A Conversation with HALL OF WATERS’ Berry Grass, out in August from the Operating System

the operating system
Aug 2, 2019 · 11 min read

You can order Hall of Waters directly from the Operating System here.

Wanna dive in further? The below excerpts from this brilliant collection (selected by Ms. Magazine as an August 2019 “Read for the Rest of Us,”) can be found at the following finely feathered publications:

The Wanderer
The Tiny
The Fanzine
The Map is Not

Greetings comrade! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?

My name is Berry Grass (they/them or she/her). I’m an essayist. I’m a transsexual. I’m a metalhead. I’ve mostly been a teacher, and I would like to still be one. I grew up in an interesting part of Missouri — Excelsior Spring, MO (which is also the micro-level subject of this book) is pretty much a rural town, but it’s substantially developed for its size due to its history as a tourist site, but it’s not a suburb of Kansas City, but it’s only a half hour’s drive away from Kansas City. I also lived for a time in Tuscaloosa, AL, and I’ve been living in Philadelphia, PA since 2014.

Why do you write?

I think I’m an essayist because I’ve always felt better about my thinking if I’ve written through it. I was essentially essaying as a young person just to make proper decisions, and that trait has stuck with me.

When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/ feel are more accurate)?

I don’t know when I decided I’d actually call myself a writer. Maybe when I started publishing? I realize that’s a foolheaded way to think, but I remember feeling a difference between “I write” and “I’m a writer” — feelings that I wouldn’t necessarily validate now. I did accept the term “essayist” more quickly. There’s no implicit status or level of success with “essayist” like there is for “writer.” Anyone who calls themselves an essayist probably fully deserves to do so.

What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway?
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?

I think the only role that I really want to fill is to be a writer that other trans writers admire. I want to create spaces for trans writers and I want to leverage my experiences and my degrees to boost trans writers. I run an occasional reading series for trans writers in Philadelphia called “Tragic: the Gathering,” and I pay each reader upwards of $30, a lot of it coming from my paltry bank account.

Beyond the fulfillment I get from that, my role in the literary community is to be just another essay nerd, writing & appreciating, & talking about essays. Essayists are a friendly bunch. That’s my role.

Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle? Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?

My intention from the very first draft of the first of these essays I wrote (the titular piece “Hall of Waters”) was that I’d be writing at least a short sequence of linked essays & lyric memoirs. I had the idea to write about my mineral water hometown & my experience growing up there through short pieces that were “about” a specific water-related site in Excelsior. Because these former springs or wells or etc had geospecific locations, I could use that area as a jumping off point for my memories. I knew these pieces were not just linked in terms of subject, but also in this approach where specific place within the town was the catalyst for the essaying. In other words, it was the form as well as the subject that was always- already linking the work as I wrote from late 2016 through this year.

What I didn’t necessarily expect was that in the course of writing my Excelsior essays, I would stumble onto a second set of linked essays — about the infamous godfather of American minimalist sculpture, Donald Judd. I began to write about a spring close to Judd’s parent’s house in Excelsior Springs. Judd was born in Excelsior! And as I was writing that piece (which was later scrapped), I realized I had a lot more to say about Judd and to Judd. So I began writing essays titled after individual works of his, and with the goal of trying to dialogue with the dead so as to figure out what, if anything, was Excelsior Springs about Donald Judd. What ended up being written was a personal essay form that was simultaneously ekphrastic and epistolary.

Long story short: that I had two different sets of linked essays revolving around the same town (and the U.S. Midwest more broadly) told me that I maybe had a book manuscript going.

What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?

I do not generally place formal constrictive practices on my writing, particularly when I’m essaying. I feel the responsibility to convey truth of experience and truth of feeling, and to use research truthfully. And I feel the responsibility when essaying to not just follow my digressions of thought but to show those digressions happening. But to me, that is quite the opposite of constrictive, and that is why I love the essay form so much. One structural practice I do tend to use is to whenever possible make sure that the form of an essay reflects the content of the essay. At least in a small way, as in the cases of the Judd essays using ekphrasis for instance. Or in a huge, challenging way — like the “hermit crab” essays that were literally written in the form of Missouri state survey forms for the historical record (shout out to Brenda Miller for coining the term “hermit crab essay” for essays that use borrowed non-literary forms).

My biggest source of perpetual inspiration is the international essayist community. Essayists get so excited & inspired by each other’s work, so much so that there’s even journals like Assay that exist to help us share essay theory and pedagogy with each other.

Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.

As I mentioned before, the first essay from this project that I wrote was “Hall of Waters,” which I would eventually title the book after. Perhaps partly because in writing about this one ornate building & its history, I was able to initially ground basically all of the themes of the book. There’s no more important water-related site in Excelsior Springs than the Hall of Waters. It’s built at the site of the first spring that was discovered by settlers, the spring that is the reason the town exists at all. The building presently hosts city hall and the municipal court. Plus: it just sounds cool. Hall of Waters. It sounds almost mythic. It’s grandiose. It sounds like a temple in a Legend of Zelda game or something. And considering that I want this book to demythologize the town’s self-imposed narratives, the title of the book helps to establish that there’s myth to demythologize in the first place.

