For the release of her book Kneel Said the Night, Margo Berdeshevsky spoke with intern Kaylee Young-Eun Jeong about the weaving of myth and reality, poetry and prose, to explore themes of temporality, spirituality, and womanhood.
Kaylee Young-Eun Jeong: You begin the first part of this book with an epigraph from Alice Notley: “To be dead grows on one, sweetly. Not knowing what time it is.” How do death and temporality influence the writing of Kneel Said the Night?
Margo Berdeshevsky: When did we see it coming? I know that I am afraid. And I hide it. And I can’t. So do you. I no longer know what time to call ours, or if we have lost our way in the literal and in the nonlinear. We are living, right now—in war time, in a time of yes, global ache. What time is it when fascism is rising in so many countries, and it is not the 1930s, it is now. With ugly aggression comes cruelty, and yes, death, and yes, fears, and lusts for power, and illnesses we cannot control, even as we try to love one another sweetly, and smell the rain, and believe in our own creativity, still.
When I was growing up, I often thought I was blessed to not be in a country at war. That wars were history, not our now. But I grew to understand that the wars and hatreds and ruins have never ended. They have only remerged, vermin from under old stones, and this is in our time. We try to pay attention to other things. Gardens. Sunrises. Music. Poetry. But the truth is what it is. As I write elsewhere in the book, “I am the woman who asks, how close is death, how near is God.” That question has been a deep personal and philosophical quest for me—from the past, and most certainly in the now I share with my fellow humans and yes, with readers. I try to imagine endings, and beginnings. So I wrote Kneel Said the Night with such consciousness in my being, of a world I can’t escape, as a woman, as a cynic with her eyes wide open to the world that is—and as one who still reaches out hungry for love, or sex, and that thing with feathers Emily Dickinson wrote of. “Hope.”
KYEJ: Tell me more about the way you move fluidly between first, third and even second person narration.
MB: The book, as I moved into it in the opening chapter, and later in the notes at the end, is what I call a book of “half notes.” Breaths. Fragments becoming a whole. So it made sense to me to speak in those several modes, first, second, third…as a way to embrace different points of view. Maybe facets of a shattered crystal, I could say. I wanted to build stories and poems that would break through different walls and doors. And to do so, I needed to find voice in the different characters and images. To move with a spatial and poetic prose and a harsher one, to an articulation and unexpected imagery—and to find a self, and characters that could live inside each.
KYEJ: How did you go about creating the hybrid genre of the book, moving from poetry to prose and in between?
MB: Poetry, prose, and images. Yes, they happen as a result of my larger thrust. I have a love for the hybrid approach as an artist in different mediums. I don’t like to be stuck in a single box, and I find it very interesting as a reader, and an image maker and a word maker, to break forms and expectations. That way I surprise myself, and, hopefully, the one who receives the work I can offer. As I wrote in response to a quote by Zora Neale Hurston, reiterated in the final notes at the end of the book: “The single hour cannot be—eternity. But here is its gathering—for the book that is in your hands, now.”
KYEJ: How did you select the pictures you used, and how would you want your reader to appreciate them within the context of the language?
MB: I’m a collector of my own images. I photograph, I draw, I collage, I layer, I hunt. Sometimes I have a piece of an image but I don’t yet know what I might do with it, it’s sitting on my table, or in my files, and then I wear a different hat or magic cape one morning. And I’m making a poem or a story and I remember that visual image and I go looking for it and it begins to morph in my hands as I see how it could accompany what I’m writing or have already written. I never use an image for mere show and tell. I use it to jog the way the words land. I like ambiguity, sometimes, and I like contrast, to invite left brain/ right brain side by side. As this book came together in its overall intention, I began to know what belonged and what to use, or not use. For that, I have an inner yes/no/yes—and I listen to it.
KYEJ: Tell me about your choice to use mythic, abstract elements in conjunction with more mundane aspects of ordinary life, such as gardening or texting a lover.
MB: I’m smiling as I answer this. Because all I can say honestly is: that’s just how my head works! I like collage. I like to mix. I’ve often been attracted to what is mythic and to the surreal. I’ve read and studied myths and different spiritual paths. I’m a rebel when it comes to “systems of belief.” I feel I need and want and have the freedom to pick what works for me at a given time. And to select something other, later, or next year. I’ve believed, and lapsed, and believed anew. And I’ve lost my way. But I don’t want to get locked in a box I can never get out of.
