In 2016, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s writing won the Narrative Poetry Contest. Bertram’s work is formally and thematically expansive and this sampling, called “Facts About Deer and Other Poems,” showcases her incredible range. In the poem “They were armed with long guns”—a poem written in ten parts—the sections move between lists, plain declarations like, “You know // where this / is going. This is // America,” and Bertram’s characteristically stunning descriptions, like when she says about the slant of light in a classroom, “It is fall // and the light from these windows behaves as / you’d expect: it rushes in. It strangles.”
Bertram teaches at The University of Massachusetts in Boston. Her first book, But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise (Red Hen Press, 2012), was selected by Claudia Rankine for the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award. Personal Science, her third book of poems, was just released from Tupelo Press. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. We caught up over email to talk about her new book, mentoring creative writing students, and the impact the NEA has had on her writing.
The Rumpus: You’ve got three books published now and a chapbook. Personal Science, the title of your third book, shows up in a poem title in the second book, “Personal Science Tracing as a Bear in the Lake on the Sun.” There are overlapping motifs—bears, deer—and overlapping forms—eclogues, prose/prose poems—across the books. Stéphane Mallarmé insisted that all his writing was a single book. He imagined his art as a continuous project. How are you thinking about the way your published works interact? Do you see these books—or the poems in them— talking to one another?
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram: I’m so glad you asked this question and that you brought up Mallarmé here, because you’ve got it exactly right. All my writing is a single book, or rather, a single life project. It’s not a single book in the sense that, say, Zukofsky’s lifelong project “A” is a single lifelong work of one book. The books, for me, are artifacts that mark points in time. They are discrete objects but my work itself is not discrete. Everything—every poem, every photo, every image—they are always in conversation and talking to and back to each other. That the themes show up in all the books is also a function of the fact that I don’t “begin” a book and then “end” it. I am not (yet) the kind of writer who sits down like “I am going to write a book of poems about _____” or “I need to write more poems to fit into my book of ______.” Consequently, the work across all three books is not confined to the time period or publication period of any individual book. For example, poems in Personal Science may have been excised from what became But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise. The placement of the poem “Personal Science Tracing as a Bear in the Lake on the Sun” in a slice from the cake made of air as opposed to Personal Science is deliberate. There is science in that book, and it’s in development. It doesn’t reach a culmination in the book Personal Science, but it’s a way-point, so to speak, in my life-work. I am also glad that you read the books back-to-back because I think that’s how they should be read. Well, I’m reluctant to say that they should be read that way, but my point is that there is something gained by reading all of it together—at least I hope!
Rumpus: The lifelong, single project really comes across when reading the books back-to-back because of the way your themes repeat and evolve. For example, seeing references to the galaxy and cosmos in But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise and then seeing the references to neurons, particles, and weather in Personal Science reminded me of a talk you gave at the &Now conference in 2013 about race and astronomy. Can you talk about the theory you developed and how that thinking has evolved in your more recent work?
Bertram: That theory, specifically, had to do with appropriation and race and performativity and how through appropriation—Miley Cyrus’s twerking—the Black Object becomes visible. My theory was that black (w)holes are only visible—for now—because of the way light—here read as whiteness—bends when it comes into contact with the dense gravity that is the Black (w)hole. That is, we can’t actually *see* black (w)holes, we can only know of their presence based on how other astronomical objects and light react when they come close to them. Light bends, for example, because of the intense gravity of the black hole. I imagine that at some point we will be able to detect blacks holes in space via other means but for now, the tech is what it is. So I was positing that cultural appropriation acts in a similar way—that this form of dancing associated with and originating in Black culture became visible to the mainstream via how Whiteness bent around it when it came into contact with it, thus proving the existence of an entire cultural realm. It’s not like we didn’t know this realm was there, but the *depth* of it goes unexamined and is thought to be impossible—or not worth it—to examine. Instead we focus on examining the reactions of those who come into contact with it—like Miley twerking at the VMAs. That performance was a reaction to her contact with something else, but it served to distract us—or needlessly devalue—that “something else.” Appropriation of other cultures isn’t engagement with that culture. It’s a reaction to it that distracts from any meaningful engagement.
