Not Defined by Grief: A Conversation with Julie Marie Wade

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I was first introduced to Julie Marie Wade’s poetry when The Rumpus asked me to review her novella-in-poems, Same-Sexy Marriage. In that book, Wade offers a hilarious ploy to combat a family’s rejection of their queer daughter. “Real Julie” marries a woman, an act so distasteful to her parents as to inspire a mammoth cover story. The parents’ “Julie” has twins and is married to a male heart surgeon in New England.

The nimbleness that covers the pain in Same-Sexy Marriage is entirely absent in Wade’s new poetry collection, Skirted. Instead, this is a book of relentlessly sad poems. There are startling lines scattered throughout that catch in the throat and make me recoil, such as: “It’s about to be 20 years since / I couldn’t go home again.”

Julie Marie Wade is the author of thirteen volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released collection, Skirted: Poems (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus.

I contacted Wade by email to discuss the new book and to explore her process in writing Skirted, her response to being estranged from her homophobic parents, and whether she sees this collection as a closing chapter within the several other books she has written that involve family estrangement.

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The Rumpus: I love your new book, Skirted. I think of it, perhaps, as closing a chapter among your books that circle your story of family, loss, love, and letting go. Unlike the wry humor in Same-Sexy Marriage, or the juxtaposition of before/after and straight/lesbian in When I Was Straight, it seems that in writing the poems in Skirted, you used every ounce of logic, science, metaphor, allegory, poetic form, and poiesis you could conjure up to describe the very real tragedy of losing your family of origin. I see that some of these poems were published as early as 2008. What was the genesis of this book?

Julie Marie Wade: The book now known as Skirted has had many beginnings. What I wasn’t sure it would have, for the longest time, was an ending. I left my home state of Washington in June 2003, and I haven’t seen my parents since that time. I haven’t been back to the house where I was raised since Christmas of 2002. I suppose a version of this book was percolating even as my partner Angie and I were making the long drive from our first home together in Bellingham, WA, to our new home in Pittsburgh, PA, but I didn’t start writing drafts of these poems until several years after that. When I did, I wrote in secret bursts while working as a research assistant and amanuensis for a professor at Carnegie Mellon. I was also an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh at the time, but these weren’t poems I took to workshop. These weren’t poems I was ready to show to anyone yet.

There’s a line in the poem “Empathy for Electra”—probably one of the earliest poems I wrote for this project that traveled with me all the way to the publication of Skirted—that reads “what it would mean to live / without them.” I was waiting to see what would happen—if my temporary estrangement would give way to some kind of reconciliation with my family… or not. That line surprised me because it revealed to me that I had begun to think about a future where my family of origin and I would not be reunited. And to that end, it felt fitting that the first chapbook of poems I ever sent out into the world—and the first collection of poems I ever published—was called Without.

In 2009, when I was a PhD student at the University of Louisville, I received word that Finishing Line Press had chosen Without for their New Women’s Voices Series. In 2010, when that first small volume was published, it felt like a volta. I had been away from my family of origin for seven years by that time, and in the interim, both my beloved Aunt Linda (in 2004) and my beloved Grandma June (in 2008) had passed away. I was already living without two of the people who had been formative figures of my childhood and adolescence—people I loved dearly but also people who did not accept or even really believe that queer identities were possible.

Because I never came out to my aunt and grandma directly, though, I was able to preserve the happy memories I have of them without the fissures that would have followed such a disclosure. By contrast, with my parents, the coming-out was raw, painful, and recursive through many of years of difficult letter exchanges following our physical separation. I tried to grow the Without chapbook in light of my growing realization that I was unlikely to reconcile with my parents at a future time. I called that volume D R  IF  T—you can see the “if” in it—because I knew I was drifting further and further away from my family of origin, but I still wondered about the “what if?” Eventually, though, I wasn’t sure if the “if” in the book’s title referred to “if we reconcile” or “if we lose each other for good.” The book now titled Skirted, subsumes Without but omits a good portion of D R  IF  T.

Rumpus: How did your vision for Skirted change over time?

Wade: It turns out that I’m not devastated by my sadness, and I’m certainly not defined by my grief. It’s wonderful if queer children can find common ground with initially resistant family members, but what I’ve learned from my own experience is that sometimes the common ground outcome isn’t possible—and that’s okay. In Skirted, I hope to convey that there can be peace without reconciliation—and of course, there can be love. I’m living my favorite love story every day.

