Weird Beauty: An Interview with Julie Platt

Julie Platt received a doctorate in rhetoric and composition studies from Michigan State University, where she completed a dissertation studying the ways literary poets use digital technologies. She has master’s degrees in poetry writing from Bowling Green State University and Ohio University. Her creative work has most recently appeared in Barn Owl Review, Birdfeast, Moon City Review, and Weave. She is currently Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Center for Writing and Communication at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

Full disclosure: Julie Platt and I attended Ohio University together and we’ve remained in touch over the years. It’s been a long time since we had the opportunity to chat about our creative lives, so I was thrilled when she agreed to this interview.

We began our email exchange on July 27th and concluded on August 9th with an IM chat. Because our lives are busy, we weren’t able to maintain our discussion on a daily basis, but we still managed to cover a lot of territory. This interview was a wonderful experience for me, and I’m grateful to Julie for her generous and thoughtful responses.

Christina Veladota: Hi Julie! Thanks for agreeing to this email interview. Let’s get started!

I read your chapbook, In the Kingdom of My Familiar, and it’s really terrific. Please reflect on your experiences writing this book. Which poets (if any) influenced your work? Why a chapbook and not a full-length collection?

Julie Platt: I wrote most of the poems that appear in the chapbook while I was doing my MFA at Bowling Green State University. One of our optional assignments for a course we were taking was preparing a chapbook to submit to the Wick (http://www2.kent.edu/wick/competitions/chapbook.cfm). While I didn’t win, it was a valuable experience for me because I had to think deeply about arrangement, coherence, the overall aesthetic effect, et cetera. These are things that you don’t really have a lot of time to consider in workshop, where you’re usually only talking about specific poems.

I chose to go with a chapbook first because, frankly, I didn’t feel that I had produced enough strong poems to fill a full-length book. When reading full-collections, I don’t always have the experience of feeling totally awed by every single poem. However, when I do, I tend to return to that collection over and over again because it seems like it reveals something new each time. Some of the collections that do that for me are Karen Volkman’s Nomina, and my teacher Larissa Sporluk’s collection Isolato. Even though my MFA thesis had quite a few poems in it, a lot of them didn’t seem good enough to make a full-length book that would have that same effect on a reader—that it would be equally strong poem after poem and invite more and more readings. 

This is not to say my chapbook is on the same level as the collections written by the women I just mentioned. I just felt that I needed to sort of announce my arrival as a poet after earning my MFA. Since I went into a different discipline after completing my MFA, generating poems became secondary to other ways of looking at writing. This was not a bad thing at all; I think studying rhetoric and composition has given me an incredibly valuable and unique vantage point for examining what it means to be an American poet in the 21st century. I even took up some of the issues of publication and authorship with my chapbook in my doctoral dissertation. So, I’m still sort of in a moment where I need to establish myself in composition before I can focus on writing poetry again; I’m not sure what things will look like when I get there. I want to publish a full-length collection, as it has been my dream to do so since I was a teenager. However, I think I need to do some serious thinking about what I want that collection to be like. Because creative writing isn’t my primary discipline anymore, I have that luxury.

CV: I remember a time when a chapbook wasn’t considered a “real” publication, but the tide is definitely turning. I’ve read some wonderful chapbooks (yours among them) by very talented poets and view them on par with the poets you mention above.

Tell me a little about yourself as a writer. When did you start writing poems? What attracted you to poetry?

JP: When did I start writing poems…

I think I wrote my first poem when I was in the fourth grade. It was a rhymed, humorous poem about raking leaves and getting annoyed with the rake catching in the grass. My teacher read it out loud to the class and seemed to really enjoy it. It hit me that I was capable of making things that people found interesting and enjoyable, and of course I loved the feeling of pride that came with that kind of recognition. From then on, I tried to be a serious poet, or at least as serious as one can be at the age of 10.

As to why I chose poetry, I think it had something to do with the fact that I’ve always loved music. I had a Fisher-Price record player and a tape recorder, and I listened to both kids’ music and the pop music of that era (I was born in 1980). I loved to sing along, and I discovered I had a really good memory for song lyrics. I can still remember the words to kiddie songs I listened to when I was 7 or 8 years old, and even today if I listen to a song a few times I will memorize the lyrics without even trying. As I grew older I realized that I just preferred to listen to music rather than watch lots of movies or television. I guess in some ways I have a short attention span, but I can concentrate intently on small, dense things, and I’ll work on them until they’re perfect. Most of my poems are 30 lines or less, I’d say, and I rarely write a poem that’s longer than one 8.5″ x 11” page. Brevity and pith are what I am highly trained for. It’s no surprise that I’m active on Facebook and Twitter—this kind of “burst communication” feels very natural to me.

