Earlier this month, we talked to Sarah Rose Nordgren for the first new Conversations with Contributors after The Adroit Journal‘s eleventh issue. Next up is Benjamin Goldberg, whose poems “Havenwyck Hospital, 2002” and “Unguided Tour of the French Rivera” appeared in the last issue. Benjamin talks with us at Adroit about the importance of opening a dialogue about mental health issues and the rewarding qualities of being a teacher.
Joanna Moley, Blog Correspondent: Both of your poems are named after places. Why is that?
Benjamin Goldberg, Issue 11 Contributor: I’m not sure people are wholly distinct from the places they’ve been. Nor can those places remain unchanged by people. We engage with them physically, conjure them from synapses, and reshape them in the subconscious, which I’m convinced is also a place. To write about a person, then, is to write about place. To be a person is to be, among many things, a collection of places. As I type these words, I’m listening to my three-year old nephew carry on a conversation with his toys about the landscapes of the living room. Over the past minute, the carpet has been a petting zoo, day care center, pool, apple orchard, bouncy castle etc. These places are lining his interior life. I guess I’m interested in how a person and a place can be records of one another. In Frost’s “A Servant to Servants,” the speaker says “the place is the asylum.” That line resonates with me in ways I’m still discovering. If a person is also a place, then…
Havenwyck Hospital is a real place – it’s a psychiatric/substance abuse treatment center. Is there any significance in choosing to write about that hospital, or the year 2002? What about the French Rivera?
Yes, I stayed there intermittently as a teenager. The stints were usually brief, and began during my junior year of high school. They continued into 2002, my senior year, during which I dropped out. I write about this hospital—the period of my life it represents—because I’d like to shred the memos from society telling me I should be ashamed to discuss mental illness. I’m sick of how the topic rarely seems to enter public discourse except as a means of explaining away the crimes of mass murderers. I’m sick of how it’s used in the wake of heinous acts as if to suggest that only people with mental illness are capable of horror.
In fact, as the officers responsible for Freddie Gray’s murder were being indicted, I came across an article about how one of them had received treatment for mental illness. It was frustrating. I wondered where I could find the article explaining that the other five officers had no documented history of mental health issues. I wanted to shout across the internet that there’s no diagnosis whose symptoms include bigotry and murder.
I ultimately held off on this because it wasn’t the right time, and I didn’t want to draw focus away from the larger social issues being discussed. And even that frustrates me. There almost never seems to be a right time. To talk about how the media, intentionally or not, uses such events to stigmatize mental illness is to draw focus away from a family’s tragic loss, a town’s grief over a senseless crime, or how systemic bigotry repeatedly traumatizes a community. The discussion of mental health, then, gets smuggled into other discussions like pork in a reform bill. I guess that’s part of why I write poems like this one. I don’t like the discussion taking place, and I don’t like how and when it’s allowed to take place. I’m trying to write against that. For now, writing through the lens of my experience feels like the most authentic way of doing so.
There is a theme of memory in both of your poems in Issue 11. What types of motifs and themes do you find yourself drawn to (both as a writer and a reader)?
This takes us back to place, which is what I believe memory is. Like a place, we live in it as much it lives in us. I guess with these poems I’m interested in, among other things, how memory betrays us. How we betray it. Regarding “Havenwyck Hospital, 2002,” much of that year (and others) is difficult to remember because my medications often had me sleeping at least sixteen hours a day. My weeks, then, largely centered around remembering dosages, appointments, and items on my backlogged to-do list. Memory seemed to shrink to the size of the pills I swallowed.
In a broader sense, I’m interested in opposites that seem irreconcilable, which I try to explore in “Unguided Tour of the French Riviera.” Southern France is perhaps the most gorgeous place I’ve been. Yet, human trafficking happens to be a significant problem there. What kind of dissonance allows us to reconcile the beauty and horror of a single place? Of a world?
When did you start writing poetry, and how long after that did you know you wanted to make writing your career?
I started writing poetry when I was seventeen. During almost every class, I would fill my notebooks with horrible imitations of Octavio Paz and sopping performance pieces with which I imagined winning slam championships. I even read one of them at a local competition. After the first few lines, the audience started booing and didn’t stop until I finished several minutes later. Two judges gave me a score of one, and the final judge gave me a seven. It’s interesting how symbolic of the writing profession this moment would become. After dropping out of high school, my therapist at the time encouraged me to come up with a list of things I could do with my life. I spent about three years failing at various items on that list. Around my twenty-first birthday, I realized that despite how little time I’d devoted to poetry over those years, the desire to write never abandoned me. At that point, I couldn’t envision what a writing career looked like, but I figured going back to school might be a possible first step. Then I kept stepping.
What has your MFA experience been like so far? What do you think about the controversy over the validity of MFA programs?
The experience has been interesting. It’s as if I trained to be a sprinter, then signed up for a marathon. The whole experience is requiring me to use poet-muscles in ways I didn’t know were possible. It’s been incredibly helpful to be around brilliant people who constantly challenge me with ideas, insights, and perspectives I might not have otherwise considered. I like to be pushed, and I don’t ever want to settle into a schtick. Thankfully, I’m around people who won’t let me.
My answer to your second question depends on which controversy you mean. To be clear, I do believe there are some fundamental problems with MFA programs in general, and those are absolutely worth discussing. I think it’s important to raise questions about privilege, access, and inclusivity in programs, as well any role the programs have in perpetuating a literary canon that ignore these. I think it’s important to listen to the answers and act on them.
