In Conversation with Julie Marie Wade
By Linnea Harris
Julie Marie Wade is a poet, lyric essayist, memoirist, and an experimental/hybrid forms writer. She is the author of twelve books of poetry and prose, including Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, winner of the Colgate University Press Nonfiction Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir; the book-length lyric essay Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing; and Otherwise: Essays, winner of the 2022 Autumn House Prize (forthcoming in October 2023). Wade holds an MA in English from Western Washington University, an MFA in Poetry from the University of Pittsburgh, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities from the University of Louisville. Born in Seattle, she now lives in Florida and is an associate professor of English in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami, where she teaches poetry, memoir, lyric essay, and hybrid forms to graduate and undergraduate students. Wade’s reviews appear regularly in Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus.
This month, editorial assistant Linnea Harris spoke with Julie Marie Wade about her process as a multi-genre writer, her current projects, and her essay “The Laundry,” published in the Fall/Winter 2022 issue of Colorado Review.
Linnea Harris: I loved “The Laundry.” It’s a gorgeous essay, and it’s interesting to read it knowing that you do so much cross-genre work too. I’m really curious about what your writing process was like for that—and for nonfiction in general.
Julie Marie Wade: I wrote “The Laundry” a few years back now. For a few years I’ve been working on a project—a book of essays—that I think will be called The Regulars. I wrote a lot about childhood, a lot about adolescence—you know—the classic memoir impulse to look back and examine and re-create. I realized that there were certain facets of my childhood and adolescence that had never come up; I had never written about them. This is an arbitrary thing to say, but in my own mind it was almost like they were so weird, and I wondered: How would I do them lyric justice? So I would tell my partner—who is kind of like the sounding board through the essay—about them, but they weren’t things I’d ever written. So The Regulars was a new challenge for myself to try to find a way to write all of the family rituals and strange patterns in my past that I thought maybe were always too weird.
Take the laundry. That seems really ordinary. Everyone has laundry. But that is something that kind of haunts me because I’m still terrible at doing the laundry. It took me years as an adult to figure out how to. So I wanted to write about that and use the way laundry was handled in my childhood home to talk about these things—privacy or lack of privacy—control and how the person who controls the laundry wields a lot of control over the house. I wanted to talk about all of that, but I needed a way to. I realized that, for years before my partner and I ever had a washer in the home that we lived in, we were always over at the laundromat and talking as we did the laundry. It became a frame for the essay—like a way to be telling someone specific about this experience with laundry but, in the process of doing that, also telling a reader. It’s like a variation on an epistolary essay. I liked that form because the pieces in that intended collection are all things that I had told rather than things that I had written about, so I thought I’d give it a structure that would hopefully engage the reader in the way that a letter form would.
LH: There’s also something really interesting too in writing about being a woman and about the body, when writing about laundry specifically, which is such a stereotypically women-oriented task.
JMW: Yes! It’s so peculiar to be involved in the laundry as the girl but then also not have control over the laundry. It’s a weird kind of control—like, you can assist with the laundry, but you can’t take the helm of the laundry, so in a weird way it was like, you can never be a real adult woman like me and have your own household.
LH: In Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing and some of your other works, you write about the body and queerness. I’m interested in the way you approach these topics over time and how you can write about them in different ways or how your approach to them changes because of writing.
JMW: I’ve been teaching writing of various kinds for twenty-one years. At least for me, it informs how I’m writing—what I’m teaching them and the books that we’re reading and the things that we’re practicing and what problems arise. My students write things that inspire me back, and I think, oh, I should try that, or, I should work on that. So it’s one way that writing, for me, has stayed fresh where I don’t feel blocked or like I have nothing to write about or no way into what I want to write about. I’m really lucky that I teach poetry and creative nonfiction, and also, now, hybrid forms is a class that keeps me writing and invested in multiple genres and even in pieces that are not strictly one genre at a time. There’s also formal innovation. I want my writing to challenge me not just because of what it’s about, but I want it to force me to find new ways in, new doors that I can open for how to shape an essay or a poem or a hybrid piece.
I kind of see two waves of the lyric essay, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but we haven’t really been using the term “lyric essay” for longer than the last twenty five years. Deborah Tall coined the term in 1997. I was graduating from high school that year and had never heard of lyric essay, but when I got to grad school, I got to take a class on the lyric essay in 2002 with Brenda Miller, who is kind of like the patron saint of the lyric essay. I didn’t even fully understand—as you often don’t in the moment—how significant it was that I was signing up for this elective with this person who is really like a pioneering force in the genre. What was illuminating were those early books—these books or essays that really look like prose, right? Like, if you weren’t reading them out loud—if you were just skimming it—it would look like paragraphs and nothing unexpected visually. But then when you start reading it, especially out loud, you start to hear the lyricism of the prose. You hear leaps; you notice fragments instead of always complete sentences. This was how I first understood the lyric essay, and my early lyric essays, I think, were more like that: scenes drawn around music as opposed to just what these characters are doing.
