In keeping with our exploration of the writing life and all its obstacles, we had a conversation over email with the writer Julia Leverone, whose poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Sugar House Review, Crab Orchard Review, Asymptote, Poetry International, Modern Poetry in Translation, and elsewhere, including eighteen translations of Paco Urondo's poems. She is also pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis and is editor of Sakura Review. Below, we discuss the juggling of a variety of literary hats while somehow continuing to put words to paper.
TWB: As a poet, translator, editor, PhD candidate, and educator, which one of these hats do you don most often when introducing yourself at a party? Which combination of labels do you most identify with?
JL: This is a good question. It’s inescapable! What do I tell people I am? I don’t know that I’ve ever taken stock of this.
I would say I am most frequently a PhD student. This is easy for me to turn to, because I’ve been an enrolled student since something like age 3. I know all too well how to be one. It’s also (very soon, finally) going to be something I am not, and I’m already moving on from that hat. When someone asks what I do, increasingly I say I teach. It’s true in that it occupies the majority of my time—but I’m still coming around to feeling that it describes me, because it was only in the past few years that I began doing it and, more recently, thinking that I could pursue it with success.
However—and this is when I’m around people who I think could take it (and, sometimes, when I think they should)—I’ll go for the poet/translator hat. It’s what I prefer, or the poet-translator-intellectual trio. These things draw from what’s most important to me to be able to do, for myself and in the world. And they fuel my work as a teacher, an editor.
TWB: Describe the perfect combination of circumstances that makes writing happen in your life.
JL: Writing comes best when I’ve been stricken with something from the outside: a piece of writing, a phrase, a few bars of music or lyrics, or a compelling image or idea. This can arrive at any time, as you know well. But it can also be induced. I can pick up a book or go on a long drive or hike and come out of it ready. After that, I don’t need much time to process the thing that produced the impulse, not to get thoughts onto the page. I do need space and quiet to let my mind play with it just afterwards, that kind of opening John Cleese argues we need. I like writing in the late afternoon. I like the pressure of the diminishing daylight.
Sometimes, of course, I can’t get to a space or to the quiet (teaching/home duties also produce a kind of noise) right away. There’s a pleasure to that, having to chew on something for a few days. Fatally, the attractiveness of the thing can sizzle out, though. Those losses plague me as a poet.
TWB: When there are obstacles to writing (and there are always obstacles), what brings you back to it? What do you do to get yourself back into that space when there are gaps?
JL: Beyond what I was talking about just above, I think it’s crucial to me to be plugged in to a network of others who are also writers. Some forego Facebook or Twitter because of the clutter. I like being able to sift through the feeds for reminders that I’m not alone—and that I’m expected to pull my weight. I am sure that these notions are largely invented on my part; my sense of how I fit in especially so. But I need to feel that I have competition, that other writers are out there doing it, getting it done, and excellently. Recently, I was listening to Susan Bernofsky speak on a translation panel, and she was describing how to manage students’ creative production in the classroom when designing translation workshops. She said something like, “we have to demand of ourselves (speaking inclusively of students and all translators) the absolute best”—and then we revise, and make our work even better. That is our job as writers. Feeling like I am among writers who challenge themselves (yes, it counts when I read posts about moms struggling to write just as much as posts about publication successes!) holds me accountable to do the same.
By the way, going to conferences, though they are so, so expensive for grad students/adjunct teachers, is a major boost for community-feeling.
Too, keeping up a cycle of submissions brings me back. This is probably the most consistent method I have for reminding myself that I am a writer being seen. Getting rejections (and less-frequent acceptances)—even if the work concerned feels pre-historic when those emails come rolling in—helps.
I’m also grateful to have a partner who is a writer (as if that’s the only thing he’s good for!). We’re able to talk poems (and teaching, &c.) and understand each other. We’re sensitive to each other’s writing needs and worries. It skips a lot of negotiating and explanation!
Okay, so there are lots of ways in which I practice returns to the task of writing. Being an editor of a literary magazine contributes to this as well. It’s not reading submissions, but discussing them with Adam Pellegrini and Michael Gossett that renews my critical-creative tools that I bring to revising and planning my own work. Like with all of my other answers to this question, sensing that I should write and need to overcome obstacles to writing—I’m considering, here, the larger/compounded ones—is a matter of being involved with other people who are writers.
TWB: What’s inspiring you right now, in any medium (not just the written word)?
JL: Hmm. Multiple things, always. Spring. Aging. Pine resin. The dirt on glaciers. Those frighteningly massive, shifting flocks of birds that pass over the highway. I’m also preoccupied with the idea of Texas and its wideness. It’s been just long enough, I think, for me to have a grasp on what it means to live here in this state/in the south, but to also not have ready explanations.
