I met Julia on the first day of school—the first day of our MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles—in June 2017. We both arrived early and were sitting in the campus courtyard when we struck up a conversation. Julia has since become one of my dearest friends. She is generous, funny, and honest and has had quite the rediscovery journey. And … she is a brilliant writer!
Her bio speaks for itself:
Julia Caroline Knowlton will receive her MFA (Poetry/Creative Nonfiction) from Antioch University in December, 2018. Her chapbook of poems, The Café of Unintelligible Desire, was published in the fall of 2018 by Alice Greene & Co. Julia is a Pushcart nominee and the recipient of several literary awards, including an Academy of American Poets College Prize. Her 2005 memoir, Body Story, was named an outstanding title by the American Library Association. A Professor of French at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Julia holds a BA (French/English) from Duke, and MA and PhD degrees (French Literature) from UNC-Chapel Hill. You may reach her at [email protected]. Her author www site is: juliacarolineknowlton.agnesscott.org.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Julia this past September.
Diane: Welcome, Julia!
Julia: Thank you! Thank you for asking me to do this interview.
Diane: It’s my pleasure! Thank you! So … I have to jump right in. You have some amazing news! Your poetry chapbook has been published?
Julia: Yes! My poetry chapbook is out and available on Amazon. It is called The Café of Unintelligible Desire.
Diane: Wow!! Very exciting. How do you feel?
Julia: I’m very proud. It is my third published book. My first book is a strictly academic book—my PhD dissertation that morphed into a book. I like to joke that that one is the perfect cure for insomnia. It presents a theory of the lyric impulse in the 18th-century French epistolary novel.
My second book is a memoir called Body Story that I published in 2005 with Ohio University Press.
But … this one is the most gratifying.
Diane: What makes it the most gratifying?
“It’s been a life goal of mine to publish a book of poems.”
Julia: It is the most gratifying because there is an enormous amount of rejection involved in getting poetry published. It’s been a life goal of mine to publish a book of poems.
I got my academic writing published fairly easily. The memoir—I was fortunate in some ways with that one too. The reason I’m proud is that I sent this work out cold and it was accepted. I had entered 8-10 chapbook contests previously. You and I have talked about how the contest circuit can become a real merry-go-round. And expensive, too! I got tired of sending in those 10, 15, 20-dollar contest fees. So, I stopped and just googled poetry publishers—editors who were willing to look at manuscripts. I emailed an independent publisher in Ann Arbor, Michigan called Alice Green & Co. and the editor replied that same day and said yes, she was looking at manuscripts. I sent her my chapbook, and within a couple of weeks she made a decision that she wanted to add it to their list.
Diane: Amazing! My readers are not necessarily in the lit world, so can you just briefly tell us what a chapbook is?
Julia: A chapbook is a shorter book of poems. It ranges from 20-28 pages, whereas the typical, traditional book of poetry, is 48 pages minimum. This term chapbook—of course I looked it up—they believe it goes all the way back to England in the 1600s. There were these men who would go down the street with wheelbarrows, carting little books of literature—”Look what so-and-so published the next town over!” The story has it that the men would wear leather chaps on their pants to protect themselves from the big wooden wheels. I love the image of these kinds of wheelbarrows full of literature!
Diane: Wow. Interesting. I never knew that!
Julia: I’ve learned so much from this experience. My next goal is the more traditional full-length book. One of my mentors at Antioch, Richard Garcia, told me that back in the day, Allen Ginsberg, for example, would make his own chapbooks, staple them together and circulate them. Now of course, in the digital age, there’s a whole area of e-chapbooks, digital chapbooks. Fiction chapbooks too.
Diane: Yes. There really is a lot out there. But I want to talk about yours! I read it. I love it! I read it. I LOVE it! You write beautiful poems. You just write beautiful poems. You once told me, over Mexican food, that you like to write quiet poems. Your poems are both very quiet and very powerful. Can you tell me what the quiet means to you?
“The paradox of any poem, I could argue, is that a poem is ultimately an encounter with the blank space that surrounds it.”
Julia: I like the question. I think about this a lot. The paradox of any poem, I could argue, is that a poem is ultimately an encounter with the blank space that surrounds it. The act of the poem is a representation of silence, and thus its own absence. I’m also really interested in the power of silence. Rather than being the opposite of language, it is its own language.
The other part of my response involves some of the poetry that I studied for my doctorate in French literature. One of my favorite poets—Mallarmé—is famous for his subtle inscriptions of poetic silence. His influence is pretty powerful for me.
I can also add that I spent a lot of time as a child and young women up in Northern Michigan, in a very quiet, secluded setting, so silence is a very deep part of my upbringing.
Diane: Silence and language and French. How has your study of language and love of French and your love of Paris informed your poetry?
“French is my other life, my other culture; France is my second home.”
