Interview: Julie Marie Wade

Julie Marie Wade is the author of the books Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2010), the winner of the Colgate University Press Nonfiction Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir; Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010); Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2010), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series; Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Books, 2013), winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize; When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014); and Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016). She is assistant professor of English at Florida International University. Her poem “Katabasis” appears in TFR 40.2 (Fall 2016).

 

Her most recent book, SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press, 2016), was selected by C. D. Wright as the winner of the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s To the Lighthouse Prize in Poetry.

 

SIX: Poems is a surprising book, comprised of six interlinked yet solitary long poems.  The poems themselves fill the entirety of the page, not confined by traditional wide margins or a single form, in one stanza seeming to be prose-like in structure and in another a single line surrounded by whitespace.  A conversation about SIX lends itself to a discussion of craft, not just the ideas and evolution that built the poems, but their form and structure, and a poet grappling with the duality of poetry, the spoken and written form.

 

Danielle Kessinger for The Florida Review:

We are here to talk about your new book SIX, and I thought we could start by discussing the format and structure which is related to the title of the work.

 

Julie Marie Wade:

The book began in my mind before it really began. About fifteen years ago, when I was taking one of my early poetry classes in grad school, there was a wonderful poet at Western Washington University, Bruce Beasley, and he made this declaration in class one day, “You’ll only write about six things in your life.” It seemed really profound and really scary, like will I have enough to write about, and he said “don’t worry, that’s not a curse that you won’t have enough, it’s more of a challenge.” You have to figure out how are you going to take the six things, which are really clusters of many things, how are you going to take those six big things, resident themes, resident questions that drive your whole life and figure out how you’re going to be formally innovative so you don’t get stuck writing the same poem over and over. Then he said, “Well in a way, every poem is the same poem over and over, but find a new way to get into that poem.”

 

So, I really mulled on that for a long time and a few years later I thought, I’ve got to try to write the six things. But I can’t just name six things, I don’t just know what those six things are.  So, the reason that this book is full of poems that are twenty-plus pages each is because I was trying to write through the poems to find the six things. I had ineffable feelings. I knew the kind of clusters of what those six things were, but I didn’t have any way to just name them, and, I guess, if I did I probably wouldn’t be a poet anyway. But they were the longest poems I ever wrote and some of them have embedded prose or have embedded other adopted forms so they are really, maybe, the most experimental work I’ve done in poetry. I hope I’m living up to Bruce’s mandate to do something bold and innovative with your resident six things, and it did help me clarify more about my six things.

 

TFR:

Did you go back to your previous work? I assume you were not conscious of those things as you were writing. Did you go back and see what keeps coming up over and over again to try and explore what those six things might be?

 

Wade:

I did do that, though, weirdly, with this book, though it just came out in September of 2016, there was this strange lag time. I didn’t know if this book would ever find a home. So, I finished it in the Fall of 2006 and it was circulating for eight years before it finally won a prize. The greatest honor of the prize was the person who picked it—C. D. Wright, who is someone I’ve admired for years as a practitioner of long experimental poems. So, during that eight-year period, I didn’t re-read the book, and when I was writing it I was thinking about What have I written so far? I hadn’t really written that much before SIX that I felt was world-worthy. I did an MA thesis [at Western Washington], but I didn’t send that out into the world. It didn’t feel quite ready. Then I went into an MFA program [at the University of Pittsburgh], and I started sending the poems of my MFA thesis out into the world, but this is the project that I was doing undercover. What is strange now is that re-reading the book a decade after I finished it, I’m finding that I better understand myself. Because this took so long to come into the world it’s like getting a letter from your old self, and then finding out your old self has a lot in common with your current self, and then it shines a light on everything else that I’ve been doing in the last decade.

 

TFR:

Did you make many changes? I would think that after eight years it must almost feel like someone else wrote it.

 

Wade:

It calcified in a certain way, for better or for worse. It’s like my students sometimes say, “Well, how long do you revise something?” You can take it as a sign from the universe, that the book isn’t getting taken, so you’ve got to go back and change something. I basically decided with this book that I wanted to leave it as an artifact, a record of me between 2004 and 2006 reckoning with those six things. But when I got everything exactly how I thought it should be on the page, one of the biggest challenges was the order of the six things. Once I had those six poems in place, I knew that there would be an obsessive impulse to keep refining it and another year would go by and, I was lucky that I sometimes got these really loving rejections or finalists’ nods, but I just didn’t get the big prize. So the temptation is to go back in and go, What is this book not doing that I could do to it to make it world worthy? but I realized that I had other work I wanted to do and other work might be easier in some ways for readers or might be somehow more on market or on point. So, I just kept writing that other work and leaving this alone and then, when it finally went into the world and I finally read it again in galleys, I actually didn’t change anything. The editor, the long-suffering very hard working editor at Red Hen Press, only went through and asked questions about spacing and little typos that I couldn’t believe were still there that I hadn’t caught. We didn’t actually overhaul any of the book and maybe part of that is because it was the book as C. D. Wright had seen it, so we didn’t change the order, we didn’t change any of the essential content of any of the poems. It really is a time capsule of something that was me then.

