None. No one is not connected to someone else in the city who was hurt that night or dead. It is
the no-degrees of separation or escape. Or times we’ve been borne to. Everyone knows someone
who knew at least one in a city of millions. Open terraces under streetlamps and a fingernail of
moon. Tables of friends. A concert by The Eagles of Death Metal and autumn and blood and no
breath and the young. The rifles and a will to end something. Paris, for lovers . . . I open my door to a man I’ve been calling all this week—to fix my door. Hamid, thin as a pencil, flaming as a showgirl.
A face from the projects. A face from the once-upon-colonies. My lock no longer works. These are days when one thinks of closing doors. He stands in my hall, eyes like tunnels and sewers that bend
under the city. Last Saturday there was a carnival bulging in those tunnels. People vowed to dance and to wear costumes and to live unless they die. I wore silk. Rented gowns, and feathers, and masks.
You had to be invited. Steps, underneath our city. I wore red. Who are you, someone whispered in
the dark. I don’t know, is anyone’s reply. . . I’m so sorry I have not answered you earlier in the week, Madame.
My sister. The baby one. She is —, was one of— in the café. She came to the birthday for her lover. Her name was Djamila. I had photographed candles and flowers left for the murdered in front of that café, the day
after. I remember that name. Djamila, I tell him. His eyes are sewers, tunnels. He cries. I cry. Destiny, he mumbles so softly I am not sure I have heard. He pulls his satchel of tools into my hall to repair
my door. There is a noise somewhere, that is too loud. We are strangers. He has come to fix my door. Holding one another, until it is over. No modifier, at all.
—for the Paris massacres, November 2015
This poem appears in Before the Drought from Glass Lyre Press, 2017
Margo Berdeshevsky, born in New York city, often writes and lives in Paris. Before The Drought, her newest collection, is from Glass Lyre Press, September 2017. (In an early version, it was finalist for the National Poetry Series.) Berdeshevsky is author as well of Between Soul & Stone, and But a Passage in Wilderness, (Sheep Meadow Press.) Her book of illustrated stories, Beautiful Soon Enough, received the first Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Award for Fiction Collective Two (University of Alabama Press.) Other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, a portfolio of her poems in the Aeolian Harp Anthology #1 (Glass Lyre Press,) the & Now Anthology of the Best of Innovative Writing, and numerous Pushcart Prize nominations. Her works appear in the American journals: Poetry International, New Letters, Kenyon Review, Plume, The Collagist, Tupelo Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Southern Humanities Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, The American Journal of Poetry, & Jacar Press—One, among many others. In Europe her works have been seen in The Poetry Review (UK) The Wolf, Europe, Siècle 21, & Confluences Poétiques. A multi-genre novel, Vagrant, and a hybrid of poems, Square Black Key, wait at the gate. She may be found reading from her books in London, Paris, New York City, or somewhere new in the world.
Her Letters from Paris in Poetry International.
My Creative Process
Can you tell us a little about the origins of “No Modifier At All” and why you wrote it?
The inspiration was clear. I was living in Paris during the 2015 massacres, and I felt a call and a need to speak of them, as a poet and as a citizen and as a mere human on the planet in these times. The poem was written quickly, pouring from my being. The title, while seemingly abstract, speaks to an event, a memory, a fact, that cannot be modified. Also, linguistically, I gave myself an additional tsk in the writing...to do so using no modifiers. That kind of control perhaps led to a tighter and more precise expression than I might otherwise have achieved. I have read the poem in public numbers of times since it’s initial writing, and since its publication, and always I want to say I wish the time had passed when I needed to read it. But of course, that is not true. The time is now. Still.
What was your path to literature?
I began my life with words as an actress, first. I was being raised in New York City, in the theatre world, and my first ambitions was to be an actress. So Shakespeare and Shaw and Tennessee Williams were all my early whisperers. I also wrote very bad poems in solitude, but I was developing an ear for the music of finer writing...and I knew I loved the best. Eventually, I knew that I wanted to follow a call to truths as best I could. And, in the guise of characters, I learned, that such a word as truth had many voices, not always my own. I learned to listen to other voices and to find my way to speak for them as well.
When did you realize you were a writer?
When I was able to stand in public and to speak my words aloud and to feel the quiet in those listening...
I knew that feeling as an actress when I was offering words spoken by another. But when I felt such a silence in the room in response to my own words, I dared to believe that I was a writer who had words to share that came from my own deepest wells.
Were you born into a family of writers or artists?
There were many shelves of books in my growing up home, and I was taken to the theatre and to museums and concerts in New York City, and later, in Paris. My mother was a woman who “wanted” to write, but I think she lacked the confidence to do so. She lived more in her head, and she had much she might have written if she had dared to do so.
It was your mother who encouraged you to read books?
My mother read me three pages of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn each night before `I had reached kindergarten. I listened. I heard. And she played classical music on the radio. By fifth grade I had one British-born teacher who read us The Wind In The Willows aloud. I wanted her to never stop. I don’t remember what the first Shakespearean play was that I attended—but I knew I would read more and more. I loved the language. I wanted to speak those words aloud as well.
You've studied under some pretty remarkable teachers and schools.
