Saturday, February 25, 2012

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Julie Bruck

A Montreal native, Julie Bruck has lived in San Francisco since 1997. She has published three collections with Brick Books, MONKEY RANCH (forthcoming in March, 2012), THE END OF TRAVEL (1999), and THE WOMAN DOWNSTAIRS (1993). Her poems have appeared in many Canadian and U.S. magazines, including The New Yorker, Maisonneuve, The Walrus, Ploughshares, The Malahat Review and Ms, and she's had fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Canada Council, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Julie has taught at several Canadian colleges and universities, and has been a resident faculty member at The Robert Frost Place in New Hampshire. Since 2005, Julie has taught workshops at The Writing Salon in San Francisco's Mission district, and worked part-time at the University of San Francisco.

For more info, news and events:

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Having The Woman Downstairs published was a terrific kick in the pants. My life didn't change,  but having a book bolstered my commitment to writing. At the time--this was back in the early '90's--I also had a fine group of fellow poets in Montreal to  share work with, and we pushed each other in very constructive ways, not least of which was setting deadlines. If you can't spend your life wandering around with your hands clasped behind your back, a deadline is good. I often hear young or new writers apologize for needing classes or workshops to keep them focused, but all that matters is doing the work, whatever you have to put in place.

As for how my work has changed, I hope each book has had a wider scope, that each includes more of the world, though I'm probably not the best judge of that. I do know that teaching, which I've done steadily for the last 7 years, and sporadically before, has had an effect. It's made me more playful, more open to letting the poem lead. I encourage students to try different angles of approach to their poems, both in free-writes and in revision, and to surprise themselves in the process. I try to practice what I preach. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
In college, I took a fiction class and by the end of the year it was clear that I lacked both the instincts and the chops. The only salvageable bits from my awful stories behaved a lot like poems. Also, I'd been taking black-and-white photographs for several years before that, and I think the impulse to isolate and frame something in time was more natural to me than the cinematic nature of fiction. Which may be a kinder way of saying I have a short attention span.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Sometimes forever, or no time at all. The process depends on the project. With individual poems, a few arrive with their spines (structures) intact, and all their toes and fingers, while most need to be built and rebuilt from the ground up, Sisyphus style. I usually write in spurts, say, a couple of poems over a month or two, and then spend a long, long time revising. I suppose that's why it's taken me nineteen years to finish three skinny books.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
The poems can start anywhere--an overheard remark, a disturbance in a hedge, a disconnect between images that the mind wants to reconcile, or from just rubbing words together.  I've always had to gather a stack of work before a "book" began to take shape, but since I finished Monkey Ranch things have changed. I wrote a new piece whose title had one word in it that suggested an entire section of a book, and maybe, the whole next book. That word (and yes, I'm just superstitious enough to withhold it here) was so potent and rife with associations that unwrapping it felt like unscrewing one of those Russian matryoshka dolls, each one leading to the next. Things started getting so intense that I had to put the whole project away for a while and cool off. This was new to me, and very exciting.  

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love readings, though I tend to do them only when I have a new book to "support" and since my books are so far apart, I spend long stretches without coming out of the cave. When I do read just for fun,  I'm always reminded of how helpful it can be to try out new work in this way, to "hear" the poems land  differently in a public space.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

If only! If my work was more "theoretical", maybe I'd march off to work like a scientist to the lab and spare myself the long gaps between manuscripts. I'd like that. But alas, the kinds of poems I write usually demand that I ask myself some particularly thorny questions. This can make the process so intense I'd often rather run screaming for the hills.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Poor old poetry! It's hard to stay starry-eyed about the role of the poet when about five people still read poems. But, as a reader, I want to be astonished or changed by the experience of a poem, and whenever that happens I'm  reinvigorated about poetry's possibilities. I mean, isn't it miraculous that words, well-strung on a page, can take up residence inside a reader?   That a reader makes them their own? For me, it's right up there with the idea that airplanes stay (mostly) aloft.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Editors have become increasingly scarce in publishing--a sad state of affairs. I've been blessed with two amazing poetry editors at Brick Books, Alayna Munce and Marnie Parsons. They both asked crucial questions that always made me push each book further than I thought possible. Good editors are what differentiate publishing from printing.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Sean O’Faolain claimed that “and” was the most hopeful word in the English language.

