Jennifer Jackson Berry

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When I Was A Girl (Sundress Publications, 2014)

Interviewed by Jacqueline Campbell and Rachel Lesler

Describe When I Was a Girl in 25 words or less.

When I Was a Girl is a series of tritinas* chronicling the speaker’s coming of age, from pre-teen to early college-aged.

(*A tritina is a ten-line poem composed of three tercets and a concluding line. The three end words in the tercets repeat in a set pattern, and all three words occur in the concluding line. I think of it as a kind of truncated sestina.)

Two of the primary themes of When I Was a Girl are body image and sex. Do you think there’s a strong correlation that keeps the two connected? Does the desire for sex increase awareness of body image? Does a shaky concept of body image influence sexual desire? Or are they both just part of growing up?

Although sex and body image are universal to the story of growing up, and in my opinion, almost always intertwined, the ways that we experience sexual desire and body image cannot be generalized. For one girl, an increased libido might cause her to look at her body differently and start to care more about how the person she desires might see her. For another girl, disgust over a body that doesn’t fit the normal, expected form might keep her from feeling anything sexual at all. For some, desire trumps anything else. For some, there’s no removing the baggy clothes—not for anyone. I wrote about these issues from my own experience and memory, so I’m only presenting one story, and I guess I fell somewhere in the middle of all four of the statements above. I hope that I’m presenting my story in such a way that readers will have a-ha moments, moments when they connect and reach a deeper understanding about what’s at stake where sex and body image intersect.

If you’ve done other types of writing, what made you stick with poetry? What about writing poetry is different from other types of writing you’ve done?

I almost exclusively write poetry. I think that poetry allows for that little separation dance between writer and speaker. It seems that the public wants our poems to be factual, and for the most part that’s ok with me because I do write from my own experiences, but if I want to bend, twist, or otherwise manipulate the truth, I can. I can write an honest poem, without it being a true poem.

How long do you like to “sit on” a poem before publishing it?

I typically send my poems out quickly. I am so impatient. I want everyone to read my poems, like right now! I’ve ended up revising poems extensively after they’ve been published in journals. It’s not that I wasn’t happy with the poem that went out and was accepted—I just became happier with a different version. I have sent out poems the same day a first draft landed on paper. On the other hand, I’ve recently gone back to old drafts, some over ten years old, polished them up and sent them out too.

How do you separate criticism about a poem from criticism about you as a person/writer? How do you keep criticism from feeling personal?

When I was in high school, I applied to the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. I made it to the interviews based on my packet of poems. I can pinpoint the exact moment I lost my chance at being accepted. The question was about how I would feel in a workshop, both giving and receiving criticism. I said something like “It would be weird. I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Or get my feelings hurt.” Almost immediately, it clicked—if that’s what the worry is, why would I ever go to a workshop, or apply for opportunity like the Governor’s School? From that point on, I knew to separate myself from the work. Of course, I’ve been in workshops or other situations where the critiques have been harsh, or insensitive, or just off, even if well-meaning, but I don’t dwell on the negative. I figure that person just wasn’t a good reader for me. I’ve found there are plenty of people out there who get my poems, who understand what I’m doing, and know how to communicate suggestions to make me better.

Do you have an internet presence? If so, how do you feel this affects your writing? Are you involved in an online community for poets/writers?

I am on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads, with varying degrees of involvement. I am active in one Facebook community group that focuses on submitting and publishing, but the conversations often go beyond that to general writing concerns as well. I also belong to two groups in my city. I don’t think that the internet or my involvement in these communities affects my writing because the act of writing is always going to be solitary. (I realize collaborative work is a different animal.) What the internet facilitates is how I become an author, as opposed to a writer. Being an author is a public endeavor. I need my communities to research outlets for my work, to find support when the rejections roll in, to share successes once my poems are published. I need to be active in my communities to be an engaged literary citizen.

What do you see as the biggest struggle facing a poet today? What do you see as the biggest opportunity facing a poet today?

Struggle: Anonymity
Opportunity: The countless ways to overcome anonymity

What writers have influenced you as a writer?

