Is this poem, “Rosemary’s Divorce,” autobiographical?

Yes.


So you actually believe in the Devil?

No. But I am a huge Roman Polanski fan (and I hope he gets so bored under house arrest that he googles himself and finds his way to TNB and reads my poem). I may start wearing a “Free Roman” T-shirt (like the “Free Gilligan” T-shirts after Bob Denver got busted for pot). “Rosemary’s Baby” is a favorite movie of mine, along with “Chinatown,” “The Tenant,” and “Tess.” Anyway, don’t get me started, or I’ll spend my whole interview talking about Polanski, and then probably get lynched. But look at the movies being released today: if we’re going to extradite him, it should only be to do forced labor in Hollywood.

Are you wondering if I actually did shtup the Devil? Well, as my seven-year-old said while drawing last week, “This is my first imaginary world,” and then, a few days later, “This is actually my REAL imaginary world.” Marianne Moore couldn’t have put it better. Poems, like movies, are actually our REAL imaginary worlds.


What are the three biggest mistakes you’ve made regarding poetry?

Dropping out of grad school at 21, because I fell in love and wanted to be Dostoevsky.

Not going back to a writing program till 30, because I was in love and trying to be Dostoevsky.

Not realizing the importance of making connections in the poetry world and networking much earlier.  Thinking that if I were Dostoevsky, I could do it all on my own.


What do you think about performance poetry?

It’s fun.  It gets people interested in poetry, and it teaches poets how to perform. We had Taylor Mali at my school, the College of Saint Rose, last year, and I was completely envious of his ability not only to fill an auditorium, but also to keep it rapt.

On the down side: for me, although I love to perform (and have slammed at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café), I’ve found it reinforces certain tendencies that I would rather work against, such as reliance on humor, sensationalism, and the broad or obvious statement (see “Rosemary’s Divorce”).

My ideal in art is to be like the Beatles or Hitchcock: a marriage of perfect craft and popular appeal that bears up through repetition and time. Slamming became not good for me, like smoking & drinking, so I quit. I wanted to put more emphasis on quieter, more introspective and subtle work, that you can read over and over to yourself. Sometimes at open mics I wonder whether the people reading have any interest in any poetry but their own: they support one another, and that’s great, but do they read much poetry by their contemporaries or past masters? That’s how you learn. Still, I think there’s room for it all.


Why do all your books have pictures of (semi-)naked women on the covers?

Since no one buys poetry books, I thought I might trick them into it that way. Or at least into picking the books up, or giving them a second glance . . . More seriously, I am interested in the experience of women in their bodies, which hasn’t been written about much until quite recently.


What do you see as the future of poetry—in, say, 100 years?

I have no idea. If the world doesn’t end in 2012, I suspect that poetry will return to its ancient, sacred roots, when it was one with music and dance. That seems to be the direction we’re moving in. But I don’t think books will ever die. I also love the combination of poetry with visual art, which moves it in a whole other direction.


Influences?

Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear first (I started writing when I was 6 or 7, imitating the poems my mother read to me). Then haiku: I fell in love with Japanese and Chinese poetry, and discovered English poetry through the back door, later. I love all kinds of poetry, including ancient poetry in translation: Sappho, Catullus, Kabir, Rumi, Li Bai, Issa, Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi are some favorites. In English, Dickinson, Hopkins, Blake, Keats, Whitman, Bishop, O’Hara, Plath, and Sexton. And, of course, Dostoevsky . . .


What do you think about the preponderance of poetry contests?

I, too, dislike it, but it’s the only way I’ve managed to get books published: usually not by winning, but coming close enough to get published. I look at it as a subscription fund: our entrance fees pay for publication, so the people who care about poetry most support it. I admire WordTech Communications for having stopped running contests; instead, they put out a lot of fine books POD (print on demand). I wonder if the whole publishing industry won’t soon be following their lead.


Who do you think are some superb but underappreciated poets working today?

Richard Carr
Djelloul Marbrook
Nancy White
Stuart Bartow
Naton Leslie
Michael Meyerhofer

….to name six off the top of my head. They all have great books out there you can find online.


Any final advice?

I think it was Lawrence Ferlinghetti who said, “If every asshole who writes poetry would just buy poetry books, then poets could make a living.”

Go buy books by living poets. Read them. Give them as gifts. ’Tis the season.



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BARBARA UNGAR’s new collection of poetry, Save Our Ship, was chosen by Mark Jarman for the Richard Snyder Memorial Prize and is forthcoming from Ashland Poetry Press in November 2019. Her last book, Immortal Medusa (The Word Works, 2015), won the Adirondack Center for Writing Poetry Award and was one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Indie Books of the year; their starred review begins, “Ungar’s new collection may not make her immortal, but it surely establishes her as a contemporary poet of the first rank.” Prior books include Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life, selected by Denise Duhamel for the Hilary Tham Collection (The Word Works, 2011); Thrift (Word Tech, 2005); and The Origin of the Milky Way (Gival Press, 2007), which won the Gival Prize, a silver Independent Publishers medal, and and several other awards. She has published in the Southern Indiana Review, Rattle, Salmagundi, Minnesota Review, cream city review, Literary Review, and many other journals. She has read widely, including at the Dodge Poetry Festival, Poets House, and Academy of American Poets. Her work-in-progress, EDGE, an acronymn for the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered list, confronts the sixth extinction. www.barbaraungar.net

4 responses to “Barbara Louise Ungar: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. I think it was Lawrence Ferlinghetti who said, “If every asshole who writes poetry would just buy poetry books, then poets could make a living.”

    Ha!

    Welcome aboard, Barbara! It’s times like these I wish I knew more about poetry.

  2. Barbara Ungar says:

    Buy some books of poetry and find out!

  3. Uche Ogbuji says:

    “Sometimes at open mics I wonder whether the people reading have any interest in any poetry but their own: they support one another, and that’s great, but do they read much poetry by their contemporaries or past masters? That’s how you learn.”

    I certainly think the same thing a lot. I often sound curmudgeonly about it, but I wonder what happened to craft, and what happened to the idea that you gain craft by studying masters of craft. At some point you adopt the lessons to your persona and your age, but unless you have that foundation, you’ll never get beyond the radius of your navel.

    Buy poetry books, read poetry, and most important (in my opinion) memorize poetry. It’s easier to bring the rain when you’re already waist high in the sea.

  4. Barbara– I saw your name on the TNB masthead just today– we met many years ago through a mutual friend – Vanessa Paige. How amazing to find you here in the virtual world when geographically, at least, we live in the same corner of the “real world”.

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