Conversation with Noah Berlatsky
Noah chats about growing a substack past 5,000, political freelance writing, poetry and politics, upcoming collage poetry chapbooks, reusing old poems, and cultural marxism dog whistles
Noah Berlatsky (he/him) is a freelance writer in Chicago. His first poetry collection, Not Akhmatova (Ben Yehuda Press), is forthcoming. His chapbook Send $19.99 for Supplements and Freedom (above/ground) was just released.
Noah is also the author of the poem “Children of Light” from Radon issue 5.
Q: As an accomplished freelance writer, how did you find your way to writing poetry? Tell us about your approach to writing poetry and how it compares to your approach to nonfiction?
Well, it’s the other way around, really. I tried being a poet after dropping out of grad school, and failed miserably. So the joke about critics being failed writers, that’s me! After 20 years or so though I decided to try again, and I’ve been somewhat more successful at poeting this time, for reasons that are unclear to me. Maybe the stars are better aligned? Who knows?
I do write poetry much more quickly now after a couple decades of writing prose every day. Being a working writer bashes the perfectionism right out of you, which makes it easier to finish things. I’d say in terms of how poetry and essays differ . . . I generally have a plan for what I’m going to say in essays, and then the task is to work through the outline in my head. Poetry I often have formal constraints or a process, but I generally discover the content as I go.
Q: Do you feel that you're more of a poet these days than you were before?
Well, I’m more of a poet than I was for those 20 years in there where I wasn’t writing poetry!
Q: You wrote that your recent chapbook, Send $19.99 for Supplements and Freedom, is "a collection of collages and word garble" that spans 25 years. How did you go about creating and putting forth this expansive project? What was the impetus for doing so?
I went about creating it by writing a bunch of collage poems which absolutely no one was interested in printing or reading, so they sat on my desktop for a quarter century. When I started writing again I wrote some more in that vein, and then a friend suggested that above/ground press might be interested. And they were!
Q: You mention letting your poems/series of poems sit for years. Is coming back to contextualize old work something you regularly enjoy doing?
It's less that it's something that I enjoy, and more that I have a lot of old poems that I never ended up being able to place anywhere! So recently I've been going back to some of those and seeing if I can write more like them and get a chapbook manuscript or some such out of it.
Q: Tell us about writing from a leftist/antifascist/independent perspective and how that informs both your poetry and your freelance/journalistic writing.
I’m a lefty antifascist sort. I do a lot of political writing—anti prison, pro trans, anti racism, pro sex workers. My arts criticism is also political in relatively straightforward ways (I wrote about the antifascist implications of Stop Making Sense not that long ago, for example.)
Poetry is a little trickier, though a lot of what I write is satiricial in one way or another; the title poem of my chapbook is a pantoum made up of quotes from Joe Rogan transcripts, for example. My full length coming out next year is translations/responses to Anna Akhmatova’s poetry. It’s a sideways effort to talk about and validate Jewish experience of diaspora, which I feel is a political project in its way. But then I sometimes write haiku about my dog. So it varies.
Q: What first brought you into the political and activist sphere?
I don’t know that I’d say I’m an activist! As a political writer . . . I don’t know. I’ve thought about politics as long as I’ve been writing I guess. James Baldwin is maybe my favorite writer ever, and his commitment to using writing to highlight injustice is inspiring. I feel like if you have a platform, even a pretty small one like mine, you should try to do some good with it if you can.
Q: Do you believe that all poetry is inherently political, or that poetry exists in its own sphere?
Politics is just the power relationships between people, and it’s hard to avoid. I do think all writing, including poetry, is an effort to communicate, and once you start having people talk to each other, politics is going to enter in. It can be more or less overt, of course.
Q: In 2019 you wrote on the "cultural Marxism" dog whistle used by the anti-semitic far-right. What are the 2023 dog whistles you would hope people watch out for?
Well, “cultural Marxism” is still around; these things tend to not go away. You hear terms like “globalist” and attacks on George Soros more and more on the right these days; those are pretty explicit antisemitic dogwhistles which are very dangerous and volatile. The guy who murdered people at Tree of Life in 2018 was motivated by George Soros conspiracy theories.
Q: Did you find it difficult to reach 5,000 subscribers on your Substack?
I wouldn’t say it was exactly difficult, because I don’t know what I did that brought it about! When Substack’s social media app Notes launched, the algorithm really boosted my posts for a bit. I don’t know why that happened, but that got me a lot of followers. Also I write regularly for Aaron Rupar’s Public Notice, which is a huge substack; I think half my followers found me through that.
Q: You keep a near every-day posting pace on your Substack. How do you keep up?
I write very quickly, and tend to hyperfixate. (I’m neurodivergent.) Also after writing for 20 years I have a huge backlog of articles to share/reprint. So between those two things I can usually find something to post every day.
Q: Do you have any advice for others battling insomnia?
I wish I did! If I had good advice, maybe I’d be better at getting to sleep!
Q: Tell us about what formal constraints and processes you give yourself when writing poetry?
Well, there's kind of a wide range? I have a series of villanelles which just use one letter of the alphabet each, is maybe the most extreme example. I'm writing a thing now that's kind of an ode, where the lines alternate syllables 12-12-5-5. I wrote a pantoum using quotes from Joe Rogan transcripts. I just wrote a series of poems semi algorithmically rearranging words from a Gertrude Stein stanza.
I write free verse sometimes too, but I often feel like it's more fun to have some constraints.
Q: We'd love to know what you have planned for your writing career in the near future?
My first collection, Not Akhmatova, is coming out from Ben Yehuda press next year, and LJMcD Communications is going to publish two or three chapbooks of mine as well . . . I"ve got a bunch of other manuscripts and poems out various places. And otherwise just plugging along! I'm trying to write a little poetry every day, though can't promise for sure I'll keep that up!