John Berry lives and writes in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with his wife, Brenda, and their little dog, Molly, and is a key player in the creative community around The River House in Capon Bridge, WV, (which is how WestVirginiaVille got to know him via a project involving a host of West Virginia’s creatives). A woodworker since his early teens, and a small business owner since his twenties, John’s no longer interested in coming over to fix your rotted trim, preferring, these days, to teach instead. After putting aside a lifelong addiction to alcohol at the age of 47, he rediscovered his first love, poetry, and “somehow miraculously,” he says, published his first chapbook, “Wobbly Man,” in 2016. His second and third collections, “Medicine,” and “The Lawnmower Poems” were published by Foothills Publishing in 2017 and 2019.
His work has appeared in publications such as The Blue Mountain Review, The Sow’s Ear Review, as well as various anthologies. His poem, “Human Beans,” won an honorable mention in the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred contest in 2021, and was published in Parabola magazine. An excerpt from his ambitious latest work, “The Broken Poem and Other Strange Ideas About God” is featured in this special edition of WestVirginiaVille. It’s an opening salvo in an ongoing investigation that explores no less than God dabbling a whole universe into creation with help from a few key buddies, such as Darkness and Gravity. The handcrafted chapbook is available at thesockdrawerpoet.com or you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org ~ Douglas John Imbrogno
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Not a few poets are shy about writing directly about this notion/idea/spectre/fightingword of ‘God.’ Much less to produce a chapbook with the theme of “THE BROKEN POEM: and Other Strange Ideas About God.” What was your inspiration/aim/compulsion/intuition to describe God at work even before he/she/it/them had made the world, as well as personifying grand and powerful forces such as Gravity and Darkness? This God of the chapbook seems both curious as an alchemist and making things up as they go along.
JOHN BERRY: Wow, Douglas. You don’t fool around, do you? But, I guess I had it coming. In a word, I think “The Broken Poem” began out of frustration. Like so many I grew up in Christian churches, but whatever beauty there was for me there as a child was quickly dissolved by the rampant hypocrisy and dogma of most religions. And like many people I spent most of my life avoiding, even cringing at the mere mention of God. It is not a unique story.
The trouble was I never stopped believing there is something — rather than nothing — out there. But try as I might, the old images and (yes, I’ll say it) patriarchal ideas of God stood persistently in the way. Like any good heretic I tried different spiritual practices, but it often felt as though I was visiting someone else’s God or adopting cultural practices which did not belong to me.
With all those frustrations whirling around a desire to somehow repair my relationship with God, I decided the only thing to do was to stop avoiding God and embrace Them. Just saying that still makes me cringe, as did putting “God” in the title which is how I knew I made the right decision both for my spiritual well-being, and my writing. I can’t say the old images have disappeared, but I felt like I could start with a clean slate, and go back in time, not exactly to “the beginning”, but to The Beginning, and visit God before all this humanoid nonsense began.
Turns out God was not at all alone. And why wouldn’t God be interacting with Darkness and Silence and other ‘grand and powerful forces’? My wife would tell you I’ve been having a love affair with Gravity for quite some time, and I’d started to explore some of that in my last book of poetry, “The Lawnmower Poems.” And Darkness, Silence, Light, BEAUTY?
What makes people think being a creator means you must be lonely, or that this unbelievably vast universe could only be conceived of and created by God alone? We so easily assign personhood to something so inconceivable as God; is it really so strange to consider the prescience and “who-ness” of Beauty?
WVVILLE: We have talked about the work in “The Broken Poem” being part of a series or investigation upon which you have embarked. Is this like a Netflix series that’ll unfold over the course of a year or several seasons? The last page of “The Broken Poem” also reads in part: “The writer asks that I remind you there is more to come, and I have no cause to doubt him. After all, Gravity and his odd collection of friends have been around for a great deal more than a few forevers, and much has happened since the Universe began …Whoops, I better stop there before I give something away …” This is signed by ‘TWIG, The Narrator.’ Who is TWIG, also?
