Conversations with Speculative Poets: Jessica Rae Bergamino

The Conversations with Speculative Poets Series features interviews with writers of science fiction and fantasy poetry. For the third post in the series, I spoke with poet Jessica Rae Bergamino about her 2018 collection UNMANNED, published by Noemi Press.

Jessica Rae Bergamino is the author of UNMANNED, winner of Noemi Press’ 2017 Poetry Prize, as well as 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

T.D. Walker: In your collection, UNMANNED, you give voice and gender to both Voyager spacecraft. We see Voyager Two imagining herself as figures from pop culture–Princess Leia, Barbarella, Miss Piggy, Liza Minelli, and Barbara Streisand–and Voyager One using similar references and ancient myth in her contemplation of what her mission is and what surrounds her. They use these references not as the creators of the Voyagers intended the spacecrafts’ Golden Records, as a means for introducing Earth culture, but as a way into their vital yet increasingly isolated states, moving away from that culture.

When you were writing the poems for this collection, how did you form the personas of the Voyagers, and what ideas about how we see ourselves in the vastness of the universe and the vastness of culture did you want to explore and challenge? And why use pop culture references that could not have been included on the Golden Records, such as those from the later Star Wars movies?

Image of the cover of Jessica Rae Bergamino's UNMANNEDJessica Rae Bergamino: When I first started writing UNMANNED I propelled myself with a story where Voyager Two, cast to follow Voyager One through the solar system, was hopelessly and unrequitedly in love. I wanted to, with Voyager Two, explore and imagine ways that love can operate as a radical intervention against violent social programmings — even if and when it is fundamentally imperfect. But the further I followed Voyager Two the more she surprised me, and, in turn, I surprised myself; she’s much more fearless than I first imagined her, and her growth as a speaker really forged the direction of the manuscript.

The queer femmes I love consciously radicalize femininity and feminine labor as practices of resistance. I wanted to assemble models of femininity and femme tenacity which Voyager Two could practice in order to develop her own relationship to gender and pleasure without having to negotiate masculinity as a counterpoint or in opposition to femininity. I started to ask what models of femininity already existed in space, which brought me to Star Wars, Barbarella, and Miss Piggy’s “Pigs in Space” skits. Film, in turn, gave me an entry point to play with the pun on star, and I started writing poems where Voyager Two not only role-played as science fiction heroines but also as pop-culture divas.

I think that the only atemporal references within the project are to the later Star Wars films (Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), but since they take place, of course, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” I gave myself permission to play with Leia’s character arc as revolutionary protagonist in order to juxtapose it, later, with Patty Hearst, and, in turn, Voyager Two’s own rebellion against her mission and programming. Then, a few years ago, on the anniversary of the Voyager launch, NASA invited William Shatner to send a transmission — the transmission was a tweet that won a contest on Twitter — and since that was a direct contemporary engagement with Voyager One it seemed important to include in the manuscript. Captain Kirk became, alongside Han Solo and the Death Star, one of the ways the book speaks directly to space-age patriarchy.

The persona of Voyager One really only started to form after Voyager Two’s narrative had brought her to interstellar space; I had, in many ways, up to that point, set Voyager One up as a straw man, symbolizing all of the things that Voyager Two both wanted and was rebelling against. Writing the poem which contended with Shatner’s transmission to Voyager was a huge turning point for me in the manuscript and I was able to revise and re-vision her poems with attention to a whole host of political and aesthetic concerns that I hadn’t been prepared to address before. I had thought of her as static, but once her voice started pulling in a different direction I was able to re-conceive of her as a more dynamic, thoughtful, and frustrated speaker.

TDW: I’m struck by the lines in “When Scientists Speak to Scientists”: “Our algorithms run / in skirts and sensible shoes, / our bodies both the chemists / and the chemistry sets / the lab coats and the labs.” Later, in “Feeling Underappreciated, Voyager Two Imagines Herself as Miss Piggy,” Voyager Two argues that “My ship is brutal as a body, my body / a ship.” The repetition of “body” seems central to me, as a reader, as I’m hearing her put herself into human form, in a turn on ancient myth wherein women turn into other forms to flee male oppression; I’m also hearing her create herself, in spite of already having a form and a purpose.

