Tuesday May 21

Bernstein Poetry Laura Bernstein’s poetry and essays have homes in The Normal School, Tupelo Quarterly, and Passages North, among others. Bernstein serves as the Director of Communications of Heroic Public Speaking.

Laura Bernstein Interview, with Davon Loeb

Laura, thank you for trusting Connotation Press: An Online Artifact with your work. I am so thrilled to have finally gotten hold of your poetry, for I have been lucky enough to hear you read your work in person, and I wish our online readers could experience your words in real-time.

This brings me to our first question. Your poems, I believe, are some of the best examples of poetic cadence. Your line breaks are incredibly natural; and when reading aloud, I’m awed by the seamless transitions from word to word, line to line, and stanza to stanza. Thus, what role does sound, language, and speech play in your writing?

And I'm awed by your kind words.

I started out as a musician, so the sound is where I tend to find the most meaning. Heck, even when listening to music, my friends are often horrified by my inability to remember lyrics; I'm too busy paying attention to the instruments. I can pick out a bass line in a flash, but ask me a line of a song and I'll scratch my head all day.

I think that search for meaning through sound applies in my writing, too. How can a switch of a word or a line break create a beat where new meaning forms? How much control can enjambment have over how the poem is read? It's a thrilling challenge to me.

As a copywriter by trade, I've had to learn to turn that search for sound off, at least a little bit—

which, in turn, feels like I had to learn a new language. If I have a brand-new site due by the end of the day, my company isn't going to be particularly thrilled to hear that I've spent all day crafting the perfect-sounding sentence. They need results, not a melodic line. So, the balance between sound and story shift depending on the overall goals. And I'm ok with that flexibility.

I’m a bit of a nostalgic sentimentalist, and your poems make me feel as if I’m a child again, sitting with a lot of other children, awaiting story-time. So where do you think the knack for storytelling came from? And in what ways is storytelling important to you as a writer?

That's fantastic that poems with such a melancholy tone could still bring out that sense of childlike wonder; perhaps it's because, even as adults, we crave stories—being told stories, listening to stories. It's how we relate or at least understand (or try to understand) others.

I'm not sure where my storytelling knack came from, but I do know that it was consistently encouraged throughout my life. My first grade teacher used to give me a few minutes every week to share whatever story I wrote that week. Shoutout to Mrs. Bernstein (no relation) for that gift and seeing that I needed an outlet to express myself. My mom and I used to write letters back and forth when we were having arguments over homework or making beds or not pouring a cup of milk over my brother's head just to see how he'd react. And reading. My goodness, reading good stories has been—and (dare I predict) will always be central to my life.

Sarah Manguso has this beautiful collection called 300 Arguments (it's probably the book I've gifted the most this past year). One of her micro-essays has this gorgeous realization everyone will face some sort of life-altering challenge at some point in their life, that will all bring them to the same island. I think storytelling gives us that sense of joy within our lives—that we're all going to wind up on the same island at some point. And even with the bizarre or the sad, there's such joy in knowing that your story can resonate with someone else just by the act of sharing it.

When first reading your submission, I was instantly drawn to your poem “Parenting”. I have realized that the older I get, the more reflective I am, regarding my parents and my upbringing. So, this poem in particular addresses that reflection, but it is also very transformative by flipping the parenting position—i.e. a daughter cradling her swaddled father. The image is stark, gentle, and stirring. Can you explain how you arrived at this poem and perspective?

Ah, yes. Becoming a parent will bring on that reflection. :)

You know, I started my work in an MFA program when my daughter was 1. A big-cheeked baby! It was a much different experience balancing a graduate program as a parent than as someone who might have had more of a luxury to think about poems all day and let that be their main priority. This isn't to say that my cohort didn't have responsibilities; they did. But as I already went in the program with a Masters degree already under my belt, I was able to notice the stark contrast in studying all day (or at least whenever I prioritized) vs. needing an extremely structured schedule to make sure the work got done. I had babysitters and family members and a schedule of when I could write and grade papers and sit down at home. No time was wasted.

I thought a lot about the responsibility to do well in my writing, almost to prove that the investment of going back to school paid off (although not financial because poets aren't exactly known for their wealth). My role as a writer was taken quite seriously, but I needed to think about it in the lens of a parent in order to balance it with my schedule. It was the only way things made sense at the time.

All that to say, the idea of parenting and families became a little obsession in my writing, and I thought (and think) a lot about the expectations placed on familial roles. For "Parenting" in particular, I thought about if those roles were reversed right from the beginning. These are ordinary phrases parents say to each other, but it's seen in a new light. With one change right at the beginning, it shakes everything. Sometimes it takes the slightest bend for a new perspective.

