portrait Julie Kane

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 148 ~ September, 2009

Julie Kane’s most recent poetry collection, Jazz Funeral (Story Line Press), was selected by David Mason as the winner of the 2009 Donald Justice Poetry Prize. Her collection, Rhythm & Booze (University of Illinois Press, 2003), was chosen by Maxine Kumin as a National Poetry Series winner and was one of four finalists for the 2005 Poets’ Prize.

Kane, a native of Boston and longtime resident of Louisiana, is also a nonfiction writer, an editor, translator, and scholar. Kane served as co-editor, with Grace Bauer, of the anthology Umpteen Ways of Looking at a Possum: Critical and Creative Responses to Everette Maddox (Xavier Review Press), one of three finalists for the 2007 Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Book Award in Poetry.

She is also an associate editor of the Longman Southern literature anthology, Voices of the American South (2004), a comprehensive survey of pivotal works in the Southern literary tradition, and co-authored, with Kiem Do, the non-fiction Vietnam memoir, Counterpart (US Naval Institute Press, May, 1998), a 1999 History Book Club featured alternative.

Her other accomplishments include a Fulbright Scholarship to Vilnius Pedagogical University (Lithuania), an Academy of Poets Prize, New Orleans Writer-in-Residence terms at Tulane University, and a Pushcart nomination.

She has lived in Natchitoches since 1999 and teaches creative writing and poetry at Northwestern State University.

Derek Alger: Did you want to be a poet from an early age?

Photo © Julie Kane

Julie Kane: Oh, yes. The first day of class every year in grade school, I would always bring my English book home and read every single poem in it that same night. My first poetry publication came when I was seven years old, in the comics section of a Boston Sunday newspaper — they had a little space reserved for poems and artwork by kids.

DA: Your family was Boston Irish Catholic.

JK: All of my great-grandparents came over from Ireland and settled around Boston. My father grew up poor in Somerville and Melrose; his father drove a horse-drawn vegetable cart in Boston’s farmers market. My mother was from Foxboro. Her father had managed to get through a two-year business college after service in World War I, he had a low-level management job with the Foxboro Company. They quite literally had lace curtains up on the windows. But my mother was still embarrassed about being Irish. One of her uncles was the town drunk, serenading her friends from his hangout on the Foxboro town common. Her grandmother kept chickens in her front yard. My mother wanted to get the hell out of Foxboro, and my father wanted to succeed as a newscaster, so they both got rid of their accents and the trappings of ethnicity. We moved around a lot when I was a kid, because of my father’s career ambitions.

DA: Your father escaped poverty in large part due to the GI Bill.

JK: Growing up, he never paid much attention to school. He liked playing sports, stealing cars and going joyriding with his friends, hanging out at the racetrack. His parents separated, and his father tended to drink up his paycheck rather than provide for his children. My father graduated from high school in 1943 and got drafted into World War II. When he got out, he was able to go to college on the GI Bill. He had the most beautiful bass speaking voice you’ve ever heard, and he studied broadcast journalism at Boston University and became a radio and TV newscaster.

DA: Your choice to attend Cornell University paid off on many levels. How’d you end up there?

JK: My father was a TV newsman in Binghamton, New York, for about four years when I was in grade school. We took several day trips to Ithaca and the Finger Lakes region, about an hour away — I was stunned by the beauty of the mountains and gorges and glacial lakes. Given that I was applying for colleges at the same time a lot of traditionally male-only universities were finally opening up to women, I was also impressed that Cornell had always admitted women — we weren’t going to be patronized there.

It was a stroke of luck that I landed there, because they had an exceptionally lively poetry scene in the early 1970s. A.R. Ammons — “Archie,” to us students — and Bill Matthews were both on the faculty then, and when Bill left, Robert Morgan was hired to replace him. Billy Joe Harris was teaching American poetry. You would not believe the students who were there at the same time I was, all of whom have gone on to publish multiple volumes of poetry.

DA: Try me.

JK: Okay, here goes. Diane Ackerman; Sharon Dolin; Wendy Battin, a winner of the National Poetry Series; Ken McClane; Cecil Giscombe; Stephen Tapscott, who’s become a well-known translator of Spanish-language poetry; James Bertolino; Gilbert Allen; Mark Anderson; John Latta; David McAleavey; Dan Fogel; Judy Epstein.

DA: Not a bad line-up.

