Julie Kane Interview
ML: IthacaLit is so proud to have this opportunity to speak with you about writing poetry. It’s especially exciting because your alma mater is in our backyard. How did your Cornell experience inform your writing?
JK: Before I arrived at Cornell in the fall of 1970, I didn’t know that contemporary poetry existed. I was writing poetry, but my models were Frost and Millay. Studying under Bill Matthews, Archie Ammons, and Bob Morgan, and becoming part of the lively student writing community that centered around weekly Temple of Zeus open-mike readings, brought me up to speed quickly. I lived and breathed poetry during those four years in Ithaca. It was a heady time for me.
ML: Now that you’ve spent a good period of your adult life in Louisiana, do you consider yourself a southern poet or have others described you as a southern poet? How does place affect your writing?
JK: I am definitely a Louisiana poet, though I was born in Boston and raised in the northeast: Massachusetts, upstate New York, New Jersey. I am not so sure about being a “southern” poet. But I have lived in Louisiana for 37 years now, and I am drawn to its landscape and culture, and it seems natural that its flowers and birds and music and people and weather should seep into my poems. When you look at my work overall, you can see a sort of polarity between things associated with Massachusetts—winter, cold, fate, family, judgment—and with Louisiana—summer, heat, friendship, forgiveness, second chances.
ML: How does poetry inform your identity and, specifically, your identity as a poet juxtaposed with your concept of yourself in the larger community of joy and suffering?
JK: “Poet” is part of my core identity, along with “woman” and “Irish-American.” From my first book (Body and Soul, 1987) to my third (Jazz Funeral, 2009), I think you can see a gradual progression from subjects that are more private and individual toward those that are more public and communal—history, mortality.
ML: As a professor, how do you balance your writing time, when or if teaching and reading student work takes up space in your head?
JK: I don’t balance things very well. My own writing tends to get bottom priority. But some poems still manage to claw their way out during the school year, and summers are productive.
ML: What do you tell your students as they flounder with the spectrum of hyper expository narrative to cryptic, insular writing?
JK: I urge them to read widely and to experiment with different styles and modes and forms. You can never predict what new technique or influence might resonate with a beginning poet and draw out that authentic voice.
ML: Will you tell us about the early years, the way in which your style/tone developed?
JK: When I arrived in Ithaca at the age of 18, I was channeling Robert Frost. I lost no time in dropping rhyme and meter like a hot potato, once I caught on that it was uncool. Discovering Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath was, for me, like discovering the whole starry sky above a low ceiling. I suddenly understood that it was okay to use my own personal experiences as a woman in my poems, and to believe that it could be representative for other readers. Later on, in the late 1980s, I began sneaking back toward writing in form, without even realizing that others were doing it. I had never lost my love for the musicality of formal poems. Poetry, for me, goes from a voice to an ear, not from a page to an eye. When I discovered that such a thing as “New Formalism” existed, it was as mind-blowing for me as encountering Plath and Sexton in my youth.
ML: While you were studying at Boston University, you did some work with Anne Sexton. Is there any trace of influence or a particular lesson learned you carry with you after working with Sexton?
JK: I was Anne Sexton’s student for only about a month, because she took her life in early October of my first semester there. But she had a very powerful presence. I remember the warmth of her personality: how she would kick off her shoes, laugh heartily, focus her full attention on our work. If you look at my poem “J. T.,” from the chapbook Two Into One (1982), there’s a little secret behind it: Anne Sexton rewrote the ending. The speaker of the poem is watching an attractive, athletic, flashily dressed young man shoot pool. In the original version, the speaker wants only to admire his grace from a distance, like “his mother at a high school game.” But Anne started making bawdy jokes about the Freudian imagery associated with pool—sticks and balls and pockets and so forth—and she insisted that I end the poem with the wish to “chalk his cue.” Which I did.
ML: I enjoy the way Mary McKay described your poetry as a mix of “the vulgar with the ecstatic...there’s a touch of the anarchist in every line.” This is the exact sense that draws me to your poetry. It’s life! What do you think about playing it safe in life and in poetry?
JK: I play it much safer in life these days than I did when I was younger. I have tenure, a dog, a mortgage: I’m not careening around New Orleans in the midst of an alcoholic blackout any more. But I still take risks in my poetry, and I hope that never changes.
ML: Let's talk about process. What do you need in the physical realm to write good poems? And, to follow through with process, what prompts your poems and how do you follow through when you're onto something you feel is moving you in the right direction?
JK: I need a little block of time during which I’m not going to be distracted by noise or interruptions. Also lots of lined paper, a pencil, an eraser, and a pen. And a sense of something lurking below the surface of consciousness that wants to be expressed. I write in pencil and erase and cross out a lot, but when I get a good stanza, I recopy it neatly in pen. It’s slow going. If the poem doesn’t have a forward momentum to it—a sense of something glimmering just up ahead, just out of reach—I’ll get tired of it and abandon it before the draft is finished.
ML: Is there any advice you give emerging poets regarding the work and publishing?
JK: I was surrounded by many brilliantly talented young poets when I was at Cornell and BU. But the ones who have achieved some measure of success today are the ones who were persistent, who never gave up, who kept on reading and writing and sending out poems and trying to get better at the craft no matter what life threw at them.
ML: Thank you for being a part of IthacaLit’s spring issue. Your particular anarchy is a joy! Please go ahead and speak to any question you would have liked to have answered or insight you may want to share.
JK: Ithaca “gave me the marvelous journey,” as Cavafy put it, and it has been a joy to take part in this conversation with IthacaLit.