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The Writing Life: Mark Berriman

2013 August 2
by Wren

The Writing LifeBerriman Author PhotoMark Berriman is a true renaissance man: he’s the publisher of the Stillwater Gazette (out of Stillwater, MN), a musician in the band In Black Print, an artist, and a poet. He’s also a gregarious person, which made for one of the most easy-going and fascinating interviews I’ve done for Hazel & Wren yet. This personality will surely come across at his reading next week at Boneshaker Books.

As for his writing process, he’s a story collector. “Ever since I was a kid, I was always collecting stories, and characters. I was always on the lookout for interesting people, just to hear their stories. I think I’m still like that, maybe that’s why I’m still in the newspaper business,” he told me. Berriman loves the process of hunting and gathering content.

“I love collecting all the pieces. I also figured out that I’m a cut-out writer, although I never meant to be.” Berriman was referring to the cut-up technique that poet William Burroughs and Brion Gysin familiarized of cutting up pieces of the newspaper and re-arranging them into a different story. Makes sense for a newspaper man like Berriman, right?

“I collect pieces, and then I put them together […] and turn them into my own writing prompts. Pictures, phrases, things I overhear at a restaurant. If there’s a crazy person sitting over there, I’m not leaving.”

It’s finding time to put together all of these pieces that is the challenging part for Berriman: ” I collect material all day, all night, etc – but finding the time to actually put all of the pieces together is not easy.”

He also loves the act of sharing his work with an audience: “I like the social part. I love reading, I love presenting my work to an audience. Once I get to share it with people, it makes it all worth it.”

Berriman has published three poetry collections: his first, Scar Lit, was published under a pen name. After publishing that, Berriman waited a long time before he had another manuscript ready. That manuscript was Brutally Frank. Why did it take him so long to sit on the manuscript? “It wasn’t like Walt Whitman where he would re-write all these sections and make it even better. I sit there and work on a word for like a day. It’s really unhealthy,” Berriman jokingly told me.

Yet once he pulled the trigger on Brutally Frank, it only took a year before he had another book out there called Kink in the Chain (which we just reviewed yesterday). “It’s just flowing out of me now,” he told me.

I’ve read both Brutally Frank and Kink in the Chain, and found them a complementary pairing. As Berriman aptly describes the differences between the two, “[Brutally Frank] was really angry,  kind of an angry book, and all about tearing things downs, and [Kink in the Chain] is all about building things up.” I could see that dichotomy reflected in the poems, but also found a common underlying current of humor, curiosity, and what Berriman refers to as his bull-shit calling ability.

The two most recent collections of poetry have been published by North Star Press in St. Cloud, MN. A small press, Berriman says they are  “really D.I.Y., you have to do your own marketing […] but they get your book out there, they submit it to contests, they get it into stores. They’re very supportive, yet you really have to get out there.” This is a growing trend with book publishers, where the authors are expected to push their own book, as publishing house’s staff dwindles, and reorganize.

Berriman’s experience with North Star Press has been fantastic. According to Berriman, there wasn’t really an editorial process; instead, they were more concerned with the cover. Both covers have been from Berriman himself. Brutally Frank’s cover was from a series of paintings he did on old-timey boxers. Kink in the Chain is one of those objects he’s always collecting—the photo is one he found in a book from Goodwill.

Hearing Berriman talk about his process of story and object collecting inspired me, and reminded me of a keynote address I recently heard from children’s book illustrator and author Debra Frasier. An equally inspiring person, Frasier talked about creativity, and the importance of allowing your imagination to go where it wants to go. She does this by collecting fascinating images and objects in journals, and these are where her book ideas come from. I challenge you, dear reader (and dare I say writer), to dabble in Berriman’s and Frasier’s story collecting ways with me. Let’s see what comes of it, shall we?

Hear Berriman read at Boneshaker Books with Todd Boss and Matt Rasmussen next Tuesday, the 6th. We’ll be there, soaking up all the goodness.


Have you found the publishing industry to be relying more heavily on writers to promote their own books? Are you a “cut-up” poet?


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