An Interview with JULIE KANE
Julie Kane, the great-grandchild of eight Irish immigrants, is a native of Boston and longtime resident of Louisiana, where she served as the 2011-2013 Louisiana Poet Laureate. Professor Emeritus of English at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, she also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Western State Colorado University. Her books of poetry include Rhythm & Booze (2003), Maxine Kumin's choice for the National Poetry Series and a finalist for the Poets' Prize; Jazz Funeral (2009), winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize; and Paper Bullets (2014), a collection of light verse. Her poems appear in more than sixty anthologies including Norton's Seagull Reader, Penguin's Pocket Poetry, and Best American Poetry 2016. Julie has collaborated with musical composers including Dale Trumbore, Kenneth Olson, and Libby Larsen; she wrote the libretto for the one-act opera Starship Paradise, produced by Center City Opera Theater of Philadelphia, and her poems have been sung on CDs by artists ranging from mezzo soprano Susanne Mentzer to the American Boychoir. Coming out this fall will be Nasty Women Poets: An Anthology of Subversive Verse, co-edited with Grace Bauer and published by Lost Horse Press.
TWO NEW POEMS
An anthology you edited with Grace Bauer called Nasty Women Poets is coming out in September 2017. How does the emphasis on the contemporary political moment affect the editing process? How does this process compare with other anthologies you have edited?
Well, the title itself is an allusion to a remark made during a 2016 presidential debate—intended as an insult but reclaimed by many of us women as a point of pride. Our call for submissions went out shortly after the election with a deadline of Inauguration Day, so between that chronology and the title, you can see that we were responding to the “contemporary political moment” and its ugly resurgence of misogyny.
The editorial process was very different from that of the two previous anthologies I edited. Because of the timely theme and our tight schedule, we had to depend on social media to get the word out. We received around 1500 poems in the space of eight weeks and could take only around two hundred, so the decision making process was agonizing.
Grace and I had previously co-edited an anthology of poems, essays, and short stories about the late poet Everette Maddox, a legendary figure in New Orleans. Aside from Hurricane Katrina devastating our press and the lives and homes of many contributors midway through the editorial process, the selection process for that one was easy. Grace and I had both lived in New Orleans and been part of Everette’s Maple Leaf Bar literary scene there, so we were aware of much of the stuff that had been written about him, and we had time to advertise nationally in Poets & Writers for any work we’d missed.
I also edited the 20th century poetry selections for a Southern literature textbook. I soon learned that one’s “dream list” of poets and poems for a college textbook quickly gets smashed on the rocks of reality: peer review boards of anonymous experts who shoot down innovative choices and insist that old chestnuts be included, and reprint permissions holders who can charge a thousand dollars or more to reprint a single poem. Once was enough for that type of project, though I was glad I could sneak in a few things from that dream list, like “Nelly Myers” by A. R. Ammons and selections by Etheridge Knight and Margaret Danner.
How has your academic life and work as a professor impacted your creative process?
Since I retired a year ago, I have been way more productive as a poet. I taught at a regional state university in a desperately poor Southern state, so the teaching and service loads were heavy. I loved it, but the work always took priority over my own writing. The first half of my career, though, I was a technical writer and editor. I was making way more money back then than I ever made as a tenured full professor, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I went back to grad school at the age of 39 and got a Ph.D. It was the right decision. I wanted to do work related to the subject I loved, which was poetry.
From 2011-2013 you were the Louisiana Poet Laureate. What are some of the most meaningful memories you have from that period?
One of the most thrilling experiences was being invited to lunch at the home of Ernest and Diane Gaines when Keorapetse Kgositsile, the Poet Laureate of South Africa, was visiting. Ernest and Diane have a beautiful home overlooking False River near New Roads, Louisiana, built on land that Ernest’s ancestors sharecropped. Ernest also purchased the tiny church where his ancestors worshipped and had it moved onto the property, and he bought the cemetery where his ancestors were buried and set up a foundation to maintain the graves. Keorapetse had to flee South Africa under apartheid because of his political activities, living in exile in the U.S. for many years. There was such a sense of history and historical change permeating the atmosphere that afternoon. I was so grateful to be part of it.