 

TFR:

That’s a very interesting journey from composition to publication.

 

Wade:

It’s a strange way for a book to evolve, but it evolved and then stopped and was frozen in time.

 

TFR:

Reading through it, I was wondering about the use of the whole page and the white space. I found myself wondering if, when you originally submitted it, you had the lines spaced so they went all the way to the margins.

 

Wade:

That is the amazing thing about Red Hen Press—this came in through A Room of Her Own Foundation through the To the Lighthouse Prize—that they honored the integrity of how it looked. That can also be part of the challenge. A press or a judge or reader could potentially like something but then they might think, How would we ever? We can’t make a book that would accommodate this work. That could also be a barrier to getting that work into the world. So, I knew that this was really risky because all my pages even in the 8½ by 11 form were completely folded this way. Then I was picturing how exciting it would be to have the double-sidedness of the book and have the pages so full, but I also knew it would have to be a press that would be willing to do that. I had actually seen Red Hen Press, a press I’ve loved for a long time–and they published Celeste Gainey’s book–and I noticed it was her debut and it was a really wide book, The Gaffer, and I love this book and I thought, okay, maybe then that’s what they’ll do for mine, and they told me that they would preserve the integrity of the lines.

 

TFR:

I actually found myself wondering if, when you had first written them, if they started out condensed and then you spread them out, or if you started out with that use of space as you were first composing.

 

Wade:

I did use all the space. I was using all the space because in that first MA program, Bruce Beasley plants the seed which to me was kind of like a riddle and a challenge What are your six things? Find them. Then I move on to my next grad program, and the first class I took in MFA school, this was the beginning of 2003, was this just amazing special topics class on the Black Mountain College Art Movement and the Projective Verse poets. I had never read Charles Olson, and I had never read Robert Duncan. I’d never read Hilda Morley. I had this class where I was completely immersed in writers who were using the whole page. Robert Creeley is part of that movement, but his poems have these much shorter lines, but there’s a lot of white space on the side like a cliff dropping off. I started reading these poets and I was This might be the form, that invitation to get really wide. And the projective verse poets also really believed in writing your way through the poem and letting what’s happening outside your window enter your writing, what’s happening if something falls off the shelf as you’re writing, let that be in the poem, don’t treat things that intrude on the poem as intrusions, but let them in and welcome them.

 

I had never read any poetical philosophy that was like that, and so I thought if I’m going to figure out the six things I’m going to need to have a lot of room to do that, and I’m going to need all the power of silence and all the power of How can prose be in here how can poems be in here, how can adopted speech be in here? How can all of my world, everything that’s going on in my head, how can it be here?  I thought the Projected Verse poets knew how to do that. They’re the poets that I was really reading when I started to write this, and I thought if they say that you can have pages, a prairie, I’m going in. So that that is how I composed it, with their permission. I guess that speaks to how many people are influencing everything we do as writers.

 

TFR:

It looks beautiful, but I was also then wondering if, when you read aloud, if you wish everyone had a copy to follow along.

 

Wade:

You understand. I just met you and you understand completely! This is the first time When I gave readings before, I never read any of these poems aloud because this book wasn’t out. I’m really new to reading it for an audience, and it feels like this is such an on-the-page kind of book. I’ve had to figure out, okay, there’s definitely a sonic quality and there are places, maybe, that are more conducive to listening than others, but how do you convey the sense of that space when you’re reading a poem aloud. You can put in pauses in your speech and then in the parts that are more prosey and condensed into blocks you can accelerate the reading and make it clear that they are more condensed.  If I were a technologically savvy person, I would somehow have a display or something behind me, because it feels like I can’t really do justice to it out loud. I’m still grappling with whether there are parts of this book that I just won’t ever read out loud because it will lose something if you can’t see it, or will I figure out a way to render those? I’ve only done a few readings so far, so we’ll see

 

TFR:

It’s very interesting, that duality of poetry that I think folks don’t always think of. One, that it’s very much an art form of the page and the visual but then also of the spoken. It must be very interesting to try to reconcile those two sides.

 

Wade:

Yes, yes. For so long, this book didn’t have a home so I didn’t have to think about those questions. Now this is going to be a new kind of experiment. How do I make it visual and verbal at the same time

 

TFR:

It’s a lovely exploration. I was having so much fun reading that I was Post-it noting lines I really like, but then I was putting them on every other page. So, I over post-it noted it. You had so many meaningful lines, particularly in the beginning when talking about poetry itself such as “I think a poem is a thought” and “the statement a dart, the mind a board.” and “I think a word is a room with a skylight.” I just loved all of these. I particularly wanted to ask about “I think a poem is pre-meditated like a crime.” Do you let the poems really simmer in the background for a long time before you put them on the page?

 

Wade:

I’m so glad that you mentioned that line. I was surprised by that line because obviously I hadn’t been with the book up close for so many years and that line jumped out at me and then I had to ask, Do I think that now? That first poem in the book, “Latchkey,” it is the ars poetica. I kept getting the assignment over and over when I was an MFA student: write an ars poetica. I never wrote one that I submitted to a class. But I kept thinking about it, and thinking about it, and I think this is actually the last or the second-to-last of the poems that I wrote. It had been brewing so long–If I wrote an ars poetica, what would it look like?–and then I realized that poetry is probably one of my six things anyway, so I should probably try to write one.