And while it’s true that it’s been nearly twenty years since I couldn’t go home to my first home again, it’s also just as true that it’s been nearly twenty years since I made a new home with Angie. Over these years, our lives have only grown richer with each other and with all the mentors and friends who truly know and accept us as we are.

Rumpus: The poem “Source Amnesia” is a centerpiece of the book. It presents an argument for and against achieving the cooling emotion of indifference. Laid out are strong cases made for acceptance and moving on versus lingering in longing and hopefulness. After writing Skirted, have you leaned more in one direction or the other?

Wade: Well, I’ve learned that indifference (of any temperature) is probably not possible for me as a person! I have big feelings about just about everything and a tendency to carry them around with me in heart-on-the-sleeve fashion. But that’s the beauty of art: it’s a chance for us to practice ekstasis—to stand outside ourselves and look in.

Any poem (or work of prose) I write is always “at a distance” from me by virtue of having been made in response to events in my life or the larger world that have already taken place. There’s an after-the-factness to art-making that allows me to get, not indifference exactly, but distance—even from the people and places and things I’m most attached to. Without writing, I’m not sure I could have come to peace with the deep rift between my parents and me, and it turns out that peace isn’t exactly about moving on or lingering. It’s about having/doing both at once. Writing allows me to keep the past with me always, even the most painful parts of it, but without granting the past the same power to hurt me that it once had. Art grants me the privilege—and perhaps the safety, too—of sitting on the dark side of a one-way mirror and watching the past play out under full fluorescence.

Rumpus: In Skirted, more empathy is shown for the father than for the mother. There are positive memories of the father, but none of the mother. There is a strong identification with the father in the poem “Ekphrasis,” where daughter and father look on together at the painting Coastline by Steve Hanks. I have a couple of thoughts about why the father gets a pass, but not the mother. As a woman, it is difficult to forgive a mother’s shunning of her daughter. As a lesbian, it has always seemed easier to give men a pass, compared with heterosexually bonded women, because we don’t have to deal with men in our intimacies. Does this ring true for you?

Wade: Yes, that does ring true for me, Risa, and you’re certainly right about the ways my strong identification with my father informs this collection and makes it easier for the speaker to empathize with him than with the mother. In my life beyond the page—though it’s the same life that informs what’s written there—my father’s homophobia is less complex than my mother’s and somehow less “personal.” What I mean is this: my father’s faith informs everything he thinks and everything he does, so his rejection of queer relationships and identities as “valid” is a reflex for him, a parroting of what he was taught to believe all his life. I know my father loves me in a way that love makes sense to him—some version of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I have no doubt he prays for me every day, too, asking for things I likely would not want to hear. But with my mother, the rejection feels much more intense and totalizing, less about what God forbids and more about how my life choices—and even before I was out, my appearance, my interests, my worldview—have been a source of embarrassment and shame for her. (Hence, the premise of Same-Sexy Marriage.) My mother would like to have a relationship with me now, but the terms of that proposed relationship would require me to be a completely different person, not just not a lesbian.

When I think back about the epiphany at the end of “Ekphrasis,” I’m reminded that I was looking for a point of connection with my father as I wrote that poem, something that came easily for me with him when I was a child and something I felt I had lost forever after I came out. The poem essentially showed me that we did have something in common, something deep and fundamental—our desire for women. But, paradoxically, that commonality is also the barrier to any real-world connection between us now.

I have sometimes wondered if my mother’s obsessive fear of my lesbianism is informed by a queer truth in her own past, her own heart, and hence the terror and outrage that my life could threaten to expose something deep and fundamental about her own identity as well. I can’t know this—not for sure and not ever—but I will always wonder. If there is any truth to my supposition, then it’s actually all three of us—my father, my mother, and me—standing together gazing at the woman in the painting I reference in that poem. And, as I wrote there, it’s the three of us who are “[n]ever closer, never farther” from each other.

Rumpus: In the series of books you’ve written over the past decade that address this narrative—in particular your books Without, When I Was Straight, Same-Sexy Marriage, and now Skirted—can you discuss the sequencing, structure, and process of the writing over time?

