author of Figuring in the Figure
Solstice Poetry Editor
in conversation with
author of After That
Solstice Consulting Poetry Editor
(Editor’s note: Kathi and Ben interview each other, using a more back-and-forth style than a traditional interview format.)
Kathi: Strange Borderlands, your first book, took its impetus from, among other things, your experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe. Figuring the Figure with its use of formal poetic structure strikes me as a more concept driven book in its exploration of language and idea. Can you talk a bit about the transition between these two books?
Ben: I wrote Strange Borderlands after I returned home from the Peace Corps and was struggling to make sense of all sorts of cultural collisions. My new collection, Figuring in the Figure, offers a lot more meditations on the domestic life—in particular, the transformative experiences of becoming a father.
I think the poems in my new collection are probably much more reflective in tone and playful in terms of form and language. And less troubling, too, as I wasn’t writing quite as many poems about setting fire to the chickens that fell down the outhouse or hitching rides in the back of police vans only to find out that those benches we were sitting on were actually coffins.
Kathi: I love those poems about your Peace Corps experiences as well as the poems in Figuring the Figure. Can you say more about why you were drawn to terza rima and what it meant to write a book in a single form?
Ben: I first started working in terza rima when writing about my return home from the Peace Corps, as it gave me a way of traveling forward, as Edward Hirsch writes of the form, while looking back. My life was filled with disconnects, and terza rima—with its intertwined rhyme scheme—seemed to counterbalance that.
But I soon came to love the form for how it affected my writing process—how the constraints of that tight rhyme scheme forced me to give up knowing where a poem was going, conceptually, and made me attend to energy of the language instead.
I’ve noticed a change in your work too, Kathi, and I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about how you see your poems changing from book to book. I recently had the pleasure of re-reading The Real Weather (published in 1987) and After That (which came out just a couple of years ago) and was delighted to see both so many similarities and differences in terms of theme and tone. How do you think your work has changed over the years? What concerns do you see yourself returning to?
Kathi: I think themes of family, particularly the mother-daughter relationship, and what it means to be a woman in contemporary society run through much of my work. Even when I think I’m writing about something outside of myself, the Miranda poems in Daughter Of or the Nancy Drew poems in After That, for example, when I reread them I see that I haven’t escaped my old obsessions. In my more recent poems, I’m trying to broaden my subjects to include encounters with social issues, but we’ll see what turns up when I put them all together. Stylistically, around the time I was working on Daughter Of, I felt my lack of experience in working with poetic form. I hadn’t taken such a course when I was in graduate school, so I worked my way through the exercises in Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. I hope the influence of those efforts can be seen in subsequent poems.
Of course, in addition to taking on the formal challenge of terza rima, poems in the last section of Figuring the Figure are concerned with parenting and fatherhood. We seem to have family as a common theme. You teach full-time, are an involved father, act as poetry editor for Solstice, and write regularly, publishing a second book in only four years. How do you manage to do all these things so well?
Ben: I think the secret to my success is in masking my exhaustion as some sort of Zen-like calm. My colleagues will often comment on how slowly I walk, how meditative I look in meetings, and what they don’t realize is that I’m just really, really, really tired. It also helps to have friends with very low expectations, a dumb phone that doesn’t offer any distractions, and a supportive and forgiving wife.
I don’t really have time to write most days, but I get up at 3 a.m. every morning to do so. And though that kind of drains me, I also think I’m a much better parent and teacher when I’m immersed in my own creative work.
Kathi: I wish I’d thought of masking exhaustion as Zen calm when my kids were young! I had a very sweet undergraduate student who would pop into my office and remind me, “Breathe, Professor Aguero, breathe.
Ben: And, as well as teaching, you also run writing workshops for caregivers. In what ways do you see writing as a way to offer insights into our own stories? In what ways can writing be a sustaining energy?
Kathi: My mother had Alzheimer’s, and, although I wasn’t a primary caregiver – my father took care of her at home throughout most of her illness – trying to write about the changes I saw in her and, even more, trying to shape and polish that writing gave me a distance that provided both insight and comfort. I became aware of how easy it is for caregivers to become consumed by the story of those they love and to lose track of themselves and their own stories. I wanted to help caregivers use writing to reclaim themselves, to put themselves at the center of the story, and I felt that incorporating literary techniques into their writing rather than simply journaling might give them the tools to do that.
Let me ask you a similar question. I know you teach high school students and I believe you’ve taught adult creative writers as well. How have you found writing to be a sustaining energy for yourself and for those you teach?
Ben: I tend to teach courses that are somewhat amorphous and experimental, and I think that writing has given me the confidence to navigate the anxiety of not knowing what I’m doing and to trust that I will figure things out along the way.
In addition to teaching creative writing, I help run the Capstone program at our school, where students design and pursue their own independent projects – anything from building greenhouses to exploring gender identity through fashion design. Having my own writing practice constantly reminds me of the messiness of creative work and has made me more mindful and empathetic as I help students navigate their own processes.
You’re engaged in a similar relationship with teaching and writing. I know that you’ve had a range of teaching experiences – teaching at Pine Manor College for many years and in the Solstice MFA Program and with Changing Lives Through Literature and in many other places as well. How did your writing affect your work as a teacher? How did teaching affect your work as a writer?
Kathi: I have taught a number of different courses: college composition, creative writing, various literature courses. When the energy is right, it’s exciting to see students come alive to the possibilities that both literature and creative writing open up for them. That revitalizes my own belief in the power of literature and writing to expand our lives and confirms my faith that these very human endeavors are vital. Working in these areas with students is rewarding and energizing.
Let’s move on to your current creative work. I’d like to ask you whether you have any sense of where your poetry will go from here? Will you “play it by ear” or come up with a deliberate choice of theme or formal strategies?
Ben: I’m currently finishing a new manuscript called Disambiguation, which was inspired by the many conversations that I have had with my young daughters about words and their amazement that they can mean so many different things.
In many ways, it has felt like a thematic extension of my first two books—in terms of exploring multitudes and disconnects—but it’s written in prose, which has allowed me to write in new ways. I started working on it two years ago when my younger daughter was an infant and I needed a way to “write” that didn’t demand being in front of a computer – and these pieces would often play out in my imagination as I tried desperately to bounce my daughter back to sleep.
I also write a monthly column for Grub Street Writers about the overlap between parenting and creativity, and I’d like to write enough of these to collect them into a book.
How about you—now that you are “retired” from teaching full time, how has it changed your writing routines? What is next for you in terms of writing projects?
Kathi: First, I just want to say it sounds like you’re working on two wonderful collections.
I don’t know if retiring has changed my writing routines. I’m someone who always wishes she could be a more disciplined writer, and I think that when I first left full-time teaching I managed, out of habit, to recreate the busy-ness of working full time and reading dozens of student essays. It didn’t feel good, but it felt familiar. Now I’ve figured that out, I find that I’m also writing more prose, trying my hand at the personal essay. I like the challenge of writing in new forms and somehow the essay seems to accommodate the subjects I want to explore. I’m still writing poetry, of course, although I’m not deliberately focusing on any particular theme or form. I figure I’ll just keep at it and see what emerges.
Ben, a final question. And here, perhaps I’m circling back to an earlier question. You’ve published two successful and accomplished books of poetry. Has this recognition of your work affected your sense of yourself as a writer? Made it easier to continue in any way despite the demands of teaching and parenting?
Ben: To be honest, I never really feel like I know what I’m doing when I’m writing, and I think that’s one of the things I like most about it – it’s offered me a life-long apprenticeship. That was what I loved about traveling, too – it unsettled so much of what I thought I knew about the world and myself.
And parenting is like that for me, as well. The other day, after my five-year-old mentioned that she was really sad that Obama was leaving office, my three-year-old went on and on about how much she loves Donald Trump and how excited she is that he’s going to be our next president. And just when I was about to yell at her for antagonizing her sister, she asked if Minnie Mouse could have a turn as president after Trump. And it suddenly dawned on me that she was confusing Donald Trump with Donald Duck.
Having little kids feels a lot like living inside of a James Tate poem – there’s no end to the bizarre logic and wild imagination.
BEN BERMAN’S first book, Strange Borderlands (Able Muse Press, 2012), won the Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second book is Figuring in the Figure, forthcoming from Able Muse Press in 2017. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He is the poetry editor at Solstice Literary Magazine and teaches in the Boston area, where he lives with his wife and daughters.
KATHLEEN AGUERO’S latest book is After That (Tiger Bark Books). Her other poetry collections include Investigations: The Mystery of the Girl Sleuth (Cervena Barva Press), Daughter Of (Cedar Hill Books), The Real Weather (Hanging Loose), and Thirsty Day (Alice James Books). She has also co-edited three volumes of multi-cultural literature for the University of Georgia Press (A Gift of Tongues, An Ear to the Ground, and Daily Fare) and is consulting poetry editor of Solstice Literary Magazine. She is a co-winner of the 2012 Firman Houghton Award from the New England Poetry Club and a recipient of grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Elgin-Cox Foundation. She teaches the low-residency M.F.A. program at Pine Manor College and in Changing Lives through Literature, an alternative sentencing program. Learn more at https://www.amazon.com/author/kathleenaguero