Julie Kane was born in Boston in 1952. She grew up in Massachusetts, upstate New York, and New Jersey. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, she studied with A.R. Ammons, William Matthews, and Robert Morgan, graduating in 1974 and winning first prize in the Mademoiselle magazine college poetry competition. Julie earned her M.A. in creative writing from Boston University, where she was one of Anne Sexton’s graduate poetry students at the time of Sexton’s suicide.
After moving to New Orleans, Kane became associated with the “Maple Leaf” group of poets who frequented the weekly literary reading series held at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street—a mecca for musicians as well as writers. Continuing to publish poems in little magazines, she had two chapbooks of her poetry published in England during this time period: TWO INTO ONE, with Ruth Adatia (Only Poetry Press, 1982) and THE BARTENDER POEMS (Greville Press, 1991). Her first full-length poetry collection, BODY AND SOUL, came out from Pirogue, a New Orleans small press, in 1987.
In 1991, Julie entered the Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. There she won the Academy of American Poets Prize, judged by Louise Glück, and the Lewis P. Simpson Award for her dissertation on the villanelle, directed by poet Dave Smith.
Julie Kane’s most recent poetry collection, RHYTHM & BOOZE (University of Illinois Press, 2003), was Maxine Kumin’s selection for the National Poetry Series and a finalist for the 2005 Poets’ Prize. Her forthcoming collection, JAZZ FUNERAL, won the 2009 Donald Justice Poetry Award, judged by David Mason. Her poems have appeared in such journals as The Southern Review, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, Verse Daily, Feminist Studies, London Magazine, Light Quarterly, and The Formalist, as well as in anthologies such as Poetry: A Pocket Anthology and The Book of Irish American Poets from the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Recently she won first prize in the inaugural Open Poetry international sonnet competition. Additional honors for her poetry include a Fulbright Scholarship, a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Poetry Award, a Pushcart Prize nomination, the George Bennett Fellowship in Writing at Phillips Exeter Academy, and two terms as New Orleans Writer in Residence at Tulane University. A nonfiction writer, editor, and poetry scholar as well as a poet, she co-authored the Vietnam War memoir COUNTERPART: A SOUTH VIETNAMESE NAVAL OFFICER’S WAR (Naval Institute Press, 1998), which was a History Book Club Featured Alternate, and co-edited the anthology UMPTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A POSSUM: CRITICAL AND CREATIVE RESPONSES TO EVERETTE MADDOX (Xavier Review Press, 2006), which was a finalist for the 2007 Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance book award in poetry. She was also the associate editor for 20th-century poetry of the Longman anthology of Southern literature, VOICES OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH (2005). Her essays on poetry and literature have appeared or are forthcoming in Twentieth Century Literature, Literature/Film Quarterly, Modern Language Quarterly, Journal of Consciousness Studies, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, and many other publications. She is an associate professor of English at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. See Julie’s website at: http://www.juliekanepoet.com
CONGRATULATIONS, JULIE, on the Donald Justice Award. When will JAZZ FUNERAL be available?
It should go into production in January and be available some time in the spring of 2009.
HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE YOUR CHILDHOOD? Your neighborhood? What did you most love to do? Did you come from a strict home? Large or small family? What was school like? Were there particular sights, sounds, events, holidays, traditions you enjoyed or dreaded?
