A Conversation with Barbara Louise Ungar
by Lindsey Lewis Smithson
Barbara Louise Ungar is the author of Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life (The Word Works, 2011), The Origin of the Milk Way (Gival Press, 2007), Thrift (WordTech Communications, 2005), along with the chapbook Sequel (Finishing Line Press, 2004). She teaches at The College of Saint Rose in New York, where she also lives with her son.
First, congratulations on your newest book, Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life; I have really enjoyed it. Now, all things considered, what does it mean to you have a successful book? What does “successful” mean in the poetry world?
I read somewhere that 80% of ALL the books published in the US (not just poetry) sell fewer than 200 copies, so all three of my books made the top 20%. In a sense, just getting a book of poetry published makes it successful: it took me over fifteen years (and being finalist in over three dozen contests; I think that must be some kind of record) to get my first book, Thrift, published. I mean, most people would have just given up. Actually, I just had—I’d decided not to send it out any more, when WordTech took it.
My second book, The Origin of the Milky Way, won the Gival Press Poetry Award, which is a kind of success—but after all those years of entering contests, I found it meant very little. It didn’t help me sell books, and I had less control over the cover and aesthetics of the book than I’d had with WordTech. Milky Way won three other awards after it was published, another kind of success, which also means very little.
Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life has been the most successful of the three in that it has sold more copies and was a Poetry Best Seller for SPD. I give a zingy title and arresting cover credit for that: The Word Works was wonderful and rare in giving me almost complete artistic control, and the cover comes closest to my idea for it, which is another kind of success. CBYRML has also garnered positive reviews and interview requests, not only from poet pals, but from strangers. It was amazing to have you write to me out of the blue that you “adore” my work and put me in a group with Sylvia Plath, Billy Collins, and H. L. Hix. Another unknown reviewer put me in a group with Margaret Atwood and James Joyce, and put my book in his top ten for 2011. This is the pinnacle of success that I have achieved, after decades of struggling unknown.
I guess true success would be to land a major publisher, and to sell enough books and make enough money giving readings to support myself, but I can think of very few poets able to do that. Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, maybe. And the ultimate success would be to write something that lasts, that people will read long after you’re gone. It’s instructive to look through old anthologies and see how few poets last.
As a new writer I am, probably excessively, interested in the process. When you began writing the poems that became Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life did you have a book in mind, or was it more about getting good poems on the page?
And was this similar, or not, to the creation Thrift and The Origin of the Milky Way?
Generally, I just try to write one poem at a time, making it the best thing of its kind I can. That was certainly the case for Thrift, which began as my MA thesis. It was immediately a finalist for the Anhinga Prize: that perhaps led me to ignore the advice my teacher Bill Matthews gave not to keep tinkering but to start a new manuscript; for the next fifteen years I kept adding stronger poems, pulling weaker ones, and changing the title, until the manuscript that was finally published bore little resemblance to the original. So he was right: I should have put it aside and written a whole new book. Oh, well. Too soon old, too late smart.
For The Origin of the Milky Way, I was on my first sabbatical when I discovered I was pregnant: the natural inward focus of pregnancy dovetailed perfectly with my sabbatical purpose, so I knew I was working on a coherent manuscript on one theme for the first time. I was lucky enough to take a year’s leave after my son was born, so then I was writing short poems in my head while nursing, and running to type them up as soon as I put him down. It was an ecstatic time.
With Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life, it was somewhere in between. Many of the poems were simply written as individual poems, out of whatever obsessions were occupying me at the time. When it became clear that my marriage was over, my wasband (#2) said, Now you have the subject for your next book. So I took him up on it. The divorce was protracted and painful, and while it was going on, I was watching the old Orson Welles-Joan Fontaine Jane Eyre and exclaimed the title phrase; my poet-consort said, That would make a good poem. Once I wrote the poem, I realized it would be a good title for the book, and then began to fit the poems I’d already written into a narrative of descent into hell and rebirth, and intentionally to write more poems that would fit that theme.
