Does a priest like God?
Poetry, philosophy, and trying to create transcendent experiences for other people.
BY DANEEN BERGLAND & WENDY BOURGEOIS
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet, a teacher, and a staff writer at Propeller, where “Reading Lines,” her popular column on poetry and life, has run for the past several years. Bourgeois’ essay collection, The Devil Says Maybe I Like It, was the fall 2018 title from Propeller Books. In addition to columns that appeared on the Propeller site, the book also features new essays, and together the pieces acquire the character of a subtle memoir, both intimate and cultural, from a fiercely intelligent woman assessing the power and predicaments we discover not only in literature, but in life itself. Poet Daneen Bergland contributes a foreword to the book, and here Bergland chats with Bourgeois a bit about the book, her writing style, and what comes next.
Daneen Bergland: What are you writing now? Or what will you write next?
Wendy Bourgeois: We’ve talked about this, but I would love to write a genre novel. Fantasy. No dystopia, lots of costumes and intrigues and magic, but I probably will not write that just yet. I want to write about alcoholism in an interesting way, but the recovery memoir is everywhere, and I’m not an addict myself, but the child of one, which is a lot less exciting for readers. Maybe I could write an urban fantasy about sinister magical twelve-step programs.
Bergland: I’m not sure I’d agree that readers would be less interested in your experience as the child of an addict. I think your essays are so interesting because they are peopled with colorful characters—also known as your friends and family, but including yourself—and you tell great stories. How did you feel writing autobiographical prose?
Bourgeois: I fear, unfortunately, that I can’t write anything else. Because my imagination is more linguistic than image/character/plot? Or maybe that’s an excuse, but I do enjoy the tension and excitement (drama?) of trying to explore my point of view or version of events in such a way that I don’t get disowned. I often fantasize about what I might write if I didn’t care what people thought, and I enjoy the thrill of saying what’s unsayable in polite, or even intimate, conversation. I find myself very attuned to that in other people’s autobiographical writing, too. It’s so easy to seem narcissistic, partially because it is narcissistic. All those I’s just right out there, front and center. I really love the Allison Bechdel memoir Are You My Mother? because part of what she’s exploring is: Why is my inner life more compelling to me than the outside world? Is it a neurosis? A sin? An issue of temperament or trauma? Can one outgrow the need to write autobiographically, ever?
Bergland: So these essays were originally written for your column at Propeller. Each short essay was written in response to a line of poetry. How did you choose the lines you wrote about?
Bourgeois: Various ways. Sometimes I found a line I admired or was stuck in my head, and wrote to the line. Sometimes I had a real world thing I wanted to write about and then went searching for a line that suited. In retrospect, it feels like I spent a lot of time skimming poetry books while I waited for something to stick.
Bergland: That sounds like something you would enjoy, or maybe hate...or maybe both. In your first essay, “Ambivalent Attachment” you talk about how, like Marianne Moore, we all “too, dislike it.” And yet your book is dedicated to and inspired by the work of poets. It seems like your book is ultimately making a case for poetry and why we should read it. Can you say a little more about that?
Bourgeois: Oh, boy. I’m not sure I am making a case for it in that essay, anyway, because my feelings are complex, and because “liking” poetry, for a poet anyway, is beside the point. It’s like, does a priest like God? Probably not all or even most of the time. But their job isn’t to like it, it’s to create (or try, anyway) transcendent experiences for other people. So yes, I think people should read poetry, but I also think people should look at paintings, another potentially anachronistic art form. And I think telling people they “should” read it is exactly why they don’t. Nobody tells people they “should” go to the movies, because they don’t have to. Maybe when you put the capital A on art, it sucks the joy out of it. Can I say instead: People should NEVER read poetry, it’s full of sin and lust and death and it’s frivolous and bad for you?
Bergland: Several of these essays deal with the tension between poetry and philosophy and wrestle with your own desire to be a poet and a philosopher, though seeming unsatisfied with finding yourself toggling back and forth. You both lament your propensity to use theory as “engines to explain away a wound or a mystery,” and your desire to be a philosopher who comes up with your own grand theory. Tell me more about this tension. Why write or read poems? What’s their relationship to theory?
Bourgeois: A thing both theory and poetry share is a quality of working at the edge of what language can do, creating a sense of stretching the material to express or explain something not yet explained precisely enough to satisfy. Both are creative endeavors (though some philosophers bristle at the idea that philosophy is chiefly, in the words of Richard Rorty, “just another kind of writing.”) One reads poems, presumably, for the pleasure of the sound of the words, and philosophy for the pleasure of a puzzle, but my favorite philosophers write beautiful sentences and my favorite poets make arguments, so I’m not sure the best way to describe the tension. Maybe it’s this: Poems magnify feeling, and philosophy manages and contains it.
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet and writer. In addition to the essays she writes for her regular column in Propeller, her poems have appeared in Cirque, Portland Review, and other small press journals. She is a writing instructor at Portland Community College and Portland State University. The Devil Says Maybe I Like It is her first book.
Daneen Bergland is a poet and writer those work has appeared in several journals, including Propeller, The Cincinnati Review, and Hunger Mountain, and was included in the anthology Alive at the Center: Contemporary Poems from the Pacific Northwest. The recipient of a writer’s fellowship for poetry from Oregon Literary Arts, she is a faculty member at Portland State University.