Then, the next wave of lyric essay—what I’m teaching, what I’m wanting to write—is very influenced by the hermit crab essay. Brenda and my other professor, Susanne Paola, coined that term and wrote Tell It Slant. The first big hermit crab anthology came out in 2018, and so that has really shaped a lot of what I want to do now. So, you mentioned Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing; near the end of that book, the final, fifth section (which is longer than all the others) is in the form of an induction proof from geometry. I thought, even when we were doing them in tenth grade, that I preferred them to the other kinds that looked like paragraphs. Later when I studied prose poetry, I thought, this looks exactly like an induction proof! Initially I just loved to read and teach hermit crabs,but then teaching made me want to write more, and I wanted to do more elaborate and unusual ones. In that last part of Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing, I wanted to take that form and try putting body, queerness, family, and all my usual subjects into the form of an induction proof to see what would happen.
LH: On the subject of structure—as a hybrid form and multi-genre writer—I’m curious about how that works with your subjects as they arise. Do you often start with a subject or do you start with a form? Or a genre? When you want to write about something, do you immediately think, this needs to be a poem, or this needs to be an essay?
JMW: Sometimes that happens. Sometimes I’m wrong and start it in one genre, and then the work realizes on its own that it needs to be something else. I love chasing that kind of thing—where I don’t know the genre or where it came from or what I’m going to do with it. It’s nice to be genre-liberated. I really like to have multiple projects. It’s the classic metaphor of all the pots on the stove; I think there might be some people who cook just one thing at a time, but I like to have a lot of pots on the stove—some are cranked up and bubbling, some are on the back burner just simmering, and some I haven’t even turned on the heat for yet and they’re just some ingredients that I think maybe go together. I like thinking in terms of a project. Maybe at some point I think, that’s poetry, or maybe at some point I think, that’s lyric essay, memoir, creative nonfiction-y, or maybe, that’s something else. Recently I was reading the big first hybrid forms anthology, Family Resemblance, and getting really excited about it. Like, what makes the thing “hybrid” as opposed to a multi-genre collection? I’m sending out a lot of work now that’s like, I don’t know; I’m going to send it as a poem because they might see it as a prose poem, and I’m going to send it here as a hybrid work, but I’m also going to send it over here as a flash essay and just see what happens, and I’m finding that that is really interesting because it becomes, well, tell me what you see. I kind of like that. I’m giving up some of my genre control and it feels liberating.
LH: Another thing I’m curious about as a nonfiction writer is the “emotional truth” of an essay, especially with things like dialogue. I often have students say to me, “I can’t remember exactly what this person said, so I can’t write about it,” but I tell them it’s all about staying true to the emotional truth of the story. So, especially because “The Laundry” has so much dialogue and so many of these small details, I’m really curious how you approach this idea of memory. How do you get at the emotional truth of what happened? How do you reconstruct these experiences that happened decades prior?
JMW: That is always a really good question. I talk to my students about the same thing. you probably don’t have a courtroom reporter following you around, and there’s not a transcript of your life. And in a way that’s really good because so much of life is just informational exchanges and not meaningful dialogue. I have a really good memory, but I’m also a lifelong journaler. I think probably the lifelong journaling—especially when I was younger—was a way of cataloging details. I grew up in such a sheltered way, so that impulse to study and to look closely at things that I have may be part of being a writer or just part of who I am. I was home a lot. I was in my tiny little Christian school my whole childhood, my tiny little church, my tiny little neighborhood. I wasn’t really spending a lot of time traveling or interacting with a lot of people, so I have really strong memories of really specific people and places where I spent all of my time. I’m always trying first to get to the emotional tenor, and usually for me that’s setting. Even if the dialogue isn’t known, I try to picture exactly in my own mind where I was when either a very specific event occurred—or a ritual like the laundry. I sometimes make little charts or doodles that only make sense to me to re-see exactly what that laundry chute looks like. That workroom. Hallway. Laundry room. What were we typically wearing when we were doing the laundry? I may not use all of those details in the writing but try to really get back to the scene where dialogue transpired.