That specific theory doesn’t actually show up in any of the books. Hah! BUT, cosmology does show up, especially in But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise. That book is firmly ground in how the push/pull of celestial agents is so strong that it cannot help but affect a single human being’s psyche. Some of that also shows up in Personal Science, in “Cerebrus Corpus Monstrum”—that poem is very much about superstition, signs, and forces of the cosmos acting on individuals. I do not see how it could be that the vast speeds and expansions and contractions of the universe don’t interact with humans on a cellular level, in their brains and bodies.
Rumpus: The theory you’ve created makes so much sense, and I do see an impulse in common between the theory and some of your poems in that there’s that desire to, like you say, show how forces of the cosmos act on individuals. Does this desire relate to the term “personal science”? Can you say more about the title of the book?
Bertram: I don’t even know if I’ve created this theory—hah. I’m sure someone somewhere has already written up just such a thing. Wouldn’t that be the luck.
Thanks for asking about the title. I know that it originated before the book did—as you note, there is a poem in my second book titled “Personal Science Tracing as a Bear in the Lake on the Sun,” so this idea of a “personal science” has been brewing for quite some time for me. Part of it is a casual reference to “science,” as in, “dropping science.” Like when something complex or complicated is just called “science.” Like it’s hot as hell and you could set up a cooler of ice in front of a fan to blow cool air on you, but it’s just “too damn hot for all that science.” Turn on the AC instead. So there’s that. And, the long poem “Cerebrum Corpus Monstrum” circulates around the line/idea “to feel the heart you have to put your hand in it” which is a gloss of a line from Cannibal Ox’s “The F-Word” from their seminal album The Cold Vein. It goes without saying that Can Ox drops all kinds of science on that album. So that’s one place the science comes from. This science is, in a sense, what you make of it. (I can hear scientists rolling in their graves/beds/chaise lounges at that one.) I am not a scientist, but for me, to feel the heart you must put your hand in it. I heard that and thought “yeah that sounds about true to me.” The science of my dreams is such that “the cars are all cars I’ve driven/the men men I’ve known.” It’s a science, but it’s not an objective science. I have no idea how the forces of the cosmos actually act on individuals. I wish I did, but I can only speculate, I can have my theories, my slant science. My personal science. It’s a disclaimer—a “don’t quote me on this”—but also an affirmation.
Rumpus: I love the idea that disclaimer and affirmation are two sides of the same coin. I saw on the copyright page that Tupelo Press gets some funding from the NEA, and I know you were awarded an individual grant from the NEA a few years ago. How has the NEA’s affirmation shaped Personal Science, or your writing, your teaching/your life?
Bertram: To answer the question, I mean, it’s incredibly affirmative. I was shocked that they were down to support my kind of quirky and weird work. At the time I was living in a room in a house, and the room was so small that I couldn’t pull the dresser drawers out without hitting the bed. When I got the call I cried my eyes out and practically hyperventilated. They must love making those calls. I was having an especially shitty year and I didn’t know it at the time, but I really needed something good to happen. I needed the work to pay off.
That both of my publishers—Red Hen Press and Tupelo Press—are supported by the NEA is significant. They support me and my work, they make it possible to print beautiful books and get them into the world. Gutting the NEA will make it much harder for independent presses to stay alive and support diverse and exciting work. Maybe that’s the whole point of the new administration proposing to cut the NEA. (Cutting the NEA is no real way to reduce a government deficit. It’s such a miniscule drop in the budget bucket.) But by doing so, the administration can further their efforts to decrease or eliminate the independent press, the independent theater, the creative artist—any organ that might prove to be directly or obliquely critical of them.
What it’s meant more than anything is that I can go to my students and say is “You could get the same grant. For a while I didn’t even apply for it because I felt like things like that weren’t for me. Those were opportunities for People Who Were Not Like Me, not like queer biracial kids from the rust belt. So, shit, go for it. I never imagined poetry would take me anywhere, but as it turns out, it’s brought me everywhere.”
Rumpus: YES to all the queer biracial kids from the rust belt going for it with everything, and going for it with poetry in particular. I can’t wait for the next iteration of the lifework.
Author photograph © Dennison-Bertram.