An Interview with Jane Lunin Perel

Professor emerita Jane Lunin Perel ’15 Hon. arrived to teach English and creative writing at Providence College in 1971. She has stretched students’ creative capacities ever since. She also led the initiative to establish the College’s Women’s Studies Program in 1994, serving as its first director, and was devoted to it and the Department of English until her retirement in 2014. She is the author of five books of poetry: Red Radio Heart: Prose Poems, The Lone Ranger and the Neo American Church, The Fishes: A Graphic Poetic Essay with Artist James Baker, Blowing Kisses to the Sharks, and The Sea is Not Full.

Interviewers: The PC community is eternally grateful to you for all the amazing changes you helped usher in during your time at Providence College, be it the development of the Creative Writing Program, Women’s Studies Program, the Poetry and Fiction Series, etc. What changes would you like to see going forward as the college enters its second century?

Jane Lunin Perel: I would like to see the Humanities revived and more emphasis placed on interdisciplinarity. It’s like cross-pollination when you, David, major in Poli Sci, but take Dr. Ye’s Literary Journalism. You have the ability to apply your creative instincts with what you are studying in Poli Sci. More panels, more papers, more poems integrating your knowledge and creativity enrich the individual student and the entire college. Poetry is for everyone, not just poets. It encourages diversity
of taste and curiosity about all subjects in the curriculum. It integrates the spiritual with the literal. This means I would like to see less segregation of disciplines and more interplay within interdisciplinarity that will encourage not just diversity of thought but also of social networking within the college.

I: Providence College is fortunate to have such a long-standing literary journal, The Alembic, to which you were the faculty advisor for a number of years. How do you think The Alembic contributes to fostering a literary- minded student body?

JLP: Obviously, The Alembic fosters a “literary-mined student body” only when it’s read and appreciated. I would like to see the work in it read and evaluated not just in Creative Writing courses, but also in Intro to Lit. courses, other English courses in which the subjects of the poems are pertinent, in the American Studies, Black Studies, and Women’s Studies programs, Global Studies, Political Science, Education, Religious Studies, Sociology, and even DWC. We need to sweep the net wider in not having the editors only create the journal, but also personally direct works
in it to departments, programs, and organizations that would appreciate the subject matter and style of said work. This could be achieved by having a reading with these aims in mind. It has to be an on-going intensification of sharing the work with the whole PC Community. It’s a wonderful journal, but it needs far more exposure and use on campus.

I: Some of the poems in your book, Blowing Kisses to the Sharks, reveal the tension between men and women. How does this tension manifest in poems such as “Mozart’s Sister” and “Breakfast”?

JLP: In “Breakfast,” the speaker has a frightening, surreal dream in which she says, “I beat/my breasts, which became huge/white eggs/and yolk flowed/everywhere.” The other in the poem is “already up, organizing/your correspondences.” The dream life of the speaker centers on her “breasts” and “bleeding yolk.”  It’s obvious she is terrified by her own body parts and some aspect
of her sexuality. This symbolizes the fear of her unknowable capacities and perhaps the huge emphasis placed on breasts by women and men. It is mysterious that “she bleeds yolk.” She fears perhaps she is an anomaly and her body form is an anomaly. So, while the speaker is horrified and afraid “alone, bleeding yolk,” her partner lives in a world or order, “organizing correspondences, eating breakfast alone.” Their worlds are separate, and there is no sharing of her psychic pain, except the poem itselfIt sounds like alienation to me.

“Mozart’s Sister,” on the other hand finds a female speaker fascinated with Mozart’s literal sister and the lack of appreciation and recognition of her talent during her lifetime, and now the speaker gives us her name “Nannerl.” Also, the poem is a series
of juxtapositions from my own life. I was reading about Nannerl Mozart and considering how restrictive gender roles of her life made it impossible for her to study and become famous despite her musical talent. I imagined her dreams and massive frustration, “Jesus with her brother’s face.” I imagined Nannerl and I fighting against Nazis, the ultimate patriarchal destroyers and oppressors. Then, I juxtaposed that thought stream to my real life, in which
I had to bring my car to a male mechanic whose garage was on Admiral Street. I then compare the “lifting up of the car” during its exam to a gynecological exam on a woman by a male doctor. Many women are extremely anxious about these examinations, and they in a way return to the insecurity of Nannerl. My car at that point symbolizes me being invaded by the mechanic so, of course, it is the symbol of my body. And I bring in Freud whose theory
of penis envy has always seemed totally absurd and ridiculously male centered to me. Then, I have Mozart’s Sister return and comment on my imagining how she couldn’t even “touch herself.” I then state, “her quiet death makes me speak out.” And I ask my readers to invoke her name in the face of oppressive and sexist behavior and to “speak out,” which is what I literally did. I told the mechanic that his fee was ridiculous, “Go rip off somebody else.” And he literally came down on his price because I stood
up to him. I then end on a positive note that, “though things are weird, they are getting better.” We have taken for granted so often the limitation of learned gendered behavior, the assumption that
a woman should be polite and accept whatever male authority expects of her. So, my small victory of not paying a high price pleased me, and the poem also asks that we honor the silent, talented, disadvantaged women who have been oppressed
by patriarchal dominance. If we honor them, we also honor ourselves. Men, Women, and Trans are aspiring to experience self- expression and justice. But, the poem is not an essay. I think in its way it’s droll and sardonic, and I still consider myself forty years later, “Mozart’s Sister.”

