Jennifer Jackson Berry talks about embodied poetry
and writing The Feeder
Please describe your journey toward writing poetry that reflects on the experience of living in the body. Have you always written this way, or did you come to it over time?
The oldest poem in The Feeder is “Fat Girl Confuses Food & Sex, Again.” I wrote it when I was an undergraduate in 1997, and it was one of three poems that was my first literary journal publication, a feature in the Summer 1998 issue of Chiron Review. It was in the mid- to late-1990’s whenI first started writing poetry seriously, so yes, I have always written this way. I’ve always had this body. I’ve always had these poems.
Back then, I was very lucky to encounter the poem “Bulimia” by Denise Duhamel in the 1994 edition of Best American Poetry series. That poem was so important to me; I read it over and over. This poem and poet gave me permission to write about a women’s body, to write about sexuality, to write about disordered views of eating and food—the details in that poem are so honest, so daring. I started writing poems that felt like secrets. I started telling the truth and making people listen to my truth. I started cranking out Fat Girl poems.
I did have a professor tell me to explore other topics; she told me I was limiting myself with that content. I’m glad I didn’t listen. As I was working towards an MFA, another professor insisted on calling my Fat Girl poems “persona poems.” I always felt uncomfortable with his use of that label. This wasn’t a persona for me; being a fat girl wasn’t a mask I could choose to take off. I’m glad I wasn’t deterred by his misunderstanding of my project. While I want to emphatically stress that it is never ok to assume a speaker in a poem is the poet herself, or that every poem is “true” in that the situation happened to the poet, I also think that poems about the bodies are pushing towards some greater truth, some unmasking of inner workings.
This book is so gutsy. It covers terrain that, at least in my reading, is seldom examined in poetry. From the beginning, the fat girl is troubled and troubling. She is judged by girlfriends, boyfriends, herself, and the implicit societal rule that only certain bodies are acceptably desirable. Despite this, she is sensual, sexual, and loved. Her voice reads to me as unafraid to leave it all on the page. What compelled you to write The Feeder?
I think that I put Fat Girl to bed, literally and metaphorically, in “Fat Girl Has Regular Sex,” which is the only poem in the Fat Girl series that I wrote in recent years, in 2013. Because of my size, any time I write about sex, I feel it is a political act. My body isn’t supposed to be seen as sexy or desired. (I want to acknowledge that there is another side to this issue: when the fat body is fetishized and only seen in a sexualized way—just as problematic, of course.) Fat Girl’s story in The Feeder was about finding love and acceptance, from a partner and from herself.
I tried to end some of the silence surrounding infertility and miscarriage in The Feeder as well. There were many times in the months after my miscarriage when I just couldn’t face the world. I remember calling off sick and writing “Post-Miscarriage: Day 74” in my living room, scribbling the lines curled over the coffee table. The revised version of the poem takes place “today,” as in “I fell inside Cogo’s today,” but in the first version it was “yesterday,” written on a Monday morning after Sunday’s baptism of my nephew. The 74th day after I miscarried. The process of writing the poem saved me that day, saved me from my grief. The poems also saved me on the 55th day when I came across a picture of me and my husband smiling at a holiday party when I was pregnant, on the 186th day when the Similac Newborn Nutrition Kit showed up in the mail, and so many other days when the poems didn’t end up being strong enough to include in the final manuscript.
I feel fortunate that I had this coping mechanism available to me and that I knew putting the words on the page would help me. I’m thankful that I learned many years earlier when I was learning to live peacefully in this fat body that part of the learning how to live peacefully child-free would include writing the poems about it.
Some of my favorite poems in The Feeder are “I’m Showing” and “I’m Telling.” The voice is absolutely fearless. I get the idea that “showing” and “telling” are both personal testimonies and political acts. Please say more about those particular poems—the process of writing them, what they mean to you, anything you like.
“I’m Showing” is still a difficult poem for me. I’ve performed it many, many times, and I know it’s an important poem to the book—for not only its content, but also its placement at the end of book. I wrote it before I miscarried, and even now, on my worst days years after the event, I fear that feelings like the ones that close the poem are why it happened. I fear that I somehow let those feelings of doubt dictate what happened in my body, as if I had that kind of control over my uterus.
