Interview with Poet Jacqueline Berger

First published in San Francisco Review of Books

Berger is the author of three prize-winning books: The Mythologies of Danger (the 1997 Bluestem Award and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Award); Things That Burn, (Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry); and The Gift That Arrives Broken, (Autumn House Poetry Prize). Garrison Keillor recently read two of Berger’s poems on National Public Radio’s Writers’ Almanac. With a Master of Fine Arts from Mills College, Berger teaches creative writing and directs the graduate program in English at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. She lives in San Francisco.

Zara Raab: You’ve written three books, all poetry, all award winners: How did you manage this? Is it as easy as it looks for you to publish?

Jacqueline Berger: I’m incredibly tenacious. I keep sending out my work until it finds a publisher. It took me over a year to find a publisher for my first book, but the first book didn’t ease the way for the second one, which was short-listed for a lot of prizes. I began to feel I was always a brides’ maid, never a bride, but after four years, I did find a publisher for that book, and the next one. Manuscripts never come to a resting place for me: they are always evolving. I begin sending a manuscript out in the fall, but by the spring, it’s a very different manuscript, because I’m constantly revising.

ZR: What are you working on now?

JB: My parents died last year within four months of each other, and my new book’s about death and loss, about living without my parents. My mother got sick in June and died in October. I wrote many poems at the end of her illness, and many are addressed to her. It’s the first time I’ve written to a specific “you.” I could keep her alive through the poems. I could tell her the things that happened to me since she died. We were very close. We didn’t talk about death at the end, because for my mother it wasn’t gong to happen. My mother was sure she would live to be ninety. She died when she was eighty-three. Her belief was her faith and her denial of her own death. What is the relationship between the two? I was left with a lot of conversation that I needed to keep having with her.

I’ve also been invited to China to judge a televised high school and college writing contest, and I’m getting ready for that trip. It’s my second assignment there, and I’m looking forward to being wined and dined.

ZR: Where do you find the impetus for your writing? Why did you decide to become a writer?

JB: At Goddard College, I studied with Olga Burmas and Jane Miller. I’d always been interested in writing but the experience of free writing was transformative, and I tapped into something in myself I had no idea was there. I ended up studying with Olga in Freehand Women’s Writing Community in Provincetown, Massachusetts on the Cape. I’m one of those writers who writes in order to know her life. Crafting is part of knowing.

ZR: Why have you taken up poetry and not other forms of writing, the novel, say?

JB: Many of my poems start with ideas that I want to tease out. That’s what writers like Philip Lopate and Bernard Cooper do in their essays, which are fabulous. If I didn’t write poems, or if I had all the time in the world, I’d write personal essays. When we narrative poets choose another form to work in, it’s not usually the novel.

ZR: In The Gift That Arrives Broken, you remind us of the limitations of language, yet your work as a whole is what editors call “accessible.” You’re not just writing for others poets or artists, but for a wider audience, is that correct?

JB: You don’t choose what you’re going to write. If someone gives you an assignment, you can sit down and write in a certain style, but it’s not what you’re going to write when you’re on your own. I can do an experimental, language poem, but it doesn’t have any meaning for me.

ZR: Which authors—poets and otherwise––inspire you?

JB: I love Jack Gilbert, Robert Hass, Mark Doty, Marie Howe. Hass and Doty, in particular, are narrative poets, but they are expansively narrative. I love that.

ZR: What books are you reading at the moment?

JB: During the time of my mother’s death and then my dad’s four months later, I found Donald Hall’s Without,a book of poems written to his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. I also discovered Kevin Young’s wonderful anthology The Art of Losing. Poetry became more important to me than when I lost my parents. I had started Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and I was 50 pages in, but I had to put it aside for six months, as I had no emotional space for anyone’s else’s story. When times are hard, people turn to poetry. But I did, in fact, later finish Franzen’s book and loved it.

ZR: How do you decide whether to pick up a book? Referral from a friend? Or something you read in a book review or on-line?

JB: It’s intuitive. I run my hand along a shelf until something begins to hum. In the case of The Art of Losing, I’d gone to AWP [Associated Writing Programs] in Colorado in 2010, when the book came out, and I just knew that I wanted this book. With the Donald Hall’sWithout,I’d owned it for years, but not really read it until now. I keep certain books on my radar, so I try to stay alert to new books coming out.

ZR: What advice would you give to aspiring young writers?

JB: Join a writers group because it’s just too hard to write in isolation. And a good group becomes the immediate reader, thereby quieting the “so what?” feeling that stops young writers before they give themselves a chance. A good group also inspires and provides a deadline. I’ve been meeting with my group for fifteen years, every other week, and I never come empty handed. Other advice: read a lot, sure, but also become deeply curious about yourself and your relationships. You want to develop two skills — knowing how to write and having something to say.


Zara Raab’s Book of Gretel draws on her experiences in remote parts of rural California. Her poems appear in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, and Spoon River Poetry Review, her reviews in Poetry Flash, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Colorado Review. Her first full-length collection, Swimming the Eel, is due out this fall.


Filed under: Book Review, Prose