Emily Berry: ‘A Sculpture about a Phone Call’

Emily Berry 
Emily Berry is a poet, freelance writer and editor. She grew up in London and studied English Literature at Leeds University and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College. An Eric Gregory Award winner in 2008, she co-edits the anthology series Stop Sharpening Your Knives and is a contributor to The Breakfast Bible, a compendium of breakfasts published by Bloomsbury. Her debut poetry collection is Dear Boy, published by Faber & Faber.
Dear Boy 
Dear Boy (Faber & Faber, 2013) is the dramatic and inventive debut by Emily Berry. These characterful, intelligent and darkly witty poems explore lives lived strangely in unusual worlds, through a series of deft and seductive soliloquies.

In a collection with a taste for ventriloquy and wickedness, and a flair for vocal cross-dressing, the balance of power is always shifting in an unexpected direction – an ingénue masquerades as a femme fatale, a doctor appears more disturbed than his patient, and parents seem more unruly than their children. Eccentric, intimate, arch, anxious, decadent and sometimes mournful, the book’s confiding, conversational voices tell stories recognisable and refracted, carried along by the undercurrent on which the collection ebbs and rides: the anguish and energy brought about by a long-distance love affair, which propels and terrorises and ultimately unites the work.”
“Dramatic, honest, unstable and beautiful, what unites these poems is Berry’s understanding that absence is to love as wind is to fire: it may extinguish the small, but it kindles the great.”
– Ben Wilkinson, Guardian
“Disarming as often as it is charming, Dear Boy is an epistle to make one feel at once urgently wanted and spun right around upside down. It is, as Berry herself puts it, where “the language showed its seams” – and we are the dazed and fascinated visitors stumbling across its accidence.”
– Lytton Smith, Los Angeles Review of Books
“Reading this collection, which ranges widely in voice, is like meeting an unusual person whom you’d like to befriend. You can’t anticipate everything she will do or say – and some of it seems a bit much from time to time – but you want to know her more and better. You begin somehow to crave her company.”

