This is the first-part of a two-part interview with poet Katie Berger, who recently graduated from the MFA program in Alabama and published the chapbook, Time Travel: Theory and Practice--reviewed here. The second part, "Present", appeared here.
How did you start writing?I began pretty early, in elementary school when "free writing" was my favorite part of the school day. My little brother served as (oft-unwilling) audience for my rough drafts, as did my various friends. In junior high and high school, I grew really interested in science fiction, and, as strange as I feel admitting this, I wrote a lot of Star Wars fan fiction, too.
And poetry?I honestly don't remember, although my earliest memory of writing poems as opposed to stories starts in about 5th grade when our teacher would assign a subject for us to write a poem about. I stuck pretty consistently with both fiction and poetry through junior high and high school for both classes and writing on my own.
Who were the first poets that turned you on to poetry?When I was very young, a battered copy of a book called The Boy's Book of Verse, complete with a painting of a ship on it, always sat in the bookcase. Poe's "Annabelle Lee," Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," and Whitman's "O Captain My Captain" were all in there, and the rhythms and words lodged themselves quite comfortably in my brain. I think a love for these poems made me pursue poetry later. In graduate school, I really enjoyed Harryette Mullen's and Karen Volkman's poetry. And in undergraduate, we read T.R. Hummer's "Where You Go When She Sleeps" for an intro to creative writing class, and that poem still haunts me--I've taught it to my own students, even.
Of these early influences, I do not recognize the conscious rhythms and sounds. Rather, I sense more conversational sounds and subtler rhythms.Yes, good observation. The rather overt stresses and rhythms I read as a kid might have made me particularly sensitive to the rhythm of a sentence, be that iambic pentameter or everyday conversation. Also, I work as a product copywriter, and I'm fascinated with how a product description for a bedframe feels nothing like a description for a rain barrel in terms of tone, texture, rhythm of commas and periods.
When did you feel like you'd come into your voice or vision?
And I'm often skeptical of that feeling of "coming into" a voice or vision. Whenever I feel myself settling into one, I get a bit antsy. So every time I start a new writing project, if I'm not completely re-inventing my tone/style/structure/genre, I feel like I'm not even writing. I'm not sure if this is a good thing (despite constant re-birth, the same problems often plague all my projects), but it's certainly an adventurous thing. And that's pretty cool, at least.
Which are more valuable: workshops or mentoring (or is that a false dichotomy)? That is, what do you find most valuable is shaping your work?Hmmm...I've never thought of workshop and mentoring as opposites of each other, but it's certainly an interesting contrast. And if I consider that contrast, I'd have to go pretty strongly with mentoring. I'm quite the connoisseur of one-on-one conversations, for starters, be that email or face-to-face. I also find that my mentors, and I've had some truly great ones, are a bit more sensitive to my background and crippling lack of self-confidence that comes with said background. I grew up working class in a mostly rural area, so I've always felt like an impostor in college, especially graduate school. That "impostor" syndrome can be downright overwhelming in a workshop, but I've never really encountered that with a mentor. I think mentoring allows for an easier acceptance of the self, if that makes sense.
You can sense that "impostor" syndrome in the self-deprecating approach to Nebraska--the plains being plain--yet it attempts to rise above, a stepping stone to other places. Is this something you have been exploiting or plan to exploit further?
I always think of that line from My Antonia when the narrator first encounters Nebraska: "The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska." And when you grow up in a place like that, so open and flat and defined by a geography of visual sparseness, you're not going to forget it or shed it completely from your consciousness. A lot of my characters have moved from a rural area into a city (the narrators in Time Travel and in my latest project Swans) and are often grappling with that shift in awareness, that move from an empty space into a livelier, noisier one. I imagine some element of that plainness, as it were, will always be present in my work in some form or other.