Sundress’ Vintage Sundress Series offers us an opportunity to catch up with the writers who have published with us in the past. Three years ago, Jessica Rae Bergamino published The Desiring Object or Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering of Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them , a beautiful chapbook that explores questions of selfhood, mythology, and queer femininity in an intergalactic landscape. In this installment of the series, Sundress intern Athena Lathos interviews Bergamino about the evolution of her creative relationship with space, as well as the pieces of writing and art that have preoccupied her since.
Lathos: You published The Desiring Object with Sundress in 2016, and UNMANNED (with Noemi Press) in 2018. Can you tell us a bit your about the project(s) you are currently working on?
Bergamino: The project I’m currently working on is a hybrid exploration of intergenerational family trauma and violence, though I’ve also been thinking a lot about an interview recently with Brenda Shaughnessy where she talked about the generative capacities and possibilities that come with learning something new and the freedoms of not only being a beginner but being bad at something. So, right now, I’m approaching things that I’ve storied myself as being “bad” at, like gardening and playing music, and looking to see what I can learn in that practice.
Lathos: I enjoyed reading this interview that Adam J. Gellings conducted with you in August of 2016, particularly because it offered insight into your use of compelling and unusual primary sources for The Desiring Object (namely, “recordings of the congressional hearings on the Voyager project, [and] maps of moons made from the Voyager observations”). Can you talk about some primary sources in the media, popular culture, politics, or art that have informed your work lately?
Bergamino: I actually spent a huge amount of time working with the Voyager material; along with The Desiring Object, UNMANNED is a collection written through the personae of both Voyager space probes. That book project allowed me to take a deep dive into Cold War era popular culture and politics, science fiction, and Carl Sagan’s critical and creative writing. I knew that I wanted any pop-culture, scientific, or historical references in the book to be relevant for the Voyagers’ launch in 1977. Since I was born in the 80’s I couldn’t access my own cultural memory of the time period, so I became increasingly interested in the way that some popular culture morphs into a popular mythology and, in turn, how popular mythology might interact with the so-called classical mythologies written into the stars in the names of planets, moons, and satellites.
Lately, I’ve been interested in exploring what might constitute intergenerational popular mythology of girlhood, especially as it is related to queer youth. George from Nancy Drew, Kristy from The Babysitters Club, Anne Shirley, Harriet the Spy, the list goes on… I’m not interested in what subtext may or may not be present in the books or source text, but, rather the way that a shared queer imagination has sprung up around these characters. Inevitably when I talk about this, a straight person feels the need to tell me that my queer kin are wrong — homophobia makes people so boring!
Lathos: The praise for UNMANNED applauds your capacity to “queer our space canon” (Julia Bloch) and envision “science goddesses through whose aspects [you] explore both the human and stellar condition” (Kazim Ali). What was it like for you to explore gender and sexuality in a galactic landscape, especially through technologies (like the Voyager probes) which might be considered cybernetic, posthuman, or even genderless?
Bergamino: One of the many threads I ended up following in UNMANNED was depictions of space-age femininity that come to us through science-fiction. UNMANNED contains many of what I call “nested persona poems,” where the persona of Voyager Two “tries on” the personae of Princess Leia, Barbarella, and Miss Piggy, to name a few. These nested persona poems provided me space to think through and about some of the possibilities of femininity and feminized bodies that have already been imagined in outer space and then expand upon, re-imagine, and re-vision these performances of gender.
Each Voyager probe carries a golden record which includes an audio-visual story of life on Earth, and ends with an EKG recording of Ann Druyan — the creative director of the record — meditating on, among other things, falling in love with Carl Sagan. She’s talked about this in a number of different settings, though I came to the story while listening to an episode of Radiolab. As the project developed, the EKG became one of the least compelling things about the Voyager mission, but it also meant that I never thought of the probes being gender-less; if anything, they are, in my mind, saturated with gender. I wanted to explore that saturation and use it as an opportunity to pivot into more and more queer visions of femininity. In the queer femme community, we celebrate and talk a lot about femme identity and resilience without orienting femme in relationship to butch or masculine-of-center bodies; by writing both Voyager probes as femme, I hoped to enact some of that celebration.
