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Faber & The Poetry Society Reading: Eric Berlin, Emily Berry and Jack Underwood

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Emily Berry, Eric Berlin, Jack Underwood (c. Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society)

Poetry was necessary on this year’s election night.  As we sat in a beautiful, packed room in Bloomsbury House, Faber’s headquarters, surrounded by first editions and fairy lights, it was easy to forget the news.  We were gathered for an event organised by the Poetry Society, bringing together three of the most innovative young poets – Eric Berlin, Emily Berry and Jack Underwood, to read poems from their collections.

Jack Underwood delivered the most reassuring poem of the evening, Instead of Bad News about a Person I Love, which probes the psychological tendency to chronically imagine the worst possible scenario taking place.  Underwood inverts such catastrophising and instead offers us the possibility of relentless optimism.  The poem is an amusing and therapeutic piece on the prospect of things not always being as bad as they seem.  Appropriately, the poem is also a celebratory exploration of procrastination as a coping mechanism for bad news.  Instead of confronting the problem at hand, the person engages in a series of meaningless and soothing tasks: “I spent that morning cutting white paper into triangles / I spent that afternoon staring at my bits / enamoured. I spent that evening clapping loudly in the garden.”

It is necessary to hear Jack’s delivery to properly appreciate the poem.  His tone has an effortless cadence and whimsy which accentuates the sinuous rhythms of the poem.  For example, one cannot help but chuckle at the unexpected appearance of the cat: “the cat came in, little devil, and I forgave her.”  When Jack reads this, he adds a quick tempo and natural conversational flow to the line, which highlights its childlike playfulness.  Out of the three poets, it is clear he is a natural performer and could have easily had a career as a stand-up comedian.  His preface to the poems, unlike the usual unnecessary preamble, was witty and instilled a sense of the poems before we even heard them.

Speaking to Jack after the event, we discussed Emily Berry’s style of reading.  We agreed that Emily’s delivery resonates with the words of Anne Carson that “poetry must be recited, not performed”.  The reading of poetry must be stripped back so that the poem may speak for itself.  It is clear to see the fact Berry adheres closely to this philosophy.  Unlike Underwood’s confident cadence, Berry is calm and composed in her reading with the natural phonetics of the words producing their own significance, unforced by Berry.  Listening to her recite is hypnotic and lulling, yet the steady, introspective pace of her delivery also allows for reflection on the complex imagery and sensations spawned by the language itself.  Poems which stood out were the pensive Picnic, with such lines as: “watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continuously trying to be whole”, which continued to reverberate in my mind long after she finished her recital.  In addition, Freud’s Beautiful Things is a witty and inventive example of a ‘found-poem’, comprised of single lines taken from Freud’s correspondence, which Berry turns into a collage of alternate meaning.  She explained that this was a way to get Freud to say things she wanted him to say.

More like Underwood, Eric Berlin’s delivery was suffused with a conversational lilt which moved with the ebb and flow of emotions and images in his poems.  The words and verses drifted seamlessly between memories, objects and sensations, the sense of rhythmic tempo accentuated by his smooth American accent.  His poems oscillate between being enchantingly mystical and yet piercingly realist.  Thanksgiving Fair on Market Street and Apparición were two especially affective poems.  He packs these works full of evocative quotidian objects and images which become otherworldly through his microscopic observation, such as Columbus unclenching “moth-eaten parchment” and encountering “soft pretzels”, “samples of Pepto-Bismol” and “the jester in clashing plaids” at the street fair in Thanksgiving Fair on Market Street.  In a similar way, Apparición combines religion and mythology with the seedy underbelly of urban life: “hunger is so often mistaken for prayer”.

Berlin comes from a fascinating background which fuses cultures as well as disciplines.  His grandparents were from Chernobyl and escaped to Philadelphia before WWI broke out.  While in Chernobyl they experienced widespread anti-Semitism as one of the scapegoats following the frustrations felt after the defeat of Russia in the Sino-Russo war.  Alongside this, he has an array of degrees: an MFA in Sculpture from NY Academy of Art, an MFA in Poetry from Syracuse University and a BA in English from Harvard.  All these layers add a complexity and texture to Berlin’s poems.  Firstly, an awareness of history and culture.  Secondly, his affinity with visual art, particularly sculpture, partly explains why his poems are loaded with materials and striking images.  Berlin has recently received the news that he is a finalist in the Manchester Poetry Competition and will be returning to the UK for the ceremony on the 25th of November.

It is apparent that the New York School in some way influences all the poets.  Like their mid-century predecessors, the poets’ work contains a great love of the quotidian and a casual playfulness with language that continues to be concerned with philosophical problems.  Through their energetic pieces, all three poets advocate a child-like fascination not only with poetry but also the world we experience every day.  Like the New York poets, it is futile to unite these very different writers under one definition.  However, their one shared quality is that they inspire a similar sort of excitement for life, language and paying attention.

By Diana Kurakina


Future events from the Poetry Society can be found here.

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