Deeper than Words- An Interview with Evelyn Berry

Deeper than Words- An Interview with Evelyn Berry

Evelyn Berry, a writer, editor, and educator, discusses her debut poetry collection 'Grief Slut' and the importance of queer representation in the South. She also shares insights on the overlap between writing and activism, book recommendations, and upcoming projects.

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@evelynberrywriter on Instagram and Twitter (X)

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Tayler Simon (00:02.734)

Hey y 'all, welcome to the Liberation is Lit podcast where the power of storytelling meets the force of social change. I'm your host, Taylor Simon, and in this podcast, we believe in the profound impact of stories. Today, I'm here with Evelyn Berry, my good friend, and we're going to talk about all things poetry, writing, all that good stuff. So welcome, Evelyn.

Just to kick things off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself as a writer and what inspires you to write? Yeah, so my name is Evelyn Berry. I am a writer, I'm an editor, I'm an educator, I'm the author of a new debut poetry collection called Grief Sluts, which is out this year from Sundress Publications. I write primarily about the...queer, South. So I'm really inspired by Southern writers as well as queer writers and writing from a vein that kind of reclaims space as our own to say, Hey, you know what, actually I belong here. I have a history and a legacy within this space that I can claim as well, even if that's a history that is a little less known or not always told. So, through my work, both fiction and poetry, I want to help tell those stories, those historical stories, as well as my own stories.

Tayler Simon (01:36.974)

I love that so much. It's almost like archival work. And I've been talking to a lot of Black women lately, just three different Black women that I've encountered in the last week or so, they've all been doing archival work. And I feel like a lot of your writing is, even talking from your own personal experience, that's still queer history in the South. So, let's get into your book and talking about grief slut. Okay, so I am just like, fascinated by the title. So what inspires you to like, put together the collection and call it grief slut? Yeah, so since this is my first collection, I think that it's hard to say that I had kind of a

theme in mind. I feel like what generally happens with first collections or release for me is that I put together like a manuscript and was like, this is it. This is the manuscript. I'm going to send it out to publishers. And then it got rejected a whole bunch. And then I wrote some more poems and then I took some poems out, put some poems in, and then I sent that manuscript out. And it was kind of a ship of theses moment, right? Where I was taking parts away, putting it back, and it was kind of the same book evolving. And it was only after the whole thing was complete that I felt like I had strong homes to make an actual book that I started to think a little bit more strategically about like, okay, well, when I sell this book, what is it about? Like, what is this thing? And there was two major themes, one of which is grief. I had written a chapbook back in 2019 called Glitter Husk that dealt a lot with grief. And since then I kind of experienced even more grief. And there was one of these things where I said, I'm done writing about grief. I'm gonna put this chapbook out and be done with it. And then it was not done with me, which is obviously a silly thing. Grief is never done with you for your whole life, turns out. And then the other thing that I was writing about was sex. So I had written this other chapbook.

Tayler Simon (03:48.942)

in 2020, it had been published in 2020 called Buggery. And this was a book that served as kind of a really sloppy archive of desire. And it was also in a way like a coming out for me. I feel like I've come out in a million different ways as like bisexual, as gay, as non -binary, as a trans woman.

So this is almost like the next evolution. So this book is interesting because it is about grief, but it's also about the grief of the self reconsidering the self and writing an elegy for the self that one is losing when you recreate yourself. And at the same time, it is very much rooted in the South. The first part of this book particularly kind of deals with the concept of boyhood and what does it mean to be a boy, especially in the American South, and especially in a context in which like violence is the way that we learn to be men. And like thinking back now as a trans woman, how do I conceptualize boyhood now? Because I think it's really easy to look back and say, I was never a boy or I never experienced that. And that's really true. I feel like I had a very different upbringing.

But I still think it's really interesting to think about the way in which that gets contextualized in retrospect. So there's a lot of things happening in this book, as you can see. But in general, yeah, grief slack came from basically almost a joke, actually. I was like chatting with some friends and I was like, well, this book is about grief. So I had all these, I kind of wrote down the word grief and had all these things like, it could be about this and that. And that felt a little too on the nose.