– Jared Bland, Globe & Mail
A Sculpture about a Phone Call
Some people seem to have the language for speaking about their own work very fluently – I am still not sure I have learnt the language for talking about mine. It’s like trying to explain one mode of communication via another very different kind, like telling someone about a phone call through the medium of sculpture. Still, a sculpture about a phone call could be something interesting.
The way many poets talk about their collections makes it seem as though there must have been a point for them at which ‘writing poems’ became ‘writing a collection of poems’. This was not really the case for me with Dear Boy, which only really became itself – that is, a collection of poems, rather than forty individual poems in a row – when it was named.
The naming of books is a difficult matter. My friend and important poet-advisor (code name ‘Dewdrop’) suggested I call it The *TOP SECRET* And As Yet Draft Manuscript Of Emily Berry, which is what I had written on the front. So that was one option. Dear Boy was pretty much the only other. As I recall ‘Dewdrop’ picked it out from a very short and unconvincing list of possibilities I had effectively dismissed, and it was suddenly clear that this was the title. It brought together the themes in the book before I had noticed what they were. I now see it as suggesting various different moods – lovesick, sentimental, stern, camp and arch, as well as drawing out one of the key strands in the book: love letters written to a boy. What I like about the title is I feel it could easily be the name of a Young Adult romance novel – maybe this is why one reviewer said the book read like ‘an unusually discerning teenage girl’s diary’. I was happy with that assessment. I think teenage girls’ diaries should get more airtime generally.
The oldest poem in Dear Boy is ‘Two Budgies’, which was written in 2005 or 2006. The oldest phrase, though, is the title of the first poem, ‘Our Love Could Spoil Dinner’, which I wrote in poetry fridge-magnets on my best friend’s mother’s fridge when I was eighteen, circa 1999. I always liked the phrase so I kept hold of it, hoping it would come in useful one day. So there is a bit of genuine teenage girl in the book. Maybe the title and the poem finally came together because the poem in fact features a precocious young-girl character, who could arguably be described as ‘unusually discerning’. A similar character appears in the linked poems ‘The Incredible History of Patient M.’, David’ and ‘Manners’, though I wouldn’t want to state definitively whether or not they are the same person. The inspiration behind this/these character/s probably came from the children’s book Eloise by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight, about a mischievous six-year-old who lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York with her nanny. It was given to me by an American family friend when I was nine or so and I rediscovered it a few years ago – I had written ‘Please do not tear’ sternly in the front. (I must have had a bad experience with ‘tearing’, because this strange injunction appears in the front of many of my childhood books.) Eloise is illustrated in pink and black and the text (all in Eloise’s voice) is laid out almost verse-style alongside the illustrations. She says things like:
          Nanny is my nurse
          She wears tissue paper in her dress
          and you can hear it
          She is English and has 8 hairpins
          made out of bones
          She says that’s all she needs in
          this life for Lord’s sake
I like how Nanny’s turn of phrase becomes something extra special the way Eloise reports it, and I adopted this style in ‘David’, a poem not uncoincidentally about a girl in the care of her (in this case) rather volatile nurse.
For me a poem is always a voice, and I am often struck by any kind of compelling voice. Nutty evangelical preachers are a favourite, and things said by unhinged people in general. I guess any kind of dogmatic statement is essentially a bit unhinged. I have a fascination with American Gothic, particularly Southern Gothic, which has its fair share of evangelical preachers. I see the Arlene poems, ‘’Sweet Arlene’ and ‘Arlene’s House’ as having an American Gothic theme (though they don’t have to be read that way). They’re poems about a domestic kind of terror. America does the Unheimliche – Freud’s idea about the eeriness of the unfamiliar familiar – really well, at least for a British person. American domestic scenes are so familiar to British people of my generation because of film and TV, and just embedded in the imagination is some intractable way, but at the same time it’s not really our culture, so it remains somehow other. Sorry to quote Wikipedia, but it says “Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or disorienting characters, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events”, which makes me think I like Southern Gothic even more. Arlene is certainly a character like that, yet she holds some indefinable power over the narrator of the poem, which is where the fear comes from. The poems are about being beholden to some deeply unstable yet compelling authority, which is something that worries and interests me a lot.
‘Sweet Arlene’ begins with the line “In Arlene’s house we live above the mutilated floor”. Many of my poems begin with some sort of statement (maybe the unhinged kind mentioned above). “No one told me Times Square was a triangle”, “The mango’s bone is like a cuttlefish”, “I bit on the absolute nerve”. The poems that begin this way usually did literally begin with the first line. Sometimes one of these phrases occurs to me and I have it for a few years before it develops into anything. This was the case with the Times Square line. I visited New York twice about two years apart and after I’d been the second time I was able to add the rest of the poem to the first line. On that trip I was nearly hit on the head by a copy of Dylan Thomas’s poems while walking through Manhattan – it seemed to fall out of the sky, but must have been thrown out of the window of a nearby bookshop (but why?! Someone took such exception to Mr Thomas’s verse that they had to defenestrate it immediately?). It would have been ridiculous not to put that in a poem.
Because of these statementy openings, now that the poems are all together in a collection I wonder if the effect is a bit overwhelming – like being at Speakers’ Corner, or in a room full of actors. I’m not sure any of my poems are very good at teamwork. This is maybe one of the difficulties of putting a collection together – that suddenly a whole bunch of poems, which you have worked so hard to make robustly independent, have to learn how to live alongside others of their kind. There’s a poem by Joe Dunthorne called ‘All my friends regardless’ which begins “All my friends regardless / come to my garden and pretend to get along” – it plays on the awkwardness of bringing together all the different types of people one knows at an event. Deciding on the order of poems in the collection seemed to me a bit like that. Who should sit next to who? This is one of the reasons I never have parties! Sometimes I open the book and look at them all in there, and I wonder how they’re getting along. But mostly I just leave them to it.
Order Dear Boy (Faber & Faber, 2013) here and here.
Visit Emily’s website.
Sam Riviere interviews Emily for The Quietus.

Review links
Read Ben Wilkinson’s Guardian review
Read Kate Kellaway’s Observer review.
Read Lytton Smith’s Los Angeles Review of Books review.
Read Jared Bland’s Globe & Mail review.
Read Christopher Crawford’s B O D Y review.
Read Rebecca Tamás’ Literateur review.
Read Zeljka Marosevic’s Review 31 review.


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