Wednesday, February 6, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Juliana Spahr

photo credit: Katharine Wright

Juliana Spahr's most recent book of poetry is This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (U of California, 2005), a collection of poems that she wrote from November 30, 2002 to March 30, 2003 that chronicled the buildup to the latest US invasion of Iraq. Atelos recently published The Transformation (2007), a book of prose which tells the story of three people who move between Hawai‘i and New York in order to talk about cultural geography, ecology, anticolonialism, queer theory, language politics, the academy, and recent wars. The forthcoming Well Then There Now will collect the essays and poems that Spahr has been writing about the various places where she has lived: the Lower East Side, Honolulu, Waikiki, Brooklyn, and Chillicothe, Ohio. This book reflects her interests in urban geographies and their ecologies as it questions nature poetry, investigates the politics of naming, chronicles the current environmental crises, and mourns species loss. Spahr edited the journal Chain with Jena Osman from 1994-2005. And with nineteen other poets she has been an editor of the collectively edited and collectively funded Subpress.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Not sure it did. Although I say that and of course wonder if I'm lying because I'm sure it has had some impact on getting jobs and getting jobs has had a huge impact on my paying of the rent and my eating of food.

2 - How long have you lived in Oakland, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I live in Berkeley now. But I lived in Oakland for two and a half years. Geography has tended to be something I write about but I have not written anything that is about the East Bay. And yes, my race and gender impacts me and my work all day long.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I'm a project person. I say to myself, oh I could learn something from thinking more about that. And then I go and start reading and then maybe half a year later start writing something. Or I see someone do something interesting and I think, oh I'd like to be thinking about that also and I do that.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Probably neither. I tend to just show up and read work that is already done. I haven't been very inventive with this form. Although often the conversation after readings has really changed my work.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

The questions I'm interested in are always changing. I wrote a lot about the legacies of colonialism. Now I'm thinking a lot about the environment.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I love working with people. And co-writing stuff. And things like that. Is that an outside editor? I'm not sure I've had one. Although I've been lucky to have some friends who are willing to read stuff and argue with me about it.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Probably the same. It also seems so after the fact and after all the work is done that it feels like busy work more than anything else.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Maybe two months ago. I remember going through a stage where I was putting pears into salad. But I bought a few that were too ripe and then stopped doing it. Maybe pear season ended.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Oh so many! I once had a dream when I was working on my dissertation where Stephen King came to me and told me I should make more sense. That was helpful.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to criticism)? What do you see as the appeal?

The move has been easy and the two genres feel like they feed each other. But I don't think it has been a good "career" move. Like if I wanted to be a more successful academic--whether a critic or a poet--I think I should have just done one or the other. I like though how when one genre feels tired or played out, I can go think in the other one. And then when that one gets tired or played out, I can go back to the first one.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I usually am working on something in my spare time. So I'll have something in my backpack and I'll try and work on it when I've got a half hour somewhere.

A typical day right now... At 5 am, Sasha wants to be fed; after feeding him, I put him back to bed. At 7 am, he wants up and starts screaming to let me know. I get up with him and try to deal with household stuff until 9. This involves things like getting Sasha dressed and getting dressed myself, putting dishes away from last night, taking numerous vitamins and supplements, making a strong black tea and drinking some of it, eating some food, pumping breast milk, checking email, washing face and brushing teeth, 15-20 minutes of yoga if possible, etc. At 9 or so Sasha usually goes down for nap. I at that moment go to computer until he wakes up. He usually wakes up at 10 or 10:30. I go get him, change his diaper, feed him. Then we might go out and do something until 1. Today I went to grocery. Then I came home and he sat in the stroller outside while I planted some nemophilia plants I got yesterday in the same time slot. Sometime around 1 or 1:30, I fed him again, changed his diaper, and put him down to sleep. He is still asleep and it is 2:08. I am, thus, working on this email.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

No where. I usually have this reassuring thought that I might never write anything again and I think about the other sorts of things I could do and how much fun that would be.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

It is in prose and so it felt like it had a lot of words and the words were out of my control because I couldn't keep them all in my head. It was hard to get the errors out. And I'm sure there are many still in there.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Oh yes. All of those. Plus conversations late at night in the bar. And long walks with friends. And... and... and...

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I had to write a bio today for some talk I'm doing and I wrote this:

"When asked who her favorite poet might be, on most days this year she has answered Kamau Brathwaite. But in the last few months she has started to say Aimé Césaire some of the time. For many years the answer to this question was Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. And before that it was Gertrude Stein."
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Again, so endless. But when I think, oh answer the question, my first thought is to things like live in the desert for a long time. Or live on a small island in FSM for a long time. Or to move to Mexico for a long time.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Today I'd like to be a botanist. A week of rain just ended and so it is moist and sunny outside the window and the plants are looking happy and I want to know them all more intimately.

If I had not been a writer I guess I would have been a secretary. I seemed to be heading that way until I got insane idea I should write things which I got because I went to this private college for rich kids where one could consider such follies.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I think it has a lot to do with how that private college for rich kids didn't really offer any vocational training. So I took writing courses. And there was a really interesting poet there named Robert Kelly and he kept giving me books to read and I liked them.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I saw this film Bamako the other night that I loved. I think it will enter my list of all time favorite films.

My first thought about the last great book was to Peter Weiss's Aesthetics of Resistance. But again, there are so many.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Oh various things. I just wrote a long piece on Chillicothe, Ohio, where I grew up, that is also an essay on Hannah Weiner's "Radcliffe and Guatemala Women." And then I've been working with Stephanie Young to try and understand what is going on with gender in contemporary poetry. Our latest attempt was recently published in the Chicago Review and is available online at And I am trying to talk Bill Luoma into making an API for me for a project I call Frogger which in my fantasy is a map interface that will allow people to post their memories, poems, and photographs of frogs before they disappear altogether because of the global massive die off of amphibians that is happening right now.

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