An Interview with Farrah Field and Jared White of Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop
Farrah Field and Jared White are poets. They're also the proprietors of Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop, a store that pops up on Saturdays at the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene (and occasionally other places) to sell small-press books and chapbooks to crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes. I've heard a lot about their enterprise--the press I direct is one of the many they support--but distance avails not and I haven't yet been able to visit Berl's. So I sent them some questions, and we fell into conversation. Their answers for me are answers for all.
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By way of introduction, can you give a quick rundown of two typical days in the life of Berl's, one day being when Berl's finds its books and the other day being when people find those books at Berl's?
Jared White: Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop took shape out of our discovery of the vibrant community of independent bookmaking taking place outside traditional publishing. Given the extraordinary richness of literary life in Brooklyn, it seemed shocking that there was no dedicated poetry bookstore here. Of course there are several very excellent bookstores that stock poetry extensively and that we love and frequent, but we hope that with focused attention, particularly to handmade chapbooks and broadsides, we can provide a platform here that exists in only a few heroic places across the country.
In order to make this possible, we have had to educate ourselves. Berl's had a long pre-history of years trolling contributor's bios and poetry blogs in search of people making books under the radar, as we compiled long spreadsheets of press names, many of them turning out to be dormant or extinct. We still do a lot of research, flagging new presses mentioned on Facebook and checking in with presses whose books we already carry to stay up to date. We're incredibly grateful to the presses we work with for their support, though it sometimes takes many emails to make and maintain contact, since many people who make books have other responsibilities and often are not so used to working with bookstores. We've spent idyllic days while visiting the Bay Area scouting in the warehouse of Small Press Distribution and order books from them and other distributors on occasion, but more often we are just trying to get a copy or two of a chapbook, building our inventory one book at a time. That works well since we aim to read the books we sell! Much of our inventory has been built through collecting books at conferences like AWP or the New York Chapbook Festival and we certainly have our work cut out for us afterwards, reading and organizing. For now our inventory lives in a closet in our apartment, with shelves of perfect bound books and boxes of carefully alphabetized hanging files full of chapbooks. We look forward to finding a retail space for Berl's to grow into. It's a major challenge that engages on a daily basis, scrutinizing real estate web sites and calling about FOR RENT signs looking for a space that is not prohibitively expensive or inconvenient. Someday soon we hope!
In the meantime, we have our weekend pop-up shop at Brooklyn Flea. The Flea has a massive following, attracting thousands of New Yorkers and tourists every week, so we're thrilled to be able to bring our books to an audience that often isn't expecting books, let alone poetry books. Your question actually arrived as we were out at the Brooklyn Flea on a fairly optimal day for Berl's. After the previous week, when we could barely set up our display in the sodden April weather, it was a relief to have a sunny windless day. At this point we have a cadre of solutions—for wind, beautiful felted rock paperweights from our friend Kassia Walsmith, for glare, a canopy tent—and even on days of blustery rain the Flea is fairly well-attended. For obvious reasons, though, we (and the books!) prefer it calm.
Jared looking off into the distance, click to enlarge.
This Saturday we brought as usual about ninety titles with us to Fort Greene in the morning and set up about sixty of them on our tables. From time to time we curate mini-displays and with Mother's Day this weekend we did a little thinking about books that would make special presents. (The previous week we'd tried to incorporate as many bilingual/Spanish-language chapbooks as we could find for Cinco de Mayo, though we have only one or two actually from Mexico.) The day went quite well, with a steady stream of people stopping by our shop to talk and look at the books. It's always fun to discover the surprising connections that strangers may have to the books, quite often personal, one or two degrees of connection to aunt poets, co-worker poets, poets who were the ex-roommate of a friend. In some lucky cases, such as the excellent Sand Paper Press of Key West, Florida, a friend of the publisher happened upon our shop at the Flea and put us in touch. Given the small sampling of books and chaps that we bring out each week, it amazes me how many coincidental recognitions occur with the curious people who wander up! For instance, when we brought Berl's to a concert in a bowling alley earlier this spring, a customer noticed that one of our books totally by chance included a poem written for the lead singer of the band playing in the next room! It reveals how much larger our dispersed poetry communities of readership actually are, and how much poetry lives in the world as opposed to apart from it.
