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

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