Recent Work By Barbara Louise Ungar

What was the genesis of this book?

Save Our Ship was inspired by “The Diverse Vices of Women, Alphabetized,” a renaissance alphabet intended to instruct women to avoid sensual pleasure, particularly that of speech. I overheard my art history colleague, Theresa Flanigan, mention her work on it, and my poet-spidey-sense tingled: I knew I could use it. I began by writing against it, but the result was too one-note. Meanwhile, I had become increasingly obsessed by the climate crisis and sixth extinction. So feminist rants were joined by environmental freakout poems, with some more quotidian poems mixed in, I hope leavening the whole with some humor. My elevator pitch is: “#MeToo meets Global Weirding, in abecedarian form. But in a good way.”

Your clamshell rings and rings
                                                         wrapped in seagreen plastic

         Mer-crone calling Fisher King

The number you are calling has a voice mail box that has been deluged

          a drowned sailor picks up

… crusts of dried salt in the streets …
                                                                      you’re breaking up …

          the tide of pink jellyfish
                                                      big as washing machines

all these ex-husbands
of mine, instead of dogging me
like old tattoos, distorted

by wrinkles, faded & stretched by obscene
middle-age, humiliating me with my
unfortunate past lapses in taste.

Why do friends keep me posted:
the one who wouldn’t give me a baby
has adopted two; the one who lied & cheated

for years publishes screeds on Virtue
online; the one who told me I ceased to exist
the moment he walked out of the room

charges 500 an hour for Tarot therapy in the Village.
I walked out of that room seventeen
years ago: why does he still exist?

The one who didn’t want the kid
fights for custody, the millionaire
who repossessed my car pleads poverty.

Why does he have to call and poison
my exquisite hours? Why can’t he keep his lousy
karma to himself? Why doesn’t he drive

into a tree the way he threatened,
à la Jackson Pollock, only—please God—
with no innocent floozies in the car.

Where did you get the idea for the title poem of your new book, Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life?

I had just watched the 1944 version of Jane Eyre, the classic with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, while going through a painful and protracted divorce, when I blurted it out: “Charlotte Brontë, you ruined my life!” I am blessed with a poet-consort, Stuart Bartow, who said, “That sounds like a good idea for a poem.” So I wrote it. I didn’t like it much, but he did, and others did, so it grew on me gradually, till I realized it would make a good title for the collection.

The cover is, ah, unusual: how did it come about?

Once I’d settled on the title, I came up with the idea of using a black-and-white movie still from either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, with a screaming font like an old movie poster, and went online to see what images I could find. That shot of mad Orson/Rochester, with Joan Fontaine/Jane Eyre in the ill-fated wedding dress, seemed to convey an immediate sense of the book, I hope including its humor. I love the fact that the shot is from the point of view of Bertha Rochester, a.k.a The Madwoman in the Attic, or

Antoinette Mason, in Jean Rhys’s fabulous Wide Sargasso Sea. Charlotte Brontë, and in particular Jane Eyre, has had such a strong effect on so many of us. The book designer, Susan Pearce, did a great job: it wasn’t easy.

Do you think a good title and cover help?

Yes. It was a poetry best-seller for SPD the first two months after its release by The Word Works, and has sold more copies than my prior two books, but who knows why; I mean, it’s poetry. Maybe people mistake it for pulp fiction, because of the cover.

The Brontë Blog reviewed your book and called the poem, “Why Don’t They Just Drop Dead” an “intellectual tantrum.” Did that hurt your feelings?

Nah, I was kinda flattered. They also said the poem “Only Emily” contains “some of the more beautiful lines ever written about Emily Brontë,” which stunned me. Emily Brontë is one of my great heroines. I do rant from time to time, but that one was intentional. The genesis of that poem, and also of “The Miller’s Daughter,” is an assignment I like to give my students: to write an insult poem. I find it can release terrific energy and free people from constraints. I use Catullus (translated by Charles Martin) as a model. I love the fact that there are people who lived 2,000 years ago about whom we know nothing, except their names and the insults hurled at them by Catullus, such as that so-and-so stole his napkins at a dinner party. Apparently, napkins were very expensive in ancient Rome. And I thought, wouldn’t it be fun if I could immortalize my wasbands in that way? (Note to men: never date or marry a poet, unless you plan on being really, really good to her.)

Did you coin the term “wasband”?

No. I wish I had, but actually I heard a Californian friend, Valorie Bader, use it, and instantly knew I had to become its East coast popularizer.

Are there any other terms you’d like to popularize?

“Bootless.” In the Shakespearean sense of “useless.” I love that word. Also, “What boots it?” for “What good is it?” (I also think Bootless would be a good name for a cat.)

The book seems quite cathartic. At what point does the catharsis end and the poem begin?

