Q&A with our editor Jackie Sherbow, author of Harbinger
Jackie Sherbow is a poet and editor of two mystery-fiction publications in addition to her work as editor of Newtown Literary. She recently released her chapbook, Harbinger, with Finishing Line Press at the end of 2019. Here, Jackie speaks with us about the inspiration(s) for her collection, about the disenfranchisement of youth, and of course, about Queens. For more information, please check out her website, follow her on Twitter and Instagram and purchase her book here.
Your chapbook is titled Harbinger, and many of the poems in the book are about women on the precipice ("Wooden Porch," "Trinities," etc.). However, the word is never actually used. There is a creeping sense throughout the collection that not only are things are about to change in significant ways, but that, importantly, women are the agents of such change. How did you come to the title and to the art that appears on the cover?
I had been working on what would become the manuscript for Harbinger for a while when the title came to me. I came across the word somewhere—at work or in my reading—and jotted it down; I do this a lot when a word strikes me and I think I might use it later, but this time I immediately knew it would be a good title for the chapbook. It captured what I was hoping to touch on with the book: the idea that there’s potential in the everyday for good things, but for danger too. Finding the title helped me frame the collection and narrow in on what I wanted to include.
For the cover art, I approached Melissa Calderone, a fantastic artist and one of my closest friends. She immediately came to mind when I heard my book was accepted by a publisher, so I asked her if I could commission a piece for the cover. She went above and beyond and worked out several ideas, which we discussed and narrowed down, and then several drafts—which I treasure. It was a really special collaboration and was one of my favorite parts of working on the book.
Birds are a large presence throughout the collection. Birds can generally be a sign of spring, a time of renewal and rebirth; yet, crows, prevalent in your work, are superstitiously a harbinger of death. Tell us about this inspiration: was the inclusion of birds a deliberate consideration when you came to the page or did you realize later that birds were a recurring image in your work?
Birds started showing up a lot in my poems when I became obsessed a few summers ago with learning about the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Of all the imagery involved in those accounts, birds showed up all the time—often as a “familiar” or a strange presence in a meeting house, a creature that a human turned into, or dead and as evidence that something would go wrong . . . moments like that. I was thinking that if birds are familiars or omens of death or bad luck, what in the life of the speaker of these poems does that embody? Often the darkest things about us are things we keep close, and they can become treasured and comforting, even in darkness. So, once I got on the bird thing, it was a deliberate consideration; I wanted the imagery to be part of what changes throughout the book. I kept that in mind while ordering the poems.
There are several mentions, specifically, to yellow birds and crows. Psychologically, yellow and black are colors meant to warn you (think caution tape, "wet floor" signs, wasps). Yet you also describe these birds as being found or kept inside the narrator's chest; therefore, not only are these birds harbingers of the possibility of danger, but they indicate a deeper fear of what is already inside of us: our life force, our heartbeat, our power as women. What do the birds mean to you?
I love this take! The yellow and black didn’t even occur to me, honestly. Expanding on what I said above, to me the birds symbolize fear, illness, grief, institutional violence—things that hold us back, but can also be overtaken, turned to something else. Sometimes these things become a part of us and seem to comfort us, and we protect them, even if they hurt us. I think that becoming closer to the things we fear in our lives and ourselves helps us ultimately feel more powerful.
How, if at all, did Queens influence the collection? How does Queens influence you as a writer?
I see the collection as “taking place” in three main locations—Queens, New England, and California. Queens always inspires me because it’s where I move around the most, and it’s where so many of my own experiences take place. In a more practical sense, being a part of the Newtown community and the Queens Council on the Arts Peer Circle motivated me and connected me with the resources and structure to put the manuscript together and submit it. Every time I go to a Newtown event, I feel inspired to work on my own writing!
There is a palpable tenderness with which you treat the adolescents in Harbinger, kids and young adults that don't yet fully know the danger awaiting them—or the power they’re capable of (the last poem in the collection, “Trinities,” ends with the final line “I balanced on three/shaky feet/before turning the corner into the dark”.) What do you find most compelling about childhood and adolescence as it appears in your work? In this context, are you suggesting that the only path forward, the only sustainable future, is to embrace the “darkness,” or the magic, or power within us?
Yes, I think that’s part of it, and I also think that young people are often misunderstood and underestimated. In our society, children are disenfranchised, and they’re purportedly everyone’s object of protection, but in reality, only a small fraction of kids are accepted and protected by those in power. Being a kid is vulnerable, but there’s also a power there, and a passion that I think can be lost in adulthood. So I guess a lot of poems from the point of view of young people ended up in the manuscript because I think they embody the themes I hoped to emphasize: the juxtaposition of and everyday potential for safety and danger.
While the Salem Witch Trials were clearly an inspiration for some of these poems (“Crow,” “Divers,” “Familiar”), there is also quite a bit of Catholic imagery woven throughout the collection. The Roman Catholic Church did persecute "witches," but in Europe, not New England. Could you tell us a bit more about this influence on your writing?
I wasn’t raised religiously, but I’ve always been fascinated with religious imagery, and by what a powerful force it can be. Also, Catholicism comes with ritual and relics, and that’s something I was thinking about a lot while putting together this collection. To me, it’s very much like how a quotidian object or occurrence can be turned into an omen or a harbinger, of bad things when people are scared, or of good luck when they’re not. To me, it’s people who make things powerful, for better or for worse.
What is the last piece of writing you read that made you laugh or cry (or just especially moved you)?
“The Last Thing” by Ada Limón made me cry recently. Whenever I read my friends’ work I often cry and laugh!
What inspires you?
With this collection, I was really inspired by the book The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem by Stacy Schiff and movies like The Witch (2015). In general: NYC, nature, history, pop culture, and music. Also my friends and writing community.
What’s your favorite bit of Queens trivia?
That the inventor of Scrabble lived in Jackson Heights!