Getting to know Julia Lisella and her new book Always
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write poems, or didn’t write them. I connect poetry to the self I was as a child. My sister and I had been given a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Garden of Children’s Verses and I read it cover to cover over and over again. I loved the idea that reading could be musical and I would read the poems aloud when I was alone. I am the youngest of 4 and there is a great age span between my eldest sibling and me—a brother 15 years older than me who by that time was a young newlywed and out of the house. My older sister was in high school and my other sister just a few years older than me was not interested in my reading aloud or playing school. She found both activities pretty dull! So I spent a lot of time reading several picture books to myself. One was Stevenson, but I also had a copy of a book about a ballerina who had some kind of illness and barre exercises were the only thing that could cure her! I would look at those pictures too of the earnest hard working round little girl with the golden hair who triumphed over all. I suppose between that book and the Garden I was developing the dark, lonely and grinding nature of the lyric poet! Quite dramatic! But later as a teenager, by then my older sister was in college and was an English major. She gave me a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence to read on a bus ride I took alone from New York City to Washington DC. I found the poems mysterious and also somewhat confusing. Were these meant for children, or for me, a by-then serious young writer? The appeal of each poem interested me a lot—who was speaking? What did the speaker want to know? That yearning to know or understand at the center of the poems interested me, and the gorgeous little engraving plates that accompanied the poems made me feel there was something else going on. I don’t know if I actually liked the poems at that point, but I could not stop reading them. They were a puzzle to me, and in some way, a message my sister had sent to me on what would otherwise have been a scary ride to DC to meet a family I did not know who I would be staying with for the next week. So poems as close company, there again as the Stevenson poems had been.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
In graduate school, the fiction writers used to tease the poets that we weren’t really writers because they never heard us discuss our “routine.” How long could it possibly take to write a couple of lines down? We’d joke back that we were “working” all the time, taking it all in—that was our job. Of course, I actually think that’s true. Though I do need to write something every day, even if it’s just an email-letter to a friend, I don’t write poetry every day. And I don’t have a regular routine, unless you consider that badgering voice in my head that monotonously reminds me—hey, you could be writing right now—as a routine! I tend to do my best work in the mornings, before email, work stuff, grading. But I have to do a lot of talking to myself to remind myself this comes first, even before the pileup of administrative stuff I take care of, the students I teach, the papers I grade, and even the scholarly stuff—sending out for conferences, etc. That’s all the trimming—the poetry is the center. When it gets knocked off center too many times—and it inevitably does—I get sick—sometimes physically and sometimes just emotionally, and I have to readjust, rebalance again and carve out that time. When things get really bad I return to my nighttime journal routine—if things have really dried up on the poetry front, I start doing my sort of automatic writing right before sleep, where I just try to fill pages. After about four or five nights of this I usually find myself back in my writing place again.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
No ideas but in things, right? It is almost always disastrous if I try to write from an “idea”—the worst thing you can say to me after I recount a little story is, hey, that would make a great poem. You can be sure after that I have thrown that whole story out the window. I am not a notebook kind of writer—I don’t keep a stack of ideas or images at hand for a dry day. I sit quietly. And if nothing comes I open a file of a poem I’ve just recently written and do some revisions. Sometimes just being in that older poem will produce another one. Others come out of a sound stuck in my head. Though that first line may later evaporate in revisions, it’s given me the poem that shapes itself. I guess this is much the way fiction writers talk about characters they create. If they are in touch with them fully, they can sometimes wait for the characters to tell them what they’re going to talk about that day. My poems are made out of memory to some degree, and the memories can only surface if I’m writing about nonsense and discordant images. And my poems are very much made of the music of the every day, the things of every day. If nothing is coming to me except the image of dirty exhaust stains on snow that I saw getting out of the car in my driveway, that’s where the poem starts.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
My tastes are fairly eclectic – Sharon Olds to Fanny Howe and everything in between. I am recently blown away by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. But when you ask about actual influences, it is probably the poetry I read as a young girl--William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Edna St. Vincent Millay. On my own, after graduating college in the early 1980s from a fairly traditional English department I read William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Reznikoff, Allen Ginsberg, Theodore Roethke, Rilke, Lucille Clifton, Ruth Stone, (finally) Emily Dickinson, Phil Levine, Adrienne Rich. In New York I got to work with Sharon Olds, Yehuda Amichai, Colette Inez, Galway Kinnell, all deeply influential on my work. I went to readings at St. Mark’s and heard Eileen Myles and Diane DiPrima for the first time at various readings—the great bravado of these women poets! I suppose there are a lot of influences running through my work.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.
I remember Allen Ginsberg coming to guest lecture at Galway Kinnell’s craft class a million years ago and one thing I remember him saying was that all poetry collections should just be chronological! For him, of course, poetry was the record of a time, a life, as much song as history of the times. So he didn’t go in for a lot of worrying over shaping a collection, at least that’s what he said! But now we are told otherwise. The nature of the poetry collection I think is very different these days, very orchestrated. We expect some sort of cohesive narrative or cohesive theme. Always is no doubt both—a collection of poems I’ve written since my last full length collection and also an effort to tell some intertwining stories about those poems produced--mourning, facing traumatic events, both private and public, and just poems about getting on in the world. Woven throughout the book are poems from an ongoing collaborative project about the life of St. Francis I worked on with a painter friend of mine, Adele Travisano. I struggled with how to include the St. Francis poems. Overall, the shaping of this collection took a long time, and there were days I really did long for Ginsberg’s view—put the poems in chronological order and call it a day! but at some point I really began to relish the process of making this book. I realized almost near the end of pulling the book together that the St. Francis poems, which had been in a clump in the middle, actually needed to be woven throughout the book. These poems connect the various threads in the book as they touch on his life as a saint and as a man who left his family to create this other kind of life. But all the time he intuitively understood the need for family, connection, and never asked his followers to do more than they truly could. The St. Francis poems see him as a man of the flesh as well as the spirit, so they keep that tension between the physical and the spiritual that runs throughout the book, and throughout my poems in general I suppose.
Read a sample poem and listen to audio recordings from Julia Lisella:
St. Francis and the Snow Family
In the burning of the late middle ages
the snow fell in heaps, and the women dragged
the frozen stuff along their hems catching snowballs.
The snow in Francis’s hands felt thick and strange.
He watched it collecting, shaping itself over rocks
and cliffs, covering his path, melting around
his sandaled feet. Not alive but lively, able to give
if not to do—crystalline light to warm and ease
winter’s blight, whiteness like a mirror, not alive
but lively. Arranged and molded, though already slipping
from his sight, the frozen wife and children,
his family not alive but lively, shaped by his raw hands
and holding fast to the winter light.
First appeared in Salamander