JK: Lynn Shoemaker was in town, teaching shop at a local school, and Rich Jorgensen, the editor of the 70s little magazine The Stone, was running an organic bakery. Gary Esolen was a young assistant dean. It was like The Harmonic Convergence, poetry-wise. There were weekly poetry readings in The Temple of Zeus, a coffee house on campus with life-sized plaster statues of Greek gods, and lots of other readings other places. Ithaca House was in town — publishing letterpress poetry books, and Epoch, edited by the Cornell faculty and grad students, was one of the leading lit mags at the time. Wendy Battin was the editor of the “official” Cornell literary magazine, Rainy Day, and just to be orney, Mark Anderson and Gil Allen and I founded an alternative magazine called Solstice — we’d type the thing up on a rented IBM typewriter that cost us our beer money for the week. But really, we were all friends, and the atmosphere was so heady, so exciting — we were eating and breathing poetry.

DA: You received early recognition for your poetry.

JK: I won first prize in the Mademoiselle Magazine College Poetry Competition while I was at Cornell. Anne Sexton and James Merrill were the judges that year. And then Diane Ackerman took two of my poems for Epoch when she was the poetry editor — I was an undergrad and she was in the PhD program, so I was thrilled beyond belief that she considered me a “real poet.” T. Coraghessen Boyle, Marilyn Hacker, and Sandra Gilbert all had work in that Winter 1974 issue of Epoch. Maybe I’ll be able to sell my copy on eBay to fund my retirement.

DA: You had to make quite a choice when it came to grad school.

JK: I got into the Iowa Writers Workshop, which was considered to be the best MFA program at the time — there were only about a dozen of them. But I also got into Boston University, where my idol Anne Sexton was teaching. BU had the aura of being associated with Confessional poetry — Sexton and Plath had taken a course with Robert Lowell there. It wasn’t all that long after Plath’s death, remember — not much more than a decade. Plath was still pretty much a cult figure then, except to us young women poets, who realized her significance. BU gave me a tuition scholarship; and I had an aunt in Boston who was willing to take care of my cat for a year, because the only apartment I could find in one frantic day of searching did not allow pets. So that all tipped the balance toward BU.

DA: Your experience with Sexton turned out to be rather traumatic.

JK: She committed suicide just four or five weeks into my first semester at BU, in October of 1974. Even today, I can hardly talk about it. We — her students, I mean — just adored her. And she had been upbeat in her last class with us, very excited about a reading in the Midwest that was paying her several thousand dollars. It happened on the weekend, I remember, and my aunt — the one who was keeping my cat — told me at breakfast, because she didn’t want me to hear it on the news the way she had. That was not a good year for BU’s creative writing faculty. John Cheever crashed and burned alcoholically and couldn’t finish out the year — he was admitted to a rehabilitation facility in the spring. But he recovered and got a very fine book out of it, Falconer. For the rest of that fall semester, BU kept sending one accomplished poet after another in to substitute-teach Sexton’s class, much like sending Christians in to the lions, because we’d just sit there and glare at them: “You’re not Anne!” James Tate and others. In the spring, Charles Simic finally took over the graduate poetry seminar. His style was very different from Anne’s — he was distant and cool, whereas she’d been so electric and warm — but he was a fine teacher. I couldn’t help thinking about the road not taken, though — what if I’d gone to Iowa instead? There was no real reason to be there with Anne gone.

DA: You received another honor after earning your MA in creative writing.

JK: I became the first female George Bennett Fellow in Writing at Phillips Exeter Academy. Exeter had just begun admitting girls as students, and there were only a couple of women on the faculty, so I was the butt of a lot of “fellow” jokes, as you can imagine! It was a lovely little colonial New England town, and the students were very smart and endearing, but I didn’t have much to do — all I had to do was write poems and visit English classes when someone invited me. The snow was up to the windowsills and everybody else but me on the faculty was really busy, so I wound up getting married to the guy I was dating at the time. You couldn’t really have your boyfriend stay overnight when you were living in an apartment in the middle of a prep school campus.

DA: Your marriage led to a major geographical change.

JK: My husband was from Louisiana. He had transferred to Cornell from Louisiana State University. This was during the Civil Rights era, remember, and he swore that he was never going back to the South. But then he started getting the bug to go to law school like his grandfather and uncle and father — he applied to the Iowa Writers Workshop and to LSU Law School, and got into both, and it was “Two roads diverged” all over again. Iowa gave him a teaching assistantship and then snatched it away because he didn’t have previous teaching experience, and LSU started looking better and better. We packed up the cat and our poetry books and moved to Baton Rouge in June, 1976.

DA: How did you end up in New Orleans?