CV: You say you’re good at memorizing song lyrics. Do you like to memorize famous poems, too? If so, which ones do you know by heart?

JP: I wish I could say I had a lot of poems memorized! In truth, I’ve only ever committed myself to memorizing poems for assignments and such. During my MFA, I memorized Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and recited it in class. I’ve always loved the drama of that poem.

During my MFA, I was the program assistant so I got to spend a lot of time with visiting writers. Lola Haskins made a great impression on me because of how seriously she took performance. One thing she did was memorize all of her poems and recite them, somewhat dramatically, instead of standing at a podium to read. It definitely made some people uncomfortable; there were a lot of nervous giggles. I think that’s a shame, and it attests to how far poetry has moved away from performance. I was taught from an early age that reading was a skill, and that I needed to practice giving actual voice to my poems. It’s one of the reasons that I’m interested in delivery as a rhetorical canon. Memory is one of those canons as well, and I think it would do us all good to go back to them.

CV: What about process? I’m always fascinated to learn how other writers, artists, and actors approach their craft. How would you describe your writing process?

JP: Me too! I’m crazy interested in the material conditions of process—how poets create their physical workshop spaces and how they use technology in those spaces. I think my process is probably really typical of a writer of my age, and by that I mean it’s partially mediated by computers. I was always fascinated by computers, but my family didn’t own one until I was 16, and it wasn’t until I got my own computer in college that I started using it to write poems. 

Today, I like to start with a pen and pad of paper, preferably a lined steno book. I usually begin with an image that has struck me, or a line or phrase that I like, and I use that as a kind of seed for where the poem goes. I’ll generate words for a little while, scratching out what I don’t like, until I sense that I need to work on the poem’s visual form to see what it wants to do. At that point, I go to my laptop, open a Word document, and start typing. I can’t skip this step; I really need to see the lines laid out on the screen or I don’t know what the poem is doing. I’ll continue drafting there until I finish, or, more frequently, until I’m stuck or too mentally tired to continue. I put the poem away for a while then, and usually wait at least 12 hours before going back to it. Once I get a draft I’m more or less satisfied with, I like to share it with another poet and see what he/she thinks. I also like to share the poem with my fiancé, who isn’t a poet. I think both perspectives are really valuable. After I get their feedback, I go back and wrestle with the poem some more until I feel that kind of mental “click” that tells me it’s finished. 

I care about audience, but I also try really hard to trust my own intuition about a poem. I had this poem called “Zombie Hustle” that nobody seemed to connect with, and that kept getting rejected from journals. However, I still believed in that poem and I chose to keep sending it out. I think it’s a good poem, and believe me, I know when one of my poems sucks. Not everything finds its audience immediately. That’s kind of why I keep writing. I’m a weird person who’s attracted to weird kinds of beauty. My greatest hope is not to be a super-famous poet who never has to pay for a drink at the AWP hotel bar. Instead, I hope that someday the weird things I put into the world make someone—someone who felt really alone and alienated because of their attraction to weird beauty—feel less alone and alienated.

CV: If I ever make it to the AWP Conference again, I promise to buy you a drink! Seriously, though, yours is a modest but admirable ambition. I love this concept of being attracted to “weird beauty,” especially as it pertains to poetry. Poetry is weird – in the best sense of the word. I think of the beautiful weirdness of your poetry. In the poem, “My Familiar,” you begin, “I have a heart that shoos me through the hours.” So lovely. I know I like a poem when I have to stop reading for a minute to take it in. Now I’m dying to read “Zombie Hustle.” What a great title. Did it ever find a home?

JG: Poetry is definitely weird! That was one of the things I remember tackling in my critical introduction to my MA thesis; I read the critical essay “Strangeness” by Lyn Hejinian (it’s in The Language of Inquiry) and tried to extend one of its arguments. One of my MA professors (I think you can guess who) always described my poetry as “really weird” and thus difficult for him to approach. For much of my adolescence I was dismissed as “the weird kid,” so I decided to claim weirdness or strangeness in my poetry as part of my identity. I remember that I later told one of my poetry students not to be afraid of her own weirdness, and that to do the weird thing was to do the brave thing. I always think of the “weird sisters” in Macbeth; of course, in that play, the word “weird” meant both strangeness and fate or personal destiny. I think it’s still very difficult for women to shoulder that mantle of weirdness, strangeness, otherness. We’re all already so alienated, by virtue of being women in a world where maleness is the normal or default state of being. But in that weirdness is our connection to our true selves. By being weird (or wyrd) we become who we really are.

Sorry to wax philosophical for a minute. 🙂

“Zombie Hustle” did find a home—it was in Moon City Review’s 2012 special volume on contemporary children’s literature, and paired with art by Pierre Vu Hin. It’s a beautiful, lavishly illustrated volume that everyone should check out. I’m biased, of course, but seriously, it’s great.

