Julie Weiss is the author of The “Places We Empty”, her debut collection published by Kelsay books, and a chapbook, The Jolt: Twenty-One Love Poems in Homage to Adrienne Rich, published by Bottlecap Press. Her “Poem Written in the Eight Seconds I Lost Sight of My Children” was selected as a finalist for Sundress´s 2023 Best of the Net anthology. She won Sheila-Na-Gig´s editor´s choice award for her poem “Cumbre Vieja,” was named a finalist for the 2022 Saguaro Prize, and was shortlisted for Kissing Dynamite´s 2021 Microchap Series. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her work appears in ONE ART, Orange Blossom Review, Rust + Moth, Sky Island Journal, and Wild Roof Journal, among others. Originally from California, she lives in Spain with her wife and two young children.
Saheed: Good day, Julie. Please, tell us a weird thing about you that your distant readers might not have already known.
Julie: Good morning, Saheed. I´m deeply honored that you asked me to do this interview, and what a fun question to start with! I can tell you a couple of things, which have nothing to do with each other. Firstly, I was a competitive figure skater in my childhood and teens, so I suppose you could say I grew up in an ice rink, or multiple ice rinks. As a matter of fact, I returned to the ice in September of last year. I´ve been taking group classes, alongside my 8-year-old daughter, and now I have this insane goal of getting my childhood double jumps back. I say insane, because I´m nearly 50 years old! The other thing is truly weird, though. I have a knack for knowing if something is perfectly straight or not just by looking at it, like a painting on a wall, and I mean to the millimeter. I´m always straightening things on my walls that have dipped to one side or another.
Saheed: Congratulations on your being listed as one of the Top 25 Most Read One Art Poets of 2022. What does this and other recognition mean to you and your work at this point in time?
Julie: Thank you very much! That was a major highlight for me in 2022. ONE ART is a magnificent journal for so many reasons. The editors are kind, profoundly supportive, and they do everything in their power to uplift the poetry community. Plus, the work Mark and Louisa publish on a daily basis is top-notch, so you can imagine how elated I was, albeit completely shocked, to see my name on that list. It means the world to me to know that people are reading and appreciating my poetry, whether in journals, or in the pages of my books. For someone like me, who´s introverted, and who has difficulty expressing her ideas and opinions verbally, poetry is a means by which I can communicate my innermost thoughts, my feelings, my observations of the world, thereby engaging in a conversation with my readers without needing to utter a sound. It´s like, I have this important thing I want to say, and the best way I know how to get it out is to immerse readers in the experience of the thing. You know, when I was a young girl, just starting out in poetry, I was convinced that I could change the world for the better through my words. Of course, I´m older and wiser now, but I do think that words are powerful, and my hope is that something I write might someday help someone, or comfort someone, or make someone feel less alone.
Saheed: Reading your book, “The Places We Empty”, I find the rhythmic coherence and its vivid description impressive. How do these imageries come to you? Does rhythm come to you naturally, or is it a thing you learnt?
Julie: Thank you so much for saying that, Saheed. I love poetry for just that reason, the way you can play a set of words as if they were a musical instrument, using not sticks, fingers, or breath, but alliteration, assonance, line breaks, and even by choosing words with certain letters or letter combinations, l, r, or sh, for example. I think all this comes to me a lot more naturally nowadays than it did in the past, as a result of writing as often as I can, as well as reading other poets I admire. Although I minored in Creative Writing at university, I don´t have an MFA, so I´m just teaching myself as I go along. Sometimes, especially when I´m editing, I consciously change words to enhance the rhythm, but there are other times when I´m reading back over a poem and I´m surprised by, say, all the internal rhyme throughout, because it wasn´t a conscious decision on my part to use those particular words for that reason. I guess the more you write, the more your brain becomes attuned to a poem´s particular needs. What I love most about poetry, though, is the way language can, through images, yank the reader so deep into the experience, it´s almost as if they`ve physically lived through it. I spend a lot of time trying to come up with fresh, vivid images, meaning I could be staring at the screen for an hour while my mind is diving through an ocean of language, searching for the right words to render a feeling or an emotion tangible. I´m also fond of extended metaphors, and those take a long time to get right, because although you want the language of the poem to heighten the metaphor, if you go overboard with the images, the story of the poem can end up drowning. I´m guilty of getting carried away like this, all the time.
Saheed: Poetry is an art that reflects the writer, their society, and especially their place in it. Because of the brevity and precision of poetry, does it sometimes excommunicate the poet?
Julie: I´m not sure the poet ever completely disappears from the poem, since the poem wouldn´t exist if the poet hadn´t created it in the first place. However, to what degree the poet is present, regardless of brevity, depends, from my point-of-view, on what kind of poem has been written. If I´m writing a confessional poem about something personal, but the poem takes on a life and a mind of its own, metamorphosing into some bizarre, nearly unrecognizable creature, then perhaps we could say I, the author, have taken a leap back, though I haven´t necessarily left the vicinity of the poem, which is still imbued with my original feelings, emotions, voice, and probably experiences, though I´ve most likely altered or embellished those to fit the new creation. If I´m writing a persona poem, I´m obviously a great deal more removed, but that doesn´t mean I´ve excommunicated myself entirely, since the experience I´m describing in someone else´s voice still comprises parts of me, again, feelings and emotions from my own life.
Saheed: ‘California on Fire,’ one of the poems in “The Places We Empty”, springs too many questions in me with its gothic, and vivid setting, that I did wonder if that was real. The lines, “he is contorting his words/ he is blaming her state, blaming her for not raking / forest leaves, blaming them all, as if they had / contrived the demise of their own families” looked too real to be fictive. Was California on Fire? And what prompted this particular poem?
