Friday, March 11, 2016

Reality Adjustment, Alien Sex, Black Forests and F.J. Bergmann

F.J. Bergmann wears many hats in the world of poetry. I first became familiar with her work in the mid-2000s, and I read with her for the very first time at CONvergence in Minnesota in July, 2015, where she gave a very lively and assured performance. Over the years, I have come to appreciate her sense of humor, how seriously she approaches her poems as well as those of others, and her commitment to building a sense of literary community. Based in Wisconsin, she enjoys giving talks and presentations on poetry, as well as performing.

An award-winning poet, science-fiction writer, artist, and web designer, she maintains, a public-service poetry site for Madison, WI. She  is heavily involved with the Science Fiction Poetry Association in multiple roles including the editor of Star*Line, the journal of the SFPA. Additionally, she is the poetry editor of Mobius: The Journal of Social Change.

Her recent accolades include the 2015 Science Fiction Poetry Association's Rhysling Award for the Long Poem, the WFOP 65th Anniversary Poetry Contest, the 2013 SFPA Elgin Chapbook Award, the 2012 Rannu Fund for Speculative Literature Award for Poetry, Heartland Review’s 2011 Joy Bale Boone Poetry Prize, and both the Theme and Poet’s Choice divisions of the 2010 WFOP Triad competition. She has also received an International Publication Prize in the 2010 Atlanta Review contest, won the 2009 Tapestry of Bronze contest, and won the 2008 SFPA Rhysling Award for the Short Poem.

I think there's a lot to learn from her, and thought it would be a good idea to have a conversation with her to get her perspective on literature and the journeys we've been taking. Be sure to visit her websites at and her journal at

Do you mind telling us when you first developed an interest in poetry? How would you describe your access to poetry growing up?

I remember reading some poetry in my single-digit years--my parents had a large anthology of warhorses, a book of Walt Whitman's poems, that sort of thing. Dr. Seuss and the poems in Alice in Wonderland, of course, as well as The Hunting of the Snark. And fairy tales, which I read avidly, often incorporated poems, frequently as incantatory devices, i.e., magical spells. It says a good deal, I think, that when I got married, the person officiating used the Whitman collection from my childhood as a prop.

Have you always been in Wisconsin? How did your family first react to your interest in poetry?

I lived in Paris, France, for two years of my childhood, but grew up in Wisconsin otherwise. I first wrote a poem in eighth grade, and I don't remember ever soliciting any input from my family, none of whom are poets. My husband, Fred, is an excellent first reader, however.

Which poem of yours do you usually recommend to someone who wants to read your work for the first time?

Well, I variegate in style and content a good deal. These two would be somewhat representative of the desired effects: "Grand Tour" and "Suspended Animation" 

Do you prefer coffee or tea?

Black or jasmine tea, with milk, sugar, and, ideally, delectable comestibles in elegant surroundings--and I must refer you to "Tea Ceremony," a poem triggered by being served, after I had requested tea, a styrofoam cup containing lukewarm water, accompanied by a generic teabag, artificial sweetener, artificial creamer, and ersatz lemon flavoring,

If you could have any imaginary being for a pet or companion, what would it be?

Probably a dragon, or any similar rideable flying predator. (I am fond of horses and have spent most of my life working with them professionally, but, as herbivores, they tend to be somewhat timorous.) I am somewhat tempted by the invisible sentient garrote/AI proposed in Zelazny's Amber novels, though.

You've had some exciting successes lately, including the 2015 Rhysling Award for Long Poem. How did “100 Reasons to Have Sex with an Alien” come about? And what might the 101st reason have been?

Well, as the epigraph suggests, 287 More Reasons to Have Sex, by Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh, was the direct inspiration. Duhamel was a speaker at a state poetry conference and read from the (hilariously funny) book, which itself was inspired by an addendum to a research paper on reasons why people have sex. I basically tried to include all the genre tropes and SF cultural-lexicon references I could think of. There are nods to a lot of favorite authors, from Damon Knight to James Tiptree, Jr. As far as the 101st reason ... a Mata Hari-esque seduction in order to steal the secrets of FTL travel, I should think!

When we see you writing poems like "Anomaly" and "Transference," it's very clear you're comfortable working with either short forms or long forms. What's your process like in determining the style you use for a particular topic?

The poem ends when it has accomplished what it set out to do, which in the case of horror is best accomplished by leaving off the dénouement, and not explaining too much; in "Anomaly," a short series of disquieting images and events resulted in the feeling of an inescapable nightmare--and you know you always wake--or wish you could--at that moment of peak terror. In the case of "Transference," I was using a rather long list of filler words from a spam e-mail (I've used spam as a source for many poems), so of course I couldn't end the poem until I'd used up all the words.

You've done several chapbooks over the last few years, from 2003's "Sauce Robert" to "Out of the Black Forest" in 2012 with illustrations by Kelli Hoppmann. What are some of the important things you've learned about putting a collection of your work together? And will we see a full-length manuscript in the future?

