Herb Berman is an Illinois attorney, a labor arbitrator, who loves to write poetry. An award-winning poet, Herb’s work often appears in poetry journals and other specialized journals. During his demanding career, he’s written legal briefs, technical articles, and arbitration decisions, and now he welcomes the chance to do creative writing. He even shares his love for poetry by leading a workshop of successful poets at his local public library one night a week.
I recently asked Herb to answer a few questions that would inspire others to write. I know you’ll enjoy reading his answers and his thoughtful, beautifully-crafted poems that illustrate his facility with words. Herb’s dedication to poetry will motivate you to start writing or to continue plugging away at it, if you’re experienced.
1) When did you begin writing poetry, and why do you write it?
I began writing poetry in college 55 years ago. I was encouraged by my professors, but I didn’t feel I was any good at it. I majored in English. After I graduated, I wrote a few poems, but I didn’t start writing seriously until about five or six years ago when I cut back on my law practice. I started reading a lot of poetry about seven years ago, though, when I began having more free time. I write poetry mainly for self-expression—for myself. It’s a way of exploring my own needs.
2) What do you find difficult about writing poetry?
The difficult parts are getting started and revising it. I usually don’t like the first draft. Revision can be painful, but paradoxically, also somewhat fun. I have written about 700 to 800 poems. I write two or three a week.
3) What is your advice to someone who has never written a poem but wants to start writing?
Read a lot of poetry. Go to the library and pick up some American poetry, for example, a modern anthology like Norton’s. After reading, sit down and write. I think of what Rachmaninoff, the Russian pianist, said: ‘There’s no such thing as inspiration. You sit down and do the work.’ You’ll never produce anything if you sit down and wait.
My hobbies are reading and writing. I like all kinds of contemporary poetry. I like 19th Century poetry, too, like Whitman, but I’m really enamored of the modern American poets. I’m fickle, as my favorite poets depend on who I’m reading at the moment. But I think Gerald Stern, Franz Wright, W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, Joseph Stroud (whom I just discovered), and Phillip Levine will always be high on my list.
I’d also recommend that people find a workshop or class that they like.
4) Is there anything that bothers you about some poetry that you read?
I don’t like pretension or vagueness in poetry. Poets should put down (clear) images on paper.
5) What are three of your favorite poems that you’ve published?
In My Old Age
the silence of sundown
blossoms into song
and I can only decline
the other side
at five my hair was yellow and curly
I was thin as water
and beautiful as
wildness in an unblighted field
today my hair is whiter than
a wildness of snow
and I’m as unbeautiful
as vanished wisdom
in yesterday’s songs
I’ve gone from here to there
in the space of a breath
between measures of song
I almost hear
the rose and blue and yellow songs of yesterday
and the humming of
today I bless the present
with each new exultation
Third Wednesday, Fall 2009
In the soft amber shadow
katydids and crickets sing
farewell to light.
Or maybe they mean to summon
ancient gods to save
them from night.
Or is it insect love—
time to woo the ladies,
a final dance,
a tryst in the grass?
Now the night’s opaque,
and there’s a hum, certain and calm
as the hard silent sleep of granite and iron,
and I think it’s time to honor creatures
to sing for me.
I applaud their nameless song,
its veiled composer.
Let their song be forever
the song of wind and grass,
iron and granite and falling light.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!
Wearing the cloak of invisibility
unknotting every puzzle
wooing or not wooing Margo Lane
(it was never clear)
playboy Lamont Cranston had the power to cloud men’s minds
bewilder master criminals
Wearing Dad’s ratty old raincoat
I longed to master invisibility
float into Belknap Elementary
pinch Betty Lou
cackle maniacally and sail away
I believed in goodness
showing off to a doting girlfriend
and brilliant playboys with endless funds
I believed in
dodging bullets with a quip and a whirl of my cape
halting crime with magic and logic
I wouldn’t gallop into the sunset with a tongue-tied sidekick
guns blazing bust down doors
slap the villains silly
my shadowy mental powers enough to win the day and the girl
hero for a brainy kid
spooked by horses
and muscle-bound bullies
Highland Park Poetry Challenge Award, 2010
Copyright 2012 by Charlotte Digregorio.