I love knowing that somewhere in America a lava lamp and a chapbook could end going home together. Has talking about contemporary poetry with people in such a space—one where it may come as a surprise, one where it is surrounded by all sorts of things—changed the way you think of poetry's relationship to community?
Farrah Field: Absolutely. When we first started, I thought for sure we were going to hear comments like who cares about poetry or that kind of thing. Stuff parents say. Jared and I even practiced answering random questions like what is a poem and what do poets write about, but we've very rarely been approached with stuff like that.
Some of the wares up close, click to enlarge.
First of all, I don't think most people expect to see a poetry table, so those who stop are really curious about what it's all about. Most of our customers are attracted to the multitude of beautiful books we display. Poetry books look different; they're artful and they come in all shapes and sizes. When people start picking up and flipping through books, they say something about not having looked at poetry in a long time or have never read poetry and ask for recommendations. I love helping people find a book they'd like to read. I usually have people talk about an author they like or a movie or artist they like, and it's actually quite easy to set people up with a book of poetry that they'll most likely respond to. Well, I shouldn't say it's easy because Jared and I spend quite a bit of time reading our inventory so that we can talk about them and hopefully sell them.
So the impact that poetry has on the larger community is that there's something for everyone. Almost every book of poetry is different. Sure, there are groupings and likenesses you can point out, and together we could list the different kinds of poetry (oy), but almost every poet has a unique approach to what they do, and poetry more than any other form of writing allows this. So it's a crying shame that most people don't read poetry because it means they haven't been taught how to find the book they'd most like.
I have to say European tourists are the exception to this because they almost always buy poetry when they stop at our table. Most of them act as though it's not really a big deal to buy a book of poetry.
Something I've been happy to discover is how far-reaching poet's lives are within the larger community. So many people stop at our table, point to a book, and say they went to college with so and so, or they used to work with a certain poet. (We once had a very exciting Dan Boehl request, which came from a co-worker of a poet.) People from all over visit New York and grew up with or lived with a poet. We were happy to discover very recently that a vendor neighbor attended college with Reginald Shepherd. How neat is that?
Have you noticed changes in your own writing since you became booksellers?
Farrah Field: Selling books has definitely affected my readership and that in turn has had an impact on my writing. Before we started the bookstore, I'd read something and talk about it with poets I know, or read something recommended by other poets. I'd generally stay tuned to books I thought would generally help me generate writing, but I now tend to pretty much read everything. I've been trying to start a podcast, so that forces me to read very thoroughly and be able to talk about it in a way that makes sense.
Jared White: Writing poems is certainly as much a part of my life as ever, but it is possible that I may be submitting my writing for publication somewhat less than before Berl's. Part of this is just a matter of hours in the day, and also of the marginally awkward dual relationship we now have with presses. I had a very interesting conversation with Adam Tobin of Unnameable Books about his great chapbook published by Mondo Bummer, Amy Berkowitz's brilliant project of publishing by simply stapling and folding a few sheets of paper. Adam was thrilled to have a book with an aura completely unlike most of the books he sells. I do think there's something to this demystification of books when we are surrounded by them as commodities. But it runs the other way too, and I'm always beyond thrilled to connect with a reader casually looking at Farrah's book Rising when it's in our display. I think mostly what I've noticed is how Berl's plugs us constantly into the role of advocate, and how satisfying that role is. It makes promoting my own writing feel slightly less important than simply promoting good writing across the board. (At the same time, being surrounded by such amazing chapbook arts has perhaps contributed to my thinking in terms of chapbook-sized poems more, as my work over the last two years has definitely been more long-form.) In any case, thinking about communities, books, commodities, aura, advocacy: all this is inspiring grist for writing.
Following from your thoughts on readership and the book object, have you learned anything from your close relationship to audience and publishing that you might frame as advice to small presses, book artists, writers, or other bookstores?
