With the recent publication of her debut poetry collection, Slack Tongue City, Sundress Publications author Mackenzie Berry sat down with our intern, Katherine DeCoste, to discuss how her Southern roots, food, and regionality inform her writing. This collection of poetry explores sensory manifestations of longing, transforming ideas of the “homeland” from a physical place to a place of memory.
Katherine DeCoste: The poems in this collection frequently returns to food—grits, coffee, mac & cheese. Can you speak to how food informs identity and community in your work?
Mackenzie Berry: To know any place, I think you have to taste it. And it feels especially important when talking about the U.S. South. So, I had to talk about it when talking about Louisville. At every church potluck, it was all on the table—who made what, hurrying up to get something before it’s gone. Food is so transitory and still so important. Food feels like the concrete manifestation of nostalgia and longing, and my writing has a lot of longing.
KD: You use a wide range of forms here, from prose poem to ghazal, sestina, and pantoum. How did you arrive at these specific forms, and how did they shape these poems?
MB: Honestly, the form poems came out of assignments to write specific form poems in college, when I wrote most of the manuscript. I used the space of form as a means to have musicality or give direction to particular content I wanted to write about. The jug band poem felt like it had to be a sestina because the repeating six words could tell a long story but remain with emphasis. The ghazal is my favorite form, because it’s so musical, so there are a couple of them. It has a chorus built in—something to return to and anchor the poem. The forms also gave the poems a direction to arrive at by the end of a line, something to write toward, so that helped the poems come into being. Writing some of them was writing a puzzle, which felt accurate to the content.
KD: Can you tell me more about the “after” poems in this collection, and how other creatives influenced your work?
MB: Sure—the “after” poems here are citations. A few gesture to some poets I’ve read and their work—John Murillo, Frank X Walker, Brigit Pegeen Kelly. A couple others reference an event as a starting point, as a head of the poem, and don’t return to it in the body of the poem. I’ve drawn from so many poets for their music, for their song. Joy Priest was the first Louisville poet I read on the page, and her work Horsepower has the hum and the engine, as the title suggests.
KD: In “Mama Said Louisville’s not the South Because it Dresses Grits Fancy,” you tease out tension around regionality, especially concerning the South and Midwest. Can you speak more to this?
MB: Louisville’s always been in a geographic struggle with which region it belongs to, and with its relationship with Kentucky as a whole, so I wanted to play that out in this poem with some humor and with specificity. It was funny to me that my mom’s singular and unequivocal criteria for why Louisville is not the South is on account of grits. And yet, of course it is.
KD: Tell me about the book’s three sections. What moved you to structure the collection this way?
MB: I saw three clear groupings of poems—Louisville poems, childhood/upbringing poems, and grief/heartbreak poems. I tried weaving them all together so that the collection wouldn’t read as disconnected, then tried sections, then returned to no sections, but once my editor Tennison suggested putting them into sections to see how it read, it felt like each one built on the last and that the collection had a clear arc.
KD: You write “if a city is a body it’s redrawing its anatomy” in “Three Truths & A Lie.” How do you see Louisville as a character, as well as a place or setting, in these poems?
MB: I see Louisville as a sky, as an overlook, as an underground, as actually an arbitrary thing—a defined city with borders—as another place which only exists from displacing Indigenous peoples, and that is where I come from. It has many people acting upon it and stretching it into something else, and all it can do is watch it happen in some instances, but in other instances other actors refuse that.
KD: “On Being From Nobody” details a violent encounter between the speaker and “the boy who is almost a man.” Can you tell me how you see femininity and masculinity at play in this poem, as well as throughout the collection?
MB: I don’t see masculinity in this poem but a caricature of it. This caricature is used by “the body who is almost a man” as leverage and as a threat, as something that rages and laughs about it. In the collection as a whole, girlhood and womanhood is something that multiplies and becomes abundant the more it feeds itself. It makes itself, in the absence of and in the howling for.
KD: Slack Tongue City is as concerned with history as it is with location and place. With that in mind, how do you see these poems engaging with the notion of being “from” a place?
MB: Yes. I’m caught up with archives, and I felt such a need to archive this place as I’ve known it and put my finger on the map, knowing it will never return back there. I think these poems live at the tension of simultaneously being from a place and being beyond it. Of being attached to a physical place as a reference point, as a landing ground, and knowing that ground is ever shaking. I’ve always thought that the best way to read history is to read the poets of the time. Because poetry will bring you into the house, into the kitchen, whereas other depictions may stop at the street, or only go as far as the front door. I’ve always thought of poets as historians from the first collection I ever read, which was Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney.
KD: The collection’s second section presents several recollections from the speaker’s childhood, like their mother’s cookies and purchasing a bike at a garage sale. What is poetry’s role in engaging with these kinds of memories?
MB: Poetry can be used as an archive of the personal. I certainly use it for that. It’s great for memory because by genre it can be incoherent and jarring and parsed and jumpy, which memories often are. Poetry is good for making a quilt.
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Mackenzie Berry’s poetry is inspired by Louisville, Kentucky, her hometown and subject of her debut poetry collection, Slack Tongue City. Her poetry has been published in Vinyl, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Hobart, and Blood Orange Review, among others. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Cornell University.
Katherine DeCoste is an MA student at the University of Victoria, on the stolen lands of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples and the WSANEC peoples. Their poems have appeared in Grain Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Contemporary Verse 2, and elsewhere, and their play “many hollow mercies” won the 2020 Alberta Playwriting Competition Novitiate Prize. When not writing, reading, or answering emails, you can find them baking vegan snacks and forcing their friends to play Dungeons and Dragons.