I also thought about calling it like something slut. I think there was like brew slut or something like that and sugar wreck and rust feather. There was like all these kinds of combinations of things that I was like, Ooh, same thing with glitter husk. I was really taken with that. I was kind of upset that I'd already used the word glitter in a title. So I was like, I can't use glitter anymore.

Tayler Simon (06:05.646)

And so, Grief Slut, I was like, what if I just called the book Grief Slut? And people were like, actually, you've got something there. But it's a book that went through a million titles. For most of the time, it was in manuscript form. It was called Crown Me Queen of the Chitlin Strat, which I was told was really long and also might have run up against some problems with copyright because the Chitlin Strat is a real festival here in South Carolina.

that might not want to be associated with me. But yeah, that's kind of how it came into being. I love that. And I love that, like, so I have it on the bookstore display table and immediately people are always like, what is this about? They pick it up. And it's so funny, like watching the older people pick it up too, because there's just like, some people see it and like, pretend they don't see it. And then like, you get the curious older people, they're like,

Hmm. And I always find that like hilarious. Because everybody's like just drawn in by the title and like the cover and everything. So you talked a lot about like your work being centered just about the like history and your history of like queerness, especially in the South. Like, I wanted to ask you what are your thoughts about the importance of queer representation, especially in the South?

Yeah, I think that when we think about queer representation, it is a question of possibility. So for me, it took a long time before I read any book that featured a gay character or especially written by a gay author. Even longer to read a book by a trans person. I wanna say that it was probably 2019 or so before I read any book by, that's not true. I read some memoirs, but yeah, it took me a long time to read like novels by trans people. And now I've read a bunch of them. And it was this kind of moment of realizing, actually, if I hadn't have read this, I might not have known that this would speak to me. But you have to kind of know that it exists before you can identify with it.

Tayler Simon (08:29.614)

And I think that stories and whether it's a queer character or queer voices can kind of help give language to what we're feeling, what we're experiencing. And I think the really cool thing that's happening right now, specifically in trans and queer literature, is that I think that we are expanding what that representation looks like. So for a very long time, I mentioned like trans memoirs. There was a very specific, narrative of trans women, for example, about like how you felt as a child and then going through a certain process of surgery. And it was kind of this very stable, same narrative, right, that is told over and over again, which I think gives us a lot of comfort to say, I can fit into this narrative. And something I'm seeing now, which I really like, is seeing authors,

kind of start to play with that. I mean, it's not just started happening. This is more than a decade ago that books like Nevada by Imogen Binney came out that I think really mixed, not mixed up, but kind of threw open the floodgates of what is possible to talk about in trans literature. Same, I just read Reverse Cowboy by an author named Mackenzie Wark, which is like a autobiography memoir thing.

The way that she talks about pre -transition felt so much truer to me than some of the memoirs I've read where it's like, and then I was five years old and said, I was a girl. It's usually so much more confusing than that. So that representation specifically, I find really interesting because I think that trans people are starting to feel a little bit more courageous to tell their stories the way they are rather than the way that people expect them to be.

Tayler Simon (10:28.174)

I love that so much. And I'm definitely taking notes of the book recommendations. They'll be listed on the website and the notes, everything. And kind of also speaking about just representation like outside of books, I would love to hear more about your work and how you got involved with Queer Writers of Columbia. Because I know I go and I really enjoy the atmosphere and the community.

would love to learn how you got involved with that word. Yeah, of course. So it's gonna take a little bit of backstory. So to give some context, when I was in college, actually, you know, Moses Oaktree. So he and I went to high school together and college together. We met in college and we started an open mic series called the Unspoken Word. This was a spoken word series that was, of meant to serve as a bridge between different poetry communities. This project really expanded in a lot of different directions. So we had a poetry slam called the Holy City Youths, Holy City Slam, we had a youth slam component. We eventually, after he left Charleston, I brought other people on board and incorporated it into a nonprofit.

Which was probably a very silly thing for me to do at the age of 21 is to be the president of a nonprofit, because I didn't know how that worked. And eventually it did kind of crash and burn once I got into the quote, quote real world and had to like, you know, learn about taxes. But it was a really transformational experience for me because I was building a poetry career within the context of community.

