Juliana Spahr is an American poet, critic, and editor. She earned her BA in languages and literature from Bard College and her PhD in English from SUNY Buffalo. Spahr has published eight books of poetry, including Response (1996), which won a National Poetry Series Award. Her work spans the length of the American landscape from coast to coast.
Mount Hope: So I think one of the things I wanted to start with was I found your book Well Then There Now really compelling when I first read it, and I just wanted to know what sparked that same sort of interest in exploring social change through poetry?
Juliana Spahr: I wrote that book when I was in Hawaii and I was trying to figure out how to talk about Hawaii as someone who showed up there as part to the colonial education system (I was there for a job at U. of Hawaii at Manoa). I was trying to figure out how to be in alliance with the kind of Hawaiian sovereignty movement, but not imply that I was Hawaiian. But I confess I never thought of it as exploring social change. I thought of it as trying to think about how to make literature in a really complicated place without giving up on literature and in the alliance.
MH: And then I know you chose to start the book with—I believe, somewhere —let me get this right. ‘’Some of We and the Land That Was Never Ours.’’ I think that was a really interesting choice because it opened a conversation in a way that included both the reader and yourself. Is that a way that you typically approach very political subjects without coming off as being overly political?
JS: I know I touch on content that’s often seen as political a lot. But I don’t really set out to write a political poem. Or I’m suspicious of the word “political,” in obvious ways that I am in no way the first person to notice. But I try to not suggest that I know the way, or I should tell you the way because a poet has special access to understanding. And I don’t like work that does that either. I’m often listening to work and be like, ‘’Stop yelling at me. Stop telling me what to do.’’
MH: Yeah. I didn’t feel like there’s as much yelling or that kind of aggressive tone when I was reading through. And I think one of the things that you touched a lot upon was identity. And I think that that helped invite your readers in. So I’m wondering, is infusing yourself in the narrative, did that sort of help open up to talk about these very large subjects of climate change and progression, the sort of movement between time and place throughout your journey? Because you start the book in a very different place in which you ended.
JS: In terms of Well Then There Now, it felt impossible to not think a lot about identity and Hawaii in part because it’s a place that still, for the most part, identifies as colonized. And a lot of the writing that comes out of that Hawaii moment was trying to figure that out and trying to understand what it meant to write there in Hawaii and yet not be from Hawaii. I was trying not to write what was often jokingly called the “747 poem”—the poem that gets written on someone’s vacation. And at the same time, when I go back to Ohio, which is where I’m from, I was trying to think through what I had learned from Hawaii writers about writing about place.
MH: And I think what was intriguing because I’ve never been to Hawaii, and what I’ve known about Hawaii is this very materialistic like the Honolulu, these sorts of bobbleheads in the car. And I think there is a point at the beginning where you sort of you showed pictures of those and you’ve had taken a small camera. And I thought it was interesting because I saw a different side of Hawaii through reading this book. Can you speak maybe a little bit more on how that changed? Because you’d also had mentioned how you didn’t want to come off necessarily having been Hawaiian, but showing this culture in the most accurate way possible.
JS: It’s funny. I look back on those photos and sort of laugh about them because I took them before the cell-phone camera was so ubiquitous. But whatever. I was during those years trying to do some writing that was just about other things. Like I didn’t want to write about Hawaiianness, because I’m not Hawaiian. And yet at the same time, I was so influenced by the work that was getting written in Hawaii at the time. I wanted to write some things that I thought of as besides that work, but not of that work. I was trying for a sort of respectful difference. I felt it was very important to say I was not Hawaiian also. I started talking in my bio notes about how I was a haole just to make this clear.
MH: And I think because I know through things I’ve been reading and exploring now that there’s a large debate around who can talk about certain topics and representation not only within poetry but literature in general. Is that something that you think is having an impact on poets and authors, and moving forward into the upcoming generations?
JS: Oh, certainly. This concern that you’re kind of talking about—who has the right to speak and what can they say—is a moment that kind of comes and never fully goes away. We’re in a moment where it’s intensifying, which is interesting. It won’t last forever and then there’ll be something else. It is impossible to project or know what that might be finally. But right now, it does seem to be a big part of the way that people think about literature is that it is a form that holds more often than not personal details about the author, things about their identity or about themselves. Even the novel is understood through the author.
MH: Does that inform your work moving forward, and have you ever felt maybe self-censorship in terms of what you felt you couldn’t talk about, or how you approached or framed a certain subject?
JS: Well, certainly there (were) a lot of things around Hawaii that I didn’t want to do. And when I lived there, I made for myself a series of rules. Some of them I would probably adapt now. But one of my rules was that I would never write a poem written in pre-contact Hawaii. Another was that I felt in my writing that I should support sovereignty but I should not say what form it should take, because that wasn’t my decision to make, etc.
MH: Okay, and sort of jumping back a little, what sparked your interest in activism and writing about such change in the world?
