Julie Marie Wade: Catechism: A Love Story

Julie Marie Wade was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. She holds a Master of Arts in English from Western Washington University, a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from the University of Pittsburgh, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities from the University of Louisville. She is the author of four poetry collections: Without, Postage Due, When I was Straight, and SIX. Her nonfiction titles include Small Fires, Tremolo, and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes and her poetry and creative nonfiction have been published widely in journals and literary magazines.

Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for The Rumpus and Lambda Literary Review.  She is married to Angie Griffin and lives in south Florida.

Catechism: A Love Story was published by Noctuary Press in 2016.

Julie was interviewed by Betty Jo Buro for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

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Betty Jo Buro: Your third collection of essays, Catechism: A Love Story, is arranged in seven sections, each named after one of the seven Catholic sacraments. The actual size and shape of the book, and the pages numbered in Roman numerals, mimics The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Did you write these essays into this form, or did the form find you somewhere in the writing of the book?

Julie Marie Wade: Catechism: A Love Story is the first of my book-length undertakings in which I began with the form in mind and allowed it to lead me all the way through the project. More typically, I putter around on the page and write my way toward a form that seems to serve the material at hand. Often, that form is a pastiche or hybrid of other recognizable forms, e.g. encyclopedia entries, recipes, advertisements, etc., though just as often, that form is my own idiosyncratic design. But the thing about lyric essays, at least for me, is that they require a firm and often intricate structure in order to support their sometimes erratic and far-flung movements. I’m always trying to think of a suitable metaphor, and today I’m thinking of the clothesline we had in our backyard when I was a child. When my mother sent me out to hang up the clothes and sheets and towels, I enjoyed arranging them into different patterns on the line—sometimes by color or texture or shape—but without the anchoring structure of the line itself, everything would have blown away. With Catechism, the difference isn’t that I used a form, but rather that the chosen form led me toward what should actually hang on the line. I had an idea that I wanted to explore the first seven years of my adulthood (2001-2008), which I defined as beginning with the first time I lived alone and was financially independent—the year I graduated from college and started graduate school. This period in my life also coincided with end of one romantic relationship and the beginning of the relationship that would become the great love story of my life—hence, the subtitle of the book. Though I love love stories, I recognize how hard they are to render without falling into clichés. So in this case, I used the seven Catholic sacraments as a clothesline onto which I could hang various memories and meditations on romantic love. The Catholic tradition at large, with which I have had a long and fraught history, provided a valuable skeleton for this project because it gave me the opportunity to incorporate a rich, spiritual lexicon and to repurpose some of that lexicon toward secular and even subversive ends. When I finished the book, I realized Catechism wasn’t only an exploration of the love story with my life-partner Angie; it had evolved to become an exploration of my love story with language, with inquiry, with ritual, and maybe most of all, with mystery—something romantic love and religion have in common after all. Along with love stories, mysteries are my other favorite subject genre. This book turned out to be both at once!

BJB: Jenny Boully calls this collection, “poetic essays.” I suspect you would call them lyric essays. Some might consider this a collection of prose poems. Does it matter what we call them?

JMW: No, it doesn’t matter what you call them, what anyone calls them—not really—but I would definitely call the contents of Catechism “lyric essays” or even a “book-length lyric essay,” singular. “Poetic essays” seems fairly synonymous to me with “lyric essays,” and I will always take “poetic” as a compliment! But “essay” is important to me as a marker of a particular kind of “trial” or “attempt.” I do write prose poems as well as lineated poems, and for me the experience of writing a prose poem or even a series of prose poems is very different from writing a lyric essay or series of linked lyric essays. The intention and the process of making prose poems versus lyric essays feels notably disparate to me, though I concede that what results from these intentions and processes may not reflect any recognizable difference when a reader comes upon a given piece of my writing in its final form. I’m about to deploy a binary here, and I’m suspicious of binaries, but sometimes they are useful just the same: When I write a lyric essay, my intention is to expand something, to stretch, to see how far I can follow a memory or a concept toward that distant horizon of meaning. I won’t ever get there, of course, but I’ll reach and reach and squint and squint and cast my net as far as possible into the abyss. This is why my lyric essays tend to be long and gangly with a fair amount of white space. There’s a porosity to the process. Nets are porous after all. Now when I’m writing a prose poem, even more than a lineated poem, my intention is to compress something, to distill it to its essence, boil it down to its core. This is why my prose poems tend to be short and compact, a tight block of text with very little breathing room. I want a reader to be able to swallow the prose poem whole—like a capsule that contains tiny granules inside it. The capsule dissolves in the mouth, and then all the pieces come loose. But the prose poem is ingested in one gulp. By contrast, the lyric essay is like courses of a meal. It’s a buffet table that expands our notion of what a meal can be, what it can include, what entrees can be placed side by side (oh, the juxtapositions!), and of course, there is that distinct intermingling of the various tastes and textures and smells, by which I really mean the distinct intermingling of various discourses, themes, and subjunctives.