CV: Let your freak flag fly, as they say? I adhere to that philosophy, too. In poetry, and in life in general, it’s exhausting to try to be someone you’re not.

[At this point, Julie and I conclude our email exchange and turn to IM.]

CV: Okay, Julie! I’m going to ask you a series of questions. Please respond to them as quickly as possible. No need to provide a rationale for your answers, though it’s possible I’ll ask a follow-up later. These are similar to James Lipton’s questions at the end of each episode of Inside the Actors Studio. Ready?

JP: Cool. I will do my best Will Ferrell impression.

CV: Awesome! What does your writing/work space look like right now? Cluttered? Organized?

JP: I no longer work at a desk when I’m at home, so my workspace is me stretched out on my loveseat, with books sitting on the cushions to my left, and my laptop on top of a pillow on my lap.

CV: Do you alphabetize the books in your personal library, or organize them in any specific way?

JP: I don’t alphabetize them, but I do group them together by subject and type. I have an overflowing bookshelf of poetry (single-author and anthologies), and bookshelves dedicated to general rhetorical and comp theory, digital rhetoric, writing center theory, methodology, and creative writing studies. I also have a few canvas bins in my living room with more general interest books piled in them. I can see Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States sticking out of one of them now.

CV: What is your favorite (or least favorite) poetic cliché?

JP: Ha! Good one. I have a love/hate relationship with the “poem about writing poetry/being a poet” cliché. Some people try so hard to be ironic and funny in those kinds of poems that they end up kind of tripping on their own ridiculousness and looking just as doofy as they tried not to be.

CV: Name a poet (living or dead) with whom you’d like to share a banana split.

JP: None, because I don’t really like banana splits, but I’d share a caramel sundae with Karen Volkman.

CV: Name a poet (living or dead) with whom you’d like to go on a road trip.

JP: Elizabeth Bishop! Imagine the book you could write after that trip. Her stories would be incredible, and she’d show me amazing things I wouldn’t see otherwise.

CV: That would be my answer, too! Name a poet (living or dead) with whom you’d like to go dancing.

JP: Does Patti Smith count? I’d love to dance at CBGB with Patti in 1976.

CV: Yes! That counts!!

If you were a poetic form what would you be?

JP: Oooh I love this question. I’d love to be a sestina but I think I’m actually a haibun. It’s a short Japanese form that combines a prose section and a haiku.

CV: What book are you currently reading? This doesn’t have to be a book of poetry.

JP: I usually have a bunch of books going at once. Right now I’m reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and a couple of books on writing program and writing center assessment. I’m looking forward to Kristin Kaschock’s The Dottery and the paperback version of the history of 4AD records.

CV: What do you wish you could tell your 10-year-old self about the life of a poet?

JP: I would tell her that it’s a constant battle against self-doubt; that the self-doubt doesn’t go away when you grow up and even get a respectable number of published poems under your belt. I don’t have a full-length collection yet, but if I did I strongly doubt its existence would take away my insecurity. It’s okay to have that. You just work through it or around it.

CV: Final question. How would your 10-year-old self respond?

JP: My ten-year-old self would look at her feet, shyly say, “okay,” and excuse herself to play some Dragon Warrior III in the basement. And I’d let her. That kid is going to be fine.

 

Two Poems by Julie Platt

My Familiar

I have a heart that shoos me through the hours.

I have a father and a mother. I chew

heavy, seedless bread; I chop my dogwood tree.

I wait for winter, when the voices of my friends

are distinct in the articulate cold.

I am not a machine, though it is true

I have been augmented. In place of my legs,

the jaunty bones of a child

mistaken by his father for a stag. My windpipe

is the birth canal of a girl who went missing

in the Tennessee woods. Are you grateful for your life

in spite of what rots off of this world and dies

writing in the snow?

 

Do not be afraid,

I am only a woman.

 

The Beautiful Cookbook

It’s an ideal remedy for a tongue like that,

all grayish and American. It makes you dream:

a wide bowl of tiny fish gleam bright as braids.

Tomatoes ripen like girls’ cheeks

and the whole country arranges on one boat—

turmeric, holy basil, thick scarlet pastes

more worshipful than incense. Colors separate

and personify. The coriander is a skirt maker,

cardamom a tobacconist, palm and mangoes

embrace in bundles, and zucchini and okra

queue up neat as matchsticks. Piles of matchsticks

for a fire they’ll set on the river at night. They’ll spill

hats into the dirt. Screams slide up

the pines as they tear each other open.

 

Scroll to the bottom of the page for a link to Julie Platt’s chapbook In the Kingdom of My Familiar, which was published this year by Hyacinth Girl Press. It’s a steal at six bucks.

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