bill berry, jr.:
It is not often that I get the opportunity to have a “Conversation” with an upstate New York Finger Lakes region colleague and contributor to aaduna so welcome Rachael. I am looking forward to our chat, and getting to know you better. So…
Moving right along and getting right into it, you are an accomplished poet, writer, and artist. And I know you started pursuing your artistic side in your early teen years and I wonder how your adult life has shaped your creative interests and temperament. Share.
Oh gosh, Bill, what a question. I did not get family support as a teen to pursue arts and crashed and burned out of college. I always wrote poetry though and was able to get a grade in a literature class from a generous professor who suggested I send him my poems. I think most families of people who are gifted in the arts are leery of the artist having a reliable source of income. Eating is nice. So is electricity. I always had supportive teachers. I guess many of us have the coulda, shoulda, wouldas, in our histories.
I would have gone to college for a Bachelors in English and then onto a MFA CW. Or MFA Fine Arts. Instead I got a degree I almost never used and by the time I figured I should try for a MFA CW it was decades later. I never went.
I have endured a lot of loss in my life. I married at age 27 to a wonderful man who happened to be the chest surgeon who saved my life by removing a cyst from my right lung. I wrote poetry that summer in the hospital because I always wrote poetry once I first did it, and gave him a poem. I didn’t know how much he loved poetry. Six months after I was back in school and home at some point, we began to talk on the phone and that one poem was transferred daily into each new suit’s pocket and he even took it to a university friend on a trip. So much of our life had to do with his love of my poetry. When he retired in the 90s, he bought a laptop and proceeded to catalogue and put onto floppy disks all my poems and then to send out. He was much older than I by 30 years but true great love is what it is. By the time he was 80 he asked me to “ make it as a poet while I am still around” meaning a chapbook or some other book. Till then I had published in literary journals but no book. In the early 2000s I entered a local poetry contest put on annually by the local chapter of the National League of American Penwomen. I forgot about entering. One March evening or April, my pig and I walked down to the mailbox and when I saw the NLAPW return address I really thought “ Oh dear.” Instead I read “ congratulations you won first prize for “ Winter Chorus” and an HM for “ Girlie.” I actually looked behind me at my pig because I didn’t believe this letter meant me. Then I ran into the house yelling, and my husband and I finally stopped hugging and crying in the fading daylight while in front of the sink.
During the 1990s, I had serious issues with medications being given to me that took away my ability to write poetry. I used to stand in front of the file cabinet of thousands and wonder how long before someone knew. After we’d moved to the country in 2002, the healing power of nature had a lot to do with the frozen part of me coming alive again halfway down the fields to the pond in big rubber boots. Again I raced up the path yelling my way into the kitchen. Phillip asked, “What was wrong?” I gasped “ Paper, pencil, poem coming!” So the inspirational part of my creativity survived medical disaster.
After that I joined a small writing group, entered more contests, fellowshipped by way into conferences, and eventually got that first chapbook, Slideshow in the Woods published by Foothills Publishing.
My husband has been gone since 2007. I endured more hardship after that and the only thing throughout my entire adult life that I have clung to without deviation is my arts. So in the dark depths of a very brief horrible marriage, I had to leave, I wrote “The Complete Tales from the Edge of the Woods.” In the woodland of the wizard, I found respite until I was strong enough to leave my situation.
At this time, my mom asked me if I would like art lessons as a Christmas gift. After decades of taking tons of photographs and winning a few prizes, I began at a small art school and “remembered” how much I love to paint and draw. Once I began to win Critics Choice awards and prizes in regional contests and the NYS Fair, I exceeded not only my own but my mom’s expectations. Again, right before she died, she held a copy of the “Tales” in her hand. She apologized for not sending me to art school and we made peace with what we needed to resolve. I was with her when she passed. At her funeral services, I had all of her paintings on display as well as in the program and I did a poetry reading of poems significant to her and me during the years of her failing. She had in fact majored in fine arts in college and never did anything with it. So when she turned 88, I was able to not only get a painting of hers published as illustration in the “Tales” but also sold a print of it; her first sale at 88. I will never forget her smile.
Your adult life story says a lot about the type of person you are; your sense of dedication, support, love, allegiance, trust, and compassion. So, how would you define who you are as you venture into 2016, and how does this ongoing new year chapter of your life define the current creative work that you are producing?
Well I moved into a new place last September. It is the first time in my life I’ve had a place just the way I want it with things picked out from flooring to furniture just for me by me. That is liberating. I am someone who can make do with cutting my own firewood and heating my house with a wood stove myself and with rescuing chairs, for example, from the dumpster to repurpose and reuse. Was pretty amazing to start fresh with new.
In the end, I won 11 Penwomen poetry prizes before I became a penwoman. I’m now second Vice President of the CNY Chapter and on the national NLAPW.org Penwomen publications committee. I was also nominated to run for fourth Vice President nationally.
The art school where I started also ended abruptly. Ironically I was kicked out for “ being disruptive” – some of my classmates wished to buy my poetry chapbooks and I brought them in to sell before and after class.
So I joined several local art organizations, Associated Artists of CNY, North Syracuse Art Guild and after a few years started taking individual art lessons with a gifted teacher. I also juried into the poetry intensive run annually by one of my own literary heroines, Marge Piercy in 2014 and got to meet my hero. Her work has influenced me my whole writing life. I also got to go to Lismore Ireland with Finishing Line Press and Abroad Writers and took classes there with Pulitzer winning authors in several genres. This year I was a semi finalist in a poetry contest for another Ireland (Dublin in December) writing conference with AWC which would’ve amounted to $2000? Scholarship. Was right around when I moved to my new current place and ended up in the ER from stress of moving related disasters, so I chose not to go this time.