JK: My marriage fell apart while my husband was still in law school, and I was fully expecting to flee back North as soon as possible. But I had been to New Orleans a few times, and I loved what I knew of it — the French Quarter, palm trees, cafe au lait and beignets. I thought, maybe I’ll just check out New Orleans for a year or two before I go back home. I answered an ad for a technical writer with Exxon Nuclear — they were managing the procedure production effort for a nuclear power plant under construction upriver from New Orleans. Exxon hired me, and I moved to New Orleans in 1978. At first, I was living on the West Bank, across the river from the city, and later on I moved uptown, to the Carrollton area.

DA: Were you still writing poetry in those years?

JK: Oh, yes. I never stopped. I lost faith in myself for a long while, but I never stopped writing. While I was still living in Baton Rouge, my husband and I belonged to a writer’s workshop that had some incredible people in it. Wyatt Prunty, W.S. DiPiero, Charlotte Holmes, William “Kit” Hathaway, Sue Owen. And when I moved to New Orleans, I fell in with a couple of old friends who were poets, and we’d go to readings and talk poetry. Ken Fontenot, whom I’d met in Baton Rouge, was living in New Orleans East. Gary Esolen from Cornell turned up, living in a crumbling boarding house and writing for an alternative newspaper — eventually he would found the weekly Gambit. He and I gave readings at The Maple Leaf Bar a couple times in the late 1970s. Gary would bring his dirty laundry with him and a duffelbag and wash and dry it in the machines in the back of the bar — the machines are long gone now. One time Gary took me to a party of New Orleans journalists and I met a British poet named Geoffrey Godbert who edited a little magazine and a small press back in London. We struck up a friendship and began corresponding, and eventually he asked to see my poetry manuscript and I sent it to him, and he took half of it and half of another American woman poet’s, and titled the collection Two Into One. It was published in London in 1982 by Geoffrey’s Only Poetry Press. In 1986, I moved to an apartment just four blocks from the Maple Leaf, and I became a regular at their weekly poetry readings. I became friends with Everette Maddox, Nancy Harris, Grace Bauer, and other poets connected with “The Leaf.”

DA: Then a major turning point in your life occurred.

JK: There were two turning points, really. The first one came in 1987 when two men I knew from the Maple Leaf, Bill Roberts and Hank Staples, decided to start up a small press. Bill and I had dated for a few months in 1985, and he didn’t like me very much any more, but he really liked my poetry. Hank was a bartender then and is one of the bar owners now. They published Body and Soul, my first full-length book in 1987. Even though it never got distributed much beyond South Louisiana, it gave me new hope that my poems would find their way to readers.

The second turning point came when I gave up drinking in May of

1990. Everette had died homeless and alcoholic the year before, after publishing in The New Yorker and The Paris Review when he was in his twenties. I didn’t want to wind up like him. I could look back and see that my work had enjoyed early success, but that my life had somehow derailed since then, like a train. I was never a daily drinker like Rette, but I was drinking too much on the weekends, and I was starting to experience the consequences. I was afraid, at first, that the sober life would mean giving up my creativity, my spontaneity. After I quit, I began to think more clearly, and I realized that I needed to give poetry my best shot, because it meant more to me than anything.

Some lines from Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time” kept haunting me: “But yield who will to their separation,/My object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation/As my two eyes make one in sight.”

So I resigned from my high-paying tech writing job and enrolled

in the Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University, on a $12,000 a year

fellowship. I was 39 years old. I was hoping that a literature Ph.D. with a creative writing minor would help get me a college teaching job, and that having a university as a base would make me appear more professional, less amateurish, to editors and other poetry professionals. Plus, poetry was what I loved to do — I wouldn’t be compartmentalizing my life any more, with one box labeled “work” and one labeled “poetry.” Still, I’m glad that I was able to work outside of the academy for so many years — I hope that it helped to inoculate me against passing critical fads, to give me more of a sense of the general audience for poetry.

DA: Next stop, a surprise in London.

JK: My old friend Geoffrey Godbert and his friends, Harold Pinter and Anthony Astbury, had founded Greville Press in London, which was publishing beautiful letterpress chapbooks — “pamphlets,” as the British call them. Geoffrey and I were still corresponding and sticking new poems in the envelopes, keeping each other up to date on what we were writing. To my surprise, Geoffrey showed some new poems of mine to Harold and Anthony, and he wrote me back that the three of them wanted to publish them as a Greville Press pamphlet. So The Bartender Poems came out in the fall of 1991. I was invited to read at the South Bank Centre in London in October, 1991 together with C.H. Sisson, and Harold Pinter introduced the two of us. I felt like Cinderella at the ball — then it was back to Louisiana and life as a lowly and impoverished grad student.

