NYC was my training ground for theatre and the intellect. Europe was my training ground for a drive toward the visual arts and history. And somewhere in between, I was always hungry for what I may call spirit, wherever that is raised.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you give us a brief background of who your parents are?
Margo Berdeshevsky: Both of my parents are no longer living. My father was a Russian immigrant who was politically far to the right of either me or my mother. My mother was an old socialist, NYC born, emotionally uncertain.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you still currently in Paris? Why Paris?
Margo Berdeshevsky: I’m mostly a world citizen, in heart and mind and activity. This morning I woke in Paris, yes. That’s where I’m sitting as I type. But I could be somewhere else in the not too distant future. Why Paris? I spent time here as a child, I learned the language and love the language, I love many things about the culture and the sense of history and challenge to accepted ideas, and the esthetics of this ancient city of light. I am critical of its politics sometimes, as I am deeply critical of the politics of the USA. But as I said earlier, nationalism is not a thing I practice anywhere. I believe it leads to wars.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you become a writer?
Margo Berdeshevsky: Because I needed to find words for what was knocking at my heart. Because language is one of the tools I sharpened. Because it has been one of my gifts. Because it is my way of trying to comprehend a difficult and often frightening and sometimes gorgeous and fragile world.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your main research areas as a writer?
Margo Berdeshevsky: The human thing we call woman and man and child. The human things we are often afraid to look at.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Between Soul & Stone”?
Margo Berdeshevsky: When asked once, at a reading I gave after the book had come out, where was this place “between” soul & stone . . . I tried then, and I still to, to articulate that my quests to comprehend being human, being a woman in my time, being aware of the fragilities of life . . all lead me to search in the material and the nonmaterial zones. And there—is a place that I can describe as “Between Soul & Stone.” I found my way to that place again and again, in order to write the poems in the book.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us something about your book of illustrated stories, “Beautiful Soon Enough”?
Margo Berdeshevsky: I think my publisher FC2 said it even better than I can at this point:
“It’s a collection of hypnotic stories that capture the lives—worldly, sexual, obsessive—of twenty-three arresting women. … These are snapshots and collages: stories of women on the outside, looking in; of women content to end their affairs; of young women learning the power of seduction; and of older women reminiscing about past loves. They are women who cannot live without love’s embrace, and women who have found it and feel that it is never enough. They are women of a “certain age,” as the French might say, and women with naked hearts, of any age.”
And I so much appreciate these words that were offered about the book by the wonderful author, Robert Olen Butler:
“Margo Berdeshevsky’s Beautiful Soon Enough is a thrillingly cutting-edge work of photos and short short stories flowing together into an extended erotic dream that limns the inner lives of women deeply yearning for connection and authenticity. This is a splendid book by a fine poet turning into an equally fine fiction writer.”
Geosi Gyasi: Your books have won some important prizes. For instance, “Beautiful Soon Enough” received the American Book Review/Ronald Sukenick Award for Innovative Fiction. Do prizes matter to you as a writer?
Margo Berdeshevsky: I love this quote by Tennessee Williams:
“Here is the importance of bearing witness. We do not grow alone, talents do not prosper in a hothouse of ambition and neglect and hungry anger; love does not arrive by horseback or prayer or good intentions. We need the eyes, the arms, and the witness of others to grow, to know that we have existed, that we have mattered, that we have made our mark. And each of us has a distinct mark that colors our surroundings, that flavors the recipe of ‘experience’ in which we find ourselves; but we remain blind, without identity, until someone witnesses us.
