Dogbytes Interview: Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

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Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is the author of Personal Science (Tupelo Press, 2017); a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press, 2016); and But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise (Red Hen Press, 2012), chosen by Claudia Rankine as the winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award. Bertram’s other publications include the artist book Grand Dessein (commissioned by Container Press), a mixed media artifact on the work of artist Paul Klee that was recently acquired by the Special Collections library at St. Lawrence University; and Tierra Fisurada (Editoriales del Duende, 2002), a Spanish poetry chapbook published in Argentina. She interviewed the artist Laylah Ali for the exhibition booklet of Ali’s 2017 art show, The Acephalous Series. Her honors include a 2018 Noemi Press Poetry Award for her manuscript Travesty Generator, 2017 Harvard University Woodberry Poetry Room Creative Grant, a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, finalist nomination for the 2013 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and others. Join Lillian-Yvonne Bertram and Jennifer Chang as they share work and engage in a moderated discussion with Cave Canem fellow Camonghne Felix, on September 26th, at The New School, 7pm. 

Your most recent collection, Personal Science, grapples with “imagined life” and “the difficulty of knowing what’s ‘real.’” What challenges did you face when bringing your own imagination into your poems while writing?

I think the challenge here was similar to the challenge I face any time I am bringing my imagination into my poems, or into anything I am writing. Things don’t go in order in the imagination, and imaginations aren’t known for making complete sense. All I can really do, in writing, is come as close as possible to transmitting what I see in my head to the reader. This transmission is always imperfect, and that’s one of the caveats of dealing in language. It’s the representation of the thing, but never the thing itself.


What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Counternarratives by John Keene. Period. Ok, and Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith. Both of those books are at all peak levels. Unbearably good.


What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

I floated unassisted down the Aare, a fast-moving river through the center of Bern, Switzerland.  Scared the shit outta me but everyone was doing it and I just had to try. You jump in, float with the current, and when you’re ready to come out you have to float to the river’s edge and grab onto railings or rocks that are positioned for you to snag so you can climb out. The Aare is fed from the mountains so it is fresh, cold, clear and blue as a marble.


When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

My friends will give me side-eyes about this because they know it’s not super-healthy, but I am almost always working at something. I like to travel, though most of my travel is usually connected to work in some way. I spend most of my time alone, so I will treat myself to things like sessions in a sensory deprivation float tank (bougie as hell) or in the sauna at the gym. I’m a commuter so I also spend too much time in my car and in traffic, sometimes so much that I need the gym and sauna to “unkink” all the tension that gets stored up in my body. In good weather, I like going for long road bike rides and downhill mountain bike rides through forest trails—sometimes there is really nothing better. I have to keep physically active in some way so I spend a lot of time at the gym—several hours a day if I can. My close friend and I make things for each other and send it through the mail, so I have an art desk where I practice painting and collaging, freeform “making” and undirected play. I wish I had much more time for making things and learning things. I have two cats that I love fiercely. We cuddle and nap and stare each other in the face.


You’ve stated that your process and practice includes “photographic and video work and mixed media composition” including, computational poetics. Can you describe what computational poetics are and what it has taught you about your interest in exploring language through writing?

It means engaging in processes of computation to do things with language, be it writing a program that tells the computer to write a poem or using specific algorithmic processes in selecting and sorting bits of language. It is a natural extension of my interest in writing and language. It’s a very complicated extension and often frustrating, but it foregrounds process and discovery in a whole new way for me. I program mostly in one language, Python, but I hope to learn others!


What is poetry’s role in pursuing social justice?

I don’t think I can give a definitive answer to this question—it’s a huge question. I can say that poetry can be and often is a powerful tool in pursuing social justice and reconciling the self with others and self with self. Poetry doesn’t let us sleep on issues of social justice, nor should it. Poetry is one of the many ways and methods available to us and I for one would like to see more of it.


What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

1) Read. 2) Read. 3) Read.
Know your history! Know this glorious tradition of Black writers. When you do, you will see how we call out to one another across generations.


What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

Childhood is where I developed obsessions that I continue holding onto today, and it’s also where I developed a lot of interiority and sense of observation. Many obsessions from childhood are the foundations of the anxiety that courses through Personal Science.


What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

My mom and dad. They made sure we had books and typewriters and pens and pencils. We couldn’t be bored—no excuse for it—if we could read and write. Nothing to do? Read a book. You finished the book? Then write one. Need a world to inhabit? Create one.


What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I feel like someone from the CC archives would have to tell me that! I think 2008, 2009, and 2011?
I think one of the most meaningful experiences I had at Cave Canem was that I introduced Amiri Baraka at his City of Asylum reading in Pittsburgh. That was an all-time high life moment for me.
And watching Ross Gay dunk.