JOHN BERRY: Yeah, Twig. I’m not really at liberty to explain Twig in great detail because Twig belongs to the story of a dear friend who died unexpectedly last year. Twig, himself, however, does offer some clues in “The Broken Poem Vol. 2.” Let’s just say Twig is Elsewhere and Every Where stories are told, and I suspect we’ll be hearing more from Twig in the future … how’s that for a teaser?
No, truthfully, I’m not really sure why Twig showed up, I just know he is supposed to be here, and it took me as much by surprise as anything else about these stories, especially when he showed up after I’d assembled and distributed the first 50 copies! I do wish Twig was a bit more punctual.
As a “series”, “The Broken Poem” doesn’t exactly follow a timeline. The stories sort of pop in and out of the various characters’ perspectives. I still get chills thinking about what I can only describe as the love-story between Darkness and Light. There’s so much sensuality and playfulness there, and I’m excited for Twig (and I) to say more about that in “Darkness Learns His Colors” and some of the other stories which will come later in the series. But if Netflix calls before then, I’ll let you know.
WVVILLE: “Beauty” will also be a recurring character in this series of poems. You said to me in an email: “In spite of our own exiles and divisions, beauty is the one thing, next to drinking water and breathing air that we all share. I’d even suggest our recognition of beauty begins before love, and most certainly God.” Can you elaborate? That’s a provocative observation.
JOHN BERRY: It is a provocative thing to say, and no less so for the one who said it, but my argument is really quite simple: There are people on this planet, Douglas, who know nothing about love. They’ve never experienced it, nor do some have the capacity for it. And the same can be said for God, even though Brother Bill, the pompadoured baptist minister of my childhood would say ‘God loves everyone,’ while asserting those poor lost souls who’ve never even heard of God are doomed to spend eternity in Hell.
Such nonsense. And my point being, this is untrue of Beauty. There is not one person on this planet who, if you asked them, would fail to be able to tell you about something that is beautiful to them. Arguably you could say ‘Beauty’ is the most known to us of all. You take the most stingy, humorless and severe person, utterly devoid of love or God, and there will be something, perhaps many things, that touch them for their beauty. That’s a pretty formidable thought.
It’s hard enough imagining a life without love, though people live it all the time — but can you imagine living a life without Beauty? This is why I say it is as essential and life-sustaining to us as breathing air and drinking water. Beauty isn’t just some fragrant idea of flowers, Beauty is the presence most actively in communication with our bodies, our minds, our emotions and spirits. People don’t go places on vacation because they’re ugly. They go there looking for Beauty, and though they don’t always know it at the time, that physical, spiritual and emotional feeling you have standing in
the presence of Beauty?
That’s God. Muir knew it. Mary Oliver and John O’Donohue too, though I’m sure they had their struggles getting past the old images and ideas too. Nineteen years as a catholic priest would do that to you I’d think.
The problem is we reduce Beauty to a two-week vacation and constantly pollute this incredible planet with bad architecture and smog belching lusts for wealth while we sit in churches on Sundays squishing God between the pages of a book. There are millions of beautiful books out there, and only one, reportedly, by God. I guess, in the end, I’m asking: Why don’t we take Beauty seriously?
WVVILLE: Lest people think you are a sozzled poet with tousled hair sipping absinthe in a garret somewhere on the Allegheny Ridge in the West Virginia outback, poetry is NOT your day job. Can you share the arc of your working life, plus describe the creative community that surrounds The River House in Capon Bridge, W.Va., of which you are a key player and member?
JOHN BERRY: “Sozzled poet with tousled hair sipping absinthe …” Listen, just because I’ve made a modest living as a woodworker doesn’t mean I can’t be many things at once. (insert winky face emoji here.) But, true enough. Poetry basically covers my yearly expenditures on birdseed, if that’s of any relevance for being a writer.
