Interview with Julie Wade

Born in Seattle in 1979, Julie Marie Wade completed a Master of Arts in English at Western Washington University in 2003, a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at the University of Louisville in 2012. She is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010), winner of the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir, Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), selected for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series, Small Fires; Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, and the forthcoming Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Press, 2013), winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize. Wade is the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University in Miami.

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Julie was interviewed by Kacee Belcher for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Kacee Belcher: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview for Sliver of Stone. We’re honored that you would take the time out of your schedule, as well as give us a sneak peak at your new collection, Postage Due. It’s captivating and simultaneously restrained yet rebellious.

Julie Wade: Thank you, Kacee.  I am honored to be asked.

KB: What struck me at first was the balance that the adult speaker has with a younger self. It seems as if this poet, now having given herself permission to play, has broken free and is, for lack of a better word, almost exacting revenge. At the same time, this book never quite feels like a “fuck you” to the past but rather a larger, more mature, “I was never sorry.” As a poet, how did that balance arise? How can the work be so playful and yet calculating at the same time?

JW: Well, I’m glad you think there’s a balance.  This book was risky for me to write, and it was a definite departure from the way I had written poems before.  I’ve never wanted to be a “revenge writer” or to use my work to denigrate the life or work of anyone else.  The goal for me is always self-discovery and greater understanding of the various worlds I inhabit and the people who inhabit those worlds along with me.

Here’s a little background on Postage Due: All of the poems were written between 2003 and 2005, and in 2006, Postage Due served as my MFA thesis at the University of Pittsburgh.  So as you can see, there is some tremendous lag time between when I was writing these poems and the publication of Postage Due by White Pine Press in 2013.  A lot can happen in 8-10 years, and a lot has, so even the book itself is an artifact of how I confronted the past then and how I might confront it differently now.

When we first moved to Pittsburgh, I knew I wanted to write this book, and I already had the title in mind.  I had a notion that Postage Due would be a compendium of letters to the past, and I had resolved that I wanted to be more open to experimentation, to allow the poems to become significantly more “raw,” for lack of a better word, than the previous poems I had written.  I had been thinking a lot, as I still do, about the difference between art and artifact, and I think one of the main differences between them has to do with how constructed the document is—how much translating has happened between the experience itself and the representation of that experience.  When we talk about “artistic distance,” I think we mean the thing that separates an artfully made thing from the artifact it is built from or upon.  In this book, there are levels of distance.  Some poems are more sophisticated, more crafted, than others.  I tried to recreate my fan letters as artifacts more than works of art, but I wanted to balance those artifacts with more notably nuanced poems—the four poetic markers of the liturgical calendar, for instance: “Advent (Yeager),” “Pentecost,” “(Ambiva)Lent,” and “Epiphany.”

Formally, I knew I wanted to establish a different kind of relationship with the reader than I had before—a more challenging one.  If you think about the concept of “postage due,” you have this parcel that the mail carrier offers to you, but in order to take it and see what it contains, you have to be willing to pay something.  And if you’re not willing to pay, then you have to be willing to let it go.  That’s how our relationship with the past is, too—or at least that’s how I think about my relationship with the past.  When I read this statement from the feminist scholar Linda Zerilli that I use as an epigraph for one of the sections of the book, I knew she had articulated with such insight and grace what I wanted to accomplish in my book: “Because it can be neither forgotten nor changed, the past must be redeemed.”  But how do you redeem the past?  You have to pay something for it; you have to offer something in return.

I think these poems ask the reader to be open to a wide range of voices, to a kaleidoscope of stories instead of a linear narrative, to certain moments of displacement and estrangement within the text that aren’t always comfortable.  The poems don’t give you everything you want; they don’t answer all the questions they raise.  And that’s how the past is, too—how it fails to be complete even when it succeeds at being over.  I wanted to use this book to make amends with people I’m unlikely to ever see again, to break oppressive silences I was told I had to honor, and most important, to have a conversation with some of the selves I have been across time and place.  I like when you say that it seems like I am saying I was never sorry.  It’s always bothered me when people quote that line from Love Story: “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry.”  And of course that’s not true.  This book contains many apologies, some overt and others subtle, but I’d like to revise that line from Love Story to read: “Love means never having to apologize for who you really are.”  That’s the part of my own story that I’m not sorry for, and I hope maybe that comes through in such a way that the book encourages others not to apologize for who they are but also, at the same time, to recognize that there are consequences for any way of being in the world.  No one is exempt from pain or confusion or self-doubt, and that includes some of the other people/figures I write about in the book—Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, Vanna White, Mr. Clean, Mick Kelly, Chester Greenwood, Judy Garland, Mary Tyler Moore, etc.  Our lives are always delivered to us with postage due.