TWB: Where are you finding surprisingly good writing? Anything on your night stand?
JL: It’s all about recommendations, for me. Mostly these come through Facebook plugs. I wish I could give you a hot new source to run to! Well, I suppose I can—I signed up for Small Press Distribution e-mails and get SPD Recommends in my inbox regularly, which sometimes I have the time and attention span to peruse, sometimes not. It’s given me a few good leads. Also, writer-ladies, the binders groups on Facebook. There are searchable posts with hundreds of comments below them specifically making book recommendations. That’s how I picked last summer’s entire reading list (note: prose).
Right now I’m reading Kelly Link. I had read Stranger Things Happen for a class once, and ate it up. A friend recently asked for book gifts for her bridal shower to develop her and her new hubby’s library, so I bought her Link because it’s right up her alley, and noticed the author has new work out. It’s baller.
As the editor of the lit magazine Sakura Review, what are your thoughts about what takes a piece of writing from almost published / barely rejected to being definitely published? What’s the difference between super close and all the way in?
I was just reading a submission this morning that nearly made it; great, rich language, incredible images, detectable sense, a fine arc, but she didn’t deliver it at the end. Very often what the submissions we read need is to take themselves away from themselves. To carry the work forward into a complicating, perhaps reflective, but new idea.
I don’t mean to say that those submissions actually need to be wholly different poems in order to be successful. It’s a question of scope. Are they too focused, insistent? Maybe the authors should (literally) step away. Then consider how to have the poems travel elsewhere. The poems we love at Sakura do that kind of leaping that can be so astonishing and, at the same time, unmistakably necessary.
TWB: What do you find most gets in the way of the writing life?
JL: Grading. Oh my goodness, grading. It’s a biweekly monster and it’s unfun, so it’s an easy scapegoat. Also, my dissertation (another beast), but exclusively my anxieties around it—I am finding writing it to be a creative outlet that takes care of my need to be exploratory and precise with language in varying ways.
TWB: How do you get in the zone when you are there? Is it music, is it a space, a series of habits?
JL: I envy people who can fall asleep anywhere and in any way—with limbs in the air, balled up on the floor, in the middle seat on a plane—but I’m fortunately not picky with writing spaces. As I was telling you above, I can zone-induce by picking up a book (of poetry, or whatever the mode is I’ll be writing in—critical works for my dissertation, for example). It doesn’t take much. Usually just one or two leafings and I’ll have found what I didn’t know I was looking for.
You discussed this in your first interview, and I believe others use coffee and taking care of small chores to set off a time and energy in which they can write. I think in a way my preference for the afternoon presumes these steps. Also a factor I’ve noted in establishing my zone is hunger, or at least not being full. Is that too informative, or expected? Even with writing this, I had gone to the kitchen for a banana before I started and have not yet touched it. And I’ve tried, but typically writing with wine doesn’t get me far. I don’t know if I envy writers who can do that.
TWB: We hear a lot of fiction writers say that they read poetry before writing fiction as a way of focusing. It makes sense, they're concise, vivid, and stir you up. As a poet, do you ever seek out fiction for some writerly reason? If so, does it ever carry over into your art?
JL: You know, no, I think that poetry is specially equipped in this case (poetry wins!). It’s a brief form, as you say, and it’s transportable and more immediately evocative. So I read poems to write poems.
That said, I relish fiction or any creative prose for immersion and the lengthy opportunities to allow my mind to develop ideas that do and don’t relate in a discernible way to the text. Of course this type of processing carries over into what I write. It carries over into my life, into what I say to people.
TWB: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten about writing? What do you know now that you wish you could tell yourself back when you started doing it?
I can’t tack down who it was who first told it to me, or told it to me the time that it really stuck, but the advice to not force a poem if it just can’t be one is among the best. That if the circumstances—the language or images in my head, the feelings or interpretations I’m holding around parts of the poem—are just not cooperating, scrapping that writing and letting it remain as a fragment is okay. Repurposing these bits, scribbled thoughts, parts of old drafts, is crucial to making dense, careful, and good poems later on. And it’s important to just write, as well as to trust the process and let a piece do what it wants to do.
I don’t know if I’d tell my teen poet-self anything now, because it’s lovely to have figured things out in stages, and to know I’ll continue learning about writing and doing. Is that selfish? Can it be selfish if I’m withholding from a former me? Besides, I wouldn’t want to throw me off course and rupture the space-time continuum. We’ve all seen that show.
In all seriousness, I bring new meaning to advice with every writing experience. I’m constantly re-contextualizing claims about the writing process and its implications for me, my life. I don’t think that’s rare, but part of being cognizant and a functioning, adaptable human.