Academic journal article MELUS

Blurring the Borders between Formal and Social Aesthetics: An Interview with Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge

Academic journal article MELUS

Blurring the Borders between Formal and Social Aesthetics: An Interview with Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge

Article excerpt

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge was born in Beijing, China, of a Chinese mother and a Dutch American father. She grew up in Massachusetts. She received her B.A. from Reed College and her MFA from Columbia University. A recipient of numerous awards, including two Before Columbus American Book Awards, she is the author of ten books of poetry. Currently Berssenbrugge is living in Abiquiu, New Mexico, with her husband the sculptor Rich Tuttle and their daughter.

This interview took place on September 21, 2000 at the State University of New York, Buffalo, where Berssenbrugge was invited to give a reading and to have seminars with students of the Poetics Program of the English Department.

ZX: Your Four Year Old Girl won the 1999 Best Book of Poetry from Asian American Writers' Workshop. How much docs this award mean to you? Are you comfortable with the label "Asian American poet"?

MB: I was very pleased with it. I cherish the label "Asian American poet" because I identify with other Americans who come from China, and with other Asian Americans. I was part of the multicultural movement that was in the early 1970s. I would say that movement came marc from the writers than scholars. It was important that the stories of people's immigrant experience got told. My work was more abstract. But, whenever I fit in, I'm happy.

ZX: Could you tell me more about the multi-cultural movement in the early 70s? How did you get involved?

MB: The poet Michael Harper invited me to a conference of multicultural writers in Madison, Wisconsin in 1973. I had just finished the graduate program at Columbia, and was ready for new encounters. I met and became friends with Frank Chin, Shawn Wong, Lawson Inada, Simon Ortiz, Al Young, and most importantly Ishmael Reed and Leslie Silko. This was a fervent, pioneering period of asserting and defining multi-cultural writing in America and it was fantastically exciting. In New York at Basement Workshop, I presented my play, "One, Two Cups" directed by Frank Chin, several dance collaborations with the Morita Dance Company, directed by Theodora Yoshikama, and many workshops. I lived for a while in San Francisco, near Frank and his wife Kathleen Chang, who was my friend, a performance artist, a visionary and the subject of my play. I was included in the Aiiieeeee! Anthology. Although abstraction, philosophy, and the visual arts began to take more of my attention, many of these friendships continue. Leslie Silko has been a great companion and influence in my work.

ZX: I didn't know you were so involved with the Aiiieeeee! group. I love your play, "One, Two Cups." (1) It's very engaging. In what way was Ishmael Reed important to you?

MB: He published my second book, Random Possession. He has always been a provocative, sophisticated activist in multiculturalism. His ideas, his own writing, and our many talks together have been important to me.

MX: You wrote something about your Chinese heritage in your early poems such as "Chronology."

MB: I wrote it when I was eighteen.

ZX: It is a a wonderful poem. We have a poster copy of the poem in our rare books archive here. The lines are arranged differently from the version collected in your book, Summits Move with the Tide. It seems to me that you are returning to your Chinese heritage in your recent work.

MB: We're all partly what our mothers were, and much of my work in the last ten years has included who my mother was. Then I read this book by Gayatri Spivak, called Outside the Teaching Machine. Her book informs two of my recent poems. Then I added ideas about nomads. And I was struggling with the role of women in the family, and how you can be an artist and deal with the labor of running a family. Ideas about women and powerlessness came together at a time when I was reading works by poor women from other countries. I think being a foreign woman in this country is one example of no power. …

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