Jared White: We have a running joke that whenever we put out books on our tables with the word "POEMS" on the cover, we consistently see readers drawn hypnotically to this slightly humorous promise: City Poems, The Race Poems, Arctic Poems, Berlin Poems, Revenge Poems, Complete Minimal Poems, etc! I think it is something of the straightforward thematic signaling, the unapologetic 'what you see is what you get' that people are drawn to: a poetry book as its own genre, with all the humorous, slightly hubristic comprehensiveness that that implies. That being said, I think that one of the enormous strengths of the poetry publishers we admire and work with is their confidence in their own vision of making beautiful and interesting books and trusting that the books will find readers who appreciate them. A customer at our table recently was joking about judging our books by their covers and, aptly, I thought, his friend responded that it was justifiable because the beauty of books as objects showed that someone—an editor, a book artist—cared about what was inside of it, and about the experience of reading. I wouldn't want to follow that logic too far, but we often see people drawn in first by our most unusually artisanal and innovative books, like Friedrich Kerksieck's multi-colored books on handmade paper for Small Fires Press or the triple-flip book SPELL/ING () BOUND by Cara Benson, Kathrin Schaeppi, Kai Fierle-Hedrick on Ellectrique Press that allows readers to mix-and-match from the three linear poems to create new horizontal lines of reading. After exploring these, shoppers may continue to browse and discover other exciting writing in our store hopefully. Thus, these kinds of experiments can not only open up creative avenues of exploration for thinking about poetry visually and phenomenologically but also provide new ways of introducing good poetry and poetry generally. One of our strong ambitions for Berl's was to create a way of displaying unconventional book objects such as tiny or thin chapbooks that disappear into bookshelves or shoeboxes. This is certainly an ongoing mission for us as we've enlisted unusual objects as bookholders and paperweights, built our own bookstands and display boxes, and most recently started making special hanging displays in the last month to feature works of a single press. (So far we've shone a light on the gorgeous Mindmade Books and belladonna* chaplets and are looking forward to bringing out a display of Trafficker Press works this coming Saturday.) We definitely hope to inspire other bookstores in the way that poetry bookstores we visited over the years inspired us!
Final question, for both of you. If you could conjure any no-longer-living poet to visit Berl's, in a park in Brooklyn or in your dreams, who would it be, and is there a particular contemporary book that might satisfy their possible vision of the future?
Farrah Field: We both agreed that although Jack Spicer mainly circulated his White Rabbit chapbooks in the Bay area, we really wish that he could come to the store. We might put him in touch with Sampson Starkweather's chapbook, The Heart is Green from So Much Waiting (Immaculate Disciples Press) and Jack Spicer would obviously pick up a few Flying Guillotine chapbooks and perhaps raise an eyebrow at Daniel Bailey's Drunk Sonnets on Magic Helicopter Press, then sit in one of our chairs to get out of the sun. Marianne Moore used to live a few blocks from our shop at the Flea, so how wonderful would it be to see her strolling around in her tricornered hat? She could walk around the Flea holding her mother with one arm and a set of TrenchArt books from Les Figues tucked in the other. Jared and I joked about Horace stopping by to recite a long one for us, something really loud that would make people stop to see what all the fuss was about. And of course, our Brooklyn Heights neighbor Walt Whitman, with whom we would be already on a first name basis.
What's funny is that I'm sure so many poets have stopped by who don't tell us they are poets. (Many writers who stop by want to know if we publish the books ourselves, and in my experience, it seems the conversation is over when they find out we don't.) It's easy to tell who the poets are; right away they start sniffing for the most obscure thing they can find. If they're with friends, they often will comment on a certain book or mention that So and So was in their program. (My personal favorite is when someone points to a book and tells their friends where that particular poet lives.) I'm rather surprised by how much digging I have to do to get the poets to tell me who they are. I mean, really, if someone stops by the store and he or she has a book out or makes books, Jared and I really really want to know! When poets come by who don't have books published yet, it's still so wonderful to meet them and talk about what they're reading and that sort of thing. We often tell people about readings happening around town or we give away mini-broadsides or other things that people and presses have us pass out. Sometimes we are asked if, as Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop, we only sell "Brooklyn Poetry." We reply that we have books by many fantastic local poets but we sell poetry gathered from all over the country. Hopefully, though, our shop can be part of the process that makes all poetry local, an open community in which the distance between writer, publisher, and reader is practically neighborly. Hopefully, this is what the poets of Valhalla would see at Berl's and appreciate.