JULIE DOXSEE BY WAY OF GENNA KOHLHARDT
Julie Doxsee is a poet who knows how to do a lot with a little. Her language is an ordinary, everyday kind of vocabulary, which she is deftly able to sculpt into sparse lyrics that certainly exist outside of the ordinary, the everyday. Her poems manifest both the restraint and possibility of language. Since buying both of her books, Undersleep and Objects for a Fog Death this last spring, I’ve wanted to talk with her about her experiences as a teacher and her world as a poet.
Genna Kohlhardt: Many who follow your blog, 52 Moons, have noticed there are quite a few photographs of cats. Cats on the street, cats on the side of buildings, cats in trees. What's the deal with all the cats?
Julie Doxsee: I am happy to answer the first question, which might fill a few people in on what the streets in Istanbul look like. They are cobble-stoned and cat-freckled. Street animals are part of the landscape here; they are very much, also, Turkish citizens with their own territorial preferences. In the city there are rustic "cat hotels" and tree houses, which tend to be overly populated during the winter months. The fattest cats in the blog photos are the ones that have been imported from America -- they live indoors with me and have far less adventurous lives than their outdoor friends.
GK: You've been living and teaching in Istanbul since 2007, how do living and teaching in a foreign country affect your writing?
JD: As my job intensifies, the writing becomes much more difficult to fit in to my schedule (sound of heart plummeting to floor), but when it happens the writing is affected in non-time related ways, of course, as well. I have completed two poetry manuscripts since moving here, and am now working slowly on a novel about Bulgaria. When I wrote the first manuscript I was living in the woods near the Black Sea, and was haunted nightly by choirs of baby owls mixing with sounds of the far-off call to prayer carrying in from mosques in the next villages. Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world, and I think people tend to conjure images of the famous historical sites, not baby owls and trees, when they think of the city. My nightly nature soundtrack was as alien to me then as anything about the culture or the language, so my writing wasn’t exactly about the culture or the language at first. But as I was adjusting to feeling alien, I was also realizing that baby owls sound like humans in pain. I found a way to make the baby owls relevant to my deep woods poetry venture, and the other cultural question marks made only minor appearances as I wrote. After I moved from the woods (closer to the second Europe-Asia bridge) I started writing with loose political undertones about gender relations and other issues I felt needed to be poetically sorted out for me as I adjusted to being a resident in a country that consistently ranks low on the gender equality index. As for the novel, yet another world (or worlds) began to open up for me politically, romantically, and culturally when I started traveling regularly to Bulgaria.
GK: Do you have a writing community you work with in Turkey?
JD: There is a group of poets here, some of whom have been here a long time; one of them - John Ash - is a Byzantine historicist who veered away from the New York School to establish roots here a couple of decades ago... There are other poets who teach at various universities here, and recently a few younger female poets have moved here from the US. The ex-pat poets here read together semi-regularly, and though I don't have a regular writing group, the community I am a part of is very important. We get together for holidays and I find the poet-oasis here to be very fulfilling. That said, my experiences away from poets and poetry communities have also been essential to exploring new territory. Writing a novel, for example, after experiencing village life and meeting different kinds of non-poet people – from rooster fighters to textile merchants – helps me to learn much more about the history of the region in a newly fascinating yet matter-of-fact way.
GK: How does being abroad affect your relationship with the community in the United States?
JD: I miss my community in the US very much. Many of my writer friends have visited me here and/or will visit this year. I work 30-35 weeks during the year, so I try to spend the off time in the US reading and going to conferences, reconnecting and gathering up books to bring back here with me. I do my best to stay “present” there so that I don’t disappear… The internet helps in this regard. I don’t think I could have lived abroad during the pre-internet era.
GK: After teaching at several universities, what has been your most memorable teaching experience? How do you balance the work of teaching and writing? What role has teaching played for you as a poet?