Wade: Thank you for thinking so deeply about these books in relation to each other. The book that became Skirted was in the works (one of the many reasons I’m lucky it ended up at The Word Works!) for well over a decade before it came to fruition, so it forms the backdrop to the writing of the other two books. When I moved to Florida in 2012, I had already published the chapbook Without but was still imagining my way toward a larger volume.

That first year, I got to spend a lot of time with two of my own long-time poetry heroes, Denise Duhamel, my colleague at Florida International University, and Maureen Seaton, her long-time friend and collaborator who is a professor at the University of Miami. These poets whose work I had cherished on the page welcomed me into their lives and into their friendship, and that’s when I realized I wanted to write something directly under their influence.

Denise has a poem I’ve always loved called “When I Was a Lesbian,” and I asked her how she would feel about me writing a poem called “When I Was Straight.” I knew Maureen Seaton had a poem called “When I Was Straight,” which I also loved, and somehow I assumed Denise had written her poem first. But no! It was the other way around! Maureen had written “When I Was Straight,” and then Denise wrote “When I Was a Lesbian” under her influence, so I asked both poets how they would feel if I wrote my own “When I Was Straight” poem. They gave me their full-throated support.

It turned out it was hard to write just one “When I Was Straight” poem, so I ended up writing eleven! Then, when I went to AWP in Boston in the spring of 2013, I read a few of those “When I Was Straight” poems at a lovely event called “Queertopia.” After I read, a man in the audience came up and introduced himself to me. It turned out he was Lawrence Schimel, the editor-in-chief of A Midsummer Night’s Press—books I had been reading for years. Lawrence said he was interested in the When I Was Straight series and wondered if I had a collection underway. I told him yes, then immediately went back to Florida (thank goodness it was spring break!) and wrote the second half of the volume—the series of occasion poems that all begin, “When [ …] Learns I Am a Lesbian.” I sent the final version—half before-coming-out poems and half after-coming-out poems—to Lawrence not long after, and so commenced our friendship and his astute editorial guidance.

D  R  IF  T / Skirted wasn’t the kind of book that I could work on all the time. It needed breathing room, steep time. So I wrote a lot of other projects in the interim, both poetry and prose. But not too long after When I Was Straight was published in 2014, I told Lawrence I wanted to write a narrative poetry sequence that would tell the story of the “surgeon in New England” my mother had invented to explain what happened to me after I moved away from Washington. I heard from a family friend that this was a story my mother had told to some people who inquired about me—and to some people who didn’t: “Julie’s married to a surgeon and living in New England.”

This story fascinates me, in part because it actually provides another, more certain kind of common ground between my mother and me: we are both storytellers. And while it isn’t good or kind to lie about your child’s identity or relationship status, I also found myself admiring my mother’s bravado in a way. I mean, in very different ways, we’ve both written our way toward the lives we want for ourselves. My mother did often tell me I could do or be anything I wanted when I grew up—she just didn’t happen to approve of any of the things I did or became. Writing Same-Sexy Marriage made me feel closer to my mother—I know how strange this may sound!—because I could feel her indomitable spirit guiding that lie. And I thought, as I finished the book, Well, what do you know? I inherited my indomitable spirit from my mother.

Lawrence told me he would be very interested to see the manuscript when it was ready, and finally, one semester in 2017, I wrote it. Once again, he provided excellent editorial guidance and published the collection the following year.

In 2014, Angie and I had gotten legally married in Washington—in serendipitous tandem with the release of When I Was Straight—but when we returned home to Florida, our marriage remained unrecognized for another full year. I wrote to Human Resources at my university hoping to change my marital status, and I received an email that contained the typo “same-sexy marriage.” HR, in typically obtuse and stilted HR language, was telling me that they would not recognize my marriage until the state of Florida did. In the process, they made the error that gave my future book its title. I printed out the email—I was crying and laughing at the same time—and highlighted the phrase. I told Lawrence Same-Sexy Marriage would be the title of the proposed second book, and he saw it, too—the happy accident embedded in the discouraging news.

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Photograph of Julie Marie Wade by Kim G. Striegel.


Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She a co-founder at Headmistress Press, publisher of lesbian/bi/trans poetry, and curator at The Poetry Café, a site where poetry chapbooks are celebrated and reviewed. She reviews poetry books for Adroit, Cultural Weekly, Entropy, and other venues. She has published seven collections of poetry, most recently the full-length collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition. Find her on Twitter at @risaden. More from this author →