And I remember just really needing community because I wasn't an English major. I've never gotten MFA. And I felt kind of outside of a lot of those institutions of poetry because I didn't have the right credentials or I didn't have the right kind of poetry, which is one of the big reasons I kind of gravitated towards spoken word because of the kind of...embrace of different styles of poetry in that space. And also the community aspect of it. I think especially in the South, poetry slam and spoken word spaces are not just spaces to share poetry, but also to encourage community activism and engagement. So they will put on workshops, literacy workshops for teens, poetry workshops. I've been a part of poetry groups that are just like, we're poets and we're also going to clean up the highway because we're engaged right in the community.

And I moved to Aiken, South Carolina in 2017 from Charleston, and I immediately felt that lack of community. So another friend of mine, Jennifer and I started a writing group called Whiskey Writers, which is pretty much what it sounds like. There's a road called Whiskey Road. So we'd meet at a bar and we'd drink and we would write. And eventually, you know, I was meeting people who were kind of getting interested in publishing.

So I started to teach workshops for free. So we would sometimes do like an hour of workshop and then an hour of writing. And then I moved again to Columbia. And I think that during 2020, 2021, that group at Aiken really kind of just kind of died away just due to the fact that we weren't meeting anymore. And I found plenty of like online spaces, but I really, really missed meeting with people in person.

But I was starting to have a problem, which is that in 2021, I started transitioning and I had always been queer, but now I was just more and more noticeably queer. And so when I stepped into a space, like a writing space, it was like I was the trans person, right? And on top of that, I was writing about like trans characters at that time. I mean, still am, but you know, I was kind of getting a lot of weird questions if I go to like a...normal writing workshop community, writing workshop, people might spend the whole time talking about or debating transness or queerness as like a moral imperative rather than talking about the craft of the story. And of course I was like, that's not what I want to spend my time doing. I don't want to spend my time like literally defending myself. I actually like to hear what you think of the story, but you know, instead it was just like, well, I thought it was gross. They had sex and it's like, I'm going to write about sex no matter what. So, how do I find a group of people who might kind of move past that initial difference and hopefully engage a little bit more and also find a group of people who not just critique each other, because I don't love critique groups to be honest. I'm sensitive maybe and I love working with editors, but pure critique gets me a little on edge. So instead I was like, well, what if instead of critiquing each other, we're just writing together, we're supporting each other.

It is, we are peers, you know, there is not a person who is saying, hi, I'm gonna tell you what's wrong with your work, but instead open doors and say, here's like a resource you can have, here's this, here's that. Cause that's the only way I've built my career at all is that writers have said, hey, did you know about this? Have you applied to this? Did you see this? So that's where Queer Writers of Columbia came from. I had, I met with a friend,

I never met them before actually, Eden Prime. And we were set up by my ex -boyfriend who they were really good friends with. And we just hit it off really well. We're like, we should start a writing group together. And I knew they already wanted to. And I said, you know, I think this is the time to do it. I was finally in a place in Columbia where I'd been here about a year, feeling settled a little bit more and wanted to do something in the community. And to be honest, I really hope to do more of that. I've been really busy this year with my own touring.

So I am working on ways to make it a little bit more consistent. We're gonna do the same things every month and starting with an open mic. So we're gonna do open mic next week, which is May 30th, which this might not be out by then, but hopefully those will be more consistent and we'll be working maybe not at bars. I think we're gonna start to turn away from bars and start to work with more.

LGBT community centers as well as community spaces like Queer Haven.

Tayler Simon (17:12.366)

Yes, definitely excited for that. And I feel like it's still really consistent despite you being so busy. And I'm like, I don't understand how you do it all. I just struggle. I don't know. This was honestly why I so, you know, to give context, I just got back yesterday from a vacation to Alaska and it was badly needed. I've really been burning the river, traveling.

doing probably one to two shows a week since December, so it's been busy. And so some months I might have like nine or 10 events going on. And Pride Month is coming up, so it's another busy month ahead. Yes, please find time to rest and recharge. Doesn't have to be going to Alaska again, but...

places here too. Yes, yes. You kind of touched on this a little bit about the overlap between like, like poets and activism. How do you see your work specifically overlapping with like writing and activism?