You take pokes at the fantasy world in Charlotte Brontë, notably at Disney, Barbie, goddesses, and the idea of perfect love. The opening lines of the last poem “Midsommer” read “It’s not either man you mourn—but the dream/of love, before you woke to find yourself/ in bed with Bottom and his ass’s head.” It’s sad and funny at the same time, but it’s a big departure from The Origin of the Milk Way, where you grapple with the love v.s. fear relationship of having a child. Can you talk a little about the feelings behind each book?
Well, as I said, The Origin of the Milky Way came out of the most ecstatic time in my life, discovering I was pregnant, which I had wanted for many years and had been told was impossible. Although there was fear, the love itself is pure and un-conflicted: I love my son more than life itself. That unconditional mother love is the closest thing to perfect love I know, and very different from any romantic love I have experienced, which for me has generally ended unhappily. I fell in love at first sight when I was twenty, and fully expected it to last, so when I found out in my mid-thirties that my wasband (#1) was cheating on me, the rug on which my life had been built was yanked out from under me. So “the dream/of love” is the notion that you will live happily ever after, and when you are painfully awakened to what you’ve fallen for, that’s “Bottom and his ass’s head.” I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its vision of love: once you awaken, Puck may get you again, but you will never be quite so shocked when the love-juice wears off. Yet our culture still sells us the Disney fairy tale, which sets most young women in particular up for a lifetime of heartbreak.
Would you explain a little about the process you went through to get your books published versus what it takes to get individual pieces into magazines and journals?
Almost all of my publications were the result of entering contests: either they were finalists offered publication, or they actually won. The whole contest round is tedious, expensive, and depressing. But I couldn’t find any other way: when I sent manuscripts directly to publishers, they either rejected them or told me to enter their contests. Sending out individual poems is much easier, especially now that you can submit online, but you still need rhinoceros hide: you must accustom yourself to rejection, and just keep sending out. It does get easier: the more you publish, the more you get accepted. But I still have trouble sending out as much as I should: I’m a single full-time working mom, so when I do have time, I’d much rather write than do poe-biz.
What is it like to work with an editor on your manuscript, to deal with publication and distribution? Was the process the same for all of your books?
When the first book was accepted I was so excited, it was all glorious. The editors at WordTech are great to work with. There was no distribution, though, and no PR; you pretty much have to do it all yourself. The second book was a huge anti-climax: I had finally won a contest, but had little say in the way the book looked, and still had no distribution, little PR, and still had to do it all myself. By the third time around, it all had become a big pain. I love my editor at the WordWorks (Nancy White), who helped me to realize my vision of the book, but working out the cover, proofreading, etc., is very difficult and time-consuming. For the first time I have distribution (through SPD, which makes a big difference) and the WordWorks folks are most helpful, but you still have to arrange your own readings, do your own PR, schlep and sell your own books, etc. I understand Emily Dickinson (and Frank O’Hara) more and more: part of me just wants to stay in my room and write, and let other people worry about publishing whatever they find lying around after I’m dead. I know two great writers, Richard Carr and Corey Mesler, who have what I call Dickinson’s condition: I think it’s pretty rare that a great writer is also a great self-promoter.
In terms of overall construction and organization of your books, all three are broken into sections; how, and why, did you make this choice?
For Thrift, it was a way of attempting to organize the disparate poems written over many years into a somewhat coherent manuscript. Milky Way is chronological, so it seemed natural. For Charlotte, I wanted an echo of Dante’s three-part descent and rise from Inferno into Purgatorio and Paradiso. My manuscript-in-progress is not broken into sections; I wanted to break the pattern.
What, to you, are the necessary pieces to a well-crafted poem? Or, simply, what makes a poem good?
It’s visceral. To quote Emily Dickinson: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. If read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire will can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
Aside from writing, you also teach at the College of Saint Rose. What made you decide to teach at the university level?