I also like this advice by Ira Glass, from This American Life. It's long, so I'll give you the link:

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don't have a set writing schedule, except this:

Once a week, I lock myself in the car and write for 30 minutes--no goal, save putting words on paper. I place no expectations on these pages, and I often don't read them again until weeks or months later. But as long as I'm generating fresh pages, the work that's already in progress always seems to go better, so I keep this appointment.  

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read promiscuously, and when I get stuck I'll often pick up (almost at random), a book that often addresses some difficulty I'm having, or that offers me a strategy I hadn't considered. I'm a heavy subscriber to the idea that writing engages us in a conversation with other writing--that reading and writing are completely interdependent.

12 - What was your last Hallowe'en costume?
It was in terribly bad taste. My husband Lewis and I went to the Halloween wedding of friends here in San Francisco. These two love to dress up, and we knew this would be an all-out gory Goth affair, so we decided to go for more understated horror. We both wore plain black clothing, and I cut a balsa wood airplane in half. We each had half the plane affixed to our upper arms (the nose half coming out of his left arm, the tail end entering my right). We were the Twin Towers. I told you it was awful.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I'm influenced by all of it. That dialogue I mentioned between reading and writing, I'd extend that to include music, art, and all the rest. The engagement with anything that offers access to another way of seeing the world, of making the quotidian new and surprising. For me, that's what art is about. 

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Reading promiscuously makes it hard to narrow down a list, but I love Elizabeth Bishop's work for the way it pulses with the pressure of what is left unsaid. Kay Ryan's poems for their mouth music, and for how they can transform an apparently whimsical investigation into something profoundly moving. Jim Harrison's new collection, Songs of Unreason for its vulnerability and nerve, and for how the book weaves two sequences together to such great effect. Bob Hickok's poems, which are loving the way a big dog is loving, knocking you down and slobbering all over you, whether you like it or not.  I love Transtromer's poems too, for letting the mind fly via such simple means.  Charles Simic. Nikky Finney. The list goes on...

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to wake up one morning and find horses in our urban backyard. I'd clear the garage of the neighbors' vehicles, and build a stable. I'd  just listen to them breathe and shift and chew in their new box stalls. I've wanted the same thing since I was six. Puis ca change.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
There's a well-travelled cartoon in which a brain surgeon and a writer meet at a cocktail party. The doctor says that in his spare time  he plans to write a novel. The novelist says, that's funny, when I retire I plan to do brain surgery. But yes, had I been better at math and quantitative reasoning-- or if I'd had a reason to work harder at those subjects (something beyond simply needing to pass algebra), I might have applied to medical school. 

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Math difficulties aside? If I defined my nature in one word, it might be "yes, but." I'm a Canadian who lives in the U.S, and an Easterner on the West coast. I grew up as a Canadian child of American parents, an Anglophone in francophone Quebec, a secular Jew in Protestant Westmount during Quebec's Quiet Revolution, the younger sister of brothers who came of age in the late 60's,  born a bit too late for the real action.  My parents were affluent, but my mother was an activist with anti-poverty organizations. My father was a successful textile manufacturer, but even as a little kid, I was acutely aware that other people risked their limbs to run the machines that made the scraps he brought home for me to use in art projects. Add that to an innate disposition to stand slightly to the side of the grand parade.  What else was I fit for?

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
"Great" is a term I use sparingly, since my enthusiasms tend to burn high and fast, and  greatness needs to be tested by time, but I just finished a memoir called The Memory Palace, by Mira Bartok. It's a harrowing memoir of growing up with a schizophrenic and eventually, homeless mother, but it's also a beautifully built meditation on the nature of memory.

Film wise, I loved Banksy's Exit Through The Bookshop, which has left my 13-year-old combing San Francisco walls for remnants of Banksy's rat stencils. Also, thanks to Air Canada's in-flight National Film Board collection, I finally saw Donald Brittain's Memorandum, the classic documentary about a Canadian holocaust survivor's return to Bergen Belsen in the '60's. Memorandum also explores the so-called chain of command-- what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil"----the way extermination orders were made by functionaries who then went to off to enjoy their lunch breaks. Memorandum is great. 

19 - What are you currently working on?

More poems. With luck, better poems.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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