JS: I’m not sure that there’s like one point. My most recent book has a lot about Occupy, and it was a lot about that hot winter around Michael Brown and so it has a lot of scenes of street protests in it. But I’ve never thought of that work as doing political work. I was just, like many other writers, doing a kind of writing about myself.
MH: Okay. And you also talk a lot about feminism within your work. Do you think that a woman’s role within poetry now, the publishing industry, and particularly in poetry, has that been evolving throughout time and where do you see that going?
JS: Definitely evolving throughout time. I’m not sure where it’s going. I mean my guess is that women are “overrepresented” in writing circles right now just because over 70 percent of the MFAs go to women. And I think women are writing more literature than men in this kind of current moment if you count everything from self-publishing to prestige publishing. I don’t quite know why. Sociologists might have a better answer than I would. And yet there are still those moments when women are underrepresented like in the book review magazines.
MH: Okay. And then you’ve talked again––we talked about identity and sort of both infusing yourself in the story but also showing respect to the culture in which you’re writing about. Do you find that there’s a time where you’ve felt more a part of that culture through writing about it and through the time you do spend? Because you spend a lot of time in Hawaii.
JS: I never would’ve felt part of Hawaiian culture. I would’ve felt an obligation to know about it. But I always felt that I was a Haole, which is their word for a white person from the continent, and that I’d come there to teach in a colonial institution, which was the university. There was a lot I learned––I learned a lot and I’m grateful for it. But I don’t think I’m an expert.
MH: Yeah. Did it, though, impact you in any way and changed you as a person coming out from this experience? Did it sort of evolve your thinking or the way you approached the world?
JS: Oh, hugely. I mean for one thing, when I first went there in the late ’90s, I had not thought of myself as racialized much. I just hadn’t been made to think about it. It was really interesting to think about that. What it meant to be part of colonial networks was something that I thought a lot about. I also started taking ethnobotany classes and that was also really transformative.
MH: And so you talked about informing yourself in the race and how you didn’t necessarily think about that until you were confronted with it. Do you find that writers today tend to avoid certain subjects that may make them uncomfortable? Or do you disagree and think, “We have to throw ourselves into starting this conversation,” opening up the dialogue?
JS: I mean I think my “rule” on this issue is that certain things have shared histories and as a writer, I have an obligation to kind of think them through. But I also don’t think writing is all that great at opening up the dialogue.
MH: And you also talked about studying ecology within Hawaii, and obviously, that must have been beautiful. I can only imagine just sort of what you examined. Can you speak a bit more about that?
JS: There are three categories of plants in Hawaii. There’s this stuff that was on the island before humans arrived. There’s this stuff that arrived with the people that are now called Hawaiians, sometimes called the canoe plants. And there was this stuff that gets brought over after contact. When you look around, most of what you see is from the third category. But it’s so beautiful. And that interested me. There’s a really beautiful poem or chant that I love called the Kumulipo that is about the island ecosystem that I love. And a lot of my interest in ethnobotany was just trying to better read that poem.
MH: And do you think that there’s definitely a relationship because you talked about what comes first with the immune and relating that to the plants? Do you think that that connects to a larger sort of human theoretical kind of ideology and where we come from and how we based on the places we aren’t happening at that time? How that changes and forms our identities and forms, informs, sorry, our outlook on the world. I guess in a very broad sense.
JS: Do Plants, is that what you’re asking?
MH: So you talked about how the Hawaiians focused on Neal, what came first in the land and to know the kind of the chronological life stand, do you think translate to in a very, I guess broaden almost stretch sense human life and how the places we inhabit and the only experiences we had and we have, the storms we weather and we can now translate over.
JS: There’s a lot of writing in Hawaii at the time that was using a kind of invasive plants or animals as a metaphor for the colonial subject. The cockroach was a common one…Right. Or whenever it was. So I mean, that seems to be kind of trying to think that through. I mean, I do think like the environment certainly shapes humans in some ways. Now that you’ve asked that question, I would have the answer and I’d have to answer it almost like historically because we move around so much now, in a way that we haven’t in the past. But I don’t know, it’s interesting to think about.
MH: And I guess drawing back to the beginning, what drew you to go to Hawaii and to be exploring these topics?
JS: I got a job there at the university. I did work on contemporary literature as a scholar. And so I just started reading the literature of Hawaii, which actually still doesn’t get read enough on the continent.
MH: Okay. And I think that there’s like a deep historical tie to what you write about and you write about a lot within the past. Do you think that poetry moving into the future and into more of contemporary space and with the rise of social media and the way in which we’re communicating with the other, how do you think that all sort of effects the writing and the works and the things, the topics we’re discussing?
JS: You’re asking like how might social media change literature?
JS: Right now it seems significant. And we’re not far enough into it yet to kind of understand it. I’m sure that there will be various forms of writing that we will attribute to social media. And social media has created different kinds of networks. So poetry, in particular, is circulating differently.