Be that as it may, poetry made a huge reappearance in my life about eight years ago, and the ample space I’ve made for poetry in my life hasn’t shut off the power or prevented me from putting food on the table. What it did do is help me to be a happier person — tousled hair or not.
Poetry was always my thing. I was the kid in grade school that the other kids went to to write poems for their puppy loves. Wrote and read voraciously through high school, editor of the literary mag, a few semesters in college. And then came “adulting” — a handy term we wouldn’t have used back then, but self-explanatory.
When I started writing again, and began to meet other poets, I was instantly drawn to
the spoken word. I LOVE performing and reciting poetry, and I’ve been hugely inspired
by poets like Virginia’s Angela Carter and West Virginia’s own Kirk Judd. Naturally,
when my friend, Peter, told me about the open mics at The River House, I jumped at the chance.
Little did I know what magic was afoot in that little orange house, and, being a helpful sort, it wasn’t long before I was volunteering and sitting on the board, and I hope, as The River House does so very well, making contributions to the beauty of the community.
“The Broken Poem” by John Berry: September 1, 2022: How God, Gravity, Silence, and Darkness whipped the universe into shape over the course of a few billion forevers. A poem by John Berry.
WVVILLE: You’ve been hand-crafting lovely, objet d’art poetry chapbooks and handing them out — are you also selling them? What is your philosophy/mission/scheme/hope for getting your poetry into the world and into the hands of people who might actually read it? Or, for that matter, to hear you read it, since you’re an active reader/performer of your work. What is the role live readings serve for a poet, and what level of ‘performance‘ is called for as opposed to letting the words speak for themselves?
JOHN BERRY: Yeah, the books are pretty cool. Good thing I like folding paper. My wife and I have hand-published some books before, so we were familiar with the craft, and I like knowing I’ve handled every single page. Not bad for someone with perpetually dirty hands, I like to say.
When I scheduled the first performance of “The Broken Poem and Other Strange Ideas About God” at The River House, I wanted to have something to put in people’s hands. So, I decided to put together 50 or so copies (yes, those copies) with a few of the poems, and some shorter epigrammatic work. I really love the small format books put out by the poet Tom Hirons at Hedgespoken Press ,which accounts for the quarter-page size. What really surprised me was how beautifully they turned out.
What was more surprising was when I realized how inexpensively they could be made and shipped for a couple bucks and a single stamp. I DO SELL THEM — since I feed a lot of birds. But most of Volume 1 went out to people I know for free — which is how you got yours, Douglas, and, serendipitously, how we’re having this conversation. It’s ALWAYS the question for artists, musicians and writers; the sacred reciprocity of putting our work into the world.
The live readings are really where I live, and where I think poetry takes on an entirely different dimension. Kirk Judd once told me he writes with the full intention of reading or reciting his work aloud, and it shows as he is an absolute master of rhythm and the subtle gesture. And don’t you think poetry — being the musical as well as visual art it is — wants the chance to sound as good out loud as it quietly reads? I get very frustrated with poets who put no effort into their readings. If they’re only relying on the words to speakfor themselves, why bother reading them aloud at all?
WVVILLE: Ask yourself a question. And answer it …
JOHN BERRY: Boy, I better make it a good one. I guess I want to know if we can do better — or if we can even handle the idea that this big, strange universe with its awkward, curious gods, like us, could not exist without all this wonderful, terrible Beauty?
Humans put so much effort into pressing God-like dead flowers in the pages of the Bible. And it drives me nuts to try to talk to people about God when the entirety of their conversation is reduced to scripture, or “the will of God”. It completely lacks imagination and it’s utterly (excuse me, I almost said ‘fucking’) boring.
But what if all we’re being asked to do is listen and attend profoundly to Beauty? What if, when we feel that undeniable sensation of joy and peace and sadness when Light and Darkness do their dance at dusk, maybe that’s the very conversation God’s been trying to have with us all along?