Lathos: Though two different projects, UNMANNED and The Desiring Object share a common subject. How are the two related, and what was navigating that relationship like from the perspective of craft?
Bergamino: I appreciate the pun there in navigating because so much of The Desiring Object is asking what it means for Voyager Two to navigate the interstellar mission while also learning to navigate her own relationship to identity and desire. I like to think of The Desiring Object as the poem where Voyager Two learns her own capacity for individualization; in UNMANNED, a sequence titled “Excerpts from Voyager One’s Private Correspondence with Carl Sagan,” explores similar questions through the consciousness of Voyager One.
While The Desiring Object expands and contracts across the page as Voyager Two struggles through her relationship to both the mission and herself, using the scientific tools and experiments that make up the Voyagers bodies as the organizing principle — I like to think of it like the body scan relaxation technique, where a person relaxes by focusing intently on one body part, and then another, and then another.
“Excerpts…” is a series of linked prose poems which follow a linear arc informed by the western zodiac. Because each Voyager probe is unable to communicate with the other, I wanted to put two very different forms of poem in motion in order to place pressure on the fact that while they were identical in many ways, their social-political-emotional concerns are very different within the books.
Lathos: Given that you have written both a chapbook and a full-length book about space and the Voyager probes, I couldn’t help but ask you about the recent death of the Mars Rover, and the way in which the internet responded with an unexpected magnitude of grief. What do you think it is about space, as well as our attempts to explore it, that we find so compelling?
Bergamino: I’ve been sitting with this question for weeks now, trying to find new ways to put the nature of awe into words and making Star Trek jokes like “damnit Jim, I’m a poet, not a philosopher.” But, most simply, I think the idea that we’re alone in the universe is terrifying for all sorts of reasons — including the possibility that there is nothing out there, god or alien, to save us from ourselves — and that the stories we can tell about outer space are one way of staving off that terror. Also, in modernity, capitalism loves a “clean slate,” and we haven’t enacted the irreparable harm that we’ve done to this planet on other planets (yet).
Lathos: A classic question, but one for which I always love reading the answer: What have you read lately that has inspired you, impressed you, or moved you to think about something in a different way?
Bergamino: I’ve been reading and learning so much from adrienne maree brown, both in her written work and podcast, How to Survive the End of The World, which she’s created with her sister, Autumn Brown. brown’s concept, in particular, of “moving at the speed of trust” from her book Emergent Strategy has deeply informed my evolving sense of poetics and understanding of the possibilities of poetry moving in the world. Also, I was lucky to be in New York while the Hilma af Klint exhibit was on display at the Guggenheim; her paintings exploded for me in a way that I haven’t experienced in a long time. I want to follow af Klint’s threads of tender wildness and see where it takes me.
Jessica Rae Bergamino is the author of UNMANNED, winner of Noemi Press’ 2017 Poetry Prize, as well the chapbooks The Desiring Object or Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering of Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them (Sundress Publications, 2016), The Mermaid, Singing (dancing girl press, 2015), and Blue in All Things: a Ghost Story (dancing girl press, 2015). Individual poems have recently appeared in Third Coast and Black Warrior Review. She is currently a doctoral candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah, where she is the Senior Book Reviews Editor for Quarterly West. Find her online at www.jessicaraebergamino.com.
Athena Lathos is a poet and nonfiction writer from Santa Maria, California currently living in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her work can be found in Enizagam and Verseweavers, as well as on her blog, Bertha Mason’s Attic. Her recent essay about the job market, “I Applied to 200 Jobs and All I Got was this Moderate-Severe Depression,” was featured as an Editor’s Pick on Longreads. Lathos completed her MA thesis, “A Sea of Grief is Not a Proscenium: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and the Spectacle of Racist Violence in Cyberculture,” at Oregon State University’s School of Writing, Literature, and Film in May of 2017. Lathos was a finalist for the 2016 Princemere Poetry Prize and a runner-up for the 2018 Princemere Poetry Prize.