Behind the Words: Risa Denenberg

Posted by on Dec 28, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Risa Denenberg

Risa Denenberg’s poem Twenty Years of Dead is stark, beautiful, minutely detailed, aching, and honest all at the same time. She paints not only a narrative, but an immersive setting in this piece, and it’s easy to lose yourself in it and feel as if you knew Jon, the individual referenced just before the poem starts.  

For those who have lost someone, Denenberg’s lines both resonate and linger; I should never have read your journals. Your love/was hilarious and full of grand gestures and/caution tossed… 

In the interview below Risa delves into her creative process, writing about the loss of a loved one, and growth as a writer.

Sarina Bosco: What is your process when you approach a poem? Are you methodical, messy, do you take time to step away or stay immersed?

Risa Denenberg: I write based on my need to hold on to something, or perhaps I should say I write on impulse. Sometimes I have a phrase or word in mind that itches or worries me, or a thought that recurs at an unexpected time, but then disappears, like a dream. I don’t trust my memory. I often have a sense of urgency, a strong feeling that I can’t put into words.  Perhaps I’ll jot something on a sticky note, in the margin of a book, in an email I send to myself. I write notes that might look like a journal entry, a quote, a meaningless phrase, a grocery list. I lose these slips of paper, these thoughts, all the time, but then sometimes the poem seems to emerge at once, when really, it’s been steeping in my mind in scraps for some time. A lot of my writing languishes, gets lost, or goes into the trash bin, but sometimes a poem comes out that feels finished or almost finished on first draft. About half of the poems that I write don’t change much from first drafts; others go through revision after revision, as I interrogate the words, asking “what am I trying to say here?”

What draws you to poetry and how do you think poetry changes or affects the meaning of your subject matter?

I’m moved by poetry when it is honest, when it says something meaningful or important or universal; when it moves me in a way that would lose some of its force if conveyed in another medium. Sound and rhythm, when it matches content or narrative, is transportive. Reading poems allows me access to feelings that tend, even prefer, to hide in shadows. Sometimes, writing a poem frees me to reach that same place. 

What does your writing space look like?

My writing desk sits in front of a large window where I look out at Discovery Bay. I face east and the sunrises here can be amazing. On a clear day, I can see Mount Baker with its frosted top in the distance. Living in the Pacific Northwest offers views of mountains and water everywhere; but the fact of fog and rain, so frequently obscuring what is known to be in the distance, is a poem itself.  

What do you enjoy or find particularly difficult about the process of writing about a lost loved one? 

Writing about Jon has become a regular event for me. It keeps him alive for me. After he died of AIDS in 1993, I held on to his journals, but did not read them until about six years later. Like many of us, he journaled about the rough times, times of pain and loneliness. I could remind myself that he also had joy and love in his life, but reading his journals was devastating for me. We were very close friends, and yet there was so much I didn’t know about his life. The first writing I did about Jon became a chapbook. I want to remember Jon and to do so, I haven’t stopped writing poems about him, to him.  

What have been the most challenging obstacles to overcome as you’ve grown as a writer? 

An obstacle can also be a gift. I’ve had a long career in healthcare; now semi-retired, I still work part time as a nurse practitioner. A career demands a lot of time and attention. You study science, not literature. You read for your job more than you read for pleasure. And yet, I’ve been a nurse throughout all of my adult experiences. I’ve shared a lot of pain and suffering with people I otherwise would never have known. I’m richer and more solemn about how I approach my life and relationships. I hope I’ve brought some of that into my poems. 

You do a wonderful job of capturing not only a person, but a whole life and community in this poem – do the descriptive choices you make come easily, or are you very deliberate about them?

 I find that as I write, images and details seem to return to me that I had forgotten. Writing “Twenty Years of Dead,” on the 20th anniversary of Jon’s death unearthed the setting, the people, the feelings of those days, and the very specific details about his death and the aftermaths. 

Is there a particular emotion that this poem elicits in you as both the writer and a reader when you revisit it?

Because it was written at such a distance in time, it mostly brings me a sense of fondness and gladness that Jon was in my life. On a darker side, I have regrets that can plague me. Could I have been a better friend? Could I have done something that might have prolonged his life? If he had lived another couple of years, he would have been able to use the medications that have prolonged so many others’ lives. He might be alive still. 

What poem or poet have you read recently that you would recommend to others, and why?

I love too many poets to recommend just one! But when I come across a poem that I really needed at a particular moment, I often share it on Facebook, as much to keep it somewhere that I can go back to it as to share it with others. Jon and I both loved being Jewish and how it shaped our friendship and our view of the world. This poem, published on Holocaust Remembrance Day, really spoke to me.