All of us at Ploughshares would like to congratulate Julia Story for winning the twentieth annual John C. Zacharis First Book Award for her prose poetry collection Post Moxie: Poems (Sarabande Books, 2010). The $1,500 award, named after Emerson College’s former president, honors the best debut book by a Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between poetry and fiction.
This year’s judge John Skoyles, the poetry editor of Ploughshares, praised Story’s collection: “The accomplishment of this book is that it is disjointed and yet whole; fractured yet complete. Post Moxie is full of stunning surprises in language, perception, and thought.”
You can read her poem “Its Plastic Light” at Verse Daily. A full profile of Julia appears in the Winter 2010-11 issue edited by Terrance Hayes. Continue reading for an interview with Julia, conducted by Ploughshares Associate Editor Simeon Berry.
Ploughshares: Where were you born and raised?
Julia Story: I was born in Media, Pennsylvania while my dad was working at a post-doctoral fellowship at in Philadelphia. He accepted a position at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana in 1977, when I was three years old, and that’s where I lived until I left for college. My entire extended family is from Iowa, which is where my parents grew up, so I spent a lot of my childhood there. I consider myself to be more Iowan than Hoosier.
PS: What were your first ambitions and interests when you were young?
JS: Did I have ambitions? I can’t remember. I think I had a vague idea that I wanted to be an “author” because I loved to read so much. I wrote first-person stories that mimicked Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. My protagonists always lived in New York City, though I had never been there. From the time I was seven or so, I read anything I could get my hands on, it didn’t matter what it was. I would read every magazine in my grandmother’s house from cover to cover, including AARP. I enjoyed reading, but it was almost obsessive (and still is).
PS: Where did you go to college and graduate school, and what kind of student were you?
JS: I chose to go to the University of Iowa because no one from my high school would be there and because I knew some poets that I liked, Jorie Graham and Gerald Stern, taught there. I never thought I would have Graham as a teacher, but she did teach my undergrad workshop when I was nineteen. I was kind of a mediocre student. I excelled in the things that interested me, but I remember I really bombed in this Biology of the Brain class. Socially, I had a great time in college. I finally met other people like me, who wanted to talk about real issues and feelings, and who were creative. In addition to my main group of friends, I was part of a little group of poets who took the undergrad workshop with me at Iowa. I finally felt a part of something, which was important to me back then.
In 1997 I moved to New Hampshire to attend the University of New Hampshire’s MA in English/Creative Writing program. Charles Simic was my advisor. In 2001, I moved back to Indiana to attend Indiana University and I received my MFA there. I loved my time there, though sometimes I wasn’t crazy about workshops. The friends I made there are still my closest friends; they inspired my writing in countless ways and continue to do so. My time in Bloomington still feels enchanted to me: I was getting paid to read and write and talk about poetry. And it is such a beautiful, magical town. I would say that I excelled at both UNH and IU. I started to get a lot of attention for my writing and could see that I was probably going to have a career as a poet.
PS: What sorts of jobs have you had besides writing or teaching writing?
JS: I have had so many different kinds of jobs. During college, a lot of them were in food service, and I waitressed and worked as a cook in New Hampshire when I finished my degree there because there really weren’t other jobs. One thing I’ve learned as a poet is that you make more money waitressing than you do temping. When I first moved to Boston I was a secretary for a year. I’m good at office work because I’m very organized, but it kills my soul to help other people with their work at the expense of my own creative life. I’ve taught quite a bit, but right now I’m happy with piecing together part time jobs so I can focus on being myself. I’m not good at full-time teaching; it requires too much selflessness for me, though I do miss teaching creative writing. I really love students and sometimes it’s hard for me not to teach, but I know it’s the best way for me to be a writer. Right now one of my jobs is at a flower shop, and I really like it. My partner and I hope to move to his house in rural England in a couple of years and try to live off grid as much as possible. The goal is to not work at all.
PS: Talk about how your literary career started.
JS: I guess when I began to get poems published in magazines that I liked and respected, I could start to see myself as part of the professional poetry world. My first Iowa Review publication was exciting for me. I wrote Post Moxie in less than two years, and it won the Sarabande contest the first time I sent it out. The funny thing is, I wrote Post Moxie completely for myself. I had no thoughts of publication when I first started it; it was just something I needed to get out. Now I’m working on bridging the two worlds: the world of the imagination and the external world of recognition and publication. It’s hard for me to do this because I’ve spent my life not trusting big institutions or anything that smacks of mainstream success or upward mobility. But that’s one nice thing about being a poet: I’ll always be unknown to most people, even if I have some success in the little poetry world.
PS: Who have been your mentors?
JS: My mentors have been my friends. My poet friends always have time for me, they’ve read my work tirelessly, they listen to my plights and gripes on the phone for hours. Professors have helped, but most have never really been there in that way for me because of their busy lives and careers. Kevin Young is an exception; he was my thesis advisor at IU. He really helped me with my first manuscript, and has helped me in lot of other ways. I’m still in touch with him because he lives in Boston now. I really like to work with him because he has such an amazing imagination and he appreciates my weirdness, and we’re close in age so I’ve always felt comfortable with him. Maybe the older poet/younger poet mentor thing just isn’t for me.
PS: What has influenced your work?
JS: This has only been in the last few years, but I would say that Carl Jung and my own dream work was a huge influence on Post Moxie, and will most likely influence everything I write in the future. I became interested in Jungian psychology through the books of Robert A. Johnson, and through him learned dream analysis and the Jungian exercise of active imagination. I also see a Jungian analyst. I won’t go into too much detail about it, but a lot of my imagery comes from this inner work. Other things that influence me are trees, rivers, and roofs (I’m always writing by a window on an upper floor, so I feel that roofs are my writing companions). My relationship with my twin sister has influenced me; she is a perfect mirror for me in so many ways.
Of course other writers inspire me; I don’t think I could have written Post Moxie without the existence of Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, A Green Light by Matthew Rohrer, The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, My Life by Lyn Hejinian or anything by Wallace Stevens. And some visual artists have been inspiring too; Louise Bourgeois (whose drawing “Femme Maison” is the cover art for Post Moxie) was so inspirational to me as an artist and a human being. She lived her art, which is what I try to do.
PS: Obviously, Post Moxie has something to say about the prose poem. Do you think there’s still a lot of resistance or anxiety about prose stanzas out there? Do you think much about form when drafting or editing?
JS: While Post Moxie might have something to say about the prose poem, I’m not sure if I do! I used to think a lot about form as I wrote, and I liked to think of the prose poem as the nerdy cousin of more traditional forms. Writing prose poems made me feel like I was a part of some rebellious club, especially when I was a student. But I wasn’t thinking about form when I began to write Post Moxie. When I finally discovered that the prose blocks made it easier for me to really tap into my unconscious (because I didn’t have to think about the line), I was thrilled. It made the writing process less excruciating for me. But I’m certainly not making any sort of statement about prose poems with the book, at least not consciously. I like a lot of prose poetry and I hate a lot of it. I think there is still some resistance to it; I definitely felt that when I was a graduate student in workshops. But fortunately academia isn’t the whole world.
PS: What are your favorite anxieties? Are there textual anxieties that you feel are very useful?
JS: This is such an interesting question. I have so many anxieties that I’m trying to integrate into my life, rather than fight off. One is the notion that there is a right way to do everything. That comes from my religious upbringing. Another is that I’ll never be understood. I think both are really useful and both come up regularly in my writing. I don’t think there are any real answers or wisdom in Post Moxie. There aren’t any lessons in it; it’s the depiction of a struggle. There is nothing clear-cut or black and white to take away from it; it’s confusing and circuitous. These ideas make the Christian, by-the-book part of me want to scream. It’s good for me, it helps to balance me. And I’m starting to learn that no one understands anyone else and that’s fine. I have other priorities now besides being understood.
PS: Reading Post Moxie sometimes feels like flipping through a hallucinatory card catalogue, or peripheral glimpses of dioramas. There’s all these inversions and reversals, but each snippet of portraiture feels well composed. How do you feel about Point of View? Whom do you feel are the reigning masters, either in poetry, or out of it?
