My first book of poetry– What Changes and What Stays the Same

Happy End of 2014! We’re all getting notices from WordPress, facebook, and twitter about what we’ve done this year, and the notices have provided me with a good reminder to make my own meaning that’s not curated by an algorithm.

10687252_10153350688483502_1711150883098955763_oIn November, MG Press published Autoplay, my first book of poetry. It was amazing to see this book in print, especially to see the kickass cover that Jeff Pfaller designed and to have some beers with the inestimable editor Robert James Russell, and to celebrate my book launch at Ann Arbor’s fabulous independent bookstore Literati. Other amazing things: poets I highly admire devoted their time and thought to writing awesome blurbs. Thanks to  Marianne Boruch, Keith Taylor, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Christine Butterworth-McDermott, Alex Lemon, Matthew Olzmann, Nate Pritts, and Mary Biddinger for their generous and smart words. Some reviews are coming out, and I’m looking forward to reading them as well. It is a surreal experience to hold your own book, to read from it, and feel it so clearly separated from you.

I’ve been long out of an MFA, and had long-ago outgrown the strange notion I had when I was 22 that publishing a book would radically change my life. Part of the joy of this book coming out was the confirmation that most things keep going like the already are. I started working on Autoplay several years ago, and since then, I have another poetry collection and a short story collection pretty much finished, wrote and abandoned a novel, and am in the midst of writing another novel now. During all this writing I’ve had lots of life changes, the biggest being I bought a house, had a child, and became a widow at the age of 36. Writing has been a constant companion to me through these changes. It has never asked me to prove myself or work harder (things I tell myself too many times every day). Instead, writing has assured me, that wherever I am, whatever I am doing, I can pick up a pen or open my laptop and choose words. Choosing words to write for yourself is always an act of agency and freedom. It is a celebration of connecting the external world with an internal one. It is a hope that it will make a bridge to a place we need to go.

I know that writing doesn’t always feel like that. But I think the best companions in life are often ones who, even when we take them for granted, remain steadfast until we are able to quiet our own bullshit and pay attention more mindfully.

Love, Peace, and Writing in the New Year,

Julie

Badass Cover for My Forthcoming Poetry Book, 31 More Days of Summer, and Going Back to School

It’s almost time for school to begin again. The anxiety knot in my stomach is even bigger than usual. What if I’m not prepared as I want to be? (likely). What if my students don’t want to learn? What if I have to stop writing completely until next May because I can’t fit in the time?

What if I stop eating healthy, stop exercising, get a million colds, and sometimes forget to see my son, I mean really SEE him, every day in the beautiful moment?

What if the pipes in my house completely stop working and the 3 bats that have already found their way into my house this summer are really part of a giant bat cave in my upstairs office?

What if I can’t let go of fears and distractions and be present for whatever is?

It helps to write these things out. I have a lot of unacknowledged conversations in my head–it comes with the territory of being a writer and an only parent.

BUT, before I move into whatever this semester brings, I want to take a moment to celebrate too.

  1. My poetry book, Autoplay, is forthcoming this November! You can even preorder it now! The editors Robert James Russell and Jeff Pfaller talked with me about themes/ideas for the cover and then came up with something stunning. I can’t wait! Here’s a link to the cover art and more info:  Autoplay
  2. My panel was accepted for AWP ’15, which means the Dept. will fund my lodging and transportation there, which means I can go and talk with my friends and amazing writers. Minneapolis. Home to Prince. Let’s go crazy.
  3. I didn’t get a draft of my novel done (that’s not the celebratory thing). I am really excited about what I have, though (yay! Balloons and silly string). It’s working. It will be there for me when I have the time to come back to it.

There’s still 31 more days of summer. What if amazing, unanticipated wonders unfold?

Peace,

Julie

An Alphabet: As if it could be done

product imageThe alphabet can be a tedious, snooze-inducing thing. Once, when I was having trouble sleeping someone told me that when I was lying in bed I should visualize each letter of the alphabet, pair it with its numerical value (A=1, B=2 and so on), go down to Z and then work backwards (Z=26, Y=25 and so on). It’s a technique I still use sometimes to get to that zombie state of mind, the idea of someone else’s order, a standardization, the unchangeable patterns we share, take in and embody. However, it’s not usually what I look for in great literature for this very reason: I know what’s coming next, and next, and, well next.

In Mary Jo Bang’s book of poetry The Bride of E, though, the alphabet is used to undermine this very idea. In her hands, the alphabet is supercharged with questions. The poems move in alphabetical order (until Part II), but there are 54 poems, not 26. In the titles themselves, there are some clear announcements of the structure (“B Is For Beckett”) but these are interspersed with much more obfuscating ones (“I As In Justice” and “In the Present and Probable Future” (which is a “P” poem)).  There is no set gimmick where the poem itself begins with the letter which inspired it, and there is definitely no sense that any real knowledge or experience can be standardized.