That's an interesting question. I think that I have two conflicting feelings about it. I'll tell you the positive feeling first, which is that I forget how often things I think or know aren't common knowledge or aren't commonly thought about. So sometimes going into a space and talking about,

even just my own trans experience or trans history opens up a door to a new conversation about trans people. And it's a weird responsibility to have. Like sometimes I definitely love doing things with queer spaces and stuff, but I also want to go into rural spaces and want to go into poetry spaces that aren't centered around queerness, which means that I am often the only queer person in the room.

Tayler Simon (19:26.606)

Sometimes I've been told very often, and this isn't that uncommon, especially in South Carolina, they'll be like, you're the first trans person I've ever met, which is probably not really true. It's just the first trans person they know that they've met, but still it's really interesting because then, you know, people are not always good at asking questions in a way that feels respectful.

But at the same time, I want to acknowledge like, okay, like this is actually really new for you. How do I approach this conversation or how do I approach the space for what you need? Because you're the audience I'm serving. So if I'm going into any space or if I'm talking to queer youth, I'm thinking, okay, like what might people in this room benefit from hearing today or benefit from

hearing. And the other thing too is that, you know, when I'm doing maybe panels or readings, I try to connect like issues to ways they can actually take action. So if I bring up anti -trans legislation, I say, Hey, you know, this is a way you can actually contact your senators and stuff like that. Sometimes I even will team up with like an organization. So recently we did a event for trans day visibility in Charleston and had different

Groups come out basically. So it was like my book release party, but we also had, we are family, which helps queer youth find housing. We had planned parenthood talking about at that point, the impending kind of abortion ban. We had free mom hugs who are really sweet people and AFA, which helps basically provide legislative support for queer people.

I want to say there was one other and I'm sorry I don't remember. But yeah, but yeah, we can bring these kind of people to the Charleston Ferry Coalition, which is like a more kind of grassroots activist group. But yeah, like anything like that, I think when I see, I think the poetry itself can be really powerful, but also has to be paired with some sort of action. And you want to give people access to the action. I think people often feel like, they can't do anything.

Tayler Simon (21:42.702)

But if you bring them into a space and say, you can do it tonight right here, it's really easy, it's a social venue, people I think respond really well to that. And that's obviously just one part of the work, but that's the part of the work I do. Which is to say, I actually don't consider myself an activist. Only because I think the like, there was like an era of poets who were like, I'm a poet activist. And I just don't think I'm that. I know,

a lot of people who are real activists who are doing a lot of work. And I just don't do that work in that political space in the same way. I've not worked, I have done it in the past, but it's been a long time since I did that work. I think I was a lot more involved in like criminal justice reform at one point, but even with like trans liberation stuff, like I never wanna claim like, what I'm doing is activism.

because I think that artists can delude themselves into thinking that they are the voices of a community when they are not. They are just a voice in the community. And I think it's really important not to try to present that as just like the act of being, I'm sure you've heard before, just existing as a type of activism. And I get where that comes from, but.

There's also like real work out there where people are hitting the streets, calling people, raising money. I think about the people who have like the abortion, the Carolina Abortion Fund, for example, really like raising money to send people to get medical care that they need. Or there's a lot of trans organizations that are like, let's raise money. And every now and again, I try to do that, but I'm not the person who's like, I'm gonna start a nonprofit. And so I'm like, I'll sell books and give the profits to say like,

an organization that will help trans people get medical expenses. So I try to do little things, but I think it's really important for artists to kind of hold themselves accountable to language, right? That word to me means something really specific. And I know not everyone uses it that way. way. way. way. way.

Tayler Simon (24:01.102)

Ooh, I definitely appreciate that perspective and that conversation because I feel like this is kind of what I will run up against when I was like working in like the sexual assault and relationship violence prevention world of like awareness versus action. And so much of what we thought, especially on college campuses, was very awareness building. It's like,

I feel like we have reached the point of, yes, this is the issue that's happening, but we need more of what are we going to do about it? How are we going to create a new world that looks more liberated? So I really enjoyed that nuance that you brought up about what really is activism. Switching gears a little bit.