 

But I think that the trick with that premeditation is that there’s a part of me that took a year to think on the idea of the six things, what might those six things be, and, a year later taking this class on projective verse for the first time and thinking, oh that might be a method that I could use to get the six things. On the one hand, it’s super premeditated and moves at a glacial rate because I’m always adding another thing–this is what I might want to do and then this is the form I might want to use. And I have that process going on with lots of different projects. I have to have a lot of different pots on the stove. If I were only working on one project, all the way through from start to finish and then picking up a new project, I probably wouldn’t get anything done, and it’s kind of counterintuitive. I have to be able to jump around and say, Okay I’m going to go over here and see what’s happening with this one, but there is a lot of brewing.

 

And, then, when I actually sit down to write, the thing with projective verse, the gift is that invitation to just sit down and say, I’m setting aside x amount of time to start this poem, or maybe even set aside a whole day to do this, but then like I’m going to let things into the poem that are in no way premeditated. That’s the tricky part, the moment when I was reading the book and I feel like Surprise!, or I forgot that happened. Those are the things that were not premeditated at all so even setting up the time to write was premeditated but then wide open. In the poem “Layover”, the second part, there’s even a moment where there’s a streak of Qs and As and that happened because my cat jumped on the keyboard when I was writing that poem and hit those letters exactly in that place. I left it because that’s what a Projected Verse poet would do. Now, of course, I would not necessarily have left it if it hadn’t been as wonderful as Qs and As but I was like, This is fate. I don’t know, though, will they think I’m asleep?  Of course, you reserve the right to go in and take it out if it doesn’t work, but I realized, Oh maybe this has happened because I’ve allowed myself to get all the way to the premeditated day and hour, and now I’m writing and here’s typing on the keyboard. And so I just let it stay, and it works.

 

TFR:

I love that.  I would not have thought that was the origin.

 

Wade:

It feels organic and the Projective Verse poets would say it was because you were there and your cat was there and it was supposed to happen.

 

TFR:

I also wondered, because these pieces are longer and you also have shorter pieces, as poets we are so often used to having the whole piece there, and it’s on the page and we can play with it. How different was this as an editing process? When you were dealing with multiple pages, how did that impact your approach to the editing?

 

Wade:

It wasn’t like I sat down and worked on a draft of one and then immediately worked on a draft of the next one, because there was actually something really wonderful about that time of two years where I had a thesis and I had other responsibilities in grad school that were being examined by everyone, and this was my secret life where I would set aside these very particular hours. I mean, yes, they’re very long poems, but I would zero in on a poem and think This is an investigation of another one of those things, and I’m going to set aside some time, and I would sort of go down the rabbit hole of that poem and try not to edit anything while I was writing it. So just keep going and find a natural end, again all about the Projective Verse method and always the idea of writing through. Let anything into your poem, you can always take things out, but you can’t recreate the moment of writing the poem, and say like, Oh wait in the middle I think there was that bus that went by my window. You have to let the bus be there as it’s going by your window. And so I wrote all the way through what were really a lot of pages in a quick amount of time, and then I would print them out and really look at them and some of the poems didn’t feel like they needed as much tinkering, whereas other poems did feel like they needed more of that. But, I really kind of wrote them in isolation from each other. Then maybe two more months would go by working on the somewhat more traditional poems that comprise my thesis.

 

I would be doing these other activities and then come back and do another poem and what I didn’t really realize until the very end of assembling the whole book, when I had these six poems, was that they actually did speak to each other. I didn’t know that when I was writing them. It wasn’t a conscious thing. Then, I thought, Bruce, of course it’s the six things, so of course the six things are linked. I’m the one who’s linking them, and I’m not even conscious of it. Suddenly, something would turn up, an image or a word would be here and be there and I realized, I wrote those poems two years apart but they’re still speaking to each other and I’m the intermediary for them, and it was so cool.

 

Then it was just the challenge of, What’s the order in which I’m going to group these? I had not realized until I saw all six of them together all printed out and marked up by hand that I had two that started with L, two that started with M, and two that started with N, and it’s really strange that it’s three letters in order and two of each and that wasn’t planned. So then I decided L M N, okay I’m going to put them in that order and see what happens. And when I read them in that order I really liked it the best. It’s also weird, and I didn’t plan that, but the middle of the alphabet song, like LMNOP, you speed up there, so suddenly I felt like, Oh my goodness, that’s the order.

 

TFR:

It’s meant to be. It just naturally happened.

 

Wade:

It just came together at the end.

Danielle Kessinger for TFR

Danielle Kessinger has work published or forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, the Drunken Odyssey, Baltimore Review, Burrow Press, and the anthology Jack’s Porch.  She has lived and written in the mountains of Colorado, North Carolina, Japan, and Costa Rica but now resides in the flatlands of Florida where she is on the Board of Directors of The Kerouac Project writing residency.