There have been 5 or 6 prizes in art in 2014-2015 and a blue ribbon in poetry. My friends always ask me when will I feel that I have “made it?” I never can quite answer that. I only know that I will know. Not yet. The prizes give confidence and validation that the path which was always the only path, continues to be the right one for me.
I also have had many extremely exploitative bad experiences by writing “ professionals” from a literary agent in the 90s who refused to even take a phone call w/o a payment of at least $500 to a guy who pretended to be a publisher who managed to sign my lifetime rights to the Complete Tales for himself in 2011. He was self publishing it on Amazon and lying to me pretending to be a legitimate publisher. Because a friend had referred him I never bothered to check his background…This resolved when I hired an attorney ( mind you, living on a shoe string budget) to get my rights signed back over to me. A very expensive lesson.
I have been used and stolen from and it makes me quite sad that so many vampires are out there eager to suck the life of people whose only “ sin” is a desire to succeed in the arts.
Each experience has taught me a lot. I am working on some new and revisiting some old manuscripts, entering new contests, hanging in new shows with new works I am creating in classes. It is a constant process to let go of the past or to learn from it what you need to learn and then move on.
I am a very honest and truthful person and expect the same from others. This has gotten me in trouble so I’m trying to become more self protective. I’m happy to help someone in the arts as long as they’ re willing to help me as well. I think it makes much more sense to help each other and become united, which creates good karma rather than trample your neighbor to get to the top so to speak.
It must have been wonderful to create the living space that YOU wanted without having another person influence or affect the space that you wanted (or is needed a better word?) to do. I applaud your resiliency and sense of purpose as you dealt with setbacks and unscrupulous people. On a different note, I suspect the creative force is never fully satisfied so “making it” may never be how you get to define yourself and that can be a curse or a blessing. As you pursue revisiting work while creating new work, is the process of writing or drawing/painting become any easier? Do you find that you must challenge your inner self to prevent “resting on your laurels” or does the creative process pose sufficient pathways where you can never become complacent or repititous?
In a very real sense, I have made it. It really depends on the many ways you define that phrase. In the face of lack of family support, isolation, illness and all the other challenges, in the past few years I have added to the 11-15 writing prizes, 6 chapbooks and one novel more prizes and honors. Some say I have achieved more in my arts in the past several years than most aspire to in a life time. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody any more either. Since I was driven by poverty a lot of the time, I’ve never had a situation of resting on laurels or complacency. Will I ever win another prize, sell a painting, publish a book? Maybe not, who can say? I sure hope so!
I think lots of artists are driven period. For me it is like breathing and by now I have learned to trust the creative process so that I don’t flog it. Believe it is there and reach for it. I have even written and revised poetry in sleep/dream state and woken up to set it down.
In visual arts I like to say ‘I know nothing’: every new medium I try is fresh. Sometimes it feels ‘hard’ or ‘easy’, but mostly the process just is.
I am an artist who has to do it. So I do it all the time whether it is writing, drawing, painting, photography or whatever else, room design, cooking–my whole being is about constant creating. As long as I am healthy and my mind working I will always be making art. I always was, even when I did not know to call it that.
You are right; the creative process is never satisfied. The full, satisfied replete feeling eventually drains away, and sort of like an itch you can’t ever reach, the need builds to create again. I am always trying to surpass myself too…While being an artist may not have reliable income, being born this way affords you an extra special tool set to deal with life’s ups and downs.
You have been so generous with your time and sharing your perspectives. Thank you for this opportunity, and while our chat comes to an end, I wonder if you have any closing advice for our readership that you can share?
I am about to leave for an art show, but my reply isn’t long. First, thank you for inviting me to converse with you, publishing my work, and for your interest in my arts and me, Bill.
I will pass on the advice that has been given to me by all my mentors from Marge Piercy to Jane Smiley to Phil Memmer to my art teacher Helga Gilbert, and more: keep going.
Yes, it’s hard. Yes, parts of it are dull and yes, there are awful people out there. Yes, there are politics, cronyism, and unfairnesses.
Whine, bitch, moan to your partner or sympathetic friends, tell your dog you can’t keep doing this—whatever it takes to empower and energize yourself against inertia, do it so you can keep going.
Most rejections you get, and there will be lots, are completely totally subjective and nothing personal. Move on. In your artistic life you will get tons more of those than acceptances or prizes. The good thing about rejection is it means you are submitting.
So stay strong for the long haul. Put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
And if you meet a beginner who came to your exhibit or reading, give them a hand.
♦ ♦ ♦
When aaduna started, I did an interview process titled “E-Viewpoints” with contributors. The purpose was to construct a wider audience for aaduna writers and artists while providing our readership with a better understanding and glimpse of the individuals who penned the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and created the diverse array of visual arts. For a variety of unplanned reasons, I took a hiatus from that initiative. But now, I am back with “Conversations.” The plan is to chat with current and previous contributors and delve into aspects of their background that you may find intriguing and uplifting. I hope you become a regular follower of this series of “Conversations” and continue to enjoy the work of the individual that I have a chat with. The intent is not to be “in your face” but enable you to savor the nuances, expectations, and challenges that aaduna contributors face as people, just like you and me. I think you will find “Conversations” interesting, maybe provocative, and enlightening. I hope so.