What are you gave some amazing book recommendations, but what have you been reading lately that's like made a really big impact on you? wow. Let me get some books real quick from my website.

Tayler Simon (25:28.142)

Hi, okay, so first of all, I'm gonna suggest a craft book that I don't think I have with me, but it's called My Trade is Mystery by Coral Phillips. So this is really, I mean, it's not even really a craft book. It is more so a book about what it means to live life as a writer. So it's really short, it's maybe 100 pages and it's seven essays on different themes.

And there were just things I generally don't see writers talking about. So one of them was about ambition, about like, what does it mean to be ambitious as a writer and to like, like have ambition, because I think that could be a really dirty word. So that was really interesting. He's also talks about audience, he talks about politics. It's a really, really interesting book. And I really like Carl Phillips in general, he's wonderful poet.

He also has another book called The Art of Daring, which is part of the Art of series through Grey Wolf that I was blown away by. So I knew I was gonna like this book and I flew by it maybe like a day. I just chilled out on my vacation. So some other books, I wanna suggest some poetry books that I've read. And these are all books that I just feel like I was reading and was just like really blown away by. This is a couple of months ago, I read Mother Body.

by Diamond Ford. She writes about a lot of things. She's also a kind of a confessional poet writing about the black body, but specifically the fat femme body as well, which really spoke to me. She recently has been writing more work in the mode of what she calls the poetics of fatness, which I...

know about like fat liberation, but it was really interesting to see that from a poetic point of view and see like what she does to.

Tayler Simon (27:31.726)

embody that. So anyways, that's Mother Body by Diamond Ford. Another book is Jennifer Conlon by talking, it's Talking to Water, Taking to Water, sorry, by Jennifer Conlon. I'm only about halfway through this book, but it's one of those books that I was just blown away by. They are a non -binary author from North Carolina. And yeah, they are so talented. And the thing I really love about this book is that,

their writing style is actually really similar to mine. So it was very funny. They messaged me and they were like, I'm reading Graves' slut. And I was like, I'm reading your book right now. And we're talking about some of the similarities because we both come from like a queer Southern background. And it's even in the way like our language works within our poems is very similar. So I was like, you're like my country poetry cousin, basically. Like, wow, that's incredible.

Another book that really blew me away, and this will be the last one, is Orders of Service by Willie Lee Kennard III. This book is wild. First of all, I mean, it's beautiful. But also, it's one of these books, it's taking me forever to read because it's dense. Every single poem, I feel like I read and then I read again and it's...

the language is so dense and so clever and stacked with meaning that I feel like every poem is something I can kind of start to pull away on, right? It has layers of mystery behind it. And I'm just kind of blown away by the skill that that took. And what's wonderful is, you know, I say that, but this is a book, you know, you can read and understand on a...

basic level as well, but I think there's also just a lot of thought put to every single poem. And that's the sort of poetry I really love where I'm like, this person is working on a linguistic stylistic level. Also like thematic level that is like next level. So that's Willie Canard, the Third's Orders of Service, which is also these are all really beautiful books as well. Cool cover art. I'm a sucker for cool cover art, of course.

Tayler Simon (29:51.246)

So am I, so am I. Like, I'm definitely not necessarily judged a book by its cover, but if it's pretty. So I just have a couple more questions for you. What are some of your upcoming projects? Yeah, sure. So I have a couple of shows coming up. I don't know how much I should pitch here because I don't know when this is coming out.

but maybe it's gonna come out in June -ish? We're talking about June? Okay, let's talk June. Okay, so in Columbia on June 15th, I'm gonna be doing a poetry and drag show at Azalea Coffee. So I'm gonna be teaming up with some of our local drag kings and drag queens to do a poetry drag show. This is something I've wanted to do since briefs that came out. I love drag, but something I think is always really funny is that like,

I come into a space as a trans woman performer and sometimes get read as a drag performer when I'm like, girl, I'm not wearing that much makeup. It's not that serious, but it's really interesting how often that is mixed up. So I kind of wanted to mess with that and actually perform with drag performers. I'm always looking to do work with other art forms that might not be expected.

