Derek Berry is a novelist, poet, student, and activist born in Aiken, SC.
His first novel, “The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County“, will be published in Fall 2015 by PRA Publishing. He has published a poetry chapbook “Skinny Dipping with Strangers” and produced a spoken word album, “Perfect Nights“.
He organizes and co-hosts Charleston poetry show The Unspoken Word. He also coaches the Holy City Youth Slam Team.
You must write poetry about everything you can never tell your mother. – Derek Berry
How long have you been writing?
I began writing fiction around age 7. I began writing poetry at 12 when a girl broke up with me; at the time, the poetry featured a lot of blood, guillotines, and Darkness with capital D.
Word? When did your poetry start changing, or is [melancholy] a theme that follows most of your poetry?
When I was sixteen, I remember seeing a spoken word poet perform for the first time. At that point, I got interested in performance poetry. Around eighteen, I began taking poetry more seriously. My poetry has been constantly changing, the themes and styles changing as I myself change.
As the poet you are now, how would you describe your style and major themes?
Major themes usually include personal stories, social justice, and love. I try not to write poems that sound too much like each other; sometimes a poem might be funny and involve a lot of physical movements and satire, while other times I focus on my personal struggles and seek to use fitting metaphors. Mostly, I guess, I want the audience to be surprised. The other night, at a slam, a poet told me he liked me because I performed in a way that he didn’t expect.
You mentioned, slam poetry. What is the slam poetry movement to you?
Slam poetry offers poets a chance to share pieces and compare themselves against their peers. By winning slams, poets get to prove themselves and hopefully get features. In the end, though, poetry slams offer a friendly way for the public to learn more about spoken word poetry; people enjoy competition. Without poetry slams, some people may never have access to poetry. So once they come to one poetry show, they get hooked. They become regulars; they write poetry; they allow poetry to affect their lives.
Alan Wolff, “The points are not the point. The points are the poetry.”
I really like that saying. When I host a slam or compete in a slam, I want to embody that spirit.
So, what’s been your favorite experience performing?
Last August, I performed with other Charleston poets at the Charleston Music Hall. I really enjoyed performing at that venue. Also, this past June, we took our first team to Southern Fried*. Being in the company around so many fantastic poets drove me to focus on my poems and performance. Also, listening to diverse poets allows the poet to make decisions concerning one’s own work. I think I am only beginning to understand what is possible through poetry.
In regards to poetic possibilities, where do you see the performance poetry/slam poetry movement going in the future?
I think there will be a lot of poets taken seriously by the mainstream and finding steady work. I expect, too, for poetry to somehow reach into mainstream entertainment, much like Def Jam did in the early 2000’s. There’s a new generation of spoken word poets interested in the world beyond slams: publications, theatre productions, academic work, and more. I’m sure you will see poets entering other art forms and expanding repertoire.
Do you consider yourself one of these poets?
I cannot say yet. I haven’t really reached an audience yet. Only time will tell. I am definitely interested in the world outside slam. I’m also a novelist, and that will always take the majority of my time. I do not think that it’s impossible to “just” be a spoken word poet, but it’s too difficult not to consider using one’s skills for other ventures.
What are your aims for your craft overall?
Poetry should move. Poetry should inspire. Poetry should make a person put down the book and cry, say “damn,” or maybe laugh. I want to create something important, I guess. The reason I write is a selfish reason; I enjoy writing. In the end, I want to keep writing and get paid to write constantly. But in the end, we need higher aspirations than become famous or rich or well-known. So my aspirations are to simply write good poetry. Because the definition of good poetry changes for everyone, I want to fulfill my own expectations. I want to be proud of my work.
Tell me about The Unspoken Word.
The Unspoken Word started as an idea in our city with you, Khalil Ali. We decided we wanted to hold an open mic where poets could share their work, hone their craft, and build fellowship. We’ve been running for a little more than a year, running slams and other special events. I believe we’ve accomplished our goal as a respected poetry venue in the area; more and more people hear about it all the time. In fact, when I tell people I’m a poet, they say I should go read poems at The Unspoken Word. I had a guy in Columbia, SC the other day raving about the cool poetry show he went to called the Unspoken Word, and then he looked at me weird and went, “Wait, you’re the host, right?”
Of course, we still have room to grow. One of my main concerns right now is cultivating new poets and helping them grow in their craft. Slam helps hone skills, but so do workshops. We are trying to expand as an organization to incorporate a youth component (the Holy City Slam) and have always been concerned too with social movements. It’s an exciting time for poetry in Charleston, SC.
One of the goals for the next two years is to get certified as a national slam venue and maybe put out a chapbook or mixtape displaying the poetry of the group.
How do you think Charleston poetry differs from that of other regions?
I can only say what I’ve heard from other people. Charleston poetry, in general (not just spoken word), is often inspired by the landscape. What’s interesting about our spoken word scene, as I’ve heard from other poets, is that we’re mostly self-made. I’m thinking about myself and my new co-host Matthew Foley. We travel and slam and surprise a lot of people who haven’t heard us before. While there existed plenty of awesome spoken word poets in the past in the city of Charleston, a long time passed before we ever met those people. Now I feel like Marcus Amaker has become much more of a mentor to me, but when I was first starting out, I didn’t know anyone. I would just travel to open mics, listen, and spit a piece or two. So in a way my style and Matt’s style evolved separate from outside voices. While I usually think this is a slow and arduous process, I think it works well: a lot of people listen to my poetry and say they’ve not heard anything like it. I enjoy that sentiment, that maybe we really are creating something unique.I should add, however, that currently I’m in a space where I’m much more willing to learn. For a long time, I did not want mentors or teachers. To be ignorant to styles and poems that are prevalent, however, seriously hinders one’s art. The internet too has made it much more simple to find poems online to read or listen to; we as poets must utilize that resource. We must learn from each other and be humble in what others might teach us.
What is the most profound and/or important line you have written? If you’re willing, please explain it, and what it means to you.
From the poem, “Royal Proclamation of Proletariat Love”: ‘I love you’ is the best battle cry I’ve ever heard.
I’m not sure if that’s my favorite line, but it’s been on my mind lately. On the surface, I’m talking about my relationship with my significant other, who is also a poet. While a lot of poets give lofty metaphors to their lovers, I acknowledge that romantic relationships are difficult; you must fight and scrabble and work hard to actually keep a relationship working. Love ain’t easy. So, I’m comparing love to a revolution. Love is a revolution. Furthermore, revolution should also engage with love as one of its most basic tenets. You cannot change a world you do not love; you must approach people for change from the standpoint of love.
Even if someone’s spitting in your face, you love.
Also, I believe movements arise through love. If someone says something sexist, for example, I may choose to either reprimand them harshly or through love. You get this sense that, okay, I want to change people’s minds so they become more tolerant because I have this love for those people. I want everyone to be the best person they can be. It’s such a corny idea, this idea of acceptance and humility, but I think it’s really important. In the end, I’ve always been more Gandhi than Frantz Fanon, more MLK than Malcolm X. Rage and discontentment have a place at the table, but they must also be channeled through a sense of compassion and human understanding.
*Southern Fried Poetry Slam is a regional festival that draws poets throughout the southeast