I talk to my students a lot about how if you’re writing about someone that you know really well, if you can get their voice back in your head, they have their own catch phrases or their own syntactical peculiarities. What does this person sound like when they talk? What are the kinds of things that you remember people in your life saying over and over? How did a conversation with my mother typically go? At the end of the essay when I was trying really hard to assert my authority, that felt really different and memorable because it’s not what I had ever done. With my students, we work a lot on patterns and variations. We realize that we remember patterns, but we especially remember when we break them.
LH: What writers have you looked to throughout your writing life as models for the kinds of forms that you write and the things that you write about?
JMW: Oh, so many are touchstones, but I have to go back to my first grad program: Brenda Miller and Susanne Paola. Early on, because of their influence, I was reading Bernard Cooper, Albert Goldbarth. I became really interested in John D’Agata. The Next American Essay, in particular, introduced me to Jenny Boully, Eula Biss—writers who felt like touchstones from the beginning. Then kind of coming later on the scene, Daisy Hernández. Even more recently than that, Julia Koets has a memoir that I blurbed, The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays. Even more recently, I went into Lia Purpura and never came back. That work is now my bar for attention to detail and not rushing—being able to stay with something as small as finding a pin in the grass while walking or contemplating a work of art. There’s a writer, T Fleischmann, who wrote a book called Syzygy, Beauty. I taught it recently for the first time. It says it’s a book-length lyric essay, it might be a series of prose poems. I don’t care what it is; it’s brilliant, it’s provocative. There’s a book by Shawn Wen called A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause, and it’s really interesting to me as a lyric essayist. One of my favorite writers, who I also consider a hybridist, is Kazim Ali. When you look at the back of his books, they’ll have a bunch of genre markers because the publisher couldn’t even decide. And of course Claudia Rankine. She blows my mind every time. And I don’t know, a hundred percent, if I would call it lyric essay, but I would call it one of the most important books in my entire life. It’s the reason I wanted to get an MFA at the University of Pittsburgh—because she taught there. Toi Derricotte wrote this book—The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey—that is actually based on notebooks. She wrote twenty thousand handwritten pages over twenty years, reckoning with race, identity, mistaken identity, interactions based on whether people recognized that she was a black woman or not, and then distilled it into 218 typewritten pages. I read it and thought, that’s a level of internal scouring and internal reflection that I’ve never seen, a book that was that deep but also that compressed.
LH: My last question: What are you working on? What’s next?
JMW: Well, I’m in “post production” of some projects, various states of bubble and simmer on the stove, but something really exciting: I had my first ever sabbatical last spring, and I worked on a project that is my biggest hermit crab to date. It’s called This Is Jeopardy!. I grew up watching Jeopardy! every night, my whole life. There’s thirty clues in regular Jeopardy! and thirty clues in Double Jeopardy! and a big Final Jeopardy! question, so I think it’s sixty-one poems. It has categories, five clues per category—they’re weighted with monetary value—and there are six categories per round. It’s not not a kind of memoir, but it’s more like a chance to choose categories that speak to things I’m interested in. It’s the most exciting, complete hermit crab project that I’ve done.
I’m writing what I think is called Cliffs Notes for Mid-Life. I guess I’m kind of middle-aged, so I wanted to figure out what I know; do I know anything? So I guess it’s a hermit crab too. They could be prose poems; they could be essays; I don’t know what they are, but I’ve written eighteen of them. They’re things like “Cliffs Notes for Cats,” and I have one called “Cliffs Notes for Horticulture,” which is about trying to grow an orchid. These kind of ordinary things that really are metaphors for other things.
I’m working on one other project that I’m very excited about: this big, weird book that is inspired by John Cage, the experimental composer. He was, from the beginning of his life, incapable of doing things in a traditional way, and I love that. I share a birthday with him, and at one time he lived in Seattle—where I’m from. He loves cats, I love cats; he’s obsessed with experimentation, and he loves the aleatoric—the use of randomization as a technique. So, I’m writing it in six different documents, and the aleatoric factor is going to be that, later, I’m going to roll dice and the six sides of the dice will determine the splicing of the text, so you could roll it different ways and put the text together differently. It’s super weird, and I’m loving it, and it’s all connected to sound because that was his big passion. One piece of that project is going to come out next year as its own chapbook with DIAGRAM [New Michigan Press]. It’s called Fugue: An Aural History.
I’ve just been having a lot of fun with form! This is my second wave of lyric essays and beyond.
See more from Julie Marie Wade at her website. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Linnea Harris (she/her) is a first-year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Colorado State University, where she is the Gill-Ronda Fellow in Creative Writing and an editorial assistant at Colorado Review. She is also a contributing reporter for EcoWatch.