KB: Like Denise Duhamel, you seem to have a knack for injecting pop culture into your poetry. Well done! How does pop culture influence your writing? Multiple poems in Postage Due reference cultural icons from Mr. Clean to Mary Richards to George Bailey to Judy Garland. Are these personal nods or do you pop in the culture to suit the work?

JW: Just to have my work referenced in the same sentence with Denise Duhamel is a treat, so thank you for that.  Denise and her love of popular culture have had a huge influence on my writing and on what I have been willing to let into my poetry over the years.  When I first started writing poems in high school, I had the sense that poetry was the zenith of “high art,” a place to engage with universal truths and universal questions.  I thought you had to sound like Shakespeare to do that.  I also had the impression that you had to have already done that because the only real poets I knew about were dead.  So I think the first thing that revolutionized my way of thinking about allowing popular culture into my poems was the discovery that there were real live poets making poems out of the material of their life and time—even the “lowest art,” the detritus of their time—and that there was nothing less universal about their truths and questions simply because they were framed by the zeitgeist of a particular cultural moment.  Once I found out about poets like Denise Duhamel and Barbara Hamby and Cornelius Eady and Tony Hoagland and A. Van Jordan, I started to believe anything was possible in a poem and that there was no right or proper subject, let alone a single proper form a poem should take.  In fact, I started to believe that all the so-called “timeless subjects” of love and mortality and spirituality and identity might be probed even more deeply by approaching these subjects through the lens of a particular place and time.  That’s what I love about Duhamel’s book, Kinky—how she uses Barbie as the ultimate tool for cultural analysis as well as personal reflection.  That’s also what I love about Eady’s book, Brutal Imagination—how he uses the persona of “the young black man Susan Smith claimed kidnapped her children” in order to examine the messy matrix of race, class, and gender in American society and in light of a specific, contemporary event.  But notice how, in talking about these books, I start to sound like a theory head.  The poets don’t do that.  They make politically charged and socially-conscious writing available to us through sound and image and metaphor.

All my teachers advocated some version of “write what you know,” and I always thought “I don’t know as much as I want to know.”  But then I started thinking about public figures and icons that have been a touchstone for my knowing and my not-knowing.  George Bailey was revered in my family as a wonderful husband and father, a Jesus-like figure who sacrificed his dreams for his family.  And I started to question whether George Bailey might not have gotten the short end of the stick there.  In a graduate film class, I wrote a paper called “Staying Home: George Bailey and the Atrophy of Desire.”  I told a film student that I had written about It’s a Wonderful Life, and she cringed because it was a “popular film,” and she thought it was better to write about highly regarded works in the film canon (e.g. “high art”).  It turned out my film professor, Lucy Fischer, was quite receptive to the paper, and her affirmation made me realize George Bailey was valuable to me as a way of thinking about what really makes a wonderful life.  Who else was there?  I realized I thought a lot about Judy Garland and her famous statement, “If I’m such a legend, then why am I so lonely?”  I heard resonances there with being an overachieving only child, performing a lot for other people.  What could she teach me if I brought her into the poems?  And of course, Mary Tyler Moore played those two women characters who shaped my sense of what kind of future a “good girl” might expect to have—the married life of Laura Petrie or the single life of Mary Richards.  So I brought her in.  And Mr. Clean—well, the more I thought about the absence of depictions of ordinary gay lives, especially in TV commercials and on game shows, the more I wanted to possibilize the gay life of Mr. Clean, who all kinds of suburban wives and mothers, including my own, depend on to keep their immaculate homes.  I thought it was a subversive way, and hopefully an interesting way, to talk about timeless subjects like inclusion/exclusion and our notions of a phantom “normal.”

KB: In “Letter to Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale,” you urge Dorothy toward anywhere but “home.” Can you talk about the notion of home a little bit? How has your definition of home shifted, if at all, and is home something that can even be defined?

JW: I grew up with a pretty insular notion of home, and a pretty literal one, too.  I lived in the same house my whole life.  It was a beautiful house in a safe neighborhood in West Seattle with a stunning view of the water—the kind of place that, on the surface, you would never want to leave.  But it was also a stifling kind of place where everything always had to “look right” for fear of what the neighbors would think.  When I got ready to go to college, my parents made it clear that I was only allowed to apply to in-state schools and that they really wanted me to consider living at home and commuting to the University of Washington.  Long-term, they wanted me to get married and raise a family in the same neighborhood where I had grown up.  I came to understand that they viewed the world beyond our immediate neighborhood as dangerous, but the real threat wasn’t to our physical well-being; it was a threat to convention, to conservative Christianity and traditional gender roles.  I loved my house and my neighborhood, and I loved my parents the best I could, but I came to realize I couldn’t thrive there because home wasn’t where the heart was; it was where the rules were, and those weren’t my rules.

