Erasing Dracula: an interview with Chase Berggrun
Chase Berggrun is a genderqueer poet and the author of Discontent and Its Civilizations: Poems of Erasure, winner of the 2012 jubilat Chapbook Contest, and their work has been published or is forthcoming in inter|rupture, Apogee, No Tokens, Cosmonauts Avenue, Cutbank, BOAAT, Beloit Poetry Journal, the anthology Time You Let Me In: 25 Under 25, and elsewhere. They are Poetry Editor at Washington Square Review, and an MFA candidate in Poetry at NYU.
Your Girls That You All Love Are Mine Already is a poetry manuscript concerning issues of gender, power, queerness, abuse, and identity. At the heart of this manuscript are 27 erasure poems from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (one for each chapter) and consist entirely of appropriated language from that text. These poems center on a narrator in a sexually and physically abusive relationship, and address the assertion that “oppression and resistance can coexist within the same body.” Throughout the poems, the narrator encounters problems of imprisonment and denial of agency, and navigates power-dynamics that seek to erase her. Their poem "Chapter I" was recently featured in Inter|rupture Issue 15. I talked with Chase over email about erasure, poetry, and vampires.
- Laura Creste, Web / PR Editor
LC: Why Dracula?
CB: I've always had a fascination with vampires. The consumption of life in order to sustain life, the potent sexuality of the vampire, and blood motif: these metaphors are so human, so universally resonant. Before I started erasing Dracula, I attempted numerous other erasure projects, but none of those other texts really captivated me. I had just watched Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre, and I was taken with the agency, confidence, and femininity that the character of Lucy displays in that film, as she tries in vain to convince a group of men of the coming vampiric threat. I'd read Dracula before, and Herzog's movie reminded me of the way the women in Stoker's novel are completely bereft of agency: all the consequences of that book happen to them, all the decisions are made for them. I decided to erase poems from the text exploring this idea of agency, and how it might be reclaimed.
LC: That's so interesting. Do you feel like you're able to locate your regular poetic voice inside of Bram Stoker's? Or does it feel like a collaboration on some level?
CB: In many ways I consider erasure to be a kind of formal constraint, analogous to writing a sonnet in iambic pentameter, so the predicament there, "finding a voice," is similar. When we write into a structured form, we are giving away a certain amount of freedom, the idea being that by imposing artificial constraint we are forced to come up with more creative solutions. I find that my voice is still well identifiable within these poems, but there is a strangeness and unfamiliarity there as well. The entire enterprise feels like both a collaboration with another writer as well as, at times, a revision.
LC: Cool. Tell me more about erasure. I'm terrible at it, even when you had us do that fun exercise in Matt Rohrer's class, erasing a page of The Hunger Games, my resulting poem was so boring. Any tips on the technique of erasing a text? And how did you first become interested in the process?
CB: I first got into erasure as an undergrad via an assignment in Lisa Olstein's class at UMass Amherst: my first erasures were from Freud, who is delightful to erase (there's so much to work with!), but I really fell in love with the form after reading Srikanth Reddy's Voyager, which is in my opinion one of the most masterful and successful works of erasure ever. In terms of advice, the most important consideration is to choose a text that is interesting to you, and that you have some connection with (when reading an erasure poem, it's easy to tell when the poet has no investment in the source text). Another recommendation is to choose a text that has a moderately diverse vocabulary, although in my experience, it is best to use something that is not too rich, beautiful, or complex. Erasing Nabokov would be boring: part of the fun of erasure is the challenge of having to find and extract a really good line, and the richer the text, the more erasure feels like cheating. I also generally avoid erasing poetry, for similar reasons.
LC: Cool. Speaking of Freud, let's talk about sex. Have you noticed the figure of the vampire becoming less demonic and more Byronic-sexy? I'm thinking in recent years (not sure about the whole scope of vampire lore) such as how in the Buffyverse, vamps are actually soulless demons. Whose faces become monstrous when they feed, and let their fangs out. So comparing that to the Vampire Diaries or Twilight, where the vampires sparkle like diamonds in the sun — what do you think is happening to the vampire image? What direction is the persona taking? I'm thinking that because zombies are such a part of our contemporary mythology now, they occupy the space for the grotesque, and vampires get away with more sex appeal. What do you think?
CB: Okay, shit, that's a long question. First, vampires are way cooler than zombies, and they don't decompose, that's disgusting. On the other hand, there's definitely a reason zombies are becoming more popular. Monsters are simply imaginative metaphors: as our culture becomes more and more globalized, homogenous, and reliant on technologies that distract and dumb-down, the zombie is a potent symbol. Though the vampire has much, much earlier origins, the vampire of the Victorian era and beyond, for the most part popularized by Stoker's novel, is a reaction to (slowly) changing sexual mores, and represents the fear that empowered women and relaxed sexual attitudes would completely break down society. Stoker is terrified of what a sexually liberated culture might look like (hint: men might not have complete control) and thus, in Dracula, his monster is a sexual, but still terrifying, creature. As cultural inhibitions eroded, people became more interested in the vampire as a symbol of the latent lust within us all that we want to express, as opposed to a symbol of the lust that must be sublimated. Twilight sucks. The vampires don't even have fangs. However, it is a testament to the malleability of the vampire: the rules that govern them can change from iteration to iteration. Vampires will always occupy a place of danger, I think. Twilight is merely the product of one Mormon's lazy research.
LC: I think people also take pleasure in the zombie apocalypse daydream because it's so simple. It's rooted in anxiety. More realistic threats to our existence (nuclear war, climate change, pandemic etc.) can be overwhelmingly complex to consider. But killing zombies has a clear objective — and it's not muddied by morality; zombies aren't people any longer. Anyway, I agree with you that the vampire symbol is much richer. They're powerful figures, and they get into the moral/religious/maybe magical territory of do they have souls? What does it mean to even have a soul?
And with that, Chase, can you tell me what the soul is?
CB: A fairy tale people like to tell themselves so that they can sleep at night.
LC: Lastly, in your opinion what is the most beautiful word?
CB: The least appropriate one.