… “No,” he uttered, seemingly defeated, “I’m afraid that we can’t continue to run from each other; I’m afraid that only in the company of these people, all of our witnesses, many of whom frighten us, can we learn who we are and what we’ve done.—Tennessee Williams
I will say that prizes DO (sometimes) help to allow a book more notice in a crowded pond. And as time goes on these days, with all the writing programs and etc., the pond has become quite crowded. I’m appreciative of those awards that have come my way as a way of saying that a particular work of mine has been particularly meaningful to someone who is in a position to call attention to it, individually or via a prize. And in the case of the FC2 innovative fiction award for “Beautiful Soon Enough,” it brought me into contact with a wild tribe of amazing other unusual writers with whom I was so happy to play. But the world of prizes and the “fame game” and the material world of literature and the ambitions of so many younger writers to “succeed” — whatever the hell that may mean—is worrisome. Writing is not a sport to win at. It is an art to be loved and practiced to the best of one’s ability. And if the gods are gracious after that to shed a little fairy dust on it .. that’s lovely! But as in so many areas of our lives, we would do well to love what we do for itself more than for the goal post. I know, how idealistic! And good luck to all of us, if we can do what we love to do as writers in our own time. There are those who may never be recognized in their time. But they have won—by doing it, all the same.
Between Soul and Stone by Margo Berdeshevsky
Geosi Gyasi: Can you take us through the process of writing, “But a Passage in Wilderness”?
Margo Berdeshevsky: That was my first published poetry book, and I had spent many years polishing and making it. And not finding a publisher for it. I was living far away from any big-time cities or gatherings of other poets, at the time, writing in a bubble, so to speak. But I was very aware of the world and what was happening in it and I had much that I needed and hoped to say about it, about the wilderness of our times, and making it through such metaphorical wilderness. And then, 10 pages of poems received the Robert H Winner Award for poets over the age of 40, thanks to the grand Marie Ponsot’s recognition. One day she told the publisher of Sheep Meadow Press that he should treat me well. That helped! And the book gelled.
Geosi Gyasi: Why would you want your readers to read your forthcoming novel, “Vagrant”?
Margo Berdeshevsky: It is obsessive, dis-illusory, womanly, edgy, modernist, some will say, experimental, some will some say. A memoir poétique, some will say. All these are apt. It is a multi-genre stand out of the box book. And I’m not shy to say that I like that. And that I hope and believe that yes, my readers will too.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write, “Vagrant”?
Margo Berdeshevsky: Ten years. Actually, more. But who’s counting??
Geosi Gyasi: Do you often show your works-in-progress to friends for approval?
Margo Berdeshevsky: A few very close ones. Sometimes. Sometimes, too quickly, and then I have to write again and say, oh no, not that version, this one! I’m not a workshop person, I’m more a lone wolf as a writer. But I do have a very few very trusted fellow writers whose opinions I have treasured, and can trust. And if they tell me that something really does not work yet, I will go back to my cave and struggle with it more, and then more, and then more—until I can breathe easy with it, myself.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your greatest challenge as a writer?
Margo Berdeshevsky: The solitudes. And the hopes for making something that might live up to the talent I think I have been given, and the time on earth that I am given to try.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your favorite book of all time?
Margo Berdeshevsky: One—is not fair! So how about these? : W.S. Merwin’s “The Vixen.” Alice Notley’s “The Descent of Alette.” Theodore Sturgeon’s “More Than Human.” And any of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. All of it.
Geosi Gyasi: Of all the places you’ve travelled to, which of them do you love to be most?
Margo Berdeshevsky: Any place I find peace.
Geosi Gyasi: You have the opportunity to sign off?
Margo Berdeshevsky: These are a few quotes from other writers that I deeply love:
TRANS—Rita Dove, 1952
I work a lot and live far less than I could,
but the moon is beautiful and there are
blue stars . . . . I live the chaste song of my heart.
—Garcia Lorca to Emilia Llanos Medinor,
November 25, 1920
The moon is in doubt
over whether to be
a man or a woman.
There’ve been rumors,
all manner of allegations,
bold claims and public lies:
He’s belligerent. She’s in a funk.
When he fades, the world teeters.
When she burgeons, crime blossoms.
O how the operatic impulse wavers!
Dip deep, my darling, into the blank pool.
All the poems of our lives are not yet made.—Muriel Ruckeyser
Amazon Author page:
Poetry International—online— “Letter From Paris” for winter https://pionline.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/letter-from-paris-in-february-2015/