I didn’t know if I’d ever get to show what was happening in my body. The doctors said I should only gain approximately 10 lbs. through the pregnancy. I was having trouble with all of the typical language surrounding pregnancy, so I wanted to try to reclaim that particular phrase with the title. The way that every informational book and web site use fruits as comparisons to the size of the fetus—why? The cravings, the show & tell game on social media, I wanted to show all of those things from a different perspective and experience. And of course, I wanted to write an honest poem, even if it wasn't completely true—these are the kinds of fears that some women experience. Is it a political act to tell that truth? I think so. The silencing of women’s health concerns is part of pervasive systemic oppression.
I’ve had this belly for years, this belly now
speckled with insulin shot sites, some
in varying stages of bruise. I'm four weeks
& high glucose in the mornings. I'm five weeks
& internal ultrasound wand, the first condom
inside me in over a year. I'm six weeks
& craving spicy, hot sauce splashed
on every plate. I'm seven weeks
& you're the size of a blueberry, baby.
I’m high risk, at risk of callousing every fingertip
from up to seven tests a day. Fasting,
one hour after eating, bedtime.
We are careful to speak in ifs:
if all goes well at the next appointment,
if I’m able to carry to term.
But we’ve told everyone too
soon. I was on incompatible meds.
I stood at my mother’s fridge before Sunday dinner
four weeks ago & ate pinched fingers full of blue cheese.
The journal I’m keeping isn’t littered
with cravings of ice cream & pickles, isn’t
interspersed with pictures of my belly with a placard
of the time frame held to the side.
When you start a pregnancy obese, your belly
isn’t for show. What I’ll share with you
is a log of glucose readings & carbs per meal.
I hope my fingertips heal. I want to save you,
but I’m afraid I’m carrying you like a bruise,
that you’re soon to fade, but not before you turn
a sick yellow. Not before you leave me tender.
The title for “I’m Telling” came naturally as a companion poem after the miscarriage happened, after the fears came true. These two poems closing the book, with a final poem actually titled “Before & After,” made sense as to where to leave the reader. It is gratifying to hear those two poems described as “fearless.” Those poems still scare me sometimes.
I have new bruises now:
on the back of my hand, blue
& small as forget-me-not petals
where the medic tried
to start a line en route
to the ER, after failing
at the inside of my elbow—
fluids needed since I was losing
so much blood.
The medic told me how his wife
miscarried twice before
they had their daughter.
He gently pushed my ring aside
so he could lay his hand flat
across the top of mine
as he tried to find the vein.
He failed again & I didn’t get a line
until after the ER exam,
the plastic speculum clicking
into place, the collection
of blood into a white cup.
When I offered to take off
my ring, he joked that man
of mine better not find out
how easily I remove it.
I feel like I’ve let go
of too many things too easily.
I tried to keep you, baby.
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
Some recent favorites are listed below. I do keep track of all of my reading at my Goodreads page.
Sympathetic Little Monster by Cameron Awkward-Rich (Ricochet Editions, 2016)
Jackknife: New and Selected Poems by Jan Beatty (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017)
Landscape with Headless Mama (LSU Press, 2016) and Protection Spell (University of Arkansas Press, 2017) by Jennifer Givhan
I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well by James Allen Hall (Cleveland State Poetry Center, 2017) (essays)
In Full Velvet by Jenny Johnson (Sarabande Books, 2017)
Bestiary by Donika Kelly (Graywolf Press, 2016)
I'm So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On by Khadijah Queen (YesYes Books, 2017) (hybrid)
Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith (Triquarterly Books, 2017)
Some Rogue Agent fans are just beginning to explore what making art about the body would look like for them. What advice would you give to someone just starting down the path toward writing poetry that features the body?
Read. Read. Read. This is actually the advice I would give to any young poet or any poet tackling new territory. Look at my list above. Look at ire’ne lara silva’s list in the last issue. (I just ordered a copy of her Blood Sugar Canto. I hate that I didn’t know of it sooner! I shook my head yes at her suggestion to read Sarah Chavez’s chapbook, and I’ll re-read that one soon.) Click on every single link in the Rogue Agent inspiration list. It is important to see how the body has been written in the past, how other poets have approached the body in their work, how one’s own poetry speaks with or against that work.
Jennifer Jackson Berry is the author of The Feeder (YesYes Books, 2016). She is also 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 or are forthcoming in journals such as Booth, Harpur Palate, Poet Lore, Verse Daily, and Whiskey Island, among others. She is the Editor of Pittsburgh Poetry Review and an Assistant Editor for WomenArts Quarterly Journal. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Visit her website at www.jenniferjacksonberry.com