The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Juliana Spahr about her new book That Winter the Wolf Came, the oil industry and Deepwater Horizon, learning about form after the MFA, and writing about “difficult” topics.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: What kind of source material did you have to comb through to build those poems about oil drilling/Deepwater Horizon?
Juliana Spahr: I was trying to find a file. But most of it was website stuff. There was a lot of attempts to detail what went wrong after it happened. So there is a lot of detailed info on web.
Dana: Not a question, but the ending of “Dynamic Positioning” hits me so hard every time I read it. Naming the deceased workers is so powerful and especially, “I will not tell you their lives, their loves, their young children, their / Relationship to oil”
Camille D: Among the things I appreciate about this book are the ways you draw for me the parts of Oakland I like most as well as some of the parts that most troubled me. I’d love to hear you talk about how/if you try to define place in your writing. It seems to me that you think about place both in terms of geo location but also in terms of time and perspective.
Juliana Spahr: What parts troubled you? About Oakland?
When I moved here I was like I may never write about this place. B/c it felt so overwritten. But then after being here so long, it seems to just seep in.
Camille D: What parts troubled me? Good question; I think there were the schisms you speak of when you talk about the protests and the ways that, often by necessity, people broke up into groups that most resembled them. That’s not an issue particular to Oakland, but it is an issue that is particularly apparent sometimes in a place as diverse as Oakland. Also, in in a linked way, issues of class and privilege. You speak to these questions regularly in the poems—when, for instance you talk about what you can do and say because of your relative comforts in terms of employment and health care etc.
Brian S: Have you been down to the Gulf Coast to see the damage from the Deepwater Horizon explosion? (I’m mostly curious because that’s near where I grew up.)
Juliana Spahr: I have not. but I want to. I keep thinking I’m just going to go. I met this woman who does photographs of environmental devastation recently and I was trying to talk her into letting me go with her and carry her bags.
Camille: I think Oakland has particularly weirdly segregated protest cultures. Or seems more so than in other places? As far as I can figure out. Which might have something to do w how large the scene is? So you can be some specific formation and still be 50-100 people deep. But it is one of the things that is weird to me about East Bay stuff. Also probably the cultural nationalism stuff being so strong here in the 70s.
Camille D: I agree with you on all those points. And, also, Oakland is a place of transplants, and so some people have been there forever and others just came, and all feel a kind of ownership that is particularly interesting given a protest movement that has at its core a desire to question ownership and capital.
Juliana Spahr: Lol. Of the many ironies…but yes. When it works, it seems great. Or the various factions work together. But when it doesn’t, the fights can be nuts.
Camille D: This book covers so much territory, and I am struck by the ways you pull on so many seemingly separate and also clearly interconnected threads. Can you describe a bit about your process? How you organized your book and/or individual poems. How you kept things straight in your head and on the page.
Juliana Spahr: I don’t know. I just started with the oil stuff. But I can’t remember why. And then Occupy happened and that stuff started to creep in. But again, I was determined NOT to write about Occupy. But then failed at that. For a long time I thought of them as unrelated because occupy was so not about OIL. Or environmental stuff. It was all about banking.
The things that felt deliberate where I really wanted to not make Occupy the unique moment. So I did a pointed move to connect to resistance movements globally.
Brian S: But they are related in the sense that they’re all part of a global economy.
Juliana Spahr: I kept saying that to myself. Or that was the reasoning I used. That banking is about oil. Etc.
Camille D: But, of course, these things cannot be separated, can they? Just as your life as a woman and a poet and an activist can’t truly be separated from your life as a mother. Just as something that happened in the Gulf, or to the Brent goose can’t be separated from my life here and now and tomorrow.
Juliana Spahr: But I don’t know. So yes, Camille! That might be it. Trying to figure out the overlaps? I was also having a lot of thoughts about Occupy as some reconfigured environmentalism? Which might not be explainable in this chat box. But something about how deeply infiltrated and harassed the environmental resistance movement was at the time. So many people on the terrorist list, or it was called terrorist, and then a retreat of these communities into the “safe” space of banking.
Brian S: Was the subject matter of these poems part of why you helped found Commune Editions?
Juliana Spahr: I think the starting of CE was with the what to do with the down time question. So the minor insurrection was over. Everyone was fighting. Which is what always happens, again and again after these moments. What to do to repair? Or lick wounds? But also with the optimistic hope of calling some work into existence that has not yet been written by people who do not know they can write it yet.
