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Featured Poet #4
August 2006 - V1 I4
I don't have many heroes, have called even fewer my idols. Perhaps this is because I've always viewed people
as equals and their achievements as potentially attainable. But these days, my definition of hero is changing.
I've expanded the meaning to include not only those who've exhibited some outstanding action, but also those who show pluck—
of the attitude kind. Those who wrestle with the world the way it is, and say "no, it's not good enough." Who talk about
it, endure it, stand with one foot in it and with the other, they are stepping out. Always stepping out.
Jennifer Lagier is my newest hero. She's straight-speaking, sincere, both self- and outwardly-aware. Her observations
clearly point out what would otherwise remain subtle, and yet state the unmistakable in variegated tones, so that we recognize
both what is real, and also, to what degree we might allow ourselves to spread into the cracks of possibility. Jennifer is
a survivor. She lives and endures, and she talks about the places which shape her, shape us.
~ E. A. Hanninen
JL: Actually, Rehab Commencement describes the ceremony I attended for a family member this past
year. Addiction does figure prominently in my writing – my grandfather was an alcoholic and many of my relatives have
a tendency toward either alcoholism or drug addiction, or both. When this is combined with the obsessive nature of Catholicism
and the Italian fixation with food, it becomes a force that can both destroy and nurture.
EAH: Because addiction is a characteristic pattern in your life's cloth, I could hazard
you're addicted to writing; how early on did it begin?
JL: I am. In my case, it was a kind, grade-school instructor who discovered a painfully-shy and introverted
sixth grader could, when encouraged, scribble vividly descriptive stories about her adventures out in the peach orchard. This
same instructor also observed I loved to read and gave me his college poetry texts, as well as paperbacks of e e cummings
and Lawrence Ferlinghetti to explore. My grammar school, high school, and college instructors introduced me to a variety of
poets and encouraged me to express myself through poetry. After a while, I used poetry as a way to translate the world and
what was happening around me into stories and language that helped me understand the reality within which I was living –
childhood poverty and abuse, working in the peach fields and cutting sheds during the 1950's, the Viet Nam war, the drugs
and hippie culture of the 60's, even watching the first moon walk from welfare housing on the outskirts of Seattle.
EAH: Do you still write about those peach fields of childhood?
JL: During the 70's, I wrote almost exclusively about California's Central Valley and my experiences growing
up and coming of age in a small farming community. I was part of the last generation to manually harvest fruit and almonds.
Artie Cuehlo and Seven Buffalos Press published most of this early work in a series of anthologies. Now that I no longer live
in that particular environment, my perspective has changed. When I write about the childhood peach fields, they symbolize
something entirely different to me, the place I would go to escape family fighting or the shadowy orchards that appear in
EAH: Your last book, The Mangia Syndrome, (Pudding House Publications, 2004), features
the many aspects of a woman's relationship with food. Your poem sharing the same title, Mangia Syndrome, addresses an issue which is sometimes viewed by other American ethnic groups as a stereotype of the Italian cook. In what
ways is such a stereotype about obsession with cooking and food true?
JL: I absolutely love that poem— it came from a line in the movie Moonstruck that hit a respondent
chord within me. My entire childhood revolved around the traditional Sunday dinners organized by my great-grandmother, then
my grandmother, and my large extended family. I grew up watching the women in my family hysterically producing massive quantities
of food and urging people to eat beyond their normal capacity. I don't know if it was an over-reaction to the great depression
and having so little in their own lives to nourish them, or if it was a form of passive-aggressive control over other family
members. I do know that even today my family seems to live from meal to meal. We still gather for immense family dinners
with the women each contributing her own culinary specialty (I'm the cookie baker and cheesecake creator).
EAH: Do you view this sort of relationship with food as a measure of personal value?
JL: I have a love/hate relationship with food. At times, cooking is a purely creative activity for me.
Other times, I see myself using food as a way to build a wall to protect me from the world's irritants. I've had times when
I was severely anorexic, controlling my food intake when there was nothing else in my life over which I had any control. Other
times, food is the wealth I store or the largesse I can share. The women in my family create feasts as a way of continuing
tradition and enforcing a sense of communion among family members. It's more than the food; it's also a time and place of
renewing the bonds of relation.
EAH: Does your upcoming publication, Creating Indigestion at the Table of Life
(Bordighera Press), spin off from the same or similar themes in Mangia?
JL: I am very excited about Creating Indigestion at the Table of Life, which is coming out this
year. It includes some rude, painfully honest writing and expresses my sense of being a woman who just doesn't fit into society's
stereotypical mold. The poetry confronts fraudulent fairytales, and then explores this writer's coming of age. This book is
almost the opposite of The Mangia Syndrome, in that it strips away the nostalgic veneer and explores the darker side
of my childhood, adulthood, and cultural heritage.
EAH: Your description of the main character in Creating Indigestion sounds a lot
like writer George Sand. Have you read her, or other female writers who share unconventional philosophies about the roles
of women in society?
JL: Oh yes, there are so many in-your-face women writers whose work I absolutely adore! Right now, I idolize
Molly Ivins and her spicy political essays. I've long been a fan of the amazing Margaret Atwood and feisty Diane Wakowski.
These are women who play by their own rules and are utterly fearless.