I have two friends in Louisville, Amy Tudor and Rev Culver, who talk a lot about the Jungian concept of temenos.  The word comes from the Greek, meaning “a sacred place,” but Jung used it to talk about the idea of a deep inner space where we are honest with ourselves and at peace with who we are.  I am grateful for this word because it helps me think about home less as a place I left behind and more as a place I am always building within myself.  Since I left for college in 1997, I have lived in six different states and dozens of actual domiciles, but home is a much more flexible and multi-valent term now than it could have ever been then.  This is what I was referring to in the Judy Garland poem and also in “Advent (Yeager),” where I write that “home is a fault line that strikes the earth differently now, ruptures the pen’s smooth line like a polygraph.”  There’s the home I come from, and the home I am always striving to make within myself, and there’s the home I’ve been making with my partner Angie for the last nearly-eleven years.  Our daily life together is where I feel most “at home” in this world.  Because of that sense of home in my life with her, I find I don’t have any desire to pursue other places to write, any desire to “get away” in order to do my work.  I’ve never applied to a writer’s colony or residency because wherever Angie is, that’s where I want to be, and I think that’s also the place where I’m most likely to be my best self and produce my best work.

KB: I only noticed a few explicit places in the book. It often feels as if you’re writing around sex rather than plowing right into it. “Arthur Dimmesdale, Alone in the Closet with a Bloody Scourge,” opens, “I remember when all I wanted was to fuck:/the urge curdling every cultivated propriety.” My question is why don’t we get the sounds of the speaker’s headboard hitting the wall? Is that something readers can expect in the future or is that maybe not something you want in your writing?

JW: Ha!  There is a big split in how I approach sex the subject versus sex the experience.  I’m pretty invested in both of them of course, but I tend to focus on the former in my public work and the latter in my private life.  I completed a Master of Arts program before I started on my MFA, so my first full-length collection of poems is actually my Master’s thesis, a book called The Lunar Plexus.  That book is, in essence, a collection of lesbian love poems.  I started my MA program engaged to a man, and I left it two years later partnered with a woman, and as you can imagine, the change in my life-circumstances had a pretty profound effect on the content of my work.  I couldn’t stop writing from and about my direct and immediate experience falling in love with Angie, and that included a lot of sex poems.  But after I wrote the book in all my joy and elation at having found the person I wanted to spend my life with, some ethical questions began to arise.  Did I want to go on writing explicitly about my sex life, or was that an invasion of mine and Angie’s privacy?  Was it fair to Angie as a long-term partner to be exposed in that way?

Tom Campbell, my English professor from college and one of the most important mentors of my life, remarked once that there’s a difference between secrecy and privacy, and we have to figure out for ourselves where the dividing line is.  I think at first I conflated the two terms because I thought part of being “out” was giving up my privacy—that I had to be a kind of open book about all aspects of my life in order to be sure that I wasn’t slipping into the closet.  But Tom helped me see that all people are entitled to their privacy and that isn’t the same thing as denying any essential truths about who we are.  So since about 2003, I’ve been writing love poems to Angie that may hint at sex but are no longer so explicit about it.  One example is my ekphrastic poem in Postage Due responding to Magritte’s “The False Mirror.”  I like to give myself the challenge of making a poem sexy without depicting any actual sex.  This makes me rely more on the power of sensuous diction, on euphemism and indirection, on connotation rather than denotation.

On the flip side, when I’m not writing about sex the experience but I’m looking at sex the subject, as in the Arthur Dimmesdale poem you referenced, then I have a different sense of what’s appropriate and even what’s useful to bring to the poem.  I thought it was shocking and fascinating when I first read The Scarlet Letter in high school that the book was really all about sex, but we as readers never saw or heard or experienced any of it along with Arthur and Hester.  For such dire consequences as those two characters went through, I thought the reader at least deserved a glimpse of the deed that set it all in motion.  In light of fictional people or speculative accounts, the distinction between privacy and secrecy doesn’t seem to apply.

KB: Another device your book uses is poetry via postcard. First of all, I’m totally jealous that you’ve beaten me to this! But really, what prompted you to pump up the postcard form into the poetry book? Obviously the title gives us a hint, but as a writer, how have postcards influenced you and your work?