BJB: The first section, Baptism, is written in the 3rd person. The narrator has lived her life according to expectations, a specific mathematical equation that should equal happiness. And yet there is this sense that she is waiting for her life to begin. Later, starting in the Eucharist section, we get a first person point of view, and lots of POV switching as the book progresses. Can you speak to your choices in point of view while crafting the essays in this collection?

JMW: I think fluidity of points of view is part of my larger lyric essay endeavor of “casting the nets wide” or creating the smorgasbord, depending which metaphor you prefer. I like telescoping and microscoping various memories, moving around not just within time but within perspectives on time. Memory isn’t static, consciousness isn’t static, so why should point of view be static, I reason? And personally, I’m very intrigued by the idea of ekstasis, standing outside oneself looking in, which is what third-person point of view invites me to do. Part of our human condition is to be aware, even hyper-aware, of how the world looks through our own eyes (first person, the self looking out of the self, that most intimate and subjective perspective), but also to be aware of ourselves as subject to the world’s gaze, not to mention the gaze of others. Third person, which is admittedly underused in autobiographical writing, opens a portal to the self looking in on the self as if the self were not in fact the self! This perspective creates some distance, which is another kind of porosity in the text, and distance can also highlight self-alienation, as it does for me in this project when I try to illustrate gaps in the happiness equation. The “she” at the beginning of Catechism is indeed the “me” who is working the formula for happiness, trying to embody the formula, but that “she” remains thwarted, unable to get outside the box of social/familial/religious conventions, which means nothing she does can “add up” to happiness in any authentic or lasting way. Then, of course, there is the second person point of view, which I use later on and which I find implicates the reader intimately by drawing that reader closer and closer to the heart of the work and the heart of the person writing it. I think so often of the Roman philosopher Terrence, who wrote that “Nothing human can be alien to me.” When I use second person, it’s a way of putting the reader under my skin, inside my head, a way of showing how, different as we are from one another, we can inhabit each other’s stories and recognize ourselves in them, too. As a reader, I want to be immersed in another person’s journey (whether persona, speaker, or character) as deeply as possible, and second person often helps deepen and complete that immersion.

BJB: There is a lovely and compelling math metaphor that threads through the essays in this book. In the last section, Confirmation, you write, “Calculus, like love, is a study of contradictions. Calculus, like love, is also a method of inquiry. Among its many questions, calculus asks, what are the limits? Among its many answers, love replies, the heart carries such conspicuous cargo.” Can you talk a little bit about the role math serves in these essays? A way to make sense of things? Put things in order?

JMW: Thank you for noticing! Math appeared in the collection without my conscious intention, and yet its presence doesn’t surprise me either. Math, like religion and love, is one of my great mysteries. I’ve always had strong, emotional relationships with numbers, but I didn’t necessarily want to do with them what the math textbooks told me I should. I also, as it happens, have aural-optical synesthesia, something I didn’t discover was a “thing” until college—I just assumed everyone saw the world this way—but in essence, it means that sounds, including words and numbers that are spoken aloud, appear to me vividly, visually, and in very particular colors. The language of the alphabet and the language of numbers resonate deeply for me. They engage my senses palpably. When Carole Maso writes about longing to touch the fire between the letters of the alphabet, I feel like I’ve touched that fire, or at least that I’ve seen its flames, and the same is true with numbers. They are stunning art-objects in the way that letters are. I’m told that at higher levels, math becomes more exploratory and less rigid than the chronology of counting and the rote memorization of multiplication tables where we all first begin. There are imaginary numbers, for goodness sake! How exciting is that! But because I showed a natural aptitude for what was called “language arts,” and less of a natural aptitude for what was called “mathematical science,” I channeled all my early energies into plumbing the malleability of language and never advanced far enough in math to explore the malleability of numbers and their relationships to one another. So the math I do now, the math that creeps into my writing life, is this strange kind of ghost-math. I’m not a mathematician, and yet I don’t want to give up my attachment to numbers either, let alone the lexicon of the mathematical world. Of course math is indeed a way to make sense of things, to put the world in order, as you say, and I like knowing it’s out there as a sense-making, world-ordering tool. For me, math mostly serves that role as metaphor. I can share that I worked as a personal assistant and amanuensis to a beloved “mad scientist” (I don’t think he would object to this description) at Carnegie Mellon years ago while I was a graduate student in Pittsburgh. Robyn insisted math was the “universal language,” because mathematicians who spoke a variety of languages could gather together and work on the same equation with a shared fluency. This insight has always stayed with me, but since I’m not fluent in math, merely functional, I find math often appears in my work as another nod to the Mysterious—big-M mysterious—and to the many ways there are of knowing, examining, and parsing truth. I suppose it’s fair to say that mathematics is another way to essay.

