CHASE BERGGRUN, INTERVIEWED BY DAN BRADY
Barrelhouse Poetry Editor Dan Brady sat down with Chase Berggrun to discuss their book R E D, a book-length erasure of Bram Stroker’s Dracula, forthcoming from Birds, LLC.
Chase is a trans poet and the author of the chapbook Discontent and Its Civilizations: Poems of Erasure, published by jubilat in 2012. Their work has appeared in the PEN Poetry Series, Diagram, The Offing, Prelude, inter|rupture, Apogee, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. They received their MFA from New York University.
Together they discuss Dracula, Victorian sensibilities, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Chase’s writing process, the difficulties of editing, voice, and more. Spoiler alert: It turns out if there’s anything scarier than vampires, it’s erasure poetry and the patriarchy.
Dan Brady: How did this project get started? Were you particularly interested in Dracula? In erasure? Was there an idea in search of a vehicle or did the process part come first?
Chase Berggrun: When I started the project in 2014 I’d been studying erasure and erasing texts for a while, and searching for the right text to work with (which is the key to any successful erasure, in my opinion: a relationship between the text and the poet). After a while, I’d put the idea down, and was working on other poems.
I’ve always loved vampires: they fascinate and arouse and compel me in a personal and visceral way. I’m an unabashed and dedicated Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. I’d also read Dracula before: my first job was at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth, MA. Gorey won a Tony award for his Broadway production of Dracula, and the novel influenced a good deal of his work. I liked it well enough when I was 17, but it didn’t particularly move me one way or the other.
My first summer in New York, freshly out of the closet, a confused and emotionally raw baby trans, I picked up an old used copy of Dracula at a bookstore one day and read it in an afternoon. I had an incredibly strong and not altogether positive reaction to it. I tried writing poems, an essay, anything and everything in order to communicate how deeply upset it had made me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Eventually, I tried a few erasures. The first attempts weren’t awful, per se, but they were in Dracula’s voice. They weren’t super interesting. They didn’t say anything new or exciting.
At the time, I was in Rachel Zucker’s long poem class at NYU, reading Notley’s Descent of Alette, and had just watched Herzog’s terrific Nosferatu the Vampyre, an homage to the original Murnau silent film, and all of these artworks were floating around in my brain when I decided to abandon the first erasures and start again. My narrator’s voice presented itself almost immediately. The story happened in real time, as I went about the process of erasing the 27 chapters of the book.
DB: All writing involves risk. What was the scariest part of this project?
CB: I’ve been intensely studying poetic appropriation, and erasure in particular, for kind of a long time, and it seriously terrifies me. It scares me how easily it can become violent, and how often people use it in a violent way. It’s a poetic form, certainly, but it’s inherent politicality is both potent and dangerous, in a different way than, say, a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Not to say that any formal device is apolitical, but the way erasing interacts with another person’s work is an especially risky enterprise. Solmaz Sharif wrote a brilliant and important essay on this: required reading for anyone considering using erasure. This Robin Coste Lewis lecture is also incredibly necessary.
I tried to engage with Dracula in many other ways before I started to erase it: erasure was my last resort. Erasure is undeniably connected to the tools of white supremacy. It’s very, very easy to fuck up. I don’t believe, and never have believed, that every artist has a right to alter, appropriate, or work with any text they want: we’ve seen the racist result of this kind of mindset again and again. Kenneth Goldsmith, a person whose work and attitude I deeply abhor, is a product of that kind of thinking. John Gosslee’s erasures of Hoa Nguyen’s work, et cetera, et cetera. Examples are everywhere.
I felt, and still feel, confident that Dracula is a text I had a right to fuck with, but erasure’s always a fraught enterprise. Despite that confidence, Dracula is a beloved classic. I hope that readers familiar with the source appreciate what I’ve done with (and to) it.
DB: Victorians were obsessed with enforcing social norms and terrified of what might happen if they were to break down. That said, they also seemed to revel in stories of crime and criminality. How does that sense of obsession and temptation, the testing of societal boundaries which is evident in so many classic horror stories, relate to R E D?
CB: Fittingly for a horror novel, Dracula deals with the concept of fear, but rarely is it discussed as, I would argue, a manifestation of its author’s own deep seated and unexamined fears, of the foreign, of the pagan, of heterosexual and homosexual lust and the body’s urges, of death and of the dead, and, (this being the topic I am most concerned with here), the fear of women.
Stoker was terrified of the rise of the “New Woman”: that is, an empowered woman, and there is much in Dracula that is a reaction to that. In Chapter 8 Mina says: “Some of the ‘New Women’ writers will some day start an idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting.” Stoker uses the women in his novel to posit his own misogynistic philosophies.
Judith Weissman asserts in “Women and Vampires: Dracula as a Victorian Novel” that the fight of Stoker’s “band of trusty men, loyal and chaste … their fight to destroy Dracula and to restore Mina to her purity is really a fight for control over women. It is a fight to keep women from knowing what the men and women of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries knew, and what people of the nineteenth century must also have known, even if they did not want to—that women’s sexual appetites are greater than men’s.”
The women of Dracula are not women. They are a fragile man’s hollow, easy, flawed hallucinations of women. Mina & Lucy are two apparitions, doomed to flicker through the narrative. They are renditions of women made simple, one-dimensional, by a lack of empathy and, importantly, imagination. How strange, that the author of Dracula might be a man incapable of imagination, but when we look closely at these characters, it is quite obvious that they are written with no consideration of how a real human woman might think and feel.
