Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Interview with poet Jacqueline Berger

For this blog, I interviewed the poet Jacqueline “Jackie” Berger, whose work includes a surprising combination of laugh-out-loud humor and deep pathos. Jackie’s poetry raises intriguing questions and provides much inspiration for writers.

Poet Jacqueline Berger
Her most recent book of poems, The Day You Miss Your Exit, was published by Broadstone Books. 


Her first three poetry collections all won prestigious prizes:


Jackie’s poems have also been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac. She’s a professor of English at Notre Dame de Namur University and lives in San Francisco.

Zack Rogow: Your book The Day You Miss Your Exit includes many different emotions, from sadness, to nostalgia, to uproarious humor. Sometimes you switch moods several times in the midst of a poem, often shifting from one line to another. Do you plan these mood changes or do they occur organically as you’re writing? How are you able to combine seemingly contradictory emotions in one poem, such as the amazing poem “Obituary of a Stranger”?

Jacqueline Berger: I don’t plan anything when it comes to writing! Though I sometimes do begin with a persistent image or idea. But writing, for me, in the generating stage, is a free fall. Because I always go after the raw material by hand and am devoted to the practice of keeping the hand moving, no stopping and thinking, I love most when sometimes after writing I really don’t know exactly what I’ve written at all. That suggests another part of the brain has been in charge. Not unlike the part that dreams come from.

So, yes, the mood changes occur organically. And this book was written in the shadow of my parents’ nearly back-to-back deaths when my emotional state was all over the map. Grief has a way of recruiting every other emotion, including but not limited to longing, regret, hilarity, or is that hysteria? I think it’s like that for many people.

ZR: Several very moving poems deal with an aging father, and fathers in general. What inspired you to write about that topic at this point in your life?

JB: As I said, I wrote most of the poems in the book as my parents were dying, and then just after. My relationship with my father was complicated, and I apparently needed to go over and over that terrain, at each pass trying to come away with fuller understanding and more compassion, for both of us. And though they didn’t make it into the book, I wrote an equal if not greater number of poems about my mother, most of which simply didn’t move beyond “wahhh!!!” These were poems of emotional necessity, but perhaps because the emotion was so overwhelming I simply had no room for perspective, let alone craft.

ZR: Many of the poems also deal with the details of growing up in a very specific time and place, in your case, Los Angeles in the 1960s, I’m guessing. How does a writer incorporate the very personal specifics of her or his background into poems in a way that can engage a wide audience who may not have shared any of those same experiences growing up?

JB: West L.A. in the 60s and 70s, yes. For years I was never able to write about place, the same way that, before this book, I was never able to write about family. Just not my subject matter. Then the floodgates opened and I couldn’t write about anything else.

But I do think specificity is a form of intimacy. Anyone’s details, rendered with precision and, hopefully, beauty, connect us back, as readers, to our own details. I might not know your streets, but your naming makes me remember, makes me return.

Then, too, my parents’ moment in history as first-generation American Jews tells a story of the 20th century that I think is worth remembering. My father fought in World War II, then on the GI Bill became a nuclear engineer. His career played out against the initial optimism of peacetime atom-splitting and then its demise.

And his own birth, as I mention in “Obituary of a Stranger,” came about because of his mother’s failed DIY abortion. Meanwhile, my mom’s mother worked with Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth control movement. We kids inherited this rich mix, though we weren’t necessarily aware of it. Our obsessions—we just missed the hippies, but still listened to Jimi Hendrix, dropped acid, grew pot in the closet, generally took wild advantage of our second-generation, middle-class privilege.

ZR: Several poems deal with end of life, both the loss of elderly parents, and the writer’s heightening sense of her own aging and mortality. Do the poems offer any sense of consolation, given that the book doesn’t have a traditional religious perspective?

JB: I hope so. This is how I experience consolation: the night my mother died, my husband and I jumped into the car and drove from San Francisco to L.A., staying at the Ramada on the Grapevine, then arriving at our family’s house the next morning. Already there were cousins and old friends and neighbors setting out lox and bagels.

Later that day, my brother and my husband and I drove to Mt. Sinai in the Valley to view the body—horrible expression—which involved my clinging to the coldness of my mother while my brother stood in the doorway weeping. We also purchased funeral plots, which our parents, in their death denial, had failed to do.

Afterwards, we went out for cocktails in Pasadena, and it just felt good being in this pared-down moment, drunk and happy and sad. I knew when I was back in my regular life, grief would nail me, and it did, but this first week after my mother’s death, I was held aloft by love. I hope some of this feeling made its way into the poems.

ZR: Your book ends with a poem called “Day of Atonement” that refers to the holiday of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Jewish calendar. In this poem, the speaker pleads with God to write our names, but not in the traditional Book of Life, but in some of the most rough-and-tumble places that words could appear:

            Inscribe us on a wad of paper
            pulled from a coat pocket,
            the pen, almost out of ink,
            pulled from another pocket

Why is the speaker asking god to inscribe our lives in the most mundane and scruffiest of places, and not in a more exalted place?