Honestly, though, I find many of the other controversies a little tedious. I’ve read too many articles claiming that MFA programs are churning out gaggles of second-rate faculty member imitators. They seem to think MFA programs oversaturate the publishing landscape, and that MFA students are heralds of the literary apocalypse. Tedious. The MFA is an experience more than anything, I think. If we’re talking about whether or not to MFA, I’d say do it or don’t. The fate of literature isn’t hanging in the balance. The experience benefits many writers, but guarantees nothing. I think the MFA culture needs to be demystified, not debunked. When you can think of entering an MFA program without hearing the Hallelujah chorus in your head, maybe that’s the time to do it.
How has teaching English helped your own poetry/writing?
Many students are surprised to hear that they’re natural writers whether or not they’ve acknowledged it. They write books worth of texts, emails, journal entries, social media updates, blog posts, and so on. I’ve gotta say, I’ve seen some Facebook posts that read an awful lot like flash fiction or nonfiction. I’ve read some tweets that sound downright poetic. To be clear, this isn’t me saying that Facebook and Twitter are the new prose and poetry, but it’s interesting to me how they often draw from the same well of craft elements. I definitely encourage my students to examine how the writing they’re already doing can align with literary writing. In turn, I’m often looking to social media platforms for possible formal experiments.
What is the most important thing you have learned about writing from your students?
With my high school students especially, I got to see what was often the beginning of the writing impulse. That impulse seems to come naturally to young people. Most classes have a reliable number of self-identified writers, many of whom are plenty talented. As they enter their adult lives, it’s interesting to see whether or not they stick with it. But some students don’t yet know they’re writers. It doesn’t matter if they turn in consistently sub-par work, struggle with reading, or can’t explain the difference between simile and metaphor. There’re certainly predictors of which students might become writers, but there’s no way of predicting. When I was in high school, English was by far my worst subject, and I was constantly surrounded by peers who wrote better than I did. As a teacher, if a student wants to read me a poem about the dark abyss of his or her heart, I try to remember how necessary it is to write that poem, and to keep writing it. The student who writes juvenilia can grow into the adult who writes literature. My students remind every day to challenge my assumptions and remain as compassionate as possible.
What is your most important piece of advice for young writers?
Of course there’re the non-negotiables such as read widely, write constantly, and become friends with rejection. Beyond these, though, I’m usually hesitant to offer advice. I believe there’re so many ways of becoming a writer that any advice I can give is bound to be limited. But let me not cop out. Young writers:
There’s no correct “writer biography,” so be open to the shape your creative life takes. Imagine your trajectory, but not that you’ll follow it exactly. Create your timelines. Mark down when you’ll become the youngest writer to receive the MacArthur and the year you win your second Pulitzer. It’s only natural. But be able to revise or even abandon your plans. Never mistake them for what you actually write. Allow yourself to remember that despite how you feel, you’re still a writer even in the moments you aren’t writing. There’s no life you need to have before you can become a writer. Nor is there a life you’re supposed to have once you identify as one. Whoever you are, your experiences matter. Your life is important enough.
Did you have a specific teacher or mentor who inspired you to become a writer and/or teacher?
My high school philosophy teacher, Mr. Authier, inspired me to become both. He was brilliant, charismatic, and passionate in ways no evaluation metric can quantify. One day in class, he interrupted his lesson on classical idealism to read Regie Gibson’s stunning poem, “Eulogy of Jimi Christ.” I remember how my spine awakened when he read that poem. It took many years for me to recognize this as the moment I converted to poetry. Poetry not only steeled me during some chaotic years, it gave me a way out of them. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this moment in class was mystical, and that in many ways Mr. Authier saved me. That’s exactly what happened.
I believe this is the most profound effect a teacher can have on a student, and it’s why I wanted to teach. It saddens me that the profession hasn’t found a legitimate way to evaluate this dimension of teacher effectiveness. I sometimes wonder what our most notoriously rule-oriented vice principal might’ve written down had she observed Mr. Authier that day in class. Would she have known to quit scanning the board for a learning objective and look instead to our faces? Would she’ve seen on mine how entranced I was by the soundscape of that poem and Mr. Authier’s joy in reading it to us. There’s no way to measure how much I wanted whatever it was that happens between poem and reader. How much I wanted to wake people’s spines.
Finally, tell us a funny story from class.
Ha! Okay, so this happened a few years ago. The school year’s winding down, and each day I’m losing students’ attention to clouds and chipmunks and chipmunk-shaped clouds. One day, I’m rambling rather egregiously about something grammatical (I think). A student chimes in with the suggestion that I record a demo of the lecture and get it on the radio. Two other students jump in. The three of them take turns talking about what I would do after going platinum. This goes on for ten minutes. The class is hijacked. Everyone’s laughing as I’m trying unsuccessfully not to. The three students go on to describe what an album of Goldberg’s most tangential anecdotes would sound like. To my shock, they remember each of my stories with such immaculate specificity I begin to worry that it was all they’d learned. Before long, they have me on an episode of MTV’s Cribs giving a tour of my literature-themed house. Their impersonations of me are hilarious. Yet somehow they’re demonstrating so much content knowledge I begin to wonder if every English test should be given in impersonate-your-teacher form. I tell them that they’ll hear my comeback on the last day of school. Over the next few weeks, I enlist the help of a staffer on the school newspaper to conduct interviews with each of the students, then I film myself giving a tour of my house. On the last day of school, I bring in donuts and fruit punch, and we all watch a very curiously edited episode of Cribs.
Benjamin Goldberg lives with his wife outside Washington, D.C. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, The Greensboro Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Salt Hill, The Southeast Review, Devil’s Lake, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for the 2012 Gearhart Poetry Prize, the 2013 New Millennium Writings Award for Poetry, and the 2013 Third Coast Poetry Prize. He is currently earning his MFA at Johns Hopkins University. Find him online at www.benrgold.com.