Mina is Stoker’s crazed ideal, the literary enacting of the male gaze, a beautiful body with a brain (how shocking! How often the men of Dracula remark at her intelligence, as if it were a quality Science had not thought possible a woman might possess), dutiful to an outlandish extent, eminently useful when necessary but unfit for battle, a pretty trophy on a shelf.
Dracula’s historical Victorian context does not excuse the novel’s misogyny, but more importantly, its status as a major work of horror (ironic, since its initial popularity derived more from the well-publicized copyright infringement lawsuit against F. W. Murnau for his film Nosferatu than from critical success following its publication) makes it imperative that we, as modern readers, approach it with the same critical eye that we approach contemporary work. This is a book routinely taught to children, and to ignore its flaws, its inherent sexism, is irresponsible.
R E D was written very much in reaction to all this, in an effort to use Stoker’s own words to create a narrative at odds with his warped idea, a story in which a woman has value, power, and agency.
DB: There’s erasure and then there is editing erasure, which can be extremely difficult since you’re now at least two steps removed from the source. Tell me more about your process shaping the book. Did you move through Dracula in order? How did you go back and develop the manuscript afterward, if at all?
CB: My erasure process is neurotic and obsessive, and I won’t get into all of that here, but the short of it is, yes, I moved through the book chapter by chapter. From the start I wanted it to be a linear project, something with a discrete beginning and ending.
As I was creating the erasures, I only lightly edited the poems themselves. It wasn’t until after the first draft was done that I started to revise. The presentation and form of the poems on the page went through a few wildly drastic permutations before they reached the shape they settled into. Revising involved a great deal of digging back into the text: deleting weak sections and replacing them, within the confines of the source. This was an exhausting process! But the result was a much tighter, stronger, more effective manuscript.
I wrote all of the book during the two years of my MFA at NYU, but I didn't bring them to workshop—you can’t quite productively critique an erasure in the same way as other kinds of poems, since all a reader can suggest is cuts. I had the great fortune of working with Matthew Rohrer during the writing of R E D; it was pretty critical to have eyes on the poems that were familiar with the project as a whole. (Additionally, Matt is deeply, deeply knowledgeable about the erasure form and its history, which was an important resource!)
A little anecdote: when I first met Srikanth Reddy, whose Voyager is one of the greatest works of erasure I’ve ever encountered, I told him that I was working on a book-length erasure of my own—to which he replied: “I am so sorry.” I didn’t quite understand why until later.
DB: This book reads so naturally. It’s not like there’s a bunch of archaic language that the reader stumbles over. It reads very much like it was written today. If you knew nothing about Dracula, this work would stand on its own merits as poetry. I loved that. Was that a struggle or, since you are kind of mentally editing, looking for phrases and sentences as you go while erasing, did it easily transferred into your own contemporary voice?
CB: First of all, thank you! That was very much my intention in crafting these poems. A problem I have with a lot of erasure is that when poorly executed, the emphasis is on the process, and not on the result. I think that people can sometime lean too heavily on the visual elements of erasure, or impose the form on a controversial text, and maybe forget that erasure is the tool, not the poem itself.
Dracula is right in the Goldilocks zone for erasure: the writing is good, but it’s not great. It’s tough to erase texts that are really packed with beautiful language; erasing Nabokov would be cheating, there’s no challenge there. The entire project was a struggle, but something that helped was that it was energetic writing, self-propulsive, exciting. I did specifically avoid Stoker’s more archaic diction: I wanted to write a new and intentionally modern story.
Erasure is a strange form and it can be hard to exactly describe the process—like writing regular poems, sometimes the line just comes to you, perhaps from on high. It’s always a (somewhat uncomfortable) collision of voices, in this case, my voice and Stoker’s, and the struggle there is how to balance, merge the two.
DB: And in the grand tradition of all Barrelhouse interviews, I have one final question: What is your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?
CB: I’m not super familiar with his ouvre, but I like Ghost! The sexy pottery scene, of course, is etched into my brain.
CHAPTER IX (AN EXCERPT)
I can hardly recall the journey
My thin pale quiet dignity
a wreck of itself
I have fallen in love with whispering
I want to be alone
I want to share my bitter hours recorded here
I have given up sleep
I am getting fat he tells me
that he loves me but I doubt that
There he is calling to me
There are spells of cessation from his passion
he was perpetually violent suffused with distrust
furtively hurting me at night
I wish I could escape the bird-cage
The spells of quietness last a few hours each day
I enjoy the relief even appreciate it
Once he became furious and tried to kill me
He said there must be something wrong with me
getting worse every day
the fatal disease of the girl-mind
I am distracted
I am filled with anxiety
I have a functional malady
I have no doubt
he took advantage of my confidence
I was broken by obedience
His arbitrary temper
once the poison of his pleasure has gone out of him
He must be angry with me because I am a girl
His geniality could merge into reality with a snapped finger
He never fails to remind me
that young ladies do not ask questions
not a word
One outburst was unusual and so violent
his screams whilst in the paroxysm were appalling
I found my hands full of sound
When he apologised
I thought it well to humour him
He is reaping a harvest of lies
eating them like little crumbs of sugar