Julia Wendell loves a kitchen messy with oils, salts, pots, and skillets, as much as she loves setting a formal table. This says a lot about her poetry, for Julia writes from the entrails. Her gut ferments love and bile, family and work. Her poems arrive at a big oak table where structure and balance sit like mom and dad, nervously entertaining their daughter, form, and her strange wild partner who isn’t wearing any socks but insists on wearing a hat. A hat! Can you believe it?
The daughter of a Romantic Poet scholar and a french baroque harpsichordist, Julia migrated like a coyote from Massachusetts to Arizona to Iowa to Maryland to work with legends in the writing community including Helen Vendler, Norman Dubie and Larry Levis. She began her literary career in 1979 as an editor for Galileo Press, producing their signature literary review Telescope and publishing numerous collections of poetry and prose. The Eighties saw Wendell’s first poems published. Her two children, son John and daughter Caitlin were also born.
In 1988 Julia’s first book An Otherwise Perfect History was published by Ithaca House Press. David St. John called it a captivating debut with “lyrics of great elegance and power, culminating in dramatic and impassioned voicings of the conflicts and conditions of our world.” Yaddo Colony and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowships followed and in 1993 she won the Bacchae Press chapbook prize for her short collection Fires at Yellowstone. Jenny Keith wrote, “These poems do what poems should–link small bits of reality to the big things that endure. Wendell has an ability to feel strong emotions but writes down only the words that belong.”
Music was always present in her home growing up in Northwestern Pennsylvania, but there were also horses on her parents’ farm Restalrig, named for the church in Scotland whence came her forebears. Julia learned at a young age that the best way to elude her annoying older brothers was to hop on a fast spotted pony. In 1995, she built a horse farm where she bred race horses and pursued the Olympic sport of the three day eventing with her second husband, editor Barrett Warner. That same year, Julia’s poem “In the Pasture of Dead Horses” won a Pushcart Prize.
Julia’s second collection, Wheeler Lane, was published by Igneus Press in 1998. “Strong, direct, personal and passionate,” wrote Michael Collier. “Graceful and compassionate,” wrote Elizabeth Spires. “Wendell’s poetry persuasively exposes our fluent ignorance in the face of personal loss, even as it traces the deepening of a woman in midlife who bravely acknowledges, I hold on.” Julia’s music is always confessing something that is vital and elemental. “We are not unchanged,” wrote Dubie, “and yet amazingly we are allowed to feel like ourselves again.”
Julia was literally off to the races and over the next several years her work featured poems of the race track where she galloped horses at Pimlico, and poems of the farm: its weather, its ground, its animals, its children, its husbands. Then her mother passed away in 2003, followed six months later by her father in early 2004. Her next two poetry volumes, the 2004 chapbook Scared Money Never Wins (Finishing Line Press) and the 2005 collection Dark Track (WordTech Editions) were both published during a period of intense grief, but the music never stopped playing. Her parents’ several large instruments came to live at the farm. Julia’s children were both molded by her mother’s and grandmother’s passion for the arts. Her son John studied jazz at Berklee School of Music while her daughter Caitlin studied music theater at Sarah Lawrence College.
Julia’s third chapbook Restalrig (Finishing Line Press) appeared in 2007. David Fenza wrote that this small volume of thirty-seven poems about her father was “an homage to the restorative powers of memory, family and poetry.” Sam Schmidt said, “One of Julia Wendell’s secrets, as a poet, is that she understands how the vast river of our emotions, including grief and revery, can flow–at intense pressure–through small unexpected details.”
In 2009 Julia published Finding My Distance, a project that took a year to live and four years to write. Currently in its second printing, the book is part memoir, part poetry collection. It chronicles her day-to-day life with literature and horse competitions as she undertook to master one of the most difficult cross country courses in North America, the Fair Hill International Three Day Event.
In late 2009, Julia’s full length collection The Sorry Flowers (WordTech Editions) was also published. Like Wheeler Lane and An Otherwise Perfect History before it, this collection found its arc in Julia’s classic themes: the isolation of grief and sadness, the illumination of the small details in our day-to-day, as well as a rousing sense of conviction. Each theme makes the others possible. As Jim Moore noted, “Julia Wendell writes poems that give us back the world afresh, a world she reminds us how to love even as we mourn its losses.” She does this by “reshaping her soul” and in so doing guides us in how to reshape our own “to help us make our way on our own difficult and mysterious journeys.”
Today, her son John is a sitar player in Los Angeles, while Caitlin is an actress, playwright and tango dancer in Brooklyn. Their careers are called: Get as far away from the farm as possible. Putting some distance between her old self and her newer one is what let her write Take this Spoon, forthcoming from Main Street Rag Press. These are food poems, written by an anorexic. They are both delicious and terrifying as she eats her own words. Don’t even consider reading this book without a napkin shoved into your collar.