JW: For me, I think the postcard is an analogue to the micro-essay.  I’ve always been a long-winded person, and both my poetry and prose tend toward longer forms.  With these postcards, I wanted to challenge myself to extract the essence of an experience or situation or emotion, just as I have recently started to push myself to write more compressed creative nonfiction as well.  In the poem “As We’re Told,” Rae Armantrout makes a powerful statement that I reference often as a kind of creative mantra: “At the beginning, something must be arbitrarily excluded.”  The postcard imposes that necessary exclusion.  It rules out the possibility of more space than what a small piece of cardstock will allow.  I don’t think all exclusions are arbitrary, however, and formally speaking, I think they very rarely are.  The postcard reinforces my interest in the epistolary, which is obviously quite important to the larger structure of this book, and it also highlights the choices we have to make if we only have a postcard’s worth of space to capture somewhere we’ve been, literally or metaphorically.  And in relation to the idea of home, postcards are usually sent back to where we come from when we travel somewhere else.  These literary postcards operate across place, since the present of the book is Pittsburgh and the past of the book is the Pacific Northwest, but more important, I think, they operate across time.  They are sometimes addressed to people of the past from the perspective of the present, and sometimes to people of the future from the perspective of the past.  I find the postcard is also an exciting way for me to play with prolepsis and analepsis, my favorite, fancy way of saying to “flash forward” and “flash back.”

KB: Once, when we were discussing you participating in this interview, you told me about a teacher who asked you if you would rather be a horse, a bird, or a muffin. I still find this an intriguing question, so Julie Wade, I’d like you to let the readers know what you would pick, which kind/breed, and why.

JW: Ah, David Seal, that incomparable, provocative teacher and poser of questions!  Back in 1998 when I was a student in Dr. Seal’s “Autobiographical Writing” class—my first official foray into creative nonfiction—he did indeed ask us to describe ourselves as a horse, a bird, or a muffin.  I remember that I said I was a muffin, thinking by way of analogy that I am soft (-bodied, -hearted) and also that my brain, like the top of the muffin, is the most important and desirable part—where the real work of my life gets done and where I live most of the time.  Dr. Seal challenged me to be less cerebral, to find a balance between the intellect and the senses.  I’m still working on that, in my life and in my work, but I think my writing became more sensuous and visceral as a direct result of Dr. Seal’s class and ongoing mentorship.  At any rate, when I told him I was a muffin, he said, “Yes, but there’s some horse in you, too!”

It’s funny and fitting that you should ask me this question in relation to Postage Due because I think in many ways, it’s the work of a muffin-horse hybrid.  I didn’t realize that of course until just now.  The tender, vulnerable parts are the muffin, and those flashes of wild, rebellious energy, of a person wrestling with how to wrestle with anger and not let it win—that’s the horse in me.

KB: You write in multiple genres, especially nonfiction. How do you decide when a piece you’re working on is going to be a lyrical essay or a long poem? What’s the difference?

JW: Here I want to invoke another important teacher from my past, the poet Bruce Beasley.  I took a class in experimental poetics with Bruce during the second year of my Master’s program, and that class, combined with Brenda Miller’s concurrently offered class in the lyric essay, exploded my sense of what was possible in and beyond the genre of poetry.

One day in class Bruce pronounced, “You will only write about six things your whole life.”  It was a daunting statement, and at first, I misunderstood him to mean that we only had six good works in us—maybe books, maybe even individual poems.  But what he went on to convey is that, while much of our content is pre-determined in some sense by the events of our lives and our resident obsessions, our formal practices are free, flexible.  Formal innovation leads the way to keeping our content fresh and to keeping our explorations of our content thoughtful, bent on new discoveries and inevitably, new questions.

If you think about it, it’s the difference between redundancy (hackneyed repetition, or repetition that serves no purpose) and anaphora (deliberate repetition that exposes the multi-valence of language, the complexity of subject position, etc.).  Bruce wanted us to explore our “six things” from every possible angle, and if that meant crossing or merging genres, so be it.  Form is the varied key to content’s stolid door.

All this is a way of saying that I am following my resident obsessions where they lead.  They turn up in/as lyric essays and in/as long poems.  They turn up in/as short poems, too, both lineated free-verse and prose poems.  I tend to write from a place of uncertainty, and as I find a focus, I start to make structural decisions that move the content into what I might think of as a lyric essay or what I might think of as a poem.  But very often the thing I am making leaves my hands and is called something else by the editors who publish it.  That used to bother me quite a bit until Rebecca Brown, a multi-genre writer I’ve long admired, wrote a blurb for my memoir/collection of lyric essays/book of creative nonfiction, Small Fires.  In it, she articulated something essential to my own sense of myself as multi-genre writer: “I don’t really care whether this book will be called a memoir, a group of lyric essays, or a bunch of nonfiction prose-poems. Whatever it’s called, it is exquisitely made and cuts right to the heart.”

That’s what I want to do with everything I write, regardless of genre: make something exquisite that cuts right to the heart.

Read poems by Julie Wade here.

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