I was the oldest of three girls born into a Boston Irish Catholic family. My father had grown up poor—his father sold vegetables from a horse-drawn wagon in Boston’s Faneuil Hall district—but being drafted into the Army for World War II at age 18 gave him the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. He had a magnificent bass speaking voice, a stroke of fortune from the gods that propelled him through a successful career in radio and TV newscasting, despite functional alcoholism and a tendency to tell his bosses off every four years or so. We kept moving around the northeast—various cities in Massachusetts, upstate New York, New Jersey—either because he’d been fired from the last job or he was trading up to a better one: anchorman instead of reporter, or a network instead of a local station. At times he would blow the family’s grocery money at the racetrack or come home hours late and staggering drunk, and my parents would fight and my mother would threaten to leave him. She was lace-curtain Irish, from Foxboro, Massachusetts. Her father had two years of college and a low-level managerial position with the Foxboro Company, but she was ashamed that her Uncle Timmy was the town drunk, serenading her high school friends from his hangout on the town common, that her grandmother kept chickens in the front yard, that her mother was rumored to have kissed the priest who kept his golf clubs at their house, that she didn’t get the Women’s Club scholarship from her high school even though she was the top female student in her graduating class, because she was Catholic instead of Protestant. She just wanted to get as far away from Foxboro as possible, which hooked in to my father’s network ambitions. She earned a journalism degree from Boston University but then discovered, as a fire beat reporter for a small-town paper, that she didn’t have the heart to interview people in emotional distress. She wanted to be a writer, and she actually published a few articles and short stories in places like Redbook and The Christian Science Monitor, but she worried too much about what people would think of her to get carried away by her muse. She was angry at my father a lot of the time, and angry at me and another sister for looking like him and sympathizing with his charm and humor over her anger and bitterness. We tried to be perfect so she wouldn’t be so mad at us—I even won the nuns’ best behavior medal at my First Communion, a public school kid beating out the parochial school kids for it, which was a first! She nearly died of a freak illness the summer I was thirteen. After that, Martin Luther King inspired her to go back to graduate school in urban education, and she found her calling as a grade school teacher.
I read a lot, as a child, but also spent a lot of time outdoors: flying kites, riding bikes, hanging upside down from monkeybars, collecting rocks, skating on frozen ponds, playing kick-the-can and Manhunt with other neighborhood kids. I played Barbie dolls obsessively for years, hand-sewing hundreds of outfits with teeny tiny darts in them. In fact, with two nieces aged 5 and 21, I have never really had to STOP playing Barbie dolls, which is fine with me. My two little sisters were, like me, very imaginative and verbal. We were always pounding out editions of The Stuffed Animal Land News on my mother’s manual typewriter, or writing and acting in plays that were inflicted upon the other neighborhood children. My sister Cindy Kane Trumbore is now a young adult book author and editor, and my sister Susan Kane is Editorial Director of BabyTalk and Parenting magazines and the co-author of a book on executive women.
Moving, leaving friends behind and becoming “the new kid” again, was always difficult for me. Even now I still envy people who are able to answer the question, “Where are you from?” without hesitations and digressions. A poet with an inborn sense of place needs a place to be from—its wildflowers and weather and landscape and history. I suspect that is why I’ve found it so hard to leave my ex-husband’s native state of Louisiana.
AT CORNELL AND BOSTON, you studied with some fairly serious free versers. Did you ever write metrical verse during that time? What was the response? It was a turbulent time, with Viet Nam and Watergate going on. How did it effect your writing? How long did you study with Anne Sexton? What did you think of her as a teacher of poetry writing?
I wrote sonnets the first semester of my freshman year at Cornell, but then I began reading a lot of contemporary poetry—Plath, Sexton, Wright, Levertov, Tate, Merwin, Bly, Simic, Matthews, Ammons, Rich, Wakoski—and lurking at weekly poetry readings in Cornell’s “Temple of Zeus,” a basement coffee house filled with life-sized Greek statues. Despite my great love of rhymed and metered poetry and song lyrics, I caught on very quickly that I was going to have to shift to free verse to be taken seriously as a poet by my teachers and peers. There were some incredibly gifted student poets there at the same time I was—Diane Ackerman, Wendy Battin, Sharon Dolin, John Latta, Ken McClane, Stephen Tapscott, Cecil Giscombe, Gilbert Allen, Mark Anderson, just to name a few—all of whom have gone on to publish books. On the faculty, Bill Matthews was there my first year, bringing a certain rock-star glamour to poetry, and Archie Ammons won the National Book Award when I was a junior. The journal Epoch and the small press Ithaca House contributed to the atmosphere. Between the richness of the literary scene and the fervor of the feminist and antiwar movements—I remember traveling down to Washington, D.C., in January of 1971 with a group of fellow students to lobby against the Vietnam War with freshmen Congressmen, one of whom didn’t yet know that when the buzzer went off in his office it meant he was due on the floor for a vote—Ithaca was an exciting place to be.