So that's gonna be June 15th. I think we're performing at 1 p at Azalea Coffee. So it'll be like a middle of the day drag show on a Saturday. It's gonna be a lot of fun. Come out, Pride. Woohoo! Recently, speaking of cool stuff, we have some videos coming out. So one of them is of a performance of a poetry opera that I was a part of called Singers and Stanzas in Charleston, South Carolina. So the Holy City Arts and Lyrics Opera teamed up.

four poets from South Carolina, including myself, with a composer named Laura Acosta, Jobin Acosta. And she wrote these beautiful renditions of our poems, like made them into things. And then we brought on a pianist and two opera singers to perform them. So about two or so weeks ago, I got to see this performed live in Charleston. It was the world debut. I was blown away. I'm really hoping that...

Tayler Simon (32:12.43)

the songs and this kind of song cycle can continue to live in the world in a lot of different ways. So we're going to see what happens with that. But I believe that they'll be releasing a video soon. So people will be able to actually watch it. And it's incredible. Like I was, like I said, blown away, absolutely blown away. Another video project I'll be part of is that there's a local photographer named Jared Johnson.

who was involved with All Good Books and he put together a panel of local poets to talk about kind of the state of poetry in Columbia, South Carolina. So we did a panel discussion at the Coger Center for the Arts and filmed it. And it's gonna be coming out next month in June as well. So if you go to the Coger Center YouTube channel or their Instagram page, you can see clips from that interview. It's gonna be kind of posted over the course of several weeks.

as a series about the arts here in South Carolina. So I'm super excited to see that come to fruition. And as far as other shows, yeah, I mean, I'm gonna be performing in Greenville and Charleston again. So I'm performing at Coffee Underground in Greenville and I'll be performing at the, actually the Summerville Oomen Arts Center at the end of June. So lots of cool events coming up.

And projects, I'm just working on some stuff. I'm working on a second poetry book. I'm working on a novel. I'm working on, I guess the biggest project I'm doing actually is a business. So I am in the process of launching an editing business called Ecstatic Stanzas. So this is basically an everything writing business. I offer custom poems on typewriters and go to shows.

I also offer editing. So that's everything from copy editing to content editing, mostly specifically for creative writers. So I've been working with people editing for almost a decade now, but I'm kind of finally starting like a business about it and taking it a little bit more seriously. And we'll be sharing a lot more about that in the near future. And that's called ecstatic stanzas in case anyone's interested in checking it out.

Tayler Simon (34:33.902)

my gosh, once again, I don't know how you do it all. I am just always in awe of like, your passion and like your creativity and just like all that you do. And I wanna thank you for being on the podcast today and sharing such wonderful, like I was taking a list of all the organizations you mentioned, all the books you mentioned.

All of that will be in the notes. But lastly, where can people find you and your work on these internet streets? Yeah, of course. So the easiest way to find me is at EvelynBerryWriter .com. That has all of my published work online, as well as a place to buy my books directly for me. So I can send you a signed copy. It's also where you can learn about all of my editing services, workshops, et cetera. And you can find me on social media at EvelynBerryWriter .com.

Barry Ryder. I'm on Instagram, Facebook, and

Tayler Simon (35:39.726)

I'm also on Twitter, but don't follow me there. That's where I post stuff. Don't worry about that. my gosh. I'll never forget. I told this to the USC students the other day and they laughed and one girl was like, I'm still thinking about it. But I told them the other day that my sister called me a millennial for using Threads. Cause I never got my Twitter girly era, but like I'm all about Threads.

I love that. I gave up on Threads really quickly. So maybe I need to get back on there. It just was not what I needed. Twitter is its own nightmare. The problem is like Twitter is where I have like a really robust writing community. So it's kind of hard. Yeah. It's starting to go over to Instagram and stuff, but yeah. Yeah, definitely get that. Well, thank you so much again for being on the podcast today.

And if you listeners have any stories to share, want to suggest topics, or just want to connect, you can find us on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok at liberationislit or visit our website, liberationislit .com. You enjoyed this episode. Please consider leaving a review. And remember that your voice matters. And together through the lens of stories, we're going to make a difference in the world. Thank you.


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