JS: This is so flattering because I love dioramas! One of my biggest anxieties as I was finishing Post Moxie was the point of view. The pronouns are all over the place, and sometimes I’m not even sure who the speaker is. Friends like you kept reassuring me that this wasn’t confusing. I personally didn’t find it to be confusing since it came from me, but before I show my work to people I’m almost always convinced that it makes no sense and that the readers will be lost. What I’m learning is that people don’t mind being lost, as long as they have a lantern. That’s what I love about the narrators in poetry as opposed to fiction. There is so much more experimenting to be done with a speaker and the notion of self or identity, because you don’t have to worry about narrative as much. Because I’m reading The Changing Light at Sandover right now, James Merrill’s use of voice in that poem comes to mind. He uses all caps to distinguish between the otherworldly speakers and himself, and the effect is chilling and beautiful. Of course, I think all of the voices in that poem are essentially many parts of one person. That’s what’s happening in Post Moxie too, I think: many parts of a self coming out to have their say.
PS: Are you glad about the rise of geek chic? I heard a rumor that you used to date Dungeon Masters exclusively.
JS: That makes me think of a line from Sixteen Candles, when Anthony Michael Hall says, “I’m kind of like the king of the dipshits.” I have mixed feelings about any kind of labels. I feel like I’ll always be an outsider because I never know enough about what’s cool, even to geeks. Anytime I feel like I “fit in” (artistically, professionally, or personally) it’s because I’m making a special, unnatural effort to do so. I feel completely out of place at AWP, but I also feel this way in academia and any sort of professional space, at rock shows, in comic book stores, and at readings. The only place I really feel like myself is when I sit under a tree somewhere. I’m trying to let go of notions of self and identity, both in my work and in my life. This means that I’m distancing myself from a lot of culture, but I’m ok with that. I have my own inner culture. Oh, and my current partner never played D & D; he was a jock who played rugby and rode dirt bikes!
PS: Post Moxie seems to be replete with transformations. You’ve mentioned Autobiography of Red as a source text, as well as Jungian therapy. Do you feel a kinship with archetypes and their uncanny mutability?
JS: Yes. Learning about archetypes really transformed my life. It’s comforting to me to know that they are at work whether or not we have awareness of them. Archetypes act out complex and ancient stories under everything we say and do. This is humbling for me as a writer. I’m just telling the stories that are already running underneath me like a secret river. One thing I like about archetypes is that one usually tends to be running the show for most of us, but this can change from hour to hour. I think Post Moxie depicts that.
PS: I love the line in Post Moxie about “It is good to be sad and say nothing.” It strikes me that the book is full of artful reticence. What is your relationship to silence, on the page, and elsewhere?
JS: Though I think Post Moxie is very talky and self-conscious in a lot of ways, it’s also full of silence because of the great quantity of white space. It’s a good model of the way I function in the world: silent with occasional bursts of feeling or sound. Also, I think the stanzas enact another habit I have: trying to sum up what I think or feel in a very small space so I don’t bother anyone. I’ve been reprimanded for my reticence all my life. A teacher once said to me in a snotty voice: “What are you thinking about when you’re so quiet?” as if being quiet or thinking was some kind of irritating neurosis. She didn’t like my answer: “Nothing.” I am an introvert and it’s hard to be introverted in this loud go-get-’em culture. Real listening doesn’t feel very important in this country. But for me silence isn’t just about listening, it’s about creating space both within yourself and around you. Without space I go crazy.
PS: I’ve found having the idea of opponents (whether styles, tics, or subject matter) to be immensely useful in crystallizing what I do want to do, rather than what I don’t. Do you have poetic nemeses? Have you written poems specifically against or in reaction to other poems?
JS: I don’t know if I’ve written in reaction to specific poems, but I do tend to really dislike poems that don’t have a living, breathing soul behind them. I can tell almost immediately if this is the case and then I stop reading the poem. Poetry is too valuable to waste on word games. Some experimental poetry is cold and humanless and makes me feel really sad, while other experimental poems simply glow with humanity even if they aren’t at all linear. Of course, there are also sonnets and poems that use other traditional forms that can also go either way. I tend to not be a fan of poems written in traditional forms, but then there are some sonnet sequences that really blow me away. The reason they blow me away is because of the viscera on the page, however, not because of a clever line break. The worst thing I could say about a poem is that it’s clever.