JB: We live our lives in the scruff, and if there is any inscribing to be done, which is the work of memory, it’s not exalted, but messy, “in the midst of,” minus God's leather-bound ledger of names. Of course the poem is also an ironic questioning of the emotional usefulness of the whole idea of God. My dad stopped going to temple after his stroke because he felt abandoned. So it was liberating to speak directly to God in the poem: “Scar us, kick us hard enough to bruise.” But hopefully the WTF humor comes through as well. That’s what saves us. That and how great it is to be here at all.

ZR: Do you have any advice in general for new and prospective writers who hope to publish their work?

JB: Try as many angles as possible. Go to poetry readings and workshops, get to know lots of poets; publishing, like everything, happens through personal connections. Also, send your work out, enter contests, if you can afford it, and certainly have an online presence with social media, though I’m the worst person to give that advice! And beyond that, try to limit the amount of emotional energy you put into publishing or not publishing. You write because you need and want to. Make sure that’s center stage.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, February 7, 2020

Spontaneity, Wit, Improvisation, and Automatic Writing: How to Write Better Than Your Conscious Mind

When a person is about to say something funny during a conversation, s/he starts to speak without forming an idea of what words to use. A witty comment usually begins with only a vague impulse that the moment and the context are ripe for humor. This is an intuitive feeling, and it’s the act of launching into the conversation that helps the speaker to form specific words that make people laugh.

Similarly, when a jazz musician is about to start a solo, I don’t think that person has a clear idea what s/he is going to play. It’s just a willingness to jump in and get into the groove the band has set in motion that provides the impulse for that riff.

Automatic writing is also like that. Writers in the surrealist movement in the early 1920s invented automatic writing—André Breton described the process this way in his “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924):

Portraits of André Breton by Man Ray
Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, and the talents of everyone else. Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything. Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you’re writing and be tempted to reread what you have written.

In other words, write faster than you can edit with your rational mind, and the results will outpace anything you thought you could create.

The surrealist group practicing automatic writing in the 1920s
The human mind is far more brilliant than our conscious mind. One of the challenges of writing is to let go of our thoughts so that we can actually think with our deeper psyche. Not with the reptilian brain, but with the brain powered by what Federico García Lorca described as the duende, the mischievous sprite that rises from the raw energy of the Earth.

Of course, this dynamic often applies more to poetry than to prose. Fiction and nonfiction writers have to plan, outline, create structure. But poetry thrives on this sort of spontaneous fabrication, taking flight from a platform that is itself already airborne. Or, to paraphrase André Breton, “Trust in the inexhaustible fountain of whispers.”


I don’t mean to suggest that all spontaneous writing is great. Some of it can be downright foolish. But I would say that spontaneity is the source of much of the best and most unexpected writing.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Monday, January 27, 2020

Interview with Poet Frank Paino

Frank Paino’s first two volumes of poetry, The Rapture of Matter and Out of Eden, both from Cleveland State University Press, astonished readers with their exquisite insights into the human condition. His literary mentors include the poets he studied with in the Vermont College MFA program, Mark Doty, Lynda Hull, Richard Jackson, and David Wojahn.

Frank Paino's long-awaited third poetry collection Obscura, can now be preordered through Orison Books.

Frank Paino

Zack Rogow: Should a book of poems have a common subject, theme, or thread? If so, why? And does Obscura have that? If it does, what is the common thread?

Frank Paino: I’m not sure I really buy into the idea of “should” and “should not” when it comes to poetry books. Each is as individual as the poet. That being said, it’s certainly true that most contemporary volumes tend be thematically-oriented. Some readers will find that approach helpful. Others may not.

Personally, I have never set out to deliberately create a manuscript organized around a specific theme; despite that, I really only write about the things I am wildly passionate about, so that narrows the field to such a degree that I think my same little cosmos of themes will always be there for me from book to book.

So…what are my common threads? In no particular order, and very broadly speaking:  Death. Religion and sex/the erotic, which, speaking as an atheist who was raised Catholic, I find to be inextricably bound together. Humanism. The terrible consequences of the worst of our tendencies. Obscure historical facts and events, especially relating to some or all of the above. There are other things I touch upon, of course, but these are my wellsprings.


ZR: If Obscura has a common thread, how did that affect your writing or editing process for the book? Are there ideas for poems you set aside, or entire finished poems you set aside for another collection, in order to maintain a common theme?

FP: The common threads in Obscura are what I mentioned a few moments ago. Yet, despite these connections, I had a difficult time putting the manuscript together because I was (and am) somewhat resistant to the idea of books being divided into sections. Instead of making those separations (which may have been problematic in any case), I just laid all the pieces on the floor and tried to determine how one might speak to another in ways beyond what might seem to be the most obvious. It was a process I both loved and abhorred.