EAH: Your poem, Accepting the Habit, which appears in pif magazine, represents a common female experience – it's especially representative of the
disillusionment frequently felt after questioning childhood religious influences. Your personal experience, as well?
JL: As a recovering Catholic, I can enumerate a multitude of disillusionments. I think one of the greatest
disappointments in my life was discovering the realities of being a wife. I had been told since childhood that marriage was
an amazing, transformational rite that would "make me a woman" and give meaning to my life. Instead, I found myself trapped
with a man who wanted me to continue thinking, acting, and looking like I did when I was 16. This was not tremendously realistic
for a 30-year-old with attitude and a brain. I think Bette "The Rose" Midler summed it up best in her movie, The Rose,
when she described the frustration of passively serving as "a waitress at the table of life". I experienced a major economic,
political and emotional adjustment in the 1970's when I left my first marriage, taking nothing but the clothes on my back,
my typewriter, journals, and a photo of my creative writing instructor. From that point on, I've stopped waiting for someone
to find, fix or fulfill me. I'm a big girl now and can take care of myself.
EAH: It's not always emotional environment which affects us, is it? Would you agree that
the landscapes we live and travel in shape our relationships to philosophical perspective?
JL: I've discovered there is something about the sense of place that also forms our outlook on life. For
example, the Monterey Peninsula provides a rich source of history and natural beauty. Monterey was the original capital of
California. The Spanish influence lingers, found in historic adobe buildings downtown and the names of our streets. At the
same time, the rough beauty of Big Sur and Point Lobos provide testimony to the stubborn resilience of the very stones and
forests which surround us. Each new trek I make, exploring the coves and trails that abound here, brings me a keener appreciation
of what this place meant to the early settlers and, later, the Carmel bohemians. It helps me understand my context in the
more complex mesh of historical perspective.
EAH: Why did you leave the Central Valley and move to Monterey?
JL: I am an educator and librarian. In the early 1980's, I was in charge of a small store-front library
in the housing project area of Stockton. Each day, I had to unlock a wall of burglar bars to open the door to my library.
I worked with the children of crack addicts, pimps, and prostitutes, among others. It was simply overwhelming and was killing
my soul. I felt as if I had no support from the library administration.
So, when an opening came up in Monterey for a bookmobile librarian, I applied. I had performed the same job for the Stockton/San
Joaquin County Public Library, covering territory that ran from the San Joaquin Delta to the foothills of the gold country.
I was curious about the Monterey Bay area, especially its interesting literary history. John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers,
and Robert Louis Stevenson had all been here and written about their discoveries. There was something that drew me to the
place, a sense that I belonged here. Sure enough, once I had landed a job and relocated, I connected with a wonderfully supportive
group of storytellers, political activists, and writers. I joined the local chapter of the National Writers Union and started
participating in readings and literary events.
EAH: I'm curious – how did writing poetry lead you to teach "Computer Literacy"?
Are these subjects at all related?
JL: I realize this is a somewhat strange combination, nevertheless, librarianship is the study of information
and information management. After a traumatic death in my family, I found I could no longer comfortably work with children,
so I changed jobs, moving from the library to the world of software companies. It was my years of working as a technical support
representative combined with my love of literature and knowledge that led me to my current job as a librarian/instructor.
I teach at two local colleges, Hartnell College in Salinas, and the fairly new California State University, Monterey Bay.
EAH: You have a connection with Sandra Kay Martz, California feminist publisher of the
best-selling anthology When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple (Papier Mache Press). How do you know her?
JL: Sandy Martz was one the first publishers to recognize and promote my work. She purchased the rights
to my little prose piece, Tending the Flock, and printed it in that wonderful anthology. Throughout the years Papier
Mache Press was in business, Sandy encouraged me to read my work in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz. It was through
Sandy that I met my dear friend, fellow-poet Ruth Daigon.
Papier Mache Press went on to publish my work in three of their anthologies. I am so sad they are no longer around, as they
epitomized the reason why we need independent publishers – only small and literary presses are willing to provide platforms
for poetry and experimental writings.
EAH: You're a feminist. You continue to write about women's issues, and to celebrate their
strengths, as well as trials. You also write about humanist issues. What are we – as women, as men, as Americans, as
world citizens – currently doing that you most want to talk about in your writing?
JL: Right now, the topic most in need of talking about is what we, as Americans, are doing to ourselves,
our natural resources, and the rest of the world. It's terrifying. I often wonder if this is what Germans felt like during
Hitler's rise to power – angry, horrified, powerless. As a writer, I have a moral responsibility to speak out against
our government's acts against humanity and the fragile environment, whether through letters to the editor or in my poetry.
EAH: Any topics you would rather not talk about?
JL: I don't consider anything off-limits, although I do worry what my writing can reveal that could potentially
hurt my elderly parents. Have you ever heard of omerta? This is the Italian word for keeping your mouth shut to avoid
betraying family secrets. The problem is that my family secrets include childhood abuse that needed to be talked about for
healing to occur. I have also learned that political poetry can also make me a target for those who do not share my opinions
and prefer to squelch any free flow of ideas. My poetry explores whatever thoughts, emotions, or opinions gnaw at me –
putting this into words helps defang the demons.
At this point in life, I am finally learning how to create a more satisfying, balanced existence. Work keeps my brain evolving;
hiking and photography keep me attuned to the beauty around me; poetry provides a voice and a way to explore that which
intrigues or provokes me.
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