There is a very maternal voice throughout all your poems. And I think readers will find themselves moved and reminded of some moment they had or did not have with their parent or parents. When reading “Spain”, the narrator feels this sense of duty to her mother, as her mother enters a different chapter in her life. In a way, the once-child is now responsible for the parent. Do you think, you as a writer, has experienced this kind of maturation in your poetry? Can you explain?

That's great that you're reading it as a shift in responsibility. I wonder if the speaker really has that responsibility or if it's more of an awareness that the speaker would like to take on that responsibility (or feels indebted to be responsible in some way). It's a willingness to step up to a metaphorical plate, a consensual relationship that vows to have each other's backs.

In relation to writing, I think often times that the writer expects a lot from the page. But really, the hard work doesn't write itself. It seems like an obvious notion, but how many times have you had students that had a moment of brilliance, only to give up after the first draft? Interrogate the heck out of your work—the poem isn't going to ask you where to go—you need to do the asking.

Lastly, if I could take more advantage of having you with us, is there anything you want your readers to know about you, your life, your job, and your family that would further our understanding of your work, other than the context you’ve already provided?

I work for a company where we help people infuse performance techniques in their public speaking. Through these big-hearted people, I can see—no matter what age—community is central (and crucial) to writing and creating content. I see it in my work, I see it in my writing, I see it in my day-to-day life. People want to be heard, and writing is such a beautiful platform to do so. So, encourage writing, and you're encouraging someone to speak up. Even if you're not a professional writer, who cares? Most people aren't; if we were all professional writers, we'd drive each other nuts with grammatical jokes. Share your writing. Share your voice. There are others out there who want to hear from you. And that, my friend, is one brave leap.



After I was born, my father swaddled
himself in blue muslin, dropped

his 6’4” frame into my arms. Watch
my neck, he requested as nurses

stapled my mother’s stomach shut. My eyes
were coated with white film when I learned

to cradle my father with my right arm
and hold my own head with the left.

Umbilical cord sling bounced him up
and down during four-month sleep regression.

He was a good little father. Only cried
when he was hungry or tired or bored.

His yawns were so large, I saw hints
of silver fillings twinkling in his teeth.

Ate well, loved sweet potatoes & chickpeas.
He cooed over any food, really—

when he was a baby, his parents left him
packets of ketchup stirred with water.

He craved more—more children, more wives—
no matter how many purees I mashed.

He’s in a running phase right now, will go
away if I don’t chase after him, snatch his elbow.

His cry is faint, but I hear it. If he comes back,                     
then he comes back. I place my feet firm

against the floor of cracked bottles. Sometimes
I wish for that newborn phase again, but I guess

we all have to let them grow up.


My father breaks down
leather journal binding, marking off
completed parental duties.

Child support: check.

Weekend visitation: check.

Health insurance re-enrollment: check.

He does the best he can
on paper. And when he’s done

with his list, he bends
the lamp’s neck, adjusts
his posture, and begins
the Sunday Times crossword
he missed out on yesterday.

For Mom

Remember when I promised you
I’d jump off a cliff if it meant
I could get away from you? This
isn’t like that. This goes back years
before I could understand you
were a person. Goals like hiking
up & down Spain before you turned
50.       Well Mom, 50 arrived
then departed without tickets
or a birthday card—you asked me
to ignore it. I obliged, too
young to get silence was a key
I needed to grab, unlock words
trapped behind deadbolt lips.
So for 60, let me gift you
speech. Forget bills. I’ll turn long chains
of debt into speckled feathers,
until you flutter through Spain.           There,
view statues tucked in Ronda’s streets.
            And look—the roof of Sagrada
Família.           El Tajo’s top
hosts a red wine & brie picnic.
            Praise your joints, swollen from shifting
through work titles— student, waitress,
sales associate, caretaker,
court reporter, secretary,
food drive organizer, mother,
health advocate, child of God.            Yes,
you’ve worked. If anyone deserves
mountains, it’s you.                Look at the gorge,
the boulders, the jade slab of earth.
            Fly through until you choose to land.
Mom,              you’ve waited years for this view,
and though you’re only here through words,
I’m not going to let you down.

What Animal Are You Most Like, and Why?
An after-school job interview question

One basilisk propels       

                                    herself to skip

                                                                        on rivers & streams,

collects wave crescents

                                    between toes. Submerges

                                                                        only when necessary. She’s called

the Jesus Christ Lizard,

                                    but there’s no sense of grace

                                                                        in how she buckles her joints,

cements her neck
                                    straight forward.

                                                                        So busy running

she can’t feel

                                    a snakebite

                                                                        the air whisked by her own tail.