Julie: Sadly, it was. California has its share of devastating wildfires every year, in fact. “California on Fire” was based on the 2018 Camp fire in Paradise, California, the state´s deadliest fire to date. It killed 85 people, as well as destroying the entire town. The victims in my poem, of course, aren´t real. I just imagined what it could have been like for someone who lived there, who lost everything. One particular news story sparked my rage to the point that I had to write about it or would have burst. When then President you-know-who visited Paradise to survey the damage, he shamelessly blamed Californians for the fire, claiming they should have “raked” their forests, just like people in Scandinavian nations do, he said, such as Finland. After he made that statement, Finns started trolling him by posting online pictures of themselves in their forests with rakes, vacuum cleaners, dusters, and the like. It seemed cruel to me that a supposed leader would place blame on the very people who lost their lives, their loved ones, their houses and possessions in a heartbreaking tragedy, and I hope that sentiment comes out in my poem.
Saheed: How does Art thrive in California? There are several events that keep and encourage art to be alive. Hiasfest in Nigeria, for instance, is the largest teen festival in Africa. It rewards young writers for their talents and thereby keep their passion for art intact. I, for one, have been a beneficiary of the event as my book, “Rewrite The Stars” was published by Hiasfest. Are there any of events/associations like Hiasfest that you associate with?
Julie: Congratulations on your book. What a brilliant title! Yes, I´ve heard of Hiasfest, and it sounds like an amazing event. I wish I could speak at length about California arts events, but to do so, I´d need to scroll the Internet like anyone else. I´ve lived in Spain for nearly 23 years, and I only came back to poetry in 2018, after a 17-year non-writing period, so unfortunately, I have no inside knowledge about what´s happening on the California scene, other than what I might see online.
Saheed: I love the intentional usage of words in your poem, “Silence”, mainly, because of the beauty of its motif: the inability to make choices. There is the portrayal of a queer girl in the poem who couldn’t express her sexuality, maybe out of fear. I understand that the acceptance of queer sexuality is particularly slow, fast, or dormant sometimes, especially in my part of the world. What do you think about queer sexual experience, especially queer sexual experience in California? Are queer people bound by inability to make the choice to display their sexualities?
Julie: Thank you very much. Again, it´s difficult for me to talk about California, since I haven´t lived there in so long, but I believe it´s one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly states in the US. I came out in my twenties, so we´re talking the late 1990s, and I don´t remember feeling particularly frightened when I told friends or family members, but I didn´t actually date anyone until I moved to Spain. We were the third country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, by the way. That was in 2005, four years after I moved here, and boy did I celebrate! Would I have been scared to openly show my affection for another woman in California of the 90s? Perhaps I would have been warier than I´ve ever been here. LGBTQ+ rights and visibility have come a long way since then, though of course LGBTQ+ people are still condemned, attacked, humiliated, bullied, and killed all over the world, even in California, and in a very conscious way, I try to reflect this reality when I write my poems. That being said, it´s impossible to give you a blanket response to your question about inability, because everyone has different experiences, from fear and shame to pride and joy.
Saheed: Are you currently working on a new chapbook or a new genre that your readers need to look out for?
Julie: No new genre, I´m strictly a poet, but my second book, a chapbook called “The Jolt: Twenty-One Love Poems in Homage to Adrienne Rich” was published in March of this year by Bottlecap Press. It´s available on their website in both physical and digital format. One of the big differences you´ll find in this chapbook, compared to “The Places We Emtpy”, is that the poems are short, really short, at least for me. In fact, the book was born out of an initial challenge to myself to write a short poem. And well, there´s a huge surprise coming in September, but I´m bound by secrecy for the moment.
Saheed: Which poet(s) seamlessly does what we can term “magic” in their poetry, to you? Maybe with their figures of sound, or metaphors or even peculiar attention to detail?
Julie: This type of question always pulls on my heart strings a bit, because if I had it my way, I´d leave you a list of names pages long. There are hundreds of brilliant poets I´ve discovered since returning to writing, and enough magic to cast a spell of beauty over the globe. Some of the poets I admire are famous, while many others are like me, just writing, learning, publishing, and striving to shine in an ultra-luminous universe of words. I´ve always been a sucker for a jaw-dropping image, and I tend to gravitate toward poets who consistently wow me with their imagery, as well as the urgency in their voice, and as you say, their attention to detail. I adore a good story, too. Just a small handful of the poets who do all that for me and more, whose poems have, at one time or another, been deposited in the keepsake box of my mind, are Adrienne Rich, Kaveh Akbar, Ellen Bass, Jericho Brown, Victoria Chang, Megan Merchant, Maggie Smith, Patricia Smith, Othuke Umukoro, and Ocean Vuong.
Saheed Sunday, NGP V, is a Nigerian Poet, a Star Prize Awardee, a Best of the Net nominee, and a HCAF member. He is the author of a poetry collection: “Rewrite The Stars”. He is the winner of the ZODML Poetry Prize and The Nigeria Prize for Teen Authors. He was also shortlisted for the Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award, Wingless Dreamer Poetry Prize and The Breakbread Literacy Project. He has his works on Lolwe, The Deadlands, Shrapnel Magazine, Rough Cut Press, The Temz Review, Brittle Paper, Poetry Column, Off Topic Publishing, Eunoia Review, and elsewhere. In 2018, he was shortlisted for the Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange. He can be reached on Twitter @saheedtsunday, or Instagram @_saheedsunday.