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"As If I Fasted": An Interview with Jen DeGregorio

Jen DeGregorio is a poet and prose writer whose work has appeared most recently at Convergence, MadHat Lit, PANK, and Salon.com. In March, she was named a semi-finalist for YesYes Books' 2015 Pamet River Prize for a first or second book by a female poet. Jen is also founder of Cross Poetry, an online poetry journal and reading series in Jersey City, NJ (www.crosspoetry.com). She teaches writing to undergraduates in New Jersey and New York.

Her poem, "Broke," appeared in Issue Sixty-Nine of The Collagist. 

Here, she speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about the odd similarity between shopping and Catholic worship, deviation from form, and the dual role of time in the poem and beyond.

Each stanza is three lines except for the second to last. What pushed this deviation of form?

I write a lot in tercets and, if I have an extra line that can absolutely not be cut, I will often let it stand alone after the final tercet. But in this case I thought it would be better to use a couplet, as you point out, in the penultimate stanza because I thought the missing line of the expected tercet might signify what has been lost by the speaker: "whole days,” among other things.

There is a prominent religious undertone, stemming from the opening image. What helps carry this theme throughout the following, seemingly unrelated images?

The speaker here is a lapsed Catholic. But, as those who are raised in any religion know, doctrine’s specter haunts forever. For this speaker, that specter is the guilt she feels for taking pleasure in a frivolous activity (shopping) and for committing sin (greed, pride, envy... maybe even lust). 
And yet the speaker senses the odd similarity between shopping and Catholic worship: Ritualized entrance into a specialized space, one filled with beautiful, fetishized objects. The search for what seems elusive. Faith that what is sought will be found. Hope that this discovery will lead to transcendence or solace. 

The images in this poem therefore do double work: The ATM becomes an altar. The accessories – the heels, pearls and ringmight be religious accoutrements, such as rosary beads, the communion cup and wafer. The dressing rooms are confessionals. The “slip of white” is a baptismal or wedding gown.

I was deliberate in choosing these particular images, though I hope they don't circumscribe the poem. I believe there are some unanswered questions here: Does the speaker find what she is looking for? What are the similarities and differences between religion and consumerism? What, ultimately, does this speaker need to make her happy? 

Continuing with the religious undertone, what roles do time and memory play in the overall execution of this work, if they play any roles at all?

The speaker here lives in the present world of the poem – the shops in which she is hunting for that “Perfect gown”but her experience is colored by the past, in this case her childhood raised in the Catholic faith. Her memory of a Catholic girlhood creates the lens through which she views this particular experience, and all her experiences for that matter. Time is double in that sense in the poem. But isn’t it always?

What are you reading?

Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, which I’m re-reading for the third time (It’s so great!). Mark Strand’s Collected Poems. And I just finished reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

What are you currently writing?

I just finished a poem this week that considers the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia; the speaker of the poem is grappling with that event and its relationship to empathy and the possibility for selfless love.

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