Many of my poems begin in emotional catharsis. I freewrite in my journal to try to get in touch with “the secret monsters of the id.” Once I do, I try to grab one by the tail and go along for the ride: at that point I let go of my initial impulse—whatever emotions and ideas triggered the flow of words—and let the poem take over. From then on I do whatever needs to be done to make the poem the best thing of its kind I can. Poetic license, in other words: I lie, exaggerate, borrow, allude, compress and combine my own experiences with those of those of others—and by “experiences” I include dreams, books, movies, artwork, stories, fantasties, and so on. Oppen says, “It’s when the person writing is frightened by the poem that the

poem may have begun. The poem is more than the person, you see. Otherwise, why? Why write it?” Which addresses both some readers’ fixation on the autobiographical in writing, and also speaks to the “fallacy of first intentions,” which can be one of the hardest things to talk students out of: the notion that if you change one word from your initial impulse, you are somehow being untrue to yourself or the experience.

Clearly a major theme in the book is women’s attraction to bad boys, what used to be called “the Byronic hero.” The book seems to suggest that there’s some sort of impulse that drives women to love such men: is it genetic, cultural, or what?

It’s the old nature v.s. nurture question. Very complicated. It’s always both, I think. I don’t want to sound essentialist (I am a feminist, and well aware of the broad spectrum of human difference), but I also believe that we are at bottom animals, and that we can detect certain aspects of natural selection underlying some of the more bizarre aspects of culture. After all, we are the animals who create that culture. So, among heterosexuals at least, natural selection seems to favor those males who spread their seed most widely, and those females who can successfully raise their young. That creates an inherent conflict in male-female relations, which probably underlies the old double-standard in sexual relations, as well as perhaps the many forms of mutilation and imprisonment of the female, from foot-binding and genital mutilation to anorexia and chadors/burkas.

The Freudian answer is that we straight women are trying to marry Daddy: we think we can fix him and make him love us the way we always wanted to be loved. And because Daddy was generally pretty absent, we became adept at fantasizing about him, and, later, about men we are attracted to. Then there’s the whole cultural layer: from 19th-century novels with Byronic heros (I could have called the book Blame It On Byron, and I’d still like to write a poem by that name) to Disney with its absolutely atrocious heterosexist and sexist stereotyping, which (thanks to VCRs and DVDs) young women now grow up absolutely saturated in.

For young women reading your book: is there any hope that they’ll get it? And do you care?

Of course I care. I’d like to hope that reading my book might increase self-awareness, but I’m realistic: when one is in love, even Bottom with an ass’s head on looks good, and nothing anyone else says or writes can talk her out of it. In Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, the ancient and wise Mrs. Armfeldt (played by Naima Wifstrand) says: “One can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering. That’s what makes one so tremendously weary.” So perhaps the best I can hope for is that my book might provide some consolation (and amusement) to others who have gone through similar experiences, and, considering that half the marriages in the US end in divorce, there are many millions of us. I think women in particular tend to feel that a divorce (or the infidelity of their spouse) is their fault, that they have failed: I know I did. A friend said to me about my wasbands, “You’re in trouble once you have to start giving them numbers.” I’m trying to turn that around: think of Liz Taylor and all those rich and powerful men with their serial trophy brides—the more the merrier.

What’s up with all the mutilation poems in the second section, “Ghost Bride”?

See the answer to #8, above. I remember reading Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid and what a powerful effect it had on me as a little girl: trying to imagine what it would feel like to have every step hurt like stepping on a sharp knife. (It’s far ghastlier than the Disney movie, and has a bizarre Christian ending, which made no sense to me, since I’m Jewish.) Unfortunately, I found out when I grew up. Also, I see my young women students taking their freedom for granted; I think it’s important to remember both the historical wrongs done to women and the ongoing oppression of women in many parts of the world. I think the psychological oppression in our culture is more subtle, but I’d like to raise awareness of that as well.

Did you have any fear of alienating oversensitive male readers?

No. Because there aren’t any. (That I know of.)

Clearly you continue to love men, despite your bad experiences with some of them. Do you think you are finally cured of your attraction to bad boys?

No. I’m like an alcoholic or an anorexic: one is never cured, but she can learn to manage her condition. I’m lucky enough to have found a bad boy who was aging out—sort of like the way Annette Bening landed Warren Beatty—so even though he’s kind and generous, he still retains some of his old dangerous allure. Like Mr. Rochester. But NOT sadistic, like Heathcliff. So I guess I’ve improved a bit.

Happy Birthday, Universe!

We’re having conniptions
here on Earth. We who flicker
like moths take it upon
ourselves to praise Eternity,

squabbling over what to call it,
burning the others’ metaphors, burning
each other. As if we won’t be gone
fast enough. What could you
possibly think of us, Universe,

in our zany hats? If
you could even see them
on our minuscule heads.
What of our noisy games?
(We’d burn you, too, if we could.)

We like to party.
We like to fight.
We like to circle
around & around & around
your killer light.

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


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.


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.

This is no dream—it’s really happening!


What to do when you realize that handsome
devil you married wasn’t just John Cassavetes
but an actual minion of Mephistopheles?
Not only have you been fucked by Satan,

but you’ve carried and nursed his spawn.
You are in love with Beelzebub’s kid—
and, for the rest of your life, you will
have congress with the Prince of Darkness.

There is no escape. Your egg, his demon seed
intertwined in those golden curls,
the blue eyes you check daily for a goatish
sign, but find instead a Raphael,
a bambino fit for a Madonna.