I have been reading Mary Jo Bang books for awhile. My second favorite book of hers is Louise in Love. I admire her quick turns, the way she can make me puzzle over the way language works, and the way she can surprise me into feelings I didn’t even know I had. The Bride of E is definitely the Queen Mother of these accomplishments. The first poem, “ABC Plus E: Cosmic Aloneness is the Bride of Existence” does this just in the title. Can one add letters? (well, yeah, after one thinks about it). Can letters stand for things beyond the alphabet? (yeah, but again, thinking is going on). How beautiful and sad that the character “Cosmic Aloneness” is being married to the character “Existence.” I would like to think that Cosmic Aloneness could get married to Togetherness and that then she would take his name. The book title: The Bride of E. Married to something that doesn’t change her, married to something that is only a fact of continuance. The poem follows young adults at “a spectacular bacchanalia” where girls are flirting and dancing and exchanging kisses with chaps who say:

“Don’t

Leave me, I love you, I’ll always love you.”

Which they took as irrefutable evidence

Of a general greed for human warmth,

I.e., for touch, even among the agonized

Post-adolescent dreamers who morphed on the dance floor

That night into naughty boys, echoing the girls’ questions

Of “how shall we live,” “What shall we do,”

Words without end, without weight.

 What is so touching about this poem is the impossibility of full communication, even amongst dancers who are so close and so receptive and so young. Clichéd love language pushes through the bodies of “post-adolescent dreamers” who are really asking and saying something else. Of course, if one reads this as only the speaker’s unshared perspective, it’s not as touching. But really, aren’t we all brides of existence?

 I have much more to say and very little time in my life to say it. A rough jump cut to: . . .This notion of what is or is not personal is very interesting to me and something I have been obsessing over in my own poetry.  Poetry that people identify as too personal is given the now pejorative label of confessional, and yet poetry that is not somehow tied directly to some account of the personal is often criticized as quirky or impenetrable or uneven.  Mary Jo Bang is such an interesting poet because she moves between these polarized notions of the personal so often. In her previous book Elegy, a heartbreaking book about the loss of her son, the autobiographical origins of the book are clear. Yet, even as a reader who is going through her own process of grief,  that is not what keeps me reading. What keeps me reading are the moments of uncertainty. The end of “Three Trees,” for example:

 …In the dust, a celluloid woman

mows a multilayered lawn.

The arch overhead reads, O Art

Still Has Truth Take Refuge. Where? There.

There, there, says someone.

 Here, personal loss collides with the more abstract redemption of art. The two are unalterably intertwined and are, literally, located in the same word. “There” becomes both a location and an attempt to comfort. Both seem important but also ultimately insufficient.  In The Bride of E there is much more of this collision of the personal with the universal. These poems are constantly resisting the self and yet trying to recuperate the self.  In “ABC plus E” Bang mentions Camus, and certainly her poetry and this collection in particular are informed by existentialism. The bride, in each of these poems, is really  Sisyphus who keeps rolling that big rock up a hill that is never going to summit. The end of “D is Dying, As One Going in the Dark”:

 …His gray beard felt so soft.

An engine keeps making the noise of an interior radio

Through which I hear a machine that keeps churning

Out: “For I seem dying,

 as one going in the dark/ To fight a giant–.”

All the petty errors of life.

Let’s take that wiring apart and see how it works.

Like that. As if it could be done.

 The quoted line about going into the dark is from a Browning poem, and the “I” is one which is enclosed in another “I,” but how deeply personal (in the way in which personal might stand for true) this poem is and how transformative in the turns from engine to radio to life. How hopeful that “Let’s” is—for a moment not alone, for a moment believing in the power of understanding, or if never believing taking that wiring apart anyway because this is what we do.

Is an alphabet an engine? A radio? A life? By the end of this book I’m grateful to say that I don’t know what an alphabet is anymore. The last poem in The Bride of E is a great prose poem (props to Graywolf for publishing a collection with both lined poetry and prose poetry, though I think it’s a shame the prose poems had to be cordoned off into their own separate section).  In “Unknown and Unknowable” the speaker moves through several surreal snapshots of her life and ends:

…The hall closet filled with

books with spines facing outward and forming a readable text of titles that

merged together to pose questions about the status quo. “I guess” was all

she ever answered. And something he said.

 All the struggle and echo of those two words! I love Mary Jo Bang’s poetry because it refuses the personal/not personal camps of poetry, refuses the idea that something is either straightforward or elliptical. It is the struggle of experience, not  the achievement of understanding.