My work is much more variable in style now than it used to be, so it's harder to assemble a cohesive manuscript, especially full-length. I've put together a number of other chapbooks, as well as longer books, but have not had luck finding a press yet (and have been remiss in submitting as much as I should--still trying to generate more spare time).

The poems in Out of the Black Forest were all written in a few months, all based on fairy tales. It had already been accepted for publication, and the publisher had been talking about finding an illustrator, when Kelli said, "I'm thinking of doing a series of fairy-tale paintings: do you have any fairy-tale poems?" I'd previously written a poem for Kelli to illustrate, and have subsequently written a number of ekphrastic poems based on her paintings (see and!fj-bergmann/c1xd5).

I now have two chapbook manuscripts based on Kelli Hoppmann-painting series, another chapbook of dark first-contact poems, a full-length SF manuscript, several other manuscripts that are more surreal, and am rapidly accumulating a book's worth of horror poems.

Wisconsin seems to be conducive for many poets and the writers of the fantastic and the imaginative. Of course, there's any number of theories and ideas why, but what catches your interest about the Wisconsin speculative arts scene?

Oddly, Wisconsin seems always to have been disproportionately represented in literature, especially when it comes to poetry (as evidenced by this quote: "More poetry is said to come from Wisconsin than any other state in the Union." Badger State Banner, 4/10/1885). I'd noticed, for instance, that the annual Atlanta Review poetry contest has a much higher number of Wisconsin poets as winners and finalists over the years than what one would expect from random distribution ( I've entered it 13 times, been published 3 times, and been a finalist 7 other times). A magician friend has theorized that the effect is due to a gigantic crystal of quartz underlying most of the state, whose visible peak constitutes Rib Mountain.

If you could adjust any part of reality without any ironic or unintenteded consequences, what would you start with?

Not allowing any media posts--online, social, or other--or political speeches without thorough fact-checking. That would totally transform the world!

You see a lot of trends come and go in speculative poetry as the editor of Star*Line, but what are some of the untapped frontiers at the moment, or some lines of poetic inquiry you think we're needlessly leaving by the wayside?

I enjoy riffs on the genre tropes and conventions we've come to know and love, but sometimes there's a dreary sameness about many submissions. There is a fine line between writing poems recognizable as genre and covering new ground; like all editors, I'm hoping to be simultaneously amazed and delighted. Send something no one's done before.

What's your ideal environment for writing? Is it much different from your environment for editing?

I don't care too much where I write or edit. Writing, in fact, seems to go better in noisy bars, or during meetings when I ought to be paying attention. I'm trying to work standing up a lot more, which pretty much limits me to the stand next to my desk. The one thing I don't do is play music. I like music, but my brain shuts down the ears when I'm in work mode.

You're wearing many hats these days, including that of poetry editor for Dark Renaissance Books. What are some of the ground rules you set for yourself as you consider the different types of manuscripts that come your way?

I indulge my own personal tastes, of course! Plus what's appropriate for the specific venue I'm dealing with. In the wake of the Hugo Puppy literary-vs.-genre discussions, I'll say that I feel very strongly that the two are not mutually exclusive. I have eclectic tastes, so I can't say that I'm drawn to any particular style or type of work. Like many editors, what I like isn't necessarily going to be the kind of thing I myself write.

Mobius: The Journal of Social Change is going into its 27th year in 2016. Orginally, it was established as an alternate to the corporate literary scene. As the world becomes increasingly connected, but also increasingly corporate-driven, where do you see the voice and vision of poets most profoundly needed?

I think poets and those who publish poets need to make an effort to place their work before those who aren't poets, who don't read poetry. Many who would remain unmoved by a diatribe or political statement will respond to the same sentiments expressed as a poem. A good poem, that is; I am not a fan of line-broken diatribes masquerading as poetry.

What's a skill that you've found unexpectedly useful on your path as a poet?

I don't think of them as skills; what looks like skill in writing poetry is really a willingness to do the basic background work to develop facility with language-wrangling. Three things, all indispensable:

1) Read. Read lots of stuff. Read classics; read award-winning contemporary work. Read way outside your discipline and tastes. Look up grammar and words you don't know.

2) Write. Spend time writing new work every day. Experiment. Try new prompts and forms constantly. Don't take it so seriously; it's impossible to write well without a sense of humor, aka a sense of the appropriate.

3) Solicit criticism, accept it gracefully and be willing to consider the advice offered. The more experience you have with critiques, whether they are from a crit group or beta readers, the better you'll be able to assess what your work is actually doing.

And finally: As a writer, have you ever had a poem "that got away?"

I have unfinished poems. I have poems that I've later deemed to be unsuccessful. But I pretty much retain control over what I'm doing. I think it's disingenuous for an author to claim that they don't. Writing on a roll, that's different. I've had poems and stories that came out all at once, in a blaze of incandescence. I could use a few more of those!

No comments: