Julia Koets, a native of South Carolina, has lived and taught creative writing in Claremont, California, San Francisco, California, and Cincinnati, Ohio. Her poetry collection, Hold Like Owls, won the 2011 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Minnesota Review. She earned her BA from Presbyterian College, her MFA in poetry from the University of South Carolina, and is currently working on her PhD in creative writing and literature at the University of Cincinnati. The following interview was conducted via email by FMR editor Darien Cavanaugh in June of 2014.
Darien: You and I met in the MFA program at the University of South Carolina back in the fall of 2006. That was my first year there, and, if I recall correctly, yours as well. I was never really comfortable in the MFA program—granted, this was before Elise Blackwell took over as director a few years later and began to improve the program tremendously—but you seemed to settle in quite well and more or less thrive there. Tell us a little bit about your experience as an MFA student. Give us a quick rundown of the pros and cons from your perspective.
Julia: After graduating from college in 2005, I moved back home, applied to graduate programs, and worked at a BBQ restaurant that sold shirts that read, “Come lick our bones.” (I don’t know if you remember this or not, but I tried to write a play in verse about that experience in the workshop with Kwame that we took together). I realized very quickly that a BA in English didn’t qualify me for the jobs I wanted, and after serving pork ribs to people for eight months, I was more than excited to be starting the MFA program at USC.
In all seriousness, though, it was the community of writers there at USC that made the MFA a good fit for me. When I applied to graduate schools, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go into a literature program or a creative writing program, so USC was great because, in addition to workshops, we took literature and theory courses. More than anything, I think the best thing about the MFA is the time you get to write and talk about writing.
Darien: I still think about those verse dramas now and then, mainly the difficulty I had working on mine. I do remember yours being set in a BBQ restaurant. I only vaguely remember the plot, but now that you’ve mentioned it I can’t stop laughing at the possibilities, in a good way.
I don’t know if this is still the case, but when we were in the USC program several of the professors were really into writing prompts. They were standard. I was always a little skeptical of prompts, especially those involving formal structure, when it came to workshops. They reeked of undergrad assignments to me. Even though I believed, and still believe, there is considerable value in working with prompts, I thought that was something to do on one’s own for the most part, and that workshop should be reserved primarily for poems and stories that were close to being “finished” and sent out for publication. I realize this is a rather restrictive view, and I’m not faithfully bound to it; it’s more a matter of degree, I suppose. A prompt here and there? Why not? Prompts week in and week out? Well, that seems a little excessive and restrictive in its own way. Then again, I also recall being rather alone in my resentment of those assignments. You, particularly, along with perhaps Jonathan Butler, seemed to do particularly well with those assignments, and you’ve continued to explore formal styles. You write a good bit of free verse but you’ve also written villanelles and pantoums. I think I’ve seen a sestina, or something similar to it, from you. “Overgrowth” has formal elements, with the repetition of words at the ends of opening and closing lines in its tercets, and “Love in an Efficiency Apartment” is, of course, a modified sonnet. Do you think you would have come to working with formal structures so much on your own, or is it something that you might owe primarily to your workshop experience? And how has working with forms contributed to and fit in with your writing in general? How does this sort of creative play benefit your writing as a whole, beyond the poem at hand?
Julia: I remember you writing some good poems in response to prompts. That one based on a photograph near Niagara Falls. Am I totally making that up?
I’ve gotten some good material out of prompts, but I’ve also written some really bad lines from prompts, too. But if I get one good line out of an exercise, it feels worth it. As far as writing in form, I don’t know if I’d classify that as a prompt in the same way. Or maybe it’s just that “prompt” sounds like a stretch you do before a race, something you try out before you actually write a good poem. Maybe this shows that I have some of the same negative connotations with prompts as you do; I’m not sure. I know people who say that you should never decide to write a sonnet or a sestina or whatever the form might be. They argue that the form should arise out of the content, but I think that’s pretty restrictive in its own sort of way, too. Yes, not every poem will work in rhymed couplets, but not every poem will work in free verse either. Sometimes you have to take a poem out of a form for it to work, but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time to try writing it in blank verse first.
The past few years I’ve been obsessed with writing modified villanelles, like “Overgrowth.” The process has included writing some terrible poems, and some poems that I’ve taken out of the form completely, but I think that writing in a specific form has led me to images and metaphors that I may not have come to if I had written the poems in free verse. In “Overgrowth,” for instance, I probably never would have thought of including the sound a grouse makes if I wasn’t looking for a word that rhymed with “house.” In fact, I didn’t even know what that sound was until I researched it after coming across the name of the bird.
The villanelle is suitable to obsessions, to ideas circling back on themselves, and that’s what I love about the form. You can’t quite get over a situation or a person; you keep turning it around in your head—and, while that can be frustrating, it’s also pleasurable. It’s like eating a jawbreaker—you keep moving it from one side of your mouth to the other, and while it changes some over time and eventually you finish it, part of the pleasure lies in the fact that the candy won’t let you eat it all at once.
Darien: Yeah, that poem was called “A Small but Pleasant Light.” There was a memory, a description of a photo, from Parc du Mont-Royal in it. That poem ended up in Memoir (and). It’s got a few bumps in it, but it’s one of the few poems I’ve written that I actually still kind of like.
We worked together as editors for Yemassee for a while. I often tell people that editing a literary journal has, arguably, taught me more about writing than anything else has. Do you feel working as a reader and editor helped you develop as a writer? If so, how? And, if you remember any specific or general examples, what advice would you give to new writers submitting to journals? What were common merits and foibles? What made you keep reading a poem or drop it?
Julia: I totally agree. After working as an editor for Yemassee, I thought about my writing—and the process of submitting my writing to journals—differently. It’s not that I wrote without a regard for an audience before I started working at Yemassee, but I did think about audience more after reading and editing other people’s work. I also realized how many submissions journals read. Just because a poem doesn’t fit one journal, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad poem.
Darien: You submitted your manuscript for Hold Like Owls while you were sill in the MFA program and didn’t have too many publications under your belt, but Nikky Finney, who was not yet at USC at the time, ended up selecting it as the winner of the 2011 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize, which is published by USC Press. Tell us about what inspired you to take the leap to begin putting a manuscript together so early in your career. Who motivated and helped you along the way, and what was the process like?
Julia: I submitted the manuscript for Hold Like Owls the year after graduating from USC. The bulk of the manuscript was my MFA thesis, and I spent the next six or seven months after graduating and moving to California revising those poems, throwing away some of the poems, and writing new ones. I felt like I couldn’t move on from those poems until I tried to send them out into the world. I sent groups of poems to several close friends (some of whom are poets), and their responses helped motivate me to keep revising and writing new work for the manuscript.
Darien: Finney said you possess “a penchant for surprising metaphor,” and Li-Young Lee agreed that “The primary mode” of the poems in Hold Like Owls “is metaphor practiced as profound alchemy, that is, knowledge acquired by the merging of several meanings, and purity achieved by separation into new clarities.” This is an absurd question, but what do you think the role of metaphor can be in poetry? How important is it to you, as a reader and a writer? How do you work with it, and how conscious of it are you during the writing process?
Julia: I read this essay titled “Souls on Ice” by Mark Doty a few years ago where he talks about metaphor and what it can do. He writes, “I need something to serve as a container for emotion and idea, a vessel that can hold what’s too slippery or charged or difficult to touch.” This idea of metaphor as a container has always stuck with me. Finding that particular container is crucial to whether the poem works or not. Of course there are other factors that come into play, like rhythm, line break, diction, etc, but a metaphor can really make or break a poem for me.
Darien: In his blurb for Hold Like Owls, Lee also noted that “[t]he subject of these poems is relationships: of a human with her past, of a lover with her beloved, of speech with the unsayable, of cherishing in the face of evanescence.” I’m going to get a bit personal here. Your early poems often portrayed close friendships between women, but there was rarely anything overtly sexual or romantic. Through the years, these relationships have gradually begun to open up in your poetry. I know I’m kind of stereotyping here, but you grew up in a rather politically and religiously conservative part of South Carolina. You touch on these themes in “A Welcome to the Neighborhood.” In this regard, it seems that poetry has been a rather important part of your coming out, which probably isn’t exactly the right phrase, but is this generally a fair assessment? If so, would you mind elaborating?
Julia: Poetry has always been a place where I could write about love and desire. The lyric, ungendered “I” allowed me to write about non-heteronormative desire in, as you said, politically and religiously conservative parts of South Carolina. Sexuality, of course, is complicated and fluid, and poetry was, for many years, one of the few places where I felt like I could acknowledge that complexity. For me, the poem is a place like the South is a place. In a poem I could live in a city, a house, a room, and love someone there more openly that I ever could in the South.