MH: I think some could argue, that social media does help give rise to form, such as slam poetry, or spoken word to be shared with a much larger audience. Nick would traditionally have been in those, you know, who may have found it to be an inaccessible before. Do you think that these avenues or these platforms are helping, young writers, approach social issues and to, you know, bringing in essence of creativity to kind of, you know, grappling with these very large issues, such as climate change, or you would talk to about the Occupy Wall Street, like approaching these very large almost feel intangible subjects in a really tangible way.
JS: While for years poetry has circulated in print and also through readings, it now circulates also through retweets. And that has certainly changed things. And large databases of poetry have been created that are accessible twenty-four-seven on the internet. Poets.org has one. The Poetry Foundation has one. PennSounds is another. This is bringing poetry to a different sort of audience. And also different sorts of use.
MH: Yeah. And I guess I asked this because you talked about, how the Hawaiian stories, are a little bit more difficult to find. And do you think it’s maybe, the responsibility of writers to sort of elevate these global issues, or to bring out and into a larger space for readers, and inform them on these global issues?
JS: In general, I would say that there’s no responsibility and not only that, I would be hesitant to get my information about climate change from poetry. However, it does do a really good job of holding information about plants and animals, and our relation, or feelings about them, and our love for them or what’s interesting about them. I’m never convinced that poetry is very good at politics stuff, and right now, poetry is very democratic party-centered, very liberal in concern, which is why I would also not want to turn to it for political guidance all that much. I prefer more left politics.
MH: Yeah. And I think there’s a rise in the sort of––one wouldn’t want to call it a protest culture, but there’s definitely a rise in the sort of, resistance––again, I would say against certain forces that we feel are enacting. Do you think that resistant poetry is shaping the way people are having conversations, maybe?
JS: No, I don’t think that other people read it.
JS: I’m part of this publishing collective that publishes poetry in the anti-state communist or anarchist tradition. And you would think this would be a sign of a conviction that poetry will save the world. But I’ve never found that that’s true. That said, I still like to read anti-state communist or anarchist-influenced poetry because I think it is better poetry and fun to read and I learn stuff. There are, though, these isolated moments when poetry has played a role in some kind of political moment. My favorite story is (Claude) McKay’s “If We Must Die” circulating among the prisoners in Attica during the uprising. But those moments are very isolated.
MH: Yeah. Now––I think that there’s a lot of pressure to sort of––again, either pick the sides and allow art to a kind of dictate your viewpoint, which can be often very intimidating and scary. Also, I think there’s been a lot of responsibility placed on art to sort of be the educator for certain things that should be, where politicians are speaking out or different institutions, so do you think maybe the role that poetry plays within––sort of talking about social, justice, or politics, is maybe not so much to tell you what side to pick, which is to bring things into light maybe, or just raise awareness?
JS: Poetry traditionally does have a very close relationship to protest, of all the genres. Like it shows up in that ecosystem. But so does, say, coffee or socks or whatever. And despite this, the cliché that we have of the poet who stands up and does the kind of protest poem doesn’t feel to be super politically effective.
MH: Does it sometimes feel that that poet can be disingenuous at times, too, and sort of not completely honest? Because I think there is, sort of within poetry, only so much unlimited time and space to tackle what are sometimes really complicating complex issues.
JS: Do they seem disingenuous? I think politics can be used as a way of self-promotion. Or a way of talking about the self. I don’t know if that means it is disingenuous or not, though.
JS: I think one of the things that may be interesting about poetry at this moment is also that it is a genre without a significant role in the marketplace.
MH: I think, knowing the work I do in the magazine, we have large conversations about the readership of poetry and picking poems that would connect with our audience, but also, too, we know our good work. And I think one of the things that I struggle with is that low readership. And so the sort of hope that all the work that goes into it is who is reading it and who is enjoying it. But I think it’s interesting that you sort of takes the positive rap. It’s almost nice that it’s not so mainstream and that there is a sort of localized readership to it. Can you speak maybe more on that?
JS: We know what happens when an art form has a large “readership.” Usually, this readership is very top-heavy, consolidated around a few mega-hits. With the novel, there’s Stephen King and James Patterson, and then there’s everybody else. I wouldn’t want to give up that small press culture for a larger, more significant kind of consolidated readership.
MH: Yeah, definitely. And I think in terms of a radical question I’m sort of asking you because you––I think it’s great that there is optimism for poetry and that it’s not necessarily going to end. Because I think there’s a lot of people, especially in publishing, who just feel that it’s a “dead market.” But I think it’s really evolving. It’s changing. Is there a direction or things that you hope it changes for? Or the things that poetry is going to sort of allow for in the future.
JS: I would very much like to see it be more disobedient. And I would like to see it less dependent on the institutions created by private foundations and by higher education. If there’s a moment that I feel very nostalgic about, it is that moment in the ’70s in which there were various culturist moments that were interested in the development of literature as a part of political projects. And that close connection to political social movements, that’s gone away. And I feel kind of like––I would like to have that come back.