Shawn Berman gave me my big break and published the first piece I ever had online, over at the Daily Drunk. It was a pleasure to talk to him here about poetry and his new collection, Once Upon a Blue Shell
MM: To start, I’d love to talk about narrative and form in your work. Many of your pieces in the chapbook are like little meandering stories, they have that linearity to them. But they have line breaks, stanzas sometimes, the conventional forms of free verse poetry. What do you think free verse gives you that just prose would not?
SB: That’s a great question. I think free verse allows my thoughts to breathe a little bit better than traditional prose might. Sometimes it feels like I have these random thoughts that are all over the place, and poetry helps connect them to each other.
MM: They do end up connecting into sometimes surprisingly emotional imagery. Your work has a lightness of tone that often reads like a joke or a humor piece, and they ARE funny. But there’s also these surprising emotional moments, especially invoking this other character from the speaker of the poem, this “You” who is being related to in a variety of different ways. Is there a common emotional core to these poems? Do they all come from a similar place inside you, or are they more diverse emotionally then maybe they appear at first read?
SB: For me, I use humor as a way to connect with people — as a way to deliver a story, emotion, or thought. Humor allows for this kind of bait and switch flow for my work. The reader thinks they’re in on the joke. Then, by the end when they get to the “punchline,” there’s this underlying sadness to the piece.
There’s this vagueness of the word “you,” in my poems, but I think most people can connect with them. Sure, I have specific moments in mind, specific people I’m referring to. But with my poems, I’m hoping to form an emotional connection with my readers. We’ve all been in bad relationships before and can pinpoint some similar crappy moments in our lives.
MM: Makes sense. That tone of lightness that I’m referring to, that joking tone, it’s made up of all these references, to pop culture and zoology and historic factoids, it’s this bewildering rush of information that feels inspired by the internet and also feels very like being in the thick of an internet binge. Is that an experience you’re attempting to recreate? What does the internet as a setting lend your work?
SB: Oh for sure. I want people to walk away from some of my poems learning lots of random stuff that is funny but kind of useless. Like finding out Robert Downey was the youngest cast member on SNL. Not terribly important stuff but in a way, the internet has totally been huge for my work and inspiration. Sometimes I’ll be scrolling on twitter and these random threads or videos will pop up and immediately I’m like “that would make for a great poem”. There’s so much content to always draw from for me.
MM: But it’s interesting to note that it’s a very particular experience of the internet. You rarely reference shows that are more recent than the late 2010s. You don’t talk about politically dark corners of messaging boards, or YouTube influencers, or TikTok or Instagram. And the more nostalgic references are to cultural iconography of the mid to late 90s. I guess what I’m getting at here is how do you hope your poems will age? Will they, can they find an audience older or younger than you and your experience?
SB: I never really stress about how my work will age. Part of being inspired so much by pop culture and the internet is kinda creating stuff that can be enjoyed now by everyone and that’s important to me. I think audiences of all ages will be able to connect with my work. Sure, some of the shows or cultural references might not be of interest, but I feel like those can always be swapped out for the reader’s favorite shows or even movies, if that makes sense.
MM: It does make sense, and it’s a really interesting approach to the use of pop culture in a piece! It sounds like you’re saying that the power you draw from these other pieces of media is almost incidental to your intended effect, that the underlying feeling can sort of shine through the words used?
SB: For sure! Pop culture helps me establish a scene, allowing me to be a little more open with my feelings and thoughts.
MM: So I’ve described the point of view of the poem as meandering, and it’s true that there are these focal shifts that happen. One minute we’re at your girlfriend’s grandma’s house, the next at a Subway. Is the eye of the poem following you on a day out and about, or is there a disorientation that you feel is productive?
SB: In a way the poems are following me on a day out. But I do like how all over the place my poems can be. It kinda keeps the reader guessing as to what’s going to come next. I’m inspired a lot by stand-up comedians, so a lot of my work is me pretending I’m on stage telling a joke, trying to draw the audience in.
MM: I think there’s definitely an immersive effect. What do you feel is the continuity between poetry and stand up, and where are the divergences?
SB: There’s definitely a lot of similarities between poetry and stand up. We talked about this a little earlier, but an effective poem-to me-always has an opening that draws you in. Then by the last stanza, you get to your punchline that hopefully leaves the reader going “oh damn!” At the end of the day, both a poet and a comedian are trying to entertain their audience.
However, stand up tends to be more matter of fact, to the point. Poetry allows you to be a little more creative with your language. You can have these elaborate metaphors or symbols in your poems, making them more abstract than the traditional stand-up routine.
MM: What do you think of Hannah Gadsby’s thesis in her routine Nanette, where she points out that comedy is more abusive than storytelling, that a joke has only two parts, building tension, and then release, which in some sense is a kind of violence, as opposed to storytelling that takes you through a beginning middle and end, through a conflict to its resolution? Where does poetry fall on that spectrum?
SB: I think poetry probably falls somewhere in the middle here. On the one hand, There’s a lot of poetry out there that does tell a story, though you usually only get a slice of life out of it. On the other hand, some poems have a way of never releasing or ending. You’re stuck wondering, “what next?”
MM: Interesting. Okay, I gotta wrap up here, I’m sorry to say. To finish, I’m going to take two images from your poems and ask you to choose between them, okay? You can explain your answer, but I won’t explain my choices.
SB: Sounds like fun!
MM: Okay, a squirrel? Or a frostbitten piece of hamburger beef?
SB: Hamburger beef! Already I’m thinking of different scenarios and funny stories to tell about that.
MM: Also, tastier
Shawn Berman runs The Daily Drunk. His debut poetry collection, Once Upon a Blue Shell, is available this May from Close to the Bone. He tweets a lot about Adam Sandler. Follow him on Twitter @sbb_writer.
Mordecai Martin is a writer and interviewer working out of Philadelphia, but always in New York in his heart. His work has appeared in X-Ray, Sortes, and Funicular. He tweets @mordecaipmartin and blogs at http://mordecaimartin.net. You’ll be hearing from him.