Camille D: I’d love to know about your thoughts on form. So many of these poems more closely resemble essays, and then in “Dynamic Positioning” you have those truly dynamic line breaks that start to break up words toward the end of the poem. Your interrogation of the use of poetry in protest. All of it is so very interesting to me.
Dana: “Blowout preventer open- / Ed…” !!!
Camille D: Yes, Dana! That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about!
Juliana Spahr: That dynamic positioning stuff is in a bad iambic pentameter, which I just wanted to use because it is the uber-western form. The essay stuff is a “problem.” Wish I would stop doing it. Lol. But I’m feeling more hopeful about that. I keep thinking about how Claudia Rankine’s book didn’t get questioned about whether it is “poetry” or not.
Camille D: So are you not thinking about the formal questions in a calculated way? It feels reasonable to consider that you are co-opting forms and challenging presumptions when you write into and out of iambic pentameter and or into and out of a form that looks more like the form that would deliver our news. But are you not being intentional about such things?
Brian S: I didn’t question this as poetry. It reminded me, formally, of Jena Osman’s The Network a little.
Dana: As a reader, I didn’t find the essay format to be problematic at all… It seemed quite appropriate! Definitely still read like poetry to me.
Juliana Spahr: Oh no. I’m being intentional. It was like oh iambic pentameter. I never use it because I grew up experimental, but it is the big rhythm. People say a lot of dumb things about it, like it is the beating of the heart, etc. I’m going to go and try and be in and see what I can learn.
Camille D: I’m not questioning it as poetry, Brian. (And I adore that Osman book.) I do think, though, that there is a fair amount of conversation (for the last 130 years or so) about what it means to choose to break or not break a line and when and how. What it means politically as well as aesthetically. What about all that conversation around Rankine’s Citizen. IS this poetry or “just” cultural criticism. I think Juliana’s books continually challenge our presumptions about what poetry can and should do.
Juliana Spahr: Thinking that maybe that term “prose poem” that used to be the bastard or lesser form of poetry might be going away? Because it might not matter as much. Which would be good.
“Just” cultural criticism. Did people say that? I haven’t seen that but it wouldn’t surprise me. That Rankine book is tricky. It is like a sticky trap, which is why it is so good.
Brian S: I hear you Camille. I’ll never get why people look to make things into single categories. Embrace the multitude of possibilities.
Camille D: I think that’s one of the things That Winter the Wolf Came problematizes for us. It is HARD not to want to make single categories, even as it is IMPOSSIBLE to make single categories.
Dana: “Embrace the multitude of possibilities” was like a class motto in my undergrad poetry courses.
Juliana Spahr: Genre/forms are institutional questions mainly right? Like matter to MFA programs in terms of which workshop you can teach. Or matter to prizes which are often awarded by genre. Or matter to bookstores/publishers in terms of where to stock the book/list it.
Brian S: They’re the primary drivers of it I think, because institutions tend to desire some sort of order and you can’t have order without classification.
But I’m a firm believer that the most interesting work is the stuff done in the places that overlap. (He says as he writes poems that look suspiciously like sonnets)
Juliana Spahr: Ha ha ha.
Camille D: Yes! All this is true, and that’s part of why I think that a book that is looking at a movement that is questioning our institutions (Big Oil, Big Banks, Big Counter Culture) also embraces a number of forms.
Dana: I’ve been reading the The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, and I will say that sometimes it’s nice to be able to read a poem and pinpoint how form may have influenced the subject matter. But it’s also so liberating to read and write poems that defy these conventions.
Camille D: Maybe embraces is the wrong word. Juliana can tell me if it’s the wrong word. Probably interrogates or exposes would be better.
Juliana Spahr: Yeah. I’m trying to think about form and taking inventory of books around me. I agree, Dana, that something about tradition is part of the work poetry does. And also resistance to it.
I will embrace!
My main thing about form is that I feel I had to un-program some of the stuff I learned in school. Which has to do with that being trained in the avant garde stuff to be really suspicious of things like lyric.
Brian S: About how long did this book take to write?
Juliana Spahr: Maybe 2-3 years. But I didn’t start to think of it as a book until maybe 1 year ago, and I wasn’t sure it would hold as a book.
Brian S: We’re like polar opposites. I was trained as a formalist and have had to discover the avant garde.
Juliana Spahr: I’m sort of annoyed that some very basic things about poetic forms were not conveyed to me in the various poetry courses I took over the years.
Dana: Ooh, like what, Juliana? Just curious.
Juliana Spahr: Also annoyed at how little attention was given to how some of the things I was told were revolutionary or resistant literatures were actually dependent on deeply racist and sexist narratives.