Abstract? Not so much. I’m attracted to what moves me emotionally. And what moves me, and what I tell myself I believe in has changed over time. I want to be a “believer.” But I lose my way and have to come back around from a new or different source. I’ve traveled widely in my life, I speak a few different languages, and I’ve read and explored different cultures and creation stories and spiritual explanations for our lives. I’ve had respect for each of them. Each of them becomes part of how I wonder about and look at life. And then—I long for simplicity, and silence, and daily life to lean on. I haven’t always been able to make that happen. I haven’t often had a traditional life. So yes, a garden. And yes, a lover. And yes, a text, if it has something to say and is not just blah blah blah. The mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary are tools for me.
KYEJ: What is the significance of the religious and spiritual imagery in Kneel Said the Night?
MB: I think I speak to this question in several ways just above. Blessings are everywhere, and yet so damn hard to hold or trust in. As the “description” of the book ends, it asks “who holds the winning hand?” and “who will save us?” Word images come near me, like presences—spiritual, metaphorical, hard edged and soft—insisting that I include them somehow. I think that to deal with our times these days, the spiritual element is often the elephant in the room. Religion is personal and can be addressed in myriad ways, or not at all. But our truths and/or questions are voices in the book that I, and they, pursue.
KYEJ: Can you speak about the book’s different experiences of womanhood and the ways they intersect?
MB: I’ve long cherished Sojourner Truth’s words, “Ain’t I a woman?” Because it ain’t so easy. Because the cause of freedom and a woman’s rights to be—confront us now as then, and more and more than ever.
Being a woman often comes at a deep cost to the soul. In the book I speak through different narratives of a woman’s intimate desire(s.) And her quest to know if she has learned anything in a long or a short life. If she is or can be free. If abuse or rape or just being in this world in these times—can still allow her to “fly” (metaphorically speaking.) She asks what it is or may be to grow old in a woman’s body. What frightens her. What desire and the hungers for love have led her to. What she must risk, to be held. What or who does she belong to. Where can she travel to become free. Who holds her hand. Who influences her? Dead mothers, dead fathers, available or unavailable lovers, her own shape and flesh, fame, solitudes, illnesses, death itself, or something holy? Sometimes she is preyed upon. Sometimes she turns predator. But mostly, the women I speak of in their intimacies turn to the erotic and the mythic, the poetic, the mysterious, and even to ruin. Or, joy in the play and dances of life—all to survive. And to be a woman.
KYEJ: Can you speak to the recurring birds in this book?
MB: People have noticed my inclusion of birds in my writing elsewhere. I acknowledge it. The very fact that a bird may lift from the branch, from the earth, and that in my narratives earth is sometimes a place to escape or to be saved from, makes a bird an apt symbol for me.
Maybe too it’s what I mentioned at the beginning of this interview: as one who still reaches out hungry for love, or sex, and that thing with feathers Emily Dickinson wrote of. “Hope.”
KYEJ: What is the significance of the constant father figure-like characters throughout this work?
MB: I would not say that the father figure is the constant in the work, but yes, it is a hard presence, and/or an absence. Sometimes as mythically so, as one to reach for. Sometimes, frighteningly so, as one who permits abuse. Sometimes, merely as an old death. Sometimes, but rarely so, as the patriarchal deity who might answer a question, the question. (I must add that often in the book, the mother figure-like character is written and is a constant for good or for loss or for memory or for ghost …)
Margo Berdeshevsky, born in New York City, often lives and writes in Paris. Her latest collection, Before the Drought, is from Glass Lyre Press and was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. It is Still Beautiful to Hear the Heart Beat is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Berdeshevsky is author as well of Between Soul & Stone and But a Passage in Wilderness (Sheep Meadow Press). Her book of illustrated stories, Beautiful Soon Enough, received the first Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Award for FC2 (University of Alabama Press.) For more information, kindly see margoberdeshevsky.com.
Kaylee Young-Eun Jeong is a Korean American writer, currently studying English at Columbia University. She edits for Quarto, Columbia’s official undergraduate literary magazine. A 2019 Sundress Best of the Net finalist in poetry, her work has been featured in diode, BOAAT, and Hyphen, among others.