The need to make a living and write. With a BA from Stanford, I was fit to do nothing but teach Stanley Kaplan college entrance exam cram classes. Which taught me how to teach, and that I loved it, but after ten years of SAT/GRE/LSAT, you could lose your mind. So I went back for my MA, and began adjuncting at City College, CUNY; I loved it and knew that was what I was meant to do. So I got my PhD (from the Graduate Center of CUNY) so that I could get a real job, with benefits; I was lucky enough to find one.
What are the pros of being a teacher to a writer? The cons?
The pros of being a teacher are that you get paid to do it, and have some time to write. I never made money writing; I don’t know any poets who manage to make a living at it, though I know Billy Collins exists and I’ve met Taylor Mali. I chose college teaching because it gives more time to write than most other jobs, and keeps you in contact with literature and young minds. Health insurance. Tenure. Sabbaticals. The cons of teaching? The meetings and politics and bureaucracy, but all jobs have some version of those. There is no con to writing, except that you need either to be independently wealthy, or to work another job, or you starve.
Any class or subject that fires you up, that you really love to teach?
I love to teach poetry writing workshops; that’s my favorite. But a steady diet of it would be difficult; I also love to teach literature, and think it helps my own writing. I’m fortunate to be at a college where I can teach both, and many different courses. So, for example, I’m teaching a seminar now called Moby-Dickinson, on two of my great loves. I also get to teach modern and contemporary poetry, which is inspiring. I also like to keep teaching Early World Literature (what used to be Great Books, or Western Civ): you can never read Homer, Sappho, Catullus, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Rumi, Lao Tsu and the great Chinese and Japanese lyric poets too many times. I think it’s important to keep reading great work, to keep holding yourself to the highest standards possible.
For those students who have recently graduated, and are looking for work as a professor, do you have any advice for them?
Don’t give up. If you want to get hired with an MFA, you need to publish. If you love school and excel at it, a PhD might increase your chances, but the market is very tough these days.
Looking at your education, I noticed that you don’t have an MFA, but instead a PhD in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature. How did you decide on this path? Do you feel that your strong literature background influences what you write and how you write it?
I didn’t decide; I stumbled onto my path. My BA (from Stanford) was in Comp Lit, and I dropped out of a PhD program in Comp Lit (at Princeton) my first time around, to try to become a writer in New York City. After ten years of sex ’n drugs ’n rock ’n roll, and traveling around the world for two years, I had written a bad novel I couldn’t get published, so I decided to try a writing program, and lucked into the City College MA program by way of a friend of a friend. (City College didn’t have an MFA then, or I probably would have landed there instead.) Once I realized I wanted to teach college, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship and get paid to study. That was a tremendous gift.
I definitely feel that my strong literary background influences both what I write and how I write it; I think that it may get in the way for certain readers in that I tend to use lots of allusions. I believe in the Tradition in T. S. Eliot’s sense of it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
Who is one dead writer you think all poets must read? One living writer?
Oi. I don’t think I can choose one. Can I list some instead? Dead writers:
Homer, Sappho, Lao Tsu, Shakespeare, Dante, Rumi, Basho, Li Po, Tu Fu, Keats, Blake, Dickinson, Whitman, Baudelaire, Neruda, Akhmatova, Yeats, Frost, Stevens. This keeps getting longer. Oh, God, if I had to choose only one in English I guess I’d have to say Shakespeare, as clichéd as that might sound, but who could be more essential?
One living writer? Even harder. I can’t say who anyone “must” read; how can we know who is essential in our own time? Probably people we’ve never heard of, like Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins in their time. So I’ll name some of my friends, who I think are great and underappreciated: Richard Carr, Frannie Lindsay, Nancy White, Stuart Bartow, Michael Meyehofer, Djelloul Marbrook, Corey Mesler. I’m sure there are lots others out there I don’t know.