I went to the `High School of `Performing Arts in NYC (after auditioning with a monologue from Shaw’s St Joan.) That school, later known as Fame High School in the film years on...that school helped to shape my esthetics. I learned how hard one had to work to dare to be a voice in one’s time. And I learned that both the beauties and the sordid both were elements to be deeply studied and communicated without prejudice or compromise or inhibition. To be an artist of any kind, I was learning...meant being very naked in public. And eventually, I studied acting under Lee Strasberg of the Actors’ Studio, and learned more profoundly what it mean to risk vulnerability (sometimes too much so.) But again, my esthetics were being shaped, and would continue to push me, and to guide me further.
Which books do you remember most fondly?
A Child’s Garden of Verses, Milne’s When We Were Very Young, Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland & Alice Through the Looking Glass, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Eliot’s Prufrock... and more...and more...
Which writers, teachers, friends supported you on your path to becoming a writer?
I first heard an interpretation teacher at Northwestern University, Lila Heston, read Gerard Manly Hopkins out loud. I fell in love with such poetry, such experiment, such holiness. The science fiction genius, Theodore Sturgeon was a writer who whispered to me that I could also write fiction, and remain a poet. He showed me how a passage in one of his stories was written in perfect iambic pentameter. I never forgot that. As I mentioned, Strasberg was my teacher in the art of acting. His guidance toward telling the truth of one’s being— was signal to me.
I never graduated from a university, although I attended two, Northwestern and NYU. But I am in many ways an autodidact. My reading is both eclectic and voluntary, and in some ways, I am still pleased about that. The freedom I have felt to explore and to invent my complex paths in literature makes me a bit different I suppose. And I am still, still, still...learning. I still have much to learn. Why not?
Are you a teacher?
I have taught in the “Poets in the Schools” program in America, when there was still an NEA grant to support that wonderful project.
What works do you recommend to your students?
Everything. Read. read read.
What do you hope your students take away from your classes? What advice do you give them? Be brave. Be a little braver than you imagined you might ever be. Stand up to be counted in these times. These times are more devastating in so many ways than we ever imagined. And yet, here we are. What can we do but to become voices in our time? I take such a challenge and I offer it.
What other art forms and disciplines interest you? · For you, what makes literature distinct from all other art forms?
I am also a photographer. I very much like seeing the world through the metaphors that image offers me...both in language and in shape and in form and in light.
What are you working on now?
I am increasingly drawn to multi-genre work. Not being forced into one box or one shelf.
I have a new hybrid manuscript that is looking for a home, it merges my collaged photographic images and poems and short prose, all reflecting one another in a variety of looking glasses. the title is “Square Black Key.” And until it is between covers...it is still clay in my hands and words in my heart...so `I am still working in it.
Also, there are new poems in my notebooks, some are more baked as edible bread than others.
Do you have a recently published or forthcoming book or project you’d like to share?
My newest published book is BEFORE THE DROUGHT from Glass Lyre Press, which can also be found on Amazon.
I am admittedly proud that it is in the world right now. I feel it to be a book for the cries and whispers of our time. And I hope it will be widely read.
What are your hopes/concerns for the future of literature?
We need it (literature) as we need one another...more than ever before, I believe. We need our many voices. In harmonies, and off-key! Our many and maybe conflicting wisdoms. We need to listen to one another. And we need to refuse to be dumbed down.
What are your views on the future of communication and how technology is changing the way we communicate, read, interact with the world and our imaginations?
I used to hate graffiti when I saw it defacing beautiful architecture. Then one day I saw the colors and the yearnings of its perpetrators...the yearnings to be seen and heard outside of the venues of the establishment. And I began to accept it. I feel similarly about many changes. Acceptance is one path to enlightenment. Even the acceptance of modes we first have deemed unacceptable. Many of the new technologies are inspiring, and some need to be learned. I use a computer for my image works in ways that a darkroom never allowed. I taught myself Photoshop and use it as I once did a darkroom, only more. I type and retype and file in ways that my old shoe boxes of poems never allowed. I collage and steal from myself to include in another and another page. There are reasons to fight the big stores and online sellers, and the loss of the beautiful and cherished small bookshops. Self-publishing is a mode that some follow. I prefer to be published by those whose other choices I know and respect as editors. But that’s me. There are as many reasons to open ourselves to something new. I hope to hell there will be another springtime...
Once upon a time, printing was new! Once upon a time, paintings of the “profane” were not allowed. Only the sacred dared show its face. Once upon a time...I was new. (Maybe `I still am. )
Considering the current state of the world, what are your hopes for our future on this planet? What are your views on the importance of creativity and the humanities?
I am not optimistic about our chaos, our wars, our marches toward illiberalism or fascism or racism or our inhumanity to one another. I cannot be so. And yet, I write. And yet I walk in the river of a life. And yet I make my small drops into the huge seas and call them poems, and call them cries and whispers for being the best “Margo” I can be, today. If we fail, we fail together. If we save ourselves, it will be because more of us have dared to create something finer, kinder. I don’t always or even usually know if or when prayer is effective. but in my own silences, I pray. And with my poems...I whisper, or speak, or shout, as I can. I was born with such a yearning. I hope such a yearning remains with me until I die.