September 20th, 2023
Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:
Jacqueline Berger, Poet, Educator
interviewed by David Garyan
Jacqueline Berger’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature
DG: For years, you’ve been an advocate of free writing. Many writers and theorists have their own idea about what that means. Can you talk about the approach as it specifically relates to you and how you first came to adopt it?
I was studying with Olga Broumas and Jane Miller in a converted silo in Vermont, winter alone was astounding to a girl from LA, and freewriting was central to their teaching. It was a remarkable education, completely minimal—just hand to page—and completely transformative. I had no idea at twenty what was inside me. I still generate material in this manner, and I have always used the method in the classes I teach; sometimes this is met with groans. I get it. That great line from Sappho: if you’re squeamish don’t prod the beach rubble. But how else get to the bottom of ourselves, and get to the particular language that lives there, similar to the language of dreams. At best, free writing is a kind of dreaming, a trance state. I love when I don’t remember, really, what I just wrote.
DG: You see writing as an essential component of teaching craft and vice versa. How do you approach the teaching of creative writing and what’s the most effective way to critique student writing?
It would be hard to teach writing if I weren’t actively involved in my own work. The conversations that happen between writers in a class is inspiring. In fact, my poem “Why I’m Here” came from a student presentation. She instructed us to write on that topic, though for her “here” meant in graduate school. I just extended the idea.
As for critiquing, I don’t think I’m unique in my approach: start global before getting sentence-level, start with positives. Olga used to say “run your hand over the page and stop where it gets hot.” Where is the poem already doing what you need it to? How can you shape the rest of the poem to support and develop that?
DG: In the Changing Lives Through Literature Program, you had the privilege of working in a correctional facility. Can you talk about that experience, and how the dynamics change (if at all) teaching writing in prison as opposed to in school?
I’ve taught writing on a few occasions in women’s correctional facilities, and each time I found the work exhilarating and exhausting. Because the students live together, and in such stressful conditions, the relationships between them are boundaryless. They can be intrusive and brazen with each other and with me in a way that’s so different from college students who have devoted years to editing their personas. So, while I found it necessary at times to set limits in prison classes, I also found myself carried along on this wave of anything goes. The students had a huge need to release what was inside them, and my work was to create paths in and ways to hold what arose. Incarcerated students carry the tremendous sadness and rage that comes with chronic abuse and poverty. So much of teaching, in any setting but particularly here, is about giving attention. And permission.
DG: Many of your poems deal with difficult subjects such as aging, loss, and disillusionment, and yet there is a great deal of hope in each of them. Most of all, they are written in clear, accessible language. Do you see writing as more of a cathartic process, or do you prefer, first, to come to terms with an emotion before you approach the page?
I suppose it’s some of each. I don’t have any particular requirement for how fully processed my emotions are as I approach the page. Though if I had to choose a preference, I would go for catharsis because it seems so potentially dynamic. The moment of awareness happening in real time. Discovery rather than documentation. In that way, I’m an exhibitionist on the page. I’d like to say I’ll show you anything.
The page is my listening self. The screen, as I move from notebook to laptop, is where, hopefully, I craft the spill. At best, the pursuit of beauty clarifies truth. At worst, it smudges. Isn’t this the dilemma of poetry? Or if not the dilemma, certainly the challenge. But I think dilemma too.
DG: In your 2018 collection, The Day You Miss Your Exit, the overarching theme is direction, the choices we make in life that brings to one place as opposed to another. Regret is a universal theme and yet also so specific because we perceive our own struggles as unique. The “I,” hence is of utmost importance here. Did you ever struggle reconciling the “I” of your life to bring authenticity and the “I” of the narrator that transmits universal reliability, and should that ever be a concern for any writer?
Let me answer by considering my taste as a reader. The more personal the writing, the better I like it. I don’t know the people in books; what do I care whether it’s factual or imagined life? I want to know how others live. Relatability has to do with the depth and quality of the exploration. I recently rewatched My Dinner with Andre, still so great, and Wallace Shawn has that wonderful line: “I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out! I mean… I mean, isn’t there just as much ‘reality’ to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest?”
DG: Your poem, “Why I’m Here,” featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, serves as the perfect illustration of the personal and impersonal “I.” In starting with a simple question, you build tension from personal history to history in general, returning to the personal and ending with the image of the dusk sky that turns into night. The previous line saying “It’s right to praise the random, / the tiny god of probability that brought us here,” seems to suggest that the search for meaning is futile (a preoccupation with the past) and that living with conviction (rather with a firm awareness of history) is the real goal. Would this be a possible reading of the poem or were you intending something else?
I’m drawn to understanding how trauma and insecurity shape family dynamics. So I wouldn’t say I’m not obsessed with history and meaning, but I’m also obsessed with the sheer flukiness of life. If my parents hadn’t separately gone to this particular dance, on a night when neither maybe really wanted to go out at all, and met; if my father hadn’t given his foxhole to his friend and dug a second for himself, thereby escaping the bombing of the first, etc. So, yes, I do think living with conviction, or fascination, even gratitude is the real work. Search for meaning all you want; see where that gets you. Like most readers, I’m not going to literature for answers but interestingly articulated questions.
DG: Have your writing habits changed as a result of the pandemic?
In the second year of the pandemic, the college where I had taught for twenty-five years laid off nearly all of the faculty. Suddenly I was retired, but for a bit of part-time teaching. Now, instead of getting dressed and heading out the door, I use mornings to write. Mostly this is wonderful, though the luxury of time also includes time spent ruminating! Without the wheel of routine, a great deal of hitherto avoided questioning makes itself known.
DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?
I’m finishing a new manuscript. Which means sometimes I feel that I’ve finally said what’s true and sometimes, in almost the next instant, feel I’m kidding myself, that I have no idea what’s true. I suppose we never outgrow that doubt.
As for reading, I spent the last weeks of August with Anna Karenina, which completely disabused me of the notion that humans have evolved over time. Our situations have, but not our hearts. And the brilliance of Tolstoy means I will happily go wherever he takes me.
Another, very different, summer read: Matthew Dickman’s wonderful new book of poems Husbandry. His language is so perfect and so willing to peel off every layer of defense and obfuscation. A great lesson in beauty.
Jacqueline Berger is the author of four books of poetry, including The Day You Miss Your Exit and The Gift That Arrives Broken, winner of the 2010 Autumn House Poetry Prize. Selected poems have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac. She is a professor emerita of English at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California.