BJB: This book examines identity and gender. At one point in Matrimony, on a road trip with A., when you two were somewhat off the radar, you ask the questions, “Was it possible? Had I transcended gender?” But back home, you realize even if you had, the rest of world hadn’t quite caught up. It would have been a simple procedure to marry a man you didn’t love, and now you’ve found love but may not be allowed to experience marriage. Can you talk a little bit about how you were able to not only explore and question the push/pull of your traditional upbringing and the simplicity/complexity of love, but to render it so honestly on the page?

JMW: Well, I’m glad the writing comes across as honest. That’s what I strive for, but the biggest gap of all is between the heart and the page, and I think every writer knows there is no way to fill it perfectly or completely. If there were, we wouldn’t need to keep writing the next book and the next and the next.

I suspect I will always be writing about gender and reckoning with gender in my work. It is, after all, an essential kind of form. We can’t escape gender. Perhaps we also need it to ground us in the world, to keep us from blowing away. When I have tried to resist gender in my life, what I think I’ve really been resisting are narrow definitions of gender—binary oppositions and such. I’ve also been resisting stereotypes about how I must necessarily enact my gender because I identify as a lesbian instead of a heterosexual or because I am married to a woman instead of a man. I love and admire authentic expressions of humanity and human embodiment, which necessarily include expressions of gender, and what I recognize as authentic expressions of gender are beautifully idiosyncratic and complex and organic, not cookie-cutter templates of some singular “feminine” or “masculine” ideal.  As writers, we hear how form should reflect content, and formal innovation seems to me about exploring the most idiosyncratic and complex and organic ways to express the self on the page. What is gender but the analog of this expression of self in the world?

My conservative Christian upbringing didn’t allow for much exploration of anything beyond the status quo, which included certain strict gender formulas. Jamaica Kincaid’s essay, “Girl,” which I didn’t encounter until graduate school but now frequently bring into my own undergraduate and graduate classrooms, was published right around the time I was born. I’m certain my parents didn’t read it when it first appeared in The New Yorker (very liberal publication!) in the late 1970s, but if they had, I don’t think they would have understood the girl’s complaint. These instructions for how a girl should look and act under almost every imaginable circumstance in the Antiguan culture of the 1950s and 1960s echo much of what I was taught growing up in the American suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s. It was just “how things were,” the givens of being a girl.

Reading, particularly poetry and other experimental and hybrid genres, has consistently validated my impulse to question everything and has encouraged me to investigate what quickens my heart as well as what turns my stomach, to follow the compass of both desire and aversion. Granted so many essential permissions by writers like Jamaica Kincaid, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, and the incomparable poets of my own generation, Stacey Waite and Dawn Lundy Martin, I started to consider gender as a field of limitless possibilities rather than one of two fixed doors on a game show stage.

BJB: You’ve published some collaborative essays with the poet Denise Duhamel. In this summer’s issue of Creative Nonfiction, you have a collaborative essay with Brenda Miller. What is the advantage of collaboration, besides being fun, and how does that process work?

JMW: Writing has always been an intensely personal, private kind of process for me. I rarely show my work to anyone until it is polished, and I like and actively cultivate the solitary practice of growing an image or an idea into a full-fledged piece of writing ready to be shared with an audience. This is a long way of saying, while I’ve admired the poetry collaborations of Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton for years, I never imagined collaborating with anyone myself. It seems very unlike me!

What is like me is to take aesthetic risks, however, and usually there comes a point where I recognize that there’s something I haven’t done in my writing, and I get an itch to try it. This happened when I realized I never wrote about teaching and yet have been teaching for fifteen years, so suddenly I started inviting my pedagogical life into my work. When I realized I never wrote about dreams, I began to invite them into my work as well. And so, when I invited Denise Duhamel, now my friend and colleague, to write what I thought would be a separate poem in response to a prompt provided by Amy Krouse Rosenthal in her brilliant and rollicking Encyclopedia of Ordinary Life, Denise wrote back with a first line for a poem, followed by the enticement, “Your turn.” It took me a minute to realize that we weren’t each going to write a poem in response to the prompt and then share them with each other. Denise intended for us to write one poem together, sentence by sentence. We did this, and lightning struck! After “Why the Moon Matters,” we went on to write more than twenty collaborative essays, and I feel certain there are many more to come.

Brenda Miller was my first, and as it happens, my only professor of the lyric essay. She introduced me to this sub-genre of creative nonfiction, she immersed me in writers I read and teach to this day (Bernard Cooper and Mark Doty standout among them), and so when Brenda invited me to collaborate on an essay with her last summer, how could I say no? This was, after all, the person who had passed me the lyric essay torch in the first place, back in 2002, and here was a chance to build an even brighter lyric bonfire together!