I got into both The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Boston University for graduate school in creative writing, and I chose BU because my idol, Anne Sexton, was teaching there. The year before that, she and James Merrill had judged the Mademoiselle Magazine College Poetry Contest that I won, so I already knew that she liked my work. Four weeks into my first semester there, she killed herself. Even today, I can hardly bear to talk about it. She was an extraordinary teacher and presence. She’d walk into that same seminar room where Robert Lowell used to teach her and Plath, and kick off her high-heeled shoes and laugh a great witchy, cackling laugh, and curse like a sailor and turn the full force of her attention on us, like a radiant sun beaming down upon a dozen little nascent planets. I adored her. I still can’t believe that she did what she did, that she’s gone.
THE MAPLE LEAF BAR literary series sounds like a uniquely American blast, with its mix of musicians and writers in a colorful hotbed of jazz, zydeco, and European and African history. (Rhythm and booze, indeed!) How did it get the name Maple Leaf? Can you tell us a little about your association there? When did you first move to the Crescent City?
I moved to the west bank of New Orleans in 1978, after my marriage ended. Before fleeing back north to friends and family—I’d been living in Baton Rouge, where my husband was attending law school—I thought it might be fun to check out New Orleans for a little while. So I found a job as a technical writer there, and I began dropping by the Sunday afternoon poetry readings at the Maple Leaf Bar in the Carrollton section of the city, hosted by Everette Maddox. Everette was a brilliantly gifted poet and conversationalist who had published poems in The New Yorker and The Paris Review while still in his twenties, but who would wind up dying homeless and alcoholic a decade later. I’d also go out on dates or with friends to hear music at the Maple Leaf fairly often, especially when the R&B pianist James Booker was playing, or Booker’s teenaged student prodigy, Harry Connick, Jr. Everette convinced me to move into the city, practically right around the corner from the Maple Leaf: “You have to move to Carrollton: it’s the Montmartre of New Orleans!” That was in the mid-1980s, and after that I became a Maple Leaf regular. On Sundays after the readings a bunch of us poets would all go swimming in “The Carrollton Riviera,” which is what we called the above-ground pool under a fig tree behind poet Nancy Harris’s house. We hung out with the musicians who played there: don’t get me started on the stories, or I’ll never stop! New Orleans in those years was one long lucid dream: a swirl of Carnival, Jazz Fest, brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, rivers of alcohol. But we were all self-destructing, along with our city. I had to get out when I did, in the mid-nineties, and strive to become a solid citizen in the middle of my life. It’s funny, though, how the people I met and the experiences I had during those wild, flaming Maple Leaf years wound up seeding so much of the work I’ve been able to do during these sober, sedate, focused, respectable, Ph.D.’d years. Ah, the rewards of my misspent youth!
HOW DID YOU HAPPEN to publish two chapbooks in England?
Around 1980 I met a British poet named Geoffrey Godbert at a journalists’ party in New Orleans; he was in town visiting a fellow Brit who wrote for the Times-Picayune. At some point during the party we began drunkenly reciting our poems to one another, and then we exchanged addresses and began corresponding and including new poems in our letters. Geoffrey was editing a little magazine called Only Poetry, and he took several batches of my poems for it. He also had a small London-based publishing house called Only Poetry Press, and a couple of years into our correspondence he asked me if I had a book manuscript. I sent him one and he took half of it and half of a manuscript by another American woman poet, Ruth Adatia, and published the combined volume as TWO INTO ONE. I’d become discouraged about getting published in America, despite my early successes during my college years—I’d been moving increasingly away from writing what was trendy, toward what I really wanted to write, and editors did not seem very interested. The thought that Frost and Plath had published books in England before they were able to publish books in America revived my spirits. Later on Geoffrey, Harold Pinter, and Anthony Astbury founded Greville Press, which published gorgeous letterpress chapbooks—Harold was the monetary angel behind that venture, as you can imagine! I sent Geoffrey a sequence of mostly villanelles—in a letter, seeking his feedback as a friend—and he ran them by Harold and Anthony and announced that they would like to publish them as a Greville Press pamphlet. When THE BARTENDER POEMS came out in the fall of 1991, I got to fly to London and read together with C. H. Sisson, another Greville poet, at Royal Festival Hall, The South Bank Centre. Harold introduced us: it was a magical night. I felt like Cinderella at the ball.