Like how a sonnet works! I remember reading Paul Fussell my first year teaching at U of Hawai’i and being like, oh, it has a turn! Why didn’t anyone tell me?
Camille D: The volta is fundamental. I love the volta. Bless its flip floppy heart.
Brian S: Ha! And then you found that the turn is in different places depending on what kind of sonnet it is.
Dana: I think that’s why I love reading books ABOUT poetic form, because I always learn something new or different from different poets/writers.
Juliana Spahr: I was told over and over the poetry in forms was “conservative” but there was no analysis of why this was so.
Camille: You mean the online thing?
Brian S: I think it might have something to do with the people who were predominantly publishing formal work. I mean, The New Criterion isn’t exactly a progressive journal. But you can take any tool/form and use it to make a radical statement.
Camille D: I like the online thing, THE VOLTA, too. But I meant the Italian word for the turn in a sonnet. The turn in a sonnet is called the volta.
Juliana Spahr: Oh!
Brian S: The prominent New Formalists were largely conservative white guys, so I can see why someone might connect formalism to conservatism.
Juliana Spahr: Brian: yes. That is all the history stuff though that it would have been nice had it showed up in some of the casual conversations that were had about poetry. About how certain forms were used by certain groups for certain reasons.
Camille D: And there is the idea that there are all these “rules” that aren’t to be broken and all these terms (like volta) that only certain people know. The insularity is deadly. And also a complete fabrication.
Brian S: Exactly Camille, which is why I think I was lucky in a way that one of my early poetry loves was E. E. Cummings, who had his poems splayed out all across the page even while he was writing beat-perfect iambic pentameter sonnets. He took the form and broke it apart and remade it to suit his purposes. I felt like he gave me permission to tell the rule-makers to take a seat.
Camille D: I really appreciate the ways that this book, Juliana, speaks directly both from a place of authority and a place of the lack of authority. You know A LOT about oil, but also you are lost about it.
Juliana Spahr: I don’t know a lot about oil. I tried to write a passage where I described how it was priced and gave up. I kept reading these books and getting more confused about it. All I know is that dollar was used to break OPEC, but I can’t tell if it worked or not.
I also feel more and more confused about poetry. Or why poetry?
Camille D: You write so frequently about topics I would consider to be difficult (9/11, the environment, feeling out of place in a place where you live). This is a strange and poorly worded question, but I think I am curious about the role of poetry for you in sorting out these huge and sometimes terrifying aspects of your/our life.
Brian S: Who have you been reading lately? Anyone we should be on the lookout for?
Juliana Spahr: I’ve been reading Eric Bennett’s book on workshops of empire. And it is excellent. And then I read this book Cold War Modernism by Greg Barnhisel which is about the CIA and private liberal foundations promoting modernism. That Smethurst book which is a really detailed history of the black arts movement keeps blowing my mind.
But lit wize: Maggie Nelson‘s Argonauts, Fred Moten’s Feel Trio. Claudia’s book. These are all big books of the last year. I love that testo-junky book too. Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women. Also just read in ms this Susan Briante book and I really liked it.
What about you all? What’s good that I should read?
Brian S: Everything we choose for the poetry book club. 🙂
Dana: I loved Seam by Tarfia Faizullah.
Brian S: I’m also rereading Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable because I’ve added it to my first year seminar this year.
What are you working on now, if you don’t mind the question?
Juliana Spahr: I’m trying to finish a book on the lit of the 90s, but I’ve been working on it for fifteen years. Ugh. I just finished a piece with Stephanie Young on the racial/gender demographics of the MFA. Like yesterday. We kept joking about how we were writing a 75-page blog post.
I’m trying to understand in both why everything is so fucked. Like both are why are the 70s the last moment when people really seemed to think that literature was part of politics?
Camille D: Which is another way of answering my last question, I bet.
Brian S: Sexism + White Supremacy has a huge lead. Hard to tear that stuff down.
Juliana Spahr: Oh wait, just saw your question Camille. Yes! I’m trying to answer that.
Brian S: Also, in the 80s, conservatism somehow became cool. I blame Alex P. Keaton (jokingly, but that character is a symbol of what happened).
Juliana Spahr: Yeah. It’s the fault of the state and the liberal foundations. Lol. If you call Ford/Rockefeller liberal foundations?
Dana: I just had to google Alex Keaton. Hahaha.
Camille D: I was happy to have the chance to get an early look at this book. Thanks very much for writing it, Juliana. I learned lots and saw more.
Brian S: That’s the hour. Thanks for such a fascinating book Juliana, and for joining us today.
Juliana Spahr: Thanks for talking with me!