I: The form of “Lorenzo” from Blowing Kisses to the Sharks is quite eye-catching. When the poem displays the motion of the “diver,” why are the words formatted in a zig-zag pattern? What is the significance of this form?

JLP: This question makes me think of the wonderful essay by
the poet Charles Olson, named “Projected/Projective Verse,”
in which he states that “form is the extension of content.” So since these poems are in free verse, and this one describes, enacts Lorenzo, a real cliff diver in Acapulco, Mexico while he is diving, I endeavor to use this form to emulate the act of diving and in the next stanza his rising back up and breaking the water’s surface. And also, I wish to project how startling he was. I guess looking back I found him quite attractive. Please do read the Olson essay and experiment!

I: “There Will Be a Poem You Can Lie Down In” and “Making a Poem” seem to describe some intense feelings when creating a poem. The poems show that it can be a long, difficult process, but it is somehow worth it in the end. How do these poems reveal your feelings towards developing?

JLP: I am not sure how to answer this question. “There Will Be a Poem You Can Lie Down In” is a metaphor comparing dying to writing a poem. My feelings about imagery best describe my feeling toward developing poetry. Each image that amazes us, such as “you waterfall, you cleft of rock,” has the capacity to
be all there is for a moment. I am imagining this is what we’ve become and in doing so find, as the poet William Baker states, “eternity is a grain of sand.” This brings up spirituality, the belief in the intensity of beauty in nature as a gift of the Creator: “The glove of the moon/writes the poem and you lie/down for the
last time.” Imagining your own death not as torture or slaughter, but as an extension of nature gives wonder and respect for the dazzling imagery we experience on Earth. I think this is where poetry comes from, not from personality or intellect, but from how we know what a gift life is, and how the world is Holy, even though so much of how so many treat it is destructive. I have always been fascinated by the ocean. It assures me that the God who created all wonders and creatures is generous beyond wonder and part of the human soul.

So, this poem is an homage, a song, to that generosity and to our realizing we are gifted with wonder which will continue for those who are grateful for life, even after they die. Now, “Making a Poem” again uses the metaphor of comparing “making the poem” to mining with all the physical arduousness of mining.
It is a metaphor for the creative process which requires fierce concentration and an actual digging at the core of language to find that imagery the equates with the ferocity of a poem’s own core. It is difficult to find, to hone, language. It is a lonely process and frustrating. But again, it is the gift of discovery and song. Frankly, those who live with poets, but are not poets, have little understanding to why “it took so long to offer it.” Yet, despite the tremendous energy required to write and revise heavily a poem one is satisfied with, there is always a terrible fear the poet will lose the gift and no more poems will come.

I: “Carnelia Doesn’t Get Relief from Acupuncture but She Gets This List:” certainly breaks the form of the prose poems that surrounds it. Is this meant to draw attention to the poem among the collection or merely is it an anomaly among the collection?

JLP: The form of “Carnelia Doesn’t Get Relief from Acupuncture but She Gets This List:” is exactly how the
poem with its mythic equations came to me one by one on the acupuncturist’s table with the needles hanging out of me. So, in complete contrast to “Making a Poem,” here I was given this poem as a gift, although I did not get any relief from the back pain. Also, I did tinker a bit with what was given to me. I created an echo to each line which imbued it with certain morbidity. An example of this, each of the last words of each line of the first four lines ends in a morbid word and image, but the last words of the last line, “let go,” suggest a demand for freedom. So, you may start with what literally comes to you, but you may also play with it and change it completely. That is my justification for the form, that these words came to me as lists whose changes I made only on the last word of every line.