I WONDER IF POETRY BOOKS ARE MORE SUCCESSFUL with words like “bartender” and “booze” in the title? How much do book titles matter to publishers and to the poetry-buying public, do you think? I can’t remember who said it, but someone once remarked (in jest—but who knows?) that women should always put the word “nude” in the titles of their books. Would you be more inclined to use as a title, “Kissing the Bartender” than, say, “The Mermaid Story?” What are your thoughts about poetry book titles?
My working manuscript was titled LOUISIANA RHYTHM & BLUES, until my friend Clayton Delery said, in jest, “Rhythm & Blues? It ought to be Rhythm & Booze!” The minute he uttered it, I knew it was the perfect title for the book. It’s certainly catchy, but RHYTHM & BOOZE hasn’t yet sold a thousand copies, while Billy Collins’s SAILING AROUND THE ROOM has supposedly broken the hundred-thousand sales mark—so maybe the book-buying public would rather be sailing than drinking? I do love the book’s cover, though, all neon pinks and blues on black with stylized cocktail glasses and cigarette smoke. I’ll bet the cover art has sold as many copies as the title.
NATCHITOCHES HAS A WONDERFULLY trochaic Native American ring to it. What do you love most about living in your part of the world? Least?
Natchitoches is like a teeny tiny little New Orleans plunked down amidst the “Baptists and pine woods” of north Louisiana. An oasis in more ways than one, with a university and a Mardi Gras parade and a funky little blues club. It even has the same architecture as New Orleans--French and Spanish colonial buildings with wrought-iron balconies, overlooking a brick main street and storybook-cute river. Natchitoches is the oldest town in the entire Louisiana Purchase territory, the whole middle third of the U.S. It’s three years older than New Orleans, but it was settled by the same groups around the same time, and it has the same mélange of French, Spanish, African American, and Native American cultures. The Creole culture of this parish inspired the folk art of Clementine Hunter and the best stories of Kate Chopin—the place is incredibly rich in culture and history. On the down side, you have to drive an hour to the nearest airport, there’s no Thai or Vietnamese or Indian or Middle Eastern or other interesting ethnic food, and people throw trash out of their pickup truck windows and seem to think that environmentalism is a commie plot. But it’s a real place, Southern and eccentric. Everybody knows everybody else’s business. What more could a writer want?
FINALLY, THE ONLY QUESTION YOU ARE REQUIRED TO ANSWER: What are your thoughts about Tim Murphy’s claim that there is an “extraordinary efflorescence of terrific poetry by women going on, unprecedented in human history?”
I agree with Tim that we are witnessing a great flowering of women’s poetry, though (probably unlike Tim) I’d set the start date back around 1960, rather than later with the rise of women formalists. Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Bishop launched it, I think, and made it possible for those of us who followed in their footsteps to be judged as poets rather than poetesses. One could argue, as well, that we are witnessing a great efflorescence of African American poets—Natasha Trethewey, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton; and of gay poets—Marilyn Hacker, Mark Doty, John Ashbery, Rafael Campo; and of Native American poets—Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich . . . . I think it’s at least partly because poetry, in order to evolve, has to bring to light what has previously been hidden from conscious awareness—states of consciousness, realms of inner and outer experience. I hold with the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas that if you bring forth what is within you, it will save you, but if you don’t, it will kill you.
A selection of Julie Kane's poems:
THE MERMAID STORY
We've all heard half of the fairy tale:
A mermaid rescued a drowning prince,
swam him to shore, then pined away
because she missed the weight of him
and the heat of his breath against her neck;
nothing at all like the trickle of cool
saltwater flushed from delicate gills
when she kissed the mermen back in school.
But since there are witches underwater
as well as over, within a year
she'd bargained away her tail for legs-
and her tongue, too, as legs were dear.
She married the prince. His body hair
tickled like beach grass parched in sun.
An eel grew where his legs forked.
(She couldn't speak this to anyone.)
Back in the anti-universe,
a woman writer with two tongues
rooted to the floor of her mouth
like anemones has just swum
so deep with her freak tail,
the sea spins and her brain goes black.
We'll see if the tongue she bargained for
can send a message back.