With both collaborators, we tend to set guidelines and parameters at the outset. Sometimes Denise and I will determine the exact number of words each section will contain. Brenda and I tend to work with slightly more malleable forms. But in general, we pass the essay back and forth like a hot potato. The writing tends to go quickly because receiving the other person’s entry invariably sparks a new idea or image and the desire to write immediately in response. “Toys,” the essay of Brenda’s and mine that appears in Creative Nonfiction, was Brenda’s brainchild. She had been reading about the National Toy Hall of Fame, and she had also seen the call for submissions for a childhood-themed issue of Creative Nonfiction. She sent me the link to the National Toy Hall of Fame and asked if I thought I might want to build an essay around memories of significant childhood toys which had been inducted, or conversely, excluded from it. We went from there, with her entry opening the essay and my entry closing it. I can’t remember if we decided in advance how many sections there would be, which is something Denise and I usually do. In this case, I think we wrote until the essay felt complete. Brenda is usually the one to say, “Is this an ending?” She is also usually right when she thinks it is!

BJB: By the time this issue goes live, your poetry collection SIX, winner of the 2014 AROHO/To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize, will be published by Red Hen Press. Tell us about the poems in this collection.

JMW: Well, SIX is my oldest extant project for which I pursued publication. I have manuscripts that are older—my Master’s thesis, The Lunar Plexus, for instance, which dates back to 2003, and another volume I wrote later that year called Tessellations—but while I have published individual poems from these collections, I have only sought to publish books completed in 2006 and beyond. SIX was the last of those books in circulation at the time that C.D. Wright picked it for the AROHO/ To the Lighthouse Prize in 2014, which was itself such a phenomenal honor. Wright’s own experimental poetics were hugely influential in my approach to writing SIX. The fact is that I wrote SIX as a “shadow-thesis” to my actual thesis in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh. I decided to make Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems my official thesis project because I thought, of the two manuscripts I was writing at the time, that Postage Due was the least “weird” and therefore the most likely to “pass” and earn me my degree. When Postage Due was published in 2013, I re-read the book and thought, “This is still pretty weird!”

It’s hard to say now which project is more eclectic, more hybrid, more unusual, but I can say that SIX feels more complex and more complete than its counter volume. Since I finished the book ten years ago and never went back into the text to change anything—I never even re-read it during the eight years I sent it out to contests—re-reading SIX after the book won the prize was like opening a time capsule I had buried a decade before. The speaker in those six, long poems doesn’t know yet that she’s going to publish a book one day, that she’s going to have a steady job that pays the bills, let alone provides meaningful challenge and a true sense of purpose. That speaker doesn’t know she’s going to end up back on a coast (though not the same coast where she first began!), no longer landlocked, and she definitely doesn’t know that she’s going to get to marry the woman she loves and have their marriage recognized ultimately by every state in the union. SIX is a true zeitgeist project. It captures the questions and obsessions of my middle-twenties and the self I was then, a perpetual graduate student who had already found the love of her life, who had already lost touch with so many people from her past who could not accept that love, who was beginning to see that she would have to chart a new path for herself because the stories she had been told about adulthood, about womanhood, about love and marriage, did not reflect her experience of the world. And yet, the weirdest thing about SIX is that now, in my middle-thirties, my circumstances have changed, but the questions and obsessions of this book endure! They have turned out to be perennial, timeless.

There are many metaphors I’ve used to describe SIX, but today what I’m thinking of is the pie in the Trivial Pursuit game and the six slices each person needs to collect to win. The categories of Trivial Pursuit don’t quite align with the contents of SIX, but there is a similar sense of scope, of wanting to master, at the very least, the range of inquiries (if not answers) that have shaped my life—and that continue to shape it, as it turns out. What’s new in SIX is the formal innovation. The poems range in length from 10-20 manuscript pages. I think in this book, which is about love and gender and sexuality and vocation and religion and posterity—all my usual suspects!—I’ve pushed these poems to the outer limits of poetry. They sit like boulders on a cliff jutting out over a lyric essay sea. In a sense, then, because of the pushing of genre limits, SIX is my version of poetry-calculus!

***

For more on Julie Marie Wade’s schedule and her writing, go to: www.juliemariewade.net/

Trackbacks

  1. […] Julie was interviewed by Betty Jo Buro for Sliver of Stone Magazine. […]

  2. […] with Ed Kurtz, Parker Philips, and Julie Marie Wade. Visual Art by Carlos Franco-Ruiz and Jayne Marek. Fiction by Gordon Adler, Charles Brooks, Timothy […]

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