The art of writing #94 : Noah Berlatsky


How did you first come to poetry? What is it about the form that resonates?

Not sure I can exactly remember? I’ve been writing poetry I guess since 3rd grade or so, when I had a teacher who encouraged me. I wrote a little rhymed poem about Halloween bits of which have stuck in my head (“there are ghosts and ghouls/and they are fools/if they go dressed in black”—sort of a public service announcement!)

As for what resonates…I guess as a writer poetry appeals to my short attention span. Write a few lines and you’re done! I like playing with language without having to worry about plot or character or meaning or all of that difficult stuff you have to do when you’re a prose writer.

How does a poem begin?

With the first word!

If you’re asking what inspires a poem…it can be a lot of things? I often start writing a poem after reading someone else’s poem that I think is fun or interesting or which I think is wrong and want to respond to. Sometimes I hear or think of words or phrases or little ideas which could be a tweet, but which could be a poem just as easily. I also write found or collage poems often, so then it's a question of what source text I want to use. (I just finished a longish pantoum created by using words and phrases from emails in my spam and junk email folders.)

How did publishing your first chapbook change your writing? What have the differences been since?

Not sure it changed things that much…? Also not sure what would qualify as my first chapbook; some 20 years ago I self-published some poetry zines. Last year I published several chapbooks with various presses; it was exciting to have editors say they were interesting. I guess with the prospect of maybe getting chapbooks published, I tend to think more in terms of ms long projects—the Spam Pantoum could have gone to just about any length, but I aimed for a length that would fit in a chapbook. So I guess my writing is sometimes shaped by market forces! (Not that I’m actually getting paid anything substantial for chapbooks, but you know.)

How do you see your poetry and non-fiction work impacting each other, if at all?

It depends. I’ve got a piece commissioned for a magazine about my first poetry collection, so that’s a case where there’s an obvious crossover. Sometimes I’ll write a poem about something I’ve written an essay about, or vice versa (I have an unpublished poem about Webern’s relationship to the Nazis, and I also wrote an essay about that.)

In terms of style, I sometimes have bits in my essays that I think are related to my poetry voice. (If I can sneak those past editors.)

Do you see your writing as a single, extended project, or a series of threads that occasionally weave together to form something else?

I write a ton—I’ve probably written somewhere over 5000 articles over the past 20 years, plus various work for hire projects and poetry and who knows what else. So it would be hard to argue that my product descriptions of floor tile are meaningfully related to the poetry…though you never know. I’ve collaged text from books I read for reviews or work for hire projects…

Have you a daily schedule by which you work, or are you working to fit this in between other activities?

I’m writing for a living, so I try to write an essay a day usually, if I can get the work. I try to work on poetry every day too, because I’m kind of neurodivergent and obsessive.

What are your favourite print or online literary journals?

Not sure it’s exactly a journal, but I have a subscription to rob mclennan’s above/ground press, and get a flow of fun experimental poetry of various sorts from that which I enjoy a good deal. I also contribute to and read petro ck’s wonderful short experimental poetry site dadakuku and Roberta Beach Jacobson’s Five Fleas, which is a short poetry/haiku site.

Who are some of the writers you are reading lately that most excite you?

I’ve been reading Lucille Clifton, who is wonderful. I read a collection of Maja Vidmer’s poems which I liked a lot; she’s very arch and quick. For prose I just read Chester Himes first detective novel and now I want to read them all. Also read Tobin Siebers’ Disability Aesthetics which is a brilliant discussion of how an engagement with disability has shaped modern art.

And of course as I said I’ve been reading a bunch of the spam mail that shows up in my inbox, which is inspiring in its way.



Noah Berlatsky (he/him) is a freelance writer in Chicago. His first poetry collection, Not Akhmatova (Ben Yehuda Press), is forthcoming; his chapbooks include It's Fab (Origami Poems Project), Send $19.99 for Supplements and Freedom (above/ground), No Devotions and Land the Waste (both LJMcD Communications). He scribbes regularly at his newsletter Everything is Horrible.

A selection of his poems appear in the eleventh issue.