Three little girls on the morning after,
out in the kitchen poking around
for cherries soaked in whiskey like a bomb
of grown-up secrets. Other times we found,
by Mom’s clip earrings and kicked-off shoes,
blue glass monkeys on swizzle sticks,
doll-sized Oriental parasols,
cocktail napkins with jokes we didn’t get.
Cherries as precious as Burmese rubies:
Once in awhile, while the grown-ups slept,
we ate our fill of cherries from the jar,
but even then we liked the booze ones best.
DEAD ARMADILLO SONG
I’ve never seen a
armadillo, but I drive
Route 90, where the shoulder’s
littered with the colder,
deader little critters,
getting stiffer and stiffer.
They seem to have weights
like living-room drapes
in their bottoms, for they lie
with their feet to the sky.
By God, there’s a lot of ‘em,
fat as stuffed ottomans,
World War I tanks snared
in terrorist warfare,
or small coats of armor
whose knights became farmers.
KISSING THE BARTENDER
The summer we kissed across the bar,
I felt sixteen at thirty-six:
as if you were a movie star
I had a crush on from afar.
My chest was flat, my legs were sticks
the summer we kissed across the bar.
Balancing on the rail was hard.
Spilled beer made my elbows stick.
You could have been a movie star,
backlit, golden, lofting a jar
of juice or Bloody Mary mix
the summer we kissed across the bar.
Over the sink, the limes, as far
as you could lean, you leaned. I kissed
the movie screen, a movie star.
Drinks stayed empty. Ashtrays tarred.
The customers got mighty pissed
the summer we kissed across the bar.
Summer went by like a shooting star.
Poor little sprig of mistletoe:
there might as well be an axe above
this bar, twenty men in nice suits alone
at tables for two and us in love
and wretched, bending the plastic straws
into wedding rings we’re bound to lose
in the rush before my plane takes off.
The hostages on the evening news
seem lucky, stripped of their right to rise
and go. Too soon this town will shrink
to a tangled strand of Christmas lights,
then nothing, and time to think.
THE MAPLE LEAF BAR
I wanted to understand the place:
the pressed tin ceiling and the out-of-tune
piano where the late James Booker played
in a rhinestone eyepatch and purple cape.
Bottles in sunlight like Arabian jewels:
I wanted to understand the place.
Maddox asleep like a cat onstage.
Kittens asleep in the storage room.
Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins played
in bars that kept my uncles late.
They came home singing until they puked.
I wanted to understand the Saints.
What did you think, with your boyish face,
a bar rag tucked in your blue-jeans loop,
giving me all your change to play
the jukebox with? Another cra-
zy barfly making eyes at you?
I wanted to understand the place,
to play with words like Booker played.
They say two photons fired through a slit
stay paired together to the end of time;
if one is polarized to change its spin,
the other does a U-turn on a dime,
although they fly apart at speeds of light
and never cross each other's paths again,
like us, a couple in the seventies,
divorced for over twenty years since then.
Tonight a Red Sox batter homered twice
to beat the Yankees in their playoff match,
and, sure as I was born in Boston, when
that second ball deflected off the bat,
I knew your thoughts were flying back to me,
though your location was a mystery.
As if a friend you used to see a lot
but haven't, lately, stops you on the street,
and right away you note the baseball cap,
the skeleton that has begun to peek
through facial features, and you hear about
the son or daughter in from out of town,
the chemo up in Shreveport twice a week,
how hard it is to keep a milkshake down,
The City Care Forgot (and then recalled)
comes into focus from your moving car,
familiar houses with their doors kicked in
and death tolls sprayed beneath blue FEMA tarps,
and though the specialists must have their say,
you see yourself it could go either way.
What luck—an open bookstore up ahead
as rain lashed awnings over Royal Street,
and then to find the books were secondhand,
with one whole wall assigned to poetry;
and then, as if that wasn’t luck enough,
to find, between Jarrell and Weldon Kees,
the blue-on-cream, familiar backbone of
my chapbook, out of print since ’83—
its cover very slightly coffee-stained,
but aging (all in all) no worse than flesh
through all those cycles of the seasons since
its publication by a London press.
Then, out of luck, I read the name inside:
The man I thought would love me till I died.