Pittsburgh and Poetry: An Interview with Jackie Bartley

by Thanh Huynh

Jackie Bartley is a writer and professor. Her work has appeared in Under the Sun, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and West Branch, among others. She recently won the Three Candles Press’ Open Book Award. Her manuscript Sleeping with a Geologist was selected by Paul Guest. She lives in Michigan.

The Fourth River: Hello Jackie Bartley. Your faculty bio said you earned your undergraduate degree in Biology/Med-Tech and spent 15 years in the medical field. I guess my first question is “What happened? Did you always want to become a writer?”

Jackie Bartley: My classmates pegged me as a writer, but in high school, I loved theatre. However, I lived with parents who had jobs and figured that theatre wasn’t going to get me a job. I like science, so in college I studied Biology. I got into biology and decided to do Medical Technology. I’m kind of old-school in a way where I wasn’t career oriented, I just wanted to get food on the table. We’re not rich or anything now; I have a husband, a house, and some dogs. I was just in the right place at the right time when I decided to pursue writing.

FR: So how did you get into writing?

JB: My husband was going for his PhD in Geology. We moved to Oklahoma, then to Michigan, where he got a job at Hope College. Since he was a professor there, I was able to take classes for free. While working full-time, I took classes in the evening. Mostly literature classes, but a few were writing classes.

FR: That sounds tough, working full-time and going to school.

JB: It was tough in some ways. It was a lot of hard work, but for me what was tough was that I didn’t get the graduate school experience. I just took any classes that they offered in the evening. I took a poetry class at Hope taught by a wonderful professor, Jack Ridl.

FR: Did you do any writing before that?

JB: I wrote medical procedure stuff. [Laughs] I got really good at that. But no, I didn’t really do any writing.

FR: I’ve read a lot about Pittsburgh, and the stories I’ve read were about the buildings, the history, the sports. You took a different approach in your essay by describing Pittsburgh in terms of directions. Why did you take this route?

JB: That’s right. Well, I’m from Pittsburgh and I still get lost there. I know where things are, but I don’t give “north, south, east” directions. Like everyone from Pittsburgh, no one gives you a straight direction, even though they know where it is. You know it, but you don’t know it. And since I moved, Pittsburgh has changed a lot. The only thing that is still there, which I’m sure you know, is the Virgin Mary statue along the Parkway East at the Oakland Exit. Pittsburgh for me is like memory where it’s flawed. I have memories of things that were, but aren’t there anymore, and that’s how I get around the city, with my flawed memories. How we all get around, I imagine.

FR: I’ve read a lot of your work, and this was the only creative nonfiction piece I could find.

JB: “Seeing Pittsburgh” was my first published creative nonfiction piece. I have another one coming out soon ["Noli me Tangere," forthcoming in the journal Under the Sun]. It’s like I’ve finally made it in the creative nonfiction world. I teach many classes in it. I never felt I was a natural storyteller, but in teaching others, I’ve come to learn and love the genre and enjoy working in it.

FR: Who are some writers you admire?

JB: Chase Twichell, Linda Bierds, Alison Hawthorne Deming. Recently, I’ve returned to Rilke, but with a different translator than the one I’d read previously. I also keep a nonfiction book by the bed all the time and have read, in the past months, Tracy Kidder’s Home Town and Mountains Beyond Mountains, Steve Almond’s Candyfreak. A few days ago, I began The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I also devour every Oliver Sacks essay I find and have read all his books.

FR: Okay, so if you had to pick between writing poetry or writing creative nonfiction, which would you choose?

JB: That’s easy, poetry. I’m really a poet. I don’t sit down to do one or another. Creative writing encompasses many styles and genres. I have, in the past, felt more comfortable revising poetry, but sometimes the relationship of sentences in prose fits the contents better. I think you have to generate content first and then think about form.

FR: I appreciate you taking time out of your day.

JB: No problem. This was a lot of fun.

Thanh Huynh attended Chatham University’s creative writing program. He currently lives in San Antonio, Texas.