Given that the Voyagers are, in your collection, engaging in scientific study of the solar system and beyond as well as engaging in deep introspection, what did you want your readers to question about the ways in which we mingle what we think we know about science and what we know about ourselves? How should we view the world in light of the lines from “Little Black Dress for Robot”: “how you misunderstood science for humanity”?

JRB: The body of each Voyager is built to gather data and conduct scientific experiments, but how is that actually any different than the human body? We constantly gather sensory and emotional information, process it, and figure out how to apply it. We celebrate. We fuck up. We learn to be better, to change our behavior, to make amends. Having a body is hard work and such a brilliant responsibility. It is something we learn, for better and worse, how to be. I’m so invested in articulating body as a verb and the possibilities that come from interrogating the ways that our bodies interact with other bodies and with dynamics of power and pleasure. So much in the poem “When Scientists Speak to Scientists” is about the struggle to give language to those dynamics.

Also, science also isn’t neutral. It is done by humans and humans have used it to justify horrifically violent things, like eugenics or the history of obstetrics and scientific experimentation on black bodies. I think we have a responsibility to be critical of ways that science and pseudo-science have been used to maintain and support oppression and oppressive power structures.

TDW: The last series of poems, “Excerpts from Voyager One’s Private Correspondence with Carl Sagan,” you’ve envisioned the spacecraft’s messages back to the person who was one of the driving forces behind her creation. Since this collection, in my reading, is about creating and recreating self through story, I’m drawn back to the last poem, denoted by the Pisces symbol, in which Voyager One argues that “Every woman needs her own metaphor for density.” This even if she’s a machine.

You’ve given us two spacecraft that in contemplating themselves and the universe explore a range of personas and metaphors. What, for you, was the initial appeal of writing science fictional poetry? What was your process in setting the science against the mythology, the language of instruments and measurements against the language of pop culture?

JRB: Some of the collections that I return to again and again ask and explore how poetry can Headshot of poet Jessica Rae Bergaminoengage in questions of world building and world-re-visioning as social critique — Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire or Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette, for instance — and I wanted to try to join that lineage of creating and making. I first started exploring speculative personas in two chapbooks published by dancing girl press which have, respectively, a mermaid and a ghost speaker. I love the responsible persona poem as a way of imagining a self or a politic more fully, more multifacetedly; it’s one of those poetry games that allows you to tell a deeper truth.

Before leaving the solar system, the Voyagers approached Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus in order to conduct experiments and gather information about both the planets and their surrounding moons. My research process included casting the widest net possible, so while studying the results of the planetary encounters I also studied the history of astronomy, the myths behind the names of the planets and moons, and the astrological meanings of the planets and their movement. I wanted to see what connections and metaphors could arise out of treating all of these forms of knowing as equal.

I felt strongly that the pop culture references in the book should be temporally aligned with the Voyager launch (with the exception of Star Wars, as I talked about earlier). I felt the same about the science, which is intentionally out-dated and incomplete. When I was writing about Jupiter, for instance, I didn’t include any information gathered by Galileo or Cassini. So, in many ways, the accounts of mythology and pop culture in the book might be more true or real than the science.

I had always thought of myself as a research poet, but this book really cemented that practice for me, and I learned so much about what a research-oriented creative process could look like. It also required me to be vulnerable and honest with myself about what I didn’t understand and to use the poems to push through that; in many ways, the scientific language became my analogue for the universe. I don’t know if I understand either science or the universe any more than I did when I started, but at least I know more about my relationship to it. I can celebrate that.

TDW: Are there poetry collections that touch on the same theme as UNMANNED that you’d like to recommend to the readers of Luna Station Quarterly?

JRB: There are so many amazing collections that tackle the Voyager project — Alyse Knorr’s Copper Mother, Anthony Michael Morena’s The Voyager Record, and of course Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager. Claire Wahmanholm’s Wilder engages erasures of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and Julia Bloch’s Letters to Kelly Clarkson was such an important book for me both in thinking about how pop culture can live inside queer poetics. Margaret Rhee’s Love, Robot is such a necessary part of the evolving canon of robotic poetics and I like to think of it and UNMANNED in orbit together.