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Inventing Words is a Form of Longing: An Interview with Julia Koets

by Amie Whittemore

Amie Whittemore: Your collection Pine was selected by Michael Waters for the 2019 Michael Waters Poetry Prize. It is a gorgeous book that investigates queer identity and how landscape, particularly that of the American South, informs one’s sense of self, desire, and as the title of the first section’s name indicates, “potentiality.” In this section you explore desire, fear, doubt, and, I’d argue, queerness as a means through which to understand desire and fear, a way of being in and with the world. It opens with the poem “The Science of _________” which ends:

                             of startle, 
science of the remarkable. Two girls 
in a field test the science of buttons. 
Their shirts soon to break into yellow blooms. 

In this poem, the reader is positioned to see queerness as a science—queer desire as both the product and pursuit of science, as both fact and hypothesis: there is no knowing without embracing uncertainty. This pursuit is at the center of the first section, as the speaker comes to terms with her own identity while in a closeted romance with a female partner. For instance, the first section ends with the poem “Eros, as bus” which closes:

could I see it coming:         falling for her again            like a fact
        up ahead in the road        an animal          crossing in the dark. 

Here, falling for the girl “is a fact,” and also “an animal” in the darkened landscape—we don’t know what kind. Knowing and unknowing collapse, overlap here. I’m curious how the lexicon of science shaped your approach to writing about queer identity and desire. 

Julia Koets: I love your reading of the first section of the book and what you said about queerness and desire: “it is both fact and hypothesis: there is no knowing without embracing uncertainty.” As a kid, what I loved about studying science in school was developing hypotheses. Figuring out what I knew and what I didn’t know and going from there. The point was that I didn’t have all the answers. The same was true about queerness for me. I spent many years asking questions about my own sexuality, about my own desire, but until I allowed myself to be okay with the uncertainty, to acknowledge that I didn’t know all of the answers, I didn’t allow myself any hypotheses. For example, when I was nineteen or twenty, I wanted to kiss this woman, but, for a long time, I was too afraid to actually do it.  

I started writing “The Science of _________” after reading the quotation from The Century Magazine that appears as the epigraph of the poem. I liked the idea of coming up with a word for something before knowing whether it was even possible to do that thing. Inventing words, another kind of science, is a form of longing, I think. In connection to longing and queerness, I begin this first section of the book with a quotation by José Esteban Muñoz in which he talks about queerness as “a horizon imbued with potentiality”: “We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality […] we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.” 

AW: I’m in love with all the villanelles in this collection, and with the formal choices throughout, so I have a couple questions regarding form. First, why villanelles? How did they enter into the project? Are they a form you feel at home in or a challenge (or both)? Did you intend to use so many when you imagined the book, or was this a form that you developed a new relationship with as you wrote this collection? 

JK: I feel both at home and challenged by the villanelle, which I think might be true of all obsessions. When I was working on my PhD in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati, people were very surprised when I brought a poem to workshop that wasn’t a villanelle. I started writing villanelles before I started writing this book, but the more villanelles I wrote for this particular book, the more I realized why I was so drawn to the form. So much of this book is about a speaker who circles back to a relationship she lost, and, in its repeated rhymes and refrains, the villanelle encourages such circling back. The repetition is a kind of persistence, a refusal to completely let go of what she’s lost. When we think of something as being repetitive, we often think it’s boring. People critique books for being repetitive, for the fact that the story doesn’t go anywhere. In a villanelle, though, with each iteration—if the poem is successful—our understanding of the repeated words and lines changes, even though the words themselves haven’t changed much.

I don’t know if it’s because when I think of villanelles, I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and Jean Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle,” but the form, more than other poetic forms, feels capable of holding loss. I wrote early drafts of some of the poems in this book as villanelles and then took them out of the form in a later draft. I needed to write them first as villanelles in order to sit with the speaker’s loss, to understand it.

AW: In addition to the villanelles, which are, as you note, forms of repetition with variation, there are other structures that repeat and vary: the “Eros” poems, each of which draw inspiration from unlikely moments of “eros” in the world, the “Thank-you” notes to places, classes, and E.T.’s Elliott; dictionary entries; the poems with the same titles (“Solstice,” “Antlery,” etc…) How is this engagement with repetition and variation in conversation with queer desire and identity?  

JK: Sylvia Plath’s repeated line “I think I made you up inside my head” and Elizabeth Bishop’s repeated line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” both get at how repetition—a queering of time—felt utterly crucial to understanding the losses surrounding my early experiences of queer desire. With each repetition, the speaker in the poems processes a facet of the loss that comes with loving someone in secret. I think, too, since the woman the speaker was in love with claimed to be straight, on some level the speaker felt the loss of her from the very first time they kissed. She anticipated the loss of her from the very beginning. Because I didn’t talk openly about my relationships with women for many years, I wanted to write about how the secrecy of those relationships can change someone’s relationship to time, can cause someone to replay past experiences in their head, to attempt to figure out what was real. Because no one knew about a particular relationship, that love felt strangely out of time. Writing in forms that utilize repetition allowed me to move around more freely in time, which felt essential when writing about a love that felt out of time. As Sharon Cameron writes in Lyric Time, the “lyric both rejects the limitations of social and objective time, those strictures that drive hard lines between past, present, and future.” 

AW: Nicole Seymour’s Strange Natures begins with this epigraph from Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands’s and Bruce Erickson’s Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire: “The task of a queer ecology is to probe the intersections of sex and nature with an eye to developing a politics that more clearly includes considerations of the natural world and its biosocial constitution, and an environmental politics that demonstrates an understanding of the ways in which sexual relations organize and influence both the material world of nature and our perceptions, experiences, and constitutions of that world.”