Darien: After finishing the MFA program, you were an AmeriCorps Fellow and moved out west to Claremont, California, and then to San Francisco. Tell us a little bit about that time. What led you to work with AmeriCorps? What was your assignment with them? How did it affect you as a writer?
Julia: As an AmeriCorps Fellow I worked at the Literacy through the Arts Center associated with Cal Poly Pomona, where I organized literacy events for low-income families and taught poetry workshops to elementary, middle, and high school students. That year I learned about organizing poetry workshops in the community and in public schools, developing writing curriculum, and leading workshops across a wide age range. What drew me to the program was its emphasis on the arts in public education. I learned so much about imagery, metaphor, and voice from the students I worked with that year.
Darien: You’re back in academia now, in the creative writing PhD program at the University of Cincinnati. What made you want to return?
Julia: I was living and working in San Francisco before I moved to Cincinnati to start the PhD program, and while I loved SF and didn’t want to leave, I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to get a full-time job teaching poetry with just an MFA. I know people who do it, but so many people have MFA’s now that it’s hard to compete.
Darien: Finally, what are you working on now? What are your plans for the near future?
Julia: I’m working on a new poetry manuscript, revising several nonfiction pieces, and reading for my PhD comprehensive exams. And walking my dogs. It’s a very good place to be.
Love in an Efficiency Apartment
A gust of wind reasoned with the window
and tiny black ants binged on anything
they could carry. From the 14th floor
buses were small; the wires they held
sparked like lighthouses breaking down.
Our hips, a little sore every morning
from the bed we bought off Craigslist.
We were just girls, then. In a bowl
plums ripened around their stubborn-pits.
The cat pawed cockroaches, the playful
twitches in her small, sharp mouth.
Morning leaned against our bedroom wall:
the sky was a field of rusted cars,
or thousands of those lighthouses, signaling.
A Welcome to the Neighborhood
The first month we lived in the house with the oak
growing out of the deck, we found Patience
& Sarah, a used book, in our mailbox. No note,
no clue to who left it. On the cover: two women
reaching for each other under a row of trees.
They’re not quite touching, as if summoned
for a portrait they’re hesitant to take, a stance
we know. In the South we get good at reluctance,
at never holding hands in public, never dancing
at weddings. This welcome to a neighborhood
in Charleston was clear as water in the harbor;
you couldn’t see what brushed over your foot,
what you were sharing the water with. When the cat
next door wandered into our yard, we were washing
dishes to our favorite song and couldn’t help but laugh:
this, too, was a welcome. The wisteria wrapping
every tree like a gift, and the screech of shoes,
the boys shooting hoops at the end of the cul-de-sac,
this, too. This, too.
A woman’s saying help behind our house
tonight. Her voice is hard to make out at first.
Can you hear it, I ask you, What’s that sound?
The voice is so low you feel it, a ruffed grouse
thumping its wings in the dark. We’re not sure
how far away or close she is to the house.
The lights in the surrounding yards are out,
and the moon’s not any help. The thirst
in her voice dries my throat. No other sound,
no one else, her voice appears unannounced–
we wonder who’s there, who’s after her.
I call the police, give the address to our house.
Tall and sure in the dark, an officer shouts
to another near the cars. Their flashlights search
the overgrowth for what beget the sound.
Have I misheard the night, the wind in its mouth?
We lie awake in bed, not sure if they discovered
her. The police have left and behind our house
it’s still. I can’t sleep. Darkness is a sound.
Darien Cavanaugh received his MFA from the University of South Carolina. His fiction and poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Sou’wester, The Dos Passos Review, Memoir (and), The Minnetonka Review, The Blue Collar Review, Struggle, Pank, The James Dickey Newsletter, Megaera, The Pickwick Press, Gertrude, I-70 Review, Kakalak, The Gap-Toothed Madness, The Blue Earth Review, and The San Pedro River Review, among others. He is the Founding Director of The Columbia Broadside Project, a member of the Board of Directors for Auntie Bellum, a reporter for War is Boring, a writing instructor at the Tri-District Arts Consortium, and a bartender at The Whig, North America’s greatest dive bar.
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