10 Questions for Paola Bruni
- By Edward Clifford
What do we remember?
I read about a woman who could recall
the womb, who described it as a shiny, mirrored
substance, slick, the purplish hue of an eggplant.
Another suspended in anti-gravity, shuffled
along in a premature moonwalk.
—from "Birth," Volume 61, Issue 1 (Spring 2020)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My very first fiction piece was written when I was eleven years old. My Italian immigrant parents had just uprooted us, moved our family from an ethnic tumble of a neighborhood in the Excelsior District of San Francisco, to a white American suburb. I entered sixth grade terribly shy, a plump girl with acne and a strange name no one could pronounce. On the first day of class, Sister Mary assigned an essay about our summer vacation. I wrote a detailed account of being kidnapped by aliens and transported to Mars. In my defense, I’d spent years snuggled against my father on our blue Chesterfield watching Lost In Space, Star Trek, and The Jetsons on Saturday mornings. My imagined sense of other worlds was rather normal. However, Sister Mary wasn’t amused or impressed by my creativity. I failed the assignment, the first and last “F” I ever received in school. In hindsight, my 'summer vacation kidnapping' was a metaphor for being moved from an urban environment in which I was accepted by other kids, to a suburban environment where I was ostracized for my differences and those of my family.
What writers(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Wow, I didn’t become interested in poetry until 2015, when I discovered Ellen Bass’s The Human Line in our local independent bookseller. That one volume became the impetus for writing my first poem. Since, I’ve greedily collected faves: Tony Hoagland, Dorianne Laux, Jane Hirshfield, Danusha Lameris, Sharon Olds, Joseph Millar, Stephen Dunn, Natasha Trethewey, Ada Limon, Naomi Shihab Nye, among others.
But I’ve been devouring fiction all my life. Over the last three decades: Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger, Stephen King, Geraldine Brooks, Octavia Butler, Ann Patchett. One of my all-time favorite novels, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, features a child poet character.
What other professions have you worked in?
Carhop at A & W (The shorter the skirt, the better the tips. It’s true!) Documentations clerk at a Japanese freight forwarding company (I was taught three phrases in Japanese: Sumimasen, yurushitekudasai, nidoto yarimasen. Meaning, I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I’ll never do it again.) Secretary (Yes, we were still called secretaries in the early 80s, and we sat in pools, desk-to-desk, typewriter-to-typewriter.) National print buyer for The Gap. Sales rep for a graphic design firm. Freelance writer. Marketing entrepreneur serving financial institutions (nearly as tedious as it sounds). Grants specialist. Strategic planner. Money Coach.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Honestly, a saint with stigmata. That’s terribly odd, I know. But I was raised in the Catholic faith, sent to Catholic Parochial schools, and taught by the Presentation Sisters, who were, hairline to hemline, made of stern stuff. Growing up, my bedroom window faced Mount Davidson, the highest peak in San Francisco, notable for the 103-foot concrete and steel cross that was erected after a series of smaller crucifixes burned in the twenties and thirties. In fact, President Franklin D. Roosevelt lit the cross via telegraph from the White House on March 24, 1934, eight days before Easter. Sunrise services are held at the cross every Easter and were broadcast nationwide by CBS from the 1940s through the 1970s. But I was just a five-year-old girl who became obsessed with the miracle of resurrection, falling asleep every night with the shadow of the cross fixed in my mind. I thought that bleeding through my palms, doing what Jesus did, would be cool.
My second choice was journalist.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I was re-reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury at the time. I started poking around in Ray’s online bios and learned that he had a strong recollection of his birth. That inspired me to search similar notable people, which led me to Salvador Dali. Intrigued, I read blog after blog about people who had in-utero and birth memories. In hindsight, I believe I wrote “Birth” to deal with both my curiosity and envy. I have no infant or pre-childhood memories prior to splashing finger paint on my yellow plaid frock in kindergarten.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Seacliff State Beach, a few blocks from my home, influences much of my writing. I’ve walked this beach at sunrise nearly every day for the last 15 years. The cadence and seasonal transitions seep into my work as textures, colors, or a sensation of transition or loss. I think all of my poems and fictional characters have some element of the mystical ebbing through them. There is a quote that sits on my desk from Lao Tzu, “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.” On my best writing days, words flow. I’m listening with an open heart, taking dictation. Those days are rare! Mostly, I’m sitting at my desk laboring in the desert, working to discover artifacts, glimmers, thoughts drifting by that I can anchor to the page in a way that isn’t cliché, stogy, or embarrassingly cheeky.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I prefer the white noise of my neighborhood, to music. Neighbors gossiping, tree trimmers wielding their sharp skills. Squirrels in a trade war. Doggie complaints. I’m visited by mourning doves and sparrows. During the winter, I can hear the natural chaos of the surf while I write. However, if my critical voice is running amok, and my thoughts have the unhappy quality of a coffee grinder, I’ll turn on a chant like Bhava Yoga, or Yoga of Sound by Russill Paul, or Passion by Peter Gabriel. The music heightens the vibration in my environment, allows ideas previously subdued out of fear or judgement, to radiate, vie for my attention.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My pocket pit bull, Hazel, always hears my first drafts. She is optimally forgiving. Once I’ve honed the work, I bring it to the Tuesday morning poetry group I’ve attended for the last year. Eight of us meet with Danusha Lameris in her little red barn apartment in a forested, sunny enclave of Santa Cruz County called Happy Valley. Truly, it’s as lovely as it sounds.
What are you working on currently?
My father died of a heart attack eighteen months ago. Since then, I’ve written myriad poems about his life, the most recent—a series on bigotry called “The Unpublishable Poems.” I wanted to explore my immigrant parents’ judgements of other races and cultures, face my inherited fears. The title of “Unpublishable” was a way to trick myself into writing about a subject that makes me terribly uncomfortable.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve been pouring over Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry, Essays by Jane Hirshfield. The book is a work of art and an essential read for any poet. I also enjoy historical fiction and just finished reading The Poppy Wars, by R. F. Kuang. Next on my list: The Perfect Horse, by Elizabeth Letts, based on the U.S. attempt to rescue stallions kidnapped by the Nazi regime.
PAOLA BRUNI's poetry has been published in the Porter Gulch Review, Comstock Review, and Mudfish. She is the 2017 winner of the Muriel Craft Bailey Poetry Contest judged by Ellen Bass. Her short play, Michelangelo's Jesus, was produced by the 8 Tens Festival in Santa Cruz during the 2018 season. Paola is also the co-author of the nonfiction book, Let God Love You Up, published by The Maria Press (2015).