I would certainly categorize Pine as grounded in queer ecology, as so many of the poems speak to a confluence of self, desire, and place; the three are interwoven, arguably inseparable. For instance, in “Eros, as fish,” the speaker writes, “we fastened a rope around our waists / so we would not lose each other. // Look in the sky and you will see us there. / Look in the water—there, too.” Furthermore, in many of the poems the “I” is part of a “we,” further questioning and/or complicating the idea of an individual self. My question then is this: how does queer identity queer one’s relationship to self as well as place/nature/ecology? 

JK: I think that I write about place and landscape so much in this book because, as a queer woman who didn’t come out until my late twenties, I’ve spent many years trying to figure out my complicated relationship to the South, to the place I grew up, to the landscape that in many ways feels most like home to me. For a long time I wanted to leave the South because I thought that that was the only way that I could live more openly as a queer woman. At the start of Pine I include an epigraph from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology to ground the book in a focus on landscape in relationship to desire, on what it means to deviate from the paths that the people closest to us often expect us to travel: “It is interesting to note in landscape architecture they use the term ‘desire lines’ to describe unofficial paths, those marks left on the ground that show everyday comings and goings, where people deviate from the paths they are supposed to follow. Deviation leaves its own marks on the ground, which can help generate alternative lines, which cross the ground in unexpected ways.” 

AW: A little more on the use of “we” in the poems. While many of the poems feature a plural first person as the speaker, several of the poems, particularly those that deal with coming out (I’m thinking of “Eros, as Oxygen Mask” and “The Boathouse”), strongly feature an “I.” To me, this “I” feels vulnerable and alone particularly in the poems referenced above as she comes to grips with her sexual identity: “I try to tell him what I can’t easily / tell him, what seems impossible in the South: / I love a girl,” the speaker states in “The Boathouse.” Can you speak to the dynamic between theme and point of view in your work? 

JK: In terms of point of view, oftentimes I think of someone in particular when I write a poem, so I’m imagining this other person that the speaker is talking to and the “we” is that person and the speaker. In other poems, though, the “we” is an attempt to imagine other queer people experiencing similar things. In “The Science of _________”, for instance, I wanted to imagine all of these other girls lying down in fields falling in love with the girl next to them. Growing up without knowing many people who were queer and out, I felt very alone in my questions about my own sexuality. I was afraid to talk to anyone about it, and so I also wanted to write about that fear and loneliness in this book.  

AW: The second section of the book is titled “ephemera,” and shifts focus a bit: the speaker feels older; the initial bloom of her romance(s) has passed and a reckoning is at hand: what does it mean to love and lose? To love and break and mend? While natural ephemera appears, such as the antlers of deer, so do references to cultural ephemera, particularly lesbian icons Jodie Foster and Sally Ride; furthermore, both of these women have a relationship with closetedness and space—Sally Ride, an actual astronaut and Jodie Foster playing an astronomer in Contact, a role you reference in “A Villanelle for Jodie Foster.” Can you speak more to why these two women entered into this manuscript? 

JK: In An Archive of Feeling Ann Cvetkovich talks about how lesbian and gay archives are full of ephemera, items that archivists and librarians can’t easily catalogue. In writing about a relationship between two women that remained secret, I’m interested in stories that get left out of the archive, the public record. I’m also interested in how particular documents or items from someone’s history reveal some aspect of their lives. 

In third grade, I memorized a song about Sally Ride for a school science project, and I’ve felt an affinity for her ever since. She’s always been one of my heroes. As a kid, I was in awe of the fact that she flew into outer space and worked for NASA. I’m still in awe of her. Ride came out for the first time publicly in her obituary in 2012, and Foster came out publicly for the first time in her 2013 Golden Globes speech. In writing about a speaker who can only imagine her marriage to the woman she loves happening on the moon, where no one can hear their vows, I’m also interested in the line between privacy and secrecy. 

AW: The moon is an essential figure/landscape in Pine: as a force on the oceans (which are also central, especially in the imagery in the first half of the collection), as a site of queer ecology; as a symbol of resilience: it persists, fully itself, despite metaphors that might mistake it for “a knife glinting in the dark,” despite Buzz Aldrin deeming it a “magnificent desolation.” I could go on, but I think my question comes down to this: is the moon queer or a queer ally? Or both? Neither?

JK: Maybe both! 

AW: In looking over your answers, it feels like Pine was, perhaps, a healing book to write, a way of comforting a past self, through coming to accept/explore the ambiguities and complexities of navigating closeted relationships and one’s own relationship to their desires and identity. So, I wonder: what’s next? What are you working on now, or what questions/new territory has Pine opened up for you as a writer? 

JK: In Radiant Lyre, David Baker writes, “A poem may propose a temporary alternative—be it a dream, a wish, or a warning—to the world. But a poem intends not so much to stop time as, instead, to formulate a parallel universe with its own temporality.” Writing Pine, I got to go back in time, to inhabit a kind of parallel universe, where I could, as you say, “explore the ambiguities and complexities of closeted relationships,” queer desire, and queerness in the South. 

After writing Pine, one thing I realized was that I’m interested in writing more about the line between privacy and secrecy and how it relates to queer experience. I’m working on some new nonfiction essays that ask questions about that line.  

Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press). Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg ReviewNashville ReviewSmartish PacePleiades, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.