I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Linda Michel-Cassidy for Why There Are Words.
Many thanks to Linda, and to Peg Alford Pursell for graciously hosting John, Barrett, and me at the Why Are There Words series in Sausalito last month.
Linda Michel-Cassidy: In your poetry collection, Take This Spoon, you use the procedures of cooking as the doorway for investigating control, care, want—all very elusive topics. Talk a bit about turning preconceived ideas of comfort back on themselves.
Julia Wendell: Food has always been at the center of my universe. My mother cooked, always fattening, tons of butter and fat and sauces, yet she was always on a diet. I grew up in the age of Twiggy, so that was our idol, what we young girls all aspired to. I had one brother who was a body builder, one brother who was fat, and then my mother, always depriving herself. My father was the only one indifferent to food. He was the only one who had any control over his appetite. Anorexia and later bulimia were my secret weapons. There was no comfort for me with food, only torment for many years.
LMC: You use a daring strategy of pairing recipes with a narrative of self-denial. Both the culinary activities and the psychological aspects of anorexia speak to control, more specifically, to giving and refusal. What did you feel were the greatest risks you took with the structure of the book?
JW: The irony is that the recipes really are good—and marvelously fattening. No dieting allowed. Thus, they became integral to the whole concept of self-denial. You either enjoy and then punish yourself, or you don’t enjoy and feel self-righteous, yet somehow empty. These are topics that plague me to this day. Moderation is the only way out of the cycle, but it’s no fun.
LMC: Take This Spoon traces some very specific activities and then flips them into some more universal, and at times, esoteric ideas. Talk a bit about using the concrete to get at the harder-to-grasp things that you want to call to mind. How do you find the place where you can just trust the reader/listener to “get” those connections?
JW: I’ve always taken that plunge to the general and more esoteric. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the ideas stay, sometimes they never make it past an early draft but somehow guide the poem. And I’ve been criticized as well as complimented for my willingness to go out on abstract limbs. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but sometimes I like to say what the oversized black crow wobbling and bitching on the tiny limb outside my window means to me, not just that it’s there.
LMC: In an earlier book, Dark Track (Word Tech Editions, 2005), you write about the life as a horsewoman. A number of the scenes get within whispering distance of being truly grizzly. Why is it that urgent and laid-bare writing about animals often feels more human than writing about humans?
JW: No idea; it has honestly been my life. When you’re dealing with 1,200 pound animals, everything gets larger: sex, birth, death, an open wound. It’s the same with humans, but the enormity of the very basics in horses is often terrifying.
LMC: Your writing in Dark Track is all sinew and muscle—leaving me with a wild heart, whereas Take This Spoon felt both warm and asking—which was more like a knockout in slow motion. How does a shift in subject matter affect your style and approach?
JW: That probably has more to do with the stage in my life during which I wrote both books. Dark Track was written when I was spending a lot of time at the racetrack and building my Maryland farm. Plus, I was younger and taking a lot of chances galloping on the track at 40 mph on what feels like a fire-breathing dragon—no chance of control.
Take This Spoon is definitely a more considered book, written originally as a book of family recipes for my kids, which morphed into a poetry collection. So there is a maternal element in the book missing in the earlier Dark Track.
LMC: In Take This Spoon, you also write about alcoholism, parenting, and being parented. You really cover a lot of ground, but you do so with such specifics that the poems never feel like a broad sweep. What do you think/hope happens when a poet offers up such a range of topics?
JW: I’ve hoped for openness and honesty in my poems and yet I’m one to have dark secrets that I have trouble revealing, so I suppose the tension in my work comes from those conflicting elements. I want to be open, yet I can’t be. We are all struggling to say the unsayable.
Be sure to check out this interview as it originally appeared on Why Are There Words, and all the other wonderful interviews there as well.