There are three books that I read when I was eighteen or nineteen years old that shaped who I am as a poet: Girl Soldier by Denise Duhamel, Mad River by Jan Beatty, and What Satan Says by Sharon Olds. All three of these women were taking risks in their poems, writing about the body, saying the things we aren’t supposed to say. They all have continued to publish amazing work over the years, each successive collection inspiring in its own way.

What advice do you have for other writers?

Be that engaged literary citizen I mentioned earlier. Join a writer’s group or workshop. Seek out others online. Volunteer at a local literary magazine reading submissions. Write a review of a recent book of poetry. Go to a reading. Give a reading. Read.

Your chapbook plays with form, particularly with the “all day I dream about sex” poem. Your chapbook also plays with homophonous words, such as with the “x=feathers, y=boards” poem. This playfulness and creativity made me wonder about your writing process. How do you begin a poem? Where do you draw your inspiration? How do you decide on a form or style for a poem? Do you have a style, a line, an image, etc. in mind when you begin a poem?

I write most of my first draft of a poem in my head. I’ll start with an image or line; it’ll be running over and over in my mind for a few days, a week. I’ll build on it, imagine other images or memories that will come into play. I’ll usually have two or three or more threads, sometimes wildly unrelated, that I’ll want to bring into the poem. The first move to paper is usually just notes, free association, maybe an outline of where I want to go with the ideas. Since I knew that the poems in this chapbook were all going to be ten lines, I didn’t have to do too much preliminary note-taking work. I picked the three end words and shaped the poem around those choices.

Clothing had come up in some of the poems. I remember Adidas clothing being popular, and in my junior high, Adidas was an acronym: All Day I Dream About Sex. Those years are fueled by sexual thoughts. Why not be even more obsessive with the repetition? So I wrote a 66 word poem comprised of only six different words.

Light as a feather, stiff as a board…classic sleepover game. Also classic (alright cliché) similes. Where do we learn about similes? English class. What do we learn in other classes? Those damn variables in Algebra! And any good tritina/sestina has homophonous words, board/bored. Stiff as a board, stiff, ha ha stiff, stiffy, sex ed!

What feeling or thoughts would you like to leave with the reader when they’ve finished When I Was a Girl?

“Yes! That happened to me too! Yeah, been there, done that. But…don’t wanna go back.” I obsessively revisited my teen years as I was writing the chapbook. I wrote about very specific things and people, but I think that the experiences of adolescence are universal, even if the stories are told through memories of different games, jokes, pop culture icons, or school supplies. I would like my reader to have a healthy mix nostalgia and discomfort once she’s finished When I Was a Girl.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I am shopping around a full-length manuscript of poems, titled The Feeder, which includes nine of the poems from the chapbook. I have been slow with producing new work recently, mostly because of the focus on revision and submission of that manuscript. I have the very beginnings of two series of poems brewing, both too new to really talk about, but I think they will ultimately form themselves into future chapbooks. My favorite chapbooks are the ones with a specific project (usually fun or crazy or pop-culture based, like 237 More Reasons to Have Sex by Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh or Brit Lit by D. Gilson), and both of my projects are fun—in my humble opinion.

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Jennifer Jackson Berry is the author of the chapbooks When I Was a Girl (Sundress Publications, 2014) and Nothing But Candy (Liquid Paper Press, 2003). Her poems have appeared in Harpur Palate, The Emerson Review, Booth, and other journals. Poems also appeared in various anthologies in 2014, including “We Will Be Shelter” (Write Bloody Publishing) and “By the Slice” (Spooky Girlfriend Press). She is an Assistant Editor for WomenArts Quarterly Journal and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find her at jaxnberry.tumblr.com (Tumblr) or @jaxnberry (Twitter).

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all day      i dream       about sex
i dream       about all day sex all day
i day dream             about sex all

day i dream sex                    about all
all about       day i dream sex
all day i dream    about sex all day

i dream about sex all day
all day            i dream all about sex all
about sex                            all day i dream

dream day      i        all about sex

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x = feathers, y = boards
english: light as a feather, stiff
as a board, she is a feather,

he is a board. logic proof: if light as a feather,
then stiff as a board.
what are the conditions of stiffness?

the boy will be stiff if & only stiff
if the girl is light as a feather & not bored.
chemistry& sex ed: if the girl is light as a feather,

as air, as feathery as air, then the boy will be
stiff as a board

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