The titles of the individual pieces certainly reflect that this is a book about place. Apart from a small handful of pieces (maybe five in the entire book), every piece has a specific place in the title. There’s the water springs essays that are titled after specific springs & wells, but even the Judd essays not only have a specific work in the title, but also the city and state or country that the work is installed in. The way these titles operate is to prevent readers from ever forgetting that the thinking & the research in this book is very much tied, inseparably, to a specific place with a specific history of specific people & cultures.

What does this particular work represent to you as indicative of your method/ creative practice? your history? your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?

In a very immediate and obvious sense, this book represents the milestone of having written and published my first book. Its existence is a kind of bulwark against my self-directed negativity and anxiety and imposter syndrome. It’s also not lost on me that this book is both 1) my first project since hormonally transitioning, and 2) is a significant departure from the longer 15+ page essays that I tended to write (and my unpublished book-length manuscript of literary journalism that was 200+ pages). So I feel like this book represents to me that I am not stagnating as a writer, and that I have the capacity to change and grow.

What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?

The book says a lot about demythologizing the Midwest — telling truth to the stories that the Midwest likes to tell itself. Telling truth to settler colonialism and whiteness. I hope that the book does this in such a way that isn’t itself enacting harm. I wanted to write about whiteness in a plain, understated way. There is use of lyricism in this book, but I didn’t want to write about settler colonial violence with lyrical language. I didn’t want to write in a lyric way about individual moments of anti-Black violence that I observed in my town because that’s not my place as a white writer to do. What I hope this book does instead is help uplift & restore the Missouria & the Osage & the Sac and Fox Nation to the record and history of Excelsior Springs and its waters. I hope that the book can help uplift and restore Travis Mellion and Robert Spence and Katie & W.A. Doxey and other Black laborers and skilled water treatment facilitators to Excelsior Springs’ history.

Another thing that I hope this book does is attempt to be what a leftist creative nonfiction can be. Readers will be the judge of whether this book is on the right track, but what I wanted to do was ground the essay (and its individual narrator and its lyric I) in a collective experience, or in a history of collective experiences. Nothing about my experiences as a trans woman are unique to me. Nothing about the settler colonialism & white supremacy of Excelsior Springs is unique to Excelsior Springs. I want this book to take a micro-level look at my life and experiences in this town so as to be able to speak broadly to how the Midwest creates and replicates the conditions that occupy indigenous land, oppress BIPOC, castigate queerness, etc.

What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?

My pie-in-the-sky goal would be for this book to inspire other settlers in the U.S. to examine the real histories of the places where they grew up, to inspire other settlers to at least recognize themselves as settlers. What are the fictions that reify power where you are from? What is the narrative behind the given narrative? Who is being erased? I do hope that readers will seek out these questions for the places that their lives take shape in. Additionally, I would love it if any trans reader, particularly a rural trans reader, sees a bit of themselves in this book. Its existence as a print object will help get this into libraries and hopefully onto course syllabi.

And honestly? I look forward to print copies getting a little water stained and yellowed and mildewed with time. That feels right for this book.

Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social and political activism, so present in our daily lives as we face the often sobering, sometimes dangerous realities of the Capitalocene. How does your process, practice, or work otherwise interface with these conditions?

I’m not sure that it completely does. I feel like there’s certainly a role that literary writing plays in not only offering critique of the ravages of capital & colonization, but even more crucially in expanding our imaginations of what is possible to fight for and achieve and implement. Poetry and fiction seem better positioned to work on imagination than nonfiction. So mostly I leave whatever political organizing I do (& won’t speak directly about online) to exist separate from my writing. But as I said, I am interested in building out what a leftist/collectivist/anti-capital essaying can look like for me or for others. So we’ll see.

Is there anything else we should have asked, or that you want to share?

I suppose that I just want to say that Donald Judd is a more complex figure than he’s perhaps characterized in this book. I wanted (and I think the desperation behind this want is evident in the narrator-self as the book proceeds) to figure out what negativity from Excelsior Springs did Judd carry with him through life, as a way of protecting myself. A way of divining the future from looking into the past, I guess. So this book is critical of Judd’s shortcomings. And he had PLENTY — I should know, I read all of his collected published writings and journals (so many opinions about architecture!). A…complicated political mind; he was deeply anti-war, and probably considered himself a leftist (though he comes off in his journals as almost a radical centrist, with the anti-Communist takes and what with the houses in Texas, New York City, and Switzerland, and his paternalistic deployment of his wealth). And he was a great artist. I don’t want that to get lost amidst my critique. Instead of dismissing him for his shortcomings & flaws, I kept returning to his work and his thought, kept reaching for what I thought he could teach me.

Berry Grass has lived in rural Missouri, Tuscaloosa, & now Philadelphia. Their essays & poems appear in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Barrelhouse, Sonora Review, BOAAT, and The Wanderer, among other publications. They are a 2019 nominee for the Krause Essay Prize. Their chapbook, Collector’s Item, was published in 2014 by Corgi Snorkel Press. They recieved their MFA from the University of Alabama, where they served as Nonfiction Editor of Black Warrior Review. They curate “Tragic: the Gathering,” an occasional transgender reading series in South Philly. When they aren’t presently reading submissions as Nonfiction Editor ofSundog Lit, they are embodying what happens when a Virgo watches too much professional wrestling. Follow at @thebgrass on Twitter, @berry. grass on Instagram.

The Operating System & Liminal Lab

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.

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The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. Join us!

The Operating System & Liminal Lab

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.