DA: Back to the Ph.D., what was your dissertation about?

JK: It was about the villanelle’s transition from a musical genre to a fixed poetic form. Dave Smith directed it. I think I chose that subject because I had begun writing villanelles rather obsessively, and I was concerned about the identification of formal poetry with conservative politics in some people’s minds. These days, anyone can choose to write a villanette one day and a free verse poem the next, but back then, when New Formalism was new, writing in form was weirdly controversial — the choice provoked outrage from some poets and critics. Form, particularly the villanelle, was what felt fresh and exciting to me at the time, but I was worried that I might be deluding myself — was I being anachronistic, not contemporary? I started wondering how a poetic form gets fixed in the first place — what are the circumstances, the politics? It wound up winning the dissertation award at LSU. It was a lot of fun to research, kind of like poetic detective work.

DA: Then you began teaching.

JK: I got my Ph.D. in May 1999 and was hired as a visiting assistant professor at Northwestern State University (in Natchitoches, Louisiana) starting that fall. The plan was that I would launch a national job search while picking up a year of full-time college teaching experience. But they liked me and I liked them, and so the position became permanent.

DA: You also taught in Lithuania.

JK: Yes. During my first year of teaching at NSU, my father fell ill with lung cancer, and then while he was dying, my favorite aunt (the keeper of the cat) died in Boston and I was named the executrix of her will, and then I was diagnosed with a bad stage of malignant melanoma, and I had surgery in June of 2000. I had a two-and-one-half year waiting period ahead of me to sweat out, during which most melanomas recur if they are going to recur. As you can imagine, I was sort of overwhelmed with intimations of mortality. I decided that I wanted to travel to Lithuania before I died, if I were going to die, because I had made some friends there, poets and a journalist, while it was still part of the Soviet empire, and I had daydreamed for years about visiting them and seeing their fascinating country. (How I made those friends is a long story involving Tipitina’s nightclub in New Orleans circa 1988, and a non-English-speaking guy sitting all by himself at a table when my friends and I wanted to put our winter coats on the back of a chair.) So I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to Lithuania, and I got it, and I taught at Vilnius Pedagogical University in 2002. I love Lithuania. I went back there in 2005 for the Poetry Spring Festival, as a guest of the Lithuanian Writers Union.

DA: While you were there, you got another big break.

JK: My bout with cancer had inspired me to polish up my poetry manuscript and send it out to a dozen or so poetry book contests before I left the country — one last Hail Mary shot. Or maybe “grapeshot” is more accurate. One day in Vilnius, I just happened to look in my junk mail folder, which I didn’t always check before deleting stuff, and there was an email message from the National Poetry Series, alerting me that I was a finalist. They wanted me to rush five copies of my manuscript to them; the address was a P.O. box. I was in a panic — they had pretty strict format rules, and I couldn’t even buy 8-1/2 by 11 paper in Vilnius — the paper size there was metric. Plus, I couldn’t use any of the private international mail delivery services, because of the P.O. box. Finally, I thought of emailing the manuscript file to my little sister Cindy in New Jersey. She printed it out, ran off four more copies, and mailed it for me. And it won! Maxine Kumin’s selection for the 2002 competition.

Rhythm & Booze was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2003. Finally, I had a book out with a nationally distributed press — people were actually going to be able to find it in bookstores or order it online! When I was dealing with the melanoma diagnosis and the thought of possibly dying in the next few years, that had been my one regret, that I had never published a “real” book. There had been several times in my life when I had been faced with a choice between poetry or personal happiness, or poetry and financial security, and I had always chosen poetry — twice when men I loved wanted me to marry them and relocate, but moving would have meant giving up the poetry community at Cornell, or later giving up my creative writing job at NSU. I had to face the fact that I had sacrificed marriage, children, and financial security for poetry, but it looked like maybe my poetry wasn’t all that good after all. Ouch.

DA: Fortunately, you didn’t have a bad landing.

JK: It’s funny: as soon as I let go of my dream, the poetry gods relented and let me have it. Ever since then, good things have been happening. Rhythm & Booze was a finalist for the 2005 Poets’ Prize. My third book, Jazz Funeral, just won the 2009 Donald Justice Poetry Prize, judged by David Mason. Best of all, I’ve been able to mentor my students and younger writers –to give back what was given so freely to me by my own teachers. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American life, but, yikes, look at me! I’ve been blessed with second chances.