But really, the typical experience of jumping in my car and driving for hours to a small-town school, library, or community center where a few dozen people had turned out to hear poetry—some who’d never been to a poetry reading before, but who felt a sense of ownership and curiosity about the state laureate, like their state bird or flower—that was always very meaningful, too.
How do you approach writing a book? Do you set out with the structure in mind, or do individual poems you write help shape the larger manuscript?
I write my poems one at a time, but once I have enough new work to begin thinking about a collection, I begin to notice underlying themes or strategies linking groups of them together that were largely unconscious at the time I was writing. Then I set aside poems that I like but that don’t fit with the others and try to write a few more poems to round out the collection, this time with conscious awareness of what I am doing.
With our Companion Playlist feature, it’s safe to say we are music fans at The Mackinac. Music is featured frequently in your writing, with two of your poetry collections titled Jazz Funeral and Rhythm & Booze. You have even collaborated with composers over the years. What is the relationship between poetry and music as defined by you? Any suggestions for our Issue #12 Companion Playlist?
I grew up as the non-musically talented member of a musical family: the one who always remembered the words to the songs that the beautiful singers forgot. Grandparents on both sides played the piano by ear, and family holidays would involve singing old Irish songs and Broadway show tunes around a piano. My father, a radio/TV newscaster with a beautiful bass voice, would get up on stage in nightclubs to sing with the band. My sister Susan starred in musicals at Vassar. My 29-year-old niece Dale Trumbore is now a rising star as a musical composer.
Those years that I lived in New Orleans, I was in heaven, taking naps after work and then getting up toward 11 p.m. to go hear live music in the clubs: James Booker, Professor Longhair, Harry Connick Jr., Irma Thomas, The Neville Brothers, Doctor John, Johnny Adams, Snooks Eaglin, Tony Dagradi and Astral Project. The Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street, one of the great music clubs of the city, has held Sunday afternoon poetry readings for almost forty years now, so there was a lot of mingling of poets and musicians. That fertile atmosphere colored both Rhythm & Booze and Jazz Funeral, as well as the last section of my first book.
I have been fortunate to have had work set by three amazing classical composers: Dale, of course (who began setting my poems when she was thirteen); Libby Larsen; and Kenneth Olson. In every case, the composer was the boss. My words are just raw materials, like clay, in the hands of a composer, and the end result is often surprising—as when the American Boychoir spits into the microphone singing the word “spit” on a CD (Libby Larsen), or when the soprano hits a high D of anguish singing about Hurricane Katrina and the mortality of cities (Kenneth Olson), or when some “shooby-dooby-doo-dah” crops up in a choral composition (Dale).
Lyric poetry’s roots are in musical performance: the two did not begin to diverge in the West until well into the Middle Ages. The relationship fascinates me. My doctoral dissertation traced the journey of the villanelle from a freewheeling 16th century musical genre to a rigid 19th-century fixed poetic form. The sound of a poem is important to me—it isn’t to many visually oriented poets, but it is to me. There’s no right or wrong to it, it’s just like the fact that some musicians are drawn to the trumpet or drums while others are drawn to the cello. In a sense, I think you could strip away the meanings of the words in my poems and be left with abstract musical compositions made up of the rhythms, pitches, and vowel timbres. My composer niece and I may be doing the same thing, from opposite directions.
I want to be surprised by the playlist, but maybe I could vote for one James Booker piece, “Junco Partner”—because he’s still not well known, despite the recent Bayou Maharajah documentary that’s on Netflix now—and he should be. And he pops up in some of my poems.
What are you currently working on?
In addition to having just blessed the corrected proofs of the Nasty Women Poets anthology, I am close to finishing my fifth book of poems, to be titled Mothers of Ireland. It’s about how historical and personal trauma shapes subsequent generations, with a focus on my own women ancestors. I’m originally from Boston, where all of my Famine-survivor great-grandparents emigrated, though I’ve lived in Louisiana for four decades now. I cut off that Boston Irish Catholic part of my identity for a long time after embracing Louisiana—but as we get older, there’s a pull to return home, however difficult that homecoming may be.