Julia: Oh wow; these are good questions! I started learning French when I was eight years old—in a public school. I always put that out there. I ‘m a public-school baby—K through 12. I started learning French from a Holocaust survivor named Madame Gold, and I took to it. I had an aptitude. I’ve always had two languages. French is my other life, my other culture; France is my second home. It’s my bread and butter—I’m a professor of French language and literature. As far as poetry goes, my knowledge of French literature definitely informs the way I read and write.
Now as far as Paris: Paris is an easy city to romanticize, and as a city it has a lot of problems, but it has historically been a kind of artistic oasis for writers and artists. It has an incredible history of welcoming ex-pat writers of color and refugees, political refugees, survivors of the Holocaust. If a place can be a gift, Paris is a gift for writers. Gertude Stein famously said “America is my country, and Paris is my hometown.” I love that.
Diane: So, the target audience for my blog is women over 50.
Diane: Yes, yay! I know you’ve had a few rediscovery journeys. If you could talk about the memoir that you’ve already published Body Story and how you went through that journey and the second memoir you’re working on.
“… when I flip through that book now, I am aware that I’m a different woman …”
Julia: Sure: I, unfortunately, have, in my life, been afflicted with the illnesses of anorexia and alcoholism, and I am not ashamed to talk about it. I got sober at 47, five and a half years ago, and it remains by far the defining experience of my life. I was in a life-threatening place for a long time before then.
The memoir Body Story was a way of writing my way into some kind of meaning, as far as the anorexia goes. It’s not an eating disorder book, per se, but my experience with anorexia is an important part of that book. However, when I flip through that book now, I am aware that I’m a different woman—this goes right with your women over 50 blog—for two reasons. I was married when I wrote and published that book, and I was still in denial about my alcoholism. Now I am single and sober. I am a completely different person.
Once I got my bearings after getting sober and was able to repair some (if not most) of the harm that I had caused in my relationships, I decided to do my MFA. I had thought about it for years, and once I got healthy again, I just plunged into it.
Diane: Your poetry to me, it speaks of love, and then I say—almost. Connection—almost. There’s that space. When you say silence, I also think space. There’s longing, and there’s desire, and there’s loss.
“I think my writing reflects a longing to connect, along with a reticence.”
Julia: You are asking about intimacy, and I, like all of us, am always imperfect at intimacy. And like most human beings, I’ve been hurt. I think my writing reflects a longing to connect, along with a reticence.
Julia: Yes. I want intimacy. I want closeness—romantic love, family love, the love of other female friends—but I get nervous about it. I admire people for whom connection comes more easily. Like many writers, I’m very introverted. It’s like a constant state of abashment. For example, I have been teaching for 22 years, and yet I still get nervous before I enter a classroom of students. I was even nervous about this interview!
Diane: Are you still?
Julia: Not so much. I like your questions. They’re really good.
Diane: I’m glad. I really thought about them. You mentioned that readers are respoding a lot to the poem “Bad Mother.” When did you write “Bad Mother”? How much distance did you need between getting sober and writing a piece like that?
Julia: I wrote that poem when I was about two years sober. I could not have written that when I was newly sober. Before I wrote poems about my alcoholism and the impact it had on the people I loved, I needed to simply be with those people—sober. We refer to this as living amends. I had broken their trust, and I had to earn it back slowly.
Diane: Does writing heal?
Julia: You know the answer to that question is yes!
Diane: Trick question!
“That is a very profound human longing—if any of us can manage to make meaning and find purpose—that’s as deeply good as it gets.”
Julia: For me, it is healing for the mind. Writing is very deeply healing and can be cathartic. I mean, making meaning. That is a very profound human longing—if any of us can manage to make meaning and find purpose—that’s as deeply good as it gets. Whether we’re a poet or whatever job we have, I think that’s what we long for the most.
Diane: You know how you said that everyone’s cousin writes poetry. I’m dabbling in poetry, and finding it extremely healing. It gets to places that the other genres don’t.
I loved all the poems in the book but the two that touched me the most are two of the last ones—”Two Postcards from Paris”—because of the language, the way you put those words together:
“I will wait a while for shades and bones. Better to stroll up here, near the Seine and toll of bells, to taste a hint of ash in fresh air.”
The language took my breath away—gorgeous, gorgeous! And the last one, which is so quiet, “Petite Chanson”:
“Tell me how to arrange the stones of your sorrow, and I will give you lilies— my basket of doves.”
I’m not even sure all what that means, but it touches a part of me that knows the meaning in such a deep, powerful way. I was wondering, was that written for someone in particular?
Julia: No. I do think that little poem is successful, and I think it is because it is for everyone. Almost like a lullaby. It’s not an “I wrote this for my boyfriend” poem. It’s a poem of comfort and giving. Thank you for your appreciation.
Diane: I find that even when I sit down to write something specific, it takes me to the “everyone.” You just go there.
I thank Julia for “going there” with me and for sharing her journey with us.
If you’d like to pick up a copy of The Café of Unintelligible Desire or Body Story, here are the links:
You can also access many of her poems on her website: juliacarolineknowlton.agnesscott.org
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