JD: Definitely the experience teaching in Istanbul is most memorable. Some of my creative writing students here have been the most earnest and eager of my career. One memory that sticks out is from a group of students who made a professional-quality movie that began with a zooming-in shot of a mysterious alter comprised of a man-like creature with a bird head that was smoking a cigar, with a voiced-over narrative referencing “secret documents.” The beginning of the movie was shot in the woods with a cast of about 20, and was a re-telling of the Promethean myth. All cast members wore togas except Zeus, who had a long white beard and staff, and wore swimming shorts as he waved his staff toward the sea. The movie evolves into an elaborate gangster plot after the main character (Prometheus) wakes up from his mythic woodsy dream, and the movie continues with guns and car chases centered around the secret documents. In the end, after most of the characters are dead, a glimpse of the secret documents is revealed: it is a bundle of poems we read for the course, including selections from Cole Swensen, Mathias Svalina, Emily Dickinson, and Wallace Stevens. I wouldn’t refer to these poets as gangster-movie inducers, but we did treat them as myth-makers throughout the course, and the students extracted from that what they wanted. When the movie premiered, the actors and friends of the actors came, the “directors” brought popcorn and set up a display of props on a table: the bird head, Zeus’s staff and beard, some guns and gangster hats, and of course the secret documents. It felt like the second coming of Star Wars.
GK: The language of your work often seems reminiscent of the language of children’s tales and many of your courses have involved mythology. What do you feel is the role of myth in writing, and in your poems specifically?
JD: Myth, like any work of the imagination, offers a parallel world that teaches us something (some shifting/shifty insight) about this one, even when the reader’s engagement with the page is bound with tributaries of disturbance or refusal. I don’t necessarily like word “myth” for its association with the word “lie” which has lead to certain myths being accepting as truth by certain people (this conundrum is in part what I try to tackle in some of my classes), but I do like the idea of “neo-myth” for the quirky promise it offers to writers of poetry: a world to live in that estranges the poet from what is uncomfortable or unexplainable about “this” world. Parallel worlds with self-contained logic systems that somehow magnify or explode earth logic are what poetry is to me, and what I hope it always is.
GK: Many of your poems seem to exist in a sort of internal world, what do you feel is your relationship between your external environment and your work?
JD: My external environment feeds the internal – the two are undeniably co-dependant – though perhaps in ways that are not so easy to pin down. In Objects for a Fog Death the internal feeling is strong, or is at least curiously noticeable, but is driven strongly by the external. I wrote the poems while recovering from a knee surgery that kept me immobile and house-ridden for a couple of months. When I read the book again I feel the confinement of the apartment I was living in at the time, and realize in hindsight that the writing was an attempt to evacuate myself from restraint through poetic possibility. The book also contains how strange the external world was to me when I managed to make it outside for a coffee or to see a friend, and how infinite I felt the poetry could be when my relationship with physicality was limited. On some level, the idea of the infinite versus the physically limited is a good metaphor for a book. The book is a container, with physical limits, inside of which the infinite tries to exist.
GK: Your most recent book, Objects for a Fog Death, deals very consciously with what the poet does and is much less sparse, on a page level, than Undersleep; what triggered this transition? Did you go about writing these books differently, and do you think about them differently now?
JD: They are very different, yes; on the conceptual level, on the writing level, and on the reading level. Objects for a Fog Death certainly is about what the poet does, and how the poet confronts physicality (how the poet asks the poem to become physical, desirable). To me the book is much more about finding the ineffable within the ordinary and confronting it, whereas Undersleep keeps the ineffable at a safe distance, perhaps, by dressing it in cleaner clothes and admiring it from afar. Undersleep was once a book with many words (mostly adjectives and prepositions) that I chose to excise. It was important to the project for me to squeeze language until a certain essence emerged, along with a certain grammatically grounded quality. Though Objects for a Fog Death is also a work of concision, the language anchors the page more hesitantly and the playfulness of the language is perhaps elasticized differently (in that the work depends mostly on concise couplets whereas in Undersleep the blank spaces could BE the couplets).
GK: How do you view the relationship between the “I” and the “you” that is such a consistent element in Objects for a Fog Death? Do you think of the “I” as the voice of the poem, a character, yourself? Is the “you” the reader, an object, a lover?
JD: The pronouns are all of the above and more, perhaps. Or less, perhaps. I would not definitively reduce the possibilities within the “I” and the “you” to one thing or the other for anyone, but I will say that the “I” and the “you” are sometimes caught in a viewer/viewed entanglement, sometimes a touching/untouchable relationship, sometimes the “I” and the “you” are awkwardly dancing together, and sometimes the “I” would like the impossibility of the “you” to be a desirability. So, the poetic voice of the “I” implants desire where it would not normally exist, while at the same time marrying the abstract to the concrete. For example, the “I” is very tender with the abstract and violent “drowning” (she wraps it in a little black coat), the “I” writes a song made of igloos, the “I” “slips [the you] a fireball” and often waves a twig as though trying to take extra steps in order to conduct what she deeply desires.
Genna Kohlhardt has poems in Strange Machine and H_NGM_N and has only ever lived in the West.