I’ll add here that, as a reader of poetry, I almost never pick up a book and move from cover to cover. Instead, I choose by titles that intrigue me, or, sometimes, I just pick a page number and open to whatever poem happens to be there. I’m not sure if other people read poetry in this manner, but I prefer it that way. I look at each poem as its own world and I’m more than happy to switch things up between pieces. I don’t necessarily want a guide.

As for ideas and/or finished poems that weren’t included in Obscura, I’ve got enough other material for an entire manuscript, mostly older work that didn’t make it into the book for any number of reasons. It’s been over 20 years since I published a volume of poetry. During much of that time, I wrote on and off, but I really didn’t submit to many journals, and I certainly didn’t send manuscripts out until the last few years, so, in addition to a lot of newer work, I have a backlog of older poems.

Perhaps more to your point, though, while there’s nothing wrong with such topics, I don’t have a cache of nature poems, or love poems, or humorous poems, or political poems (you get the picture!) waiting for a new manuscript to fit into. I might experiment with different forms or styles, but my obsessions and passions, my themes, are pretty consistent. The one exception would be personal narratives…something I used to write a lot more of, but, honestly I find myself increasingly disinterested in creating that sort of work. There are exceptions, even in Obscura, but, for now at least, I’m far more interested in looking out at the world.

ZR: A number of the poems in Obscura are based on actual historical events or personages. How do you pick an event or person to write a poem about? How much research about a historical event or person is enough or too much? How do you write your way into an actual event so that you are not writing history or journalism, but approaching the event from a poet’s vantage point? 

FP: I’m not sure I pick an event or person so much as they pick me. If I read about something/someone, or see a show on a rather obscure, strange, dark, or off-the-wall topic, I’ll immediately know if it wants or needs to be a poem I want to take on. Additionally, I have a number of people who know me well enough that when they come across something they consider to be a “Frank topic,” they’ll pass the info on to me. It might be months or years, but a lot of those “tips” have become poems. My sister, Gerrie, is a good one for this sort of thing, but I’m often surprised and delighted by people who think of me when encountering the aforementioned sorts of information. It’s weirdly flattering!

The amount of research varies with my prior familiarity, or lack thereof. In the case of saints, for instance, I have a vast store of that information in my head. But something like William Forsyth’s “reverse Noah’s ark,” which I wrote about in the poem “Falling,” took quite a bit of research.

That being said, I don’t feel an obligation to get all the facts into a poem. Indeed, my first priority is to language...to the craft. Being 100% accurate about every historical fact is secondary. My poem about the space dog Laika is a case in point. I know I don’t have every detail right, but the basics are all there and I think the point is made. Someone, I can’t recall who, once told me about an artist from Newfoundland, Christopher Pratt. As the story goes, Mr. Pratt had a friend who remarked that the artist’s rendering of a hay field was very inaccurate because farmers would never make the haystacks in the way Pratt depicted. To which Pratt replied, “Probably so. But this isn’t a hayfield, it’s a painting.” Well, I’m a poet, not an historian. I want to tell the story, but I don’t feel any obligation to get every detail correct.

Finally, I’m a frustrated visual artist. I think this drives my lyric impulse. As I have no ability to paint or sculpt, I use words as my palette or clay. So, when I approach an actual event, it is with my innate tendency to see things with an artist’s eye…it’s the only way I know to enter those moments, and I think it saves me from any risk of merely recounting “the facts.”

ZR: Many of the poems in Obscura are about ill-starred or doomed events or people—the fire that devastated a pleasure cruise in New York in 1904, the execution of the spy Mata Hari, the suicide of the pregnant Harriet Westbrook Shelley (first wife of the poet Percy Shelley). What is it about the tragedies in this book that tug at you as a writer and make you want to explore them deeply in poetry? 

FP: I’ve got what I consider to be a healthy preoccupation with death. Our culture is such that many people want to ignore the fact of our mortality. But I think it’s critical to embrace that reality so that we are daily inspired to live as fully and as generously as we can. After all, this is the only life we can be certain of, so we should be mindful of making it the best it can be...for ourselves as well as others (including those who will come after us).

One natural avenue to take in this regard is pondering the ways others have faced tragedy and death. This can be quite instructive. It forces me, as a poet, to ask a lot of big questions, and, hopefully, share my perspectives in a way that’s both meaningful and aesthetically resonant with anyone kind enough to read my work.


Finally, I’ll say that while I believe it’s important to write about these topics, I also think there’s a fine line between a kind of redemptive exploration and simply being morbidly voyeuristic. I never want to write about something purely because it’s tragic. I’m interested in holding the darkness up to the light as a means of informing the way I live. My poetry refuses to turn away from disaster, evil, grief, oppression, etc., because it’s searching for a way through. If I’m lucky, whatever path I discover might be one at least a few of my readers will want to travel with me, too.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry