BEFORE CARRIE BRADSHAW, THERE WAS ERICA JONG

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Erica Jong is an occasional insomniac, but she’s “not an Ambien person,” she said over the phone one Friday afternoon. The second section of her new book of poetry, Love Comes First (Tarcher, $24.95) is even called  “People Who Can’t Sleep.” She thinks her sleeplessness might have something to do with being Jewish, actually: “I love that quote by Isaac Singer about the Jews not letting anyone sleep, because we always try to be the conscious of the world, and maybe that’s why people get mad at us,” she said with a little laugh.

In all seriousness, when Jong wakes up at 3 a.m., “It’s usually because I have a book going.  The book wakes me up, and I’m happy to be woken by it.”

Love Comes First is Jong’s seventh poetry collection, in addition to her 20 novels and nonfiction books. In today’s media landscape of nude 15-year-olds on the cover of Vanity Fair and leaked sex tapes acting as an audition to a career in more legit entertainment (Miley, Paris), it’s easy to forget that the pop-cultural sexual revolution did not, in fact, begin when the Sex and the City girls started dishing about their sex lives over brunch. It was Jong’s 1973 novel, Fear of Flying, that was the first to frankly address women’s sexual desires.

A Barnard College graduate who received her M.A. from Columbia University’s Graduate Faculties, Jong has a long-standing relationship with the Morningside Heights university. Two years ago, Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library acquired a large collection of her archival material, and she plans to teach master classes at Columbia and advise the Rare Book Library on the acquisition of other women writers’ archives. Today, Jong, 66, lives on the Upper East Side with her fourth husband, a divorce lawyer.

The theme of the new collection is mortality versus life and vitality, youth versus age—all while recognizing the importance of staying in the moment. As it is neatly encapsulated in “Continental Divide”:

“Doctor—
is death the aberration
or is life?

As for love—
why is it never enough
to save us?”

“It’s very much a book about love and loss and accepting one’s own mortality without losing a sense of joy about life,” Jong said. “I think my poems are pretty transparent. People have always said to me, ‘I don’t understand a lot of poetry, but I always understand yours.’”

Despite her fecundity, it’s comforting to know that even an author like Jong suffers
“terrible blocks” in writing. In “The Poetry Cat,” she compares an elusive poem to
“a coy lover… afraid of being possessed
feeling too much
losing his essential loneliness—
which he calls freedom”

I tell Jong that the elusive poetry cat sounds like most men to me, and she laughs and says, “People want love but they’re also afraid of it, of being possessed by it. I’m interested in writing about the ambivalence and contradiction in life.”

How else to trick the poetry cat? “I tell myself, ‘Nobody will ever read this,’” she says.
These days, she cites Chilean poet and communist politician Pablo Neruda as one of her biggest influences, as well as “Auden, in particular. There was a period when I was influenced by Anne Sexton and Plath—less so now.”

The third section of the Love Comes First leans heavily on Jewish and religious themes, and the first line of the poem “Against Grief”—“Sometimes we are asked to carry more than we can bear”—serves as a neat counterpoint to the oft-repeated Christian platitude on suffering, “God never gives us more than we can bear.” Was her line more of a Jewish perspective on suffering?

“I think you’re right on,” Jong said. “I was thinking of a friend of mine who was going through very hard things in her life, people who get more than their share of pain and then have to rise to the occasion.

Post-Fear of Flying, women and sex has lost its shock value. So what’s taboo to talk about in the public arena today? “Money, mortality, and how you face your mortality if you’re not a believer,” she said. “[Women] are ashamed if we do make money, and we’re ashamed if we don’t make money.

Mentioning the “capriciousness” of making a living as a writer, she adds that she has to “balance it out, give lectures if you’re not publishing a book. [Authors] are now being asked to blog for free, like on The Huffington Post.” (In the run-up to the 2008 election, Jong, who admitted that she was obsessed with an Obama win, blogged about her political views for free.) “But it’s good to get that out there if you have strong political opinions.”

Speaking of strong political opinions: Does she think the fist-bumping Obamas, who are delightfully not averse to public displays of affection, have a good sex life?
“Who knows? Nobody knows what goes on in somebody else’s bedroom and it’s useless to speculate… But I think it’s obvious that they listen to each other. Many couples do not. I never had that feeling with Laura and W.” However, “they’re very alive,” she says, echoing one of the themes of her poems.

In “In Vino Veritas,” Jong fondly recalls her drinking days—“I used to love it/that first hit at the back of the neck,” but what she was looking for in the wineglass was “never there,” and she must find “my own elixir” for experiencing that buzz.

Poetry seems close enough; compared to writing novels, Jong says the experience is “much more ecstatic and happy. You have a wonderful feeling when you’ve completed a poem.”

POEM FOR A FAX COVER SHEET

Hating cameras, Plato said:
Look how everything grays
with duplication, blurs
at the edges. The Parthenon:
a postcard! And who are
those clowns loitering in
the (Kodacolor) agora?
Negatives of negatives?

IN VINO VERITAS

I used to love it—
the first hit at the back of the neck.
The promise of love,
of poetry, of sex—
all in the chime and tinkle
of the mouth-blown glass.

What was I looking for
in those crystal depths?
Transport to
a realm
of pure spirit?
Transparency?
Transcendence?
It was never there.

But I remember
the dream.
Dear God, may
I find it again
with my own elixir.

YOU ARE THERE

You are there.
You have always been
there.
Even when you thought
you were climbing
you had already arrived.
Even when you were
breathing hard,
you were at rest.
Even then it was clear
you were there.

Not in our nature
to know what
is journey and what
arrival.
Even if we knew
we would not admit.
Even if we lived
we would think
we were just
germinating.

To live is to be
uncertain.
Certainty comes
at the end.

Copyright Erica Mann Jong 2009

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