Poetry Corner — An Interview (from Sweatpants and Coffee)

Julia Park Tracey Alameda Poet Laureate Sweatpants And Coffee Interview

“Poetry is kind of like Brussels sprouts,” a friend of mine said recently. “Some people love it and most people hate it.”

I find this both funny and, sadly, true; sadly because I consider myself a poet – but it took a long time, a lot of work and even more encouragement by fellow poets and mentors to claim that title.

The woman who made that tasty analogy is Julia Park Tracey, and she was recently named Poet Laureate for the city of Alameda, where she lives in California. In addition to being newly minted as Poet Laureate, Julia is also an accomplished editor and journalist, and has published books in a variety of genres, including novels, the collected diaries of her great aunt (a fabulous Flapper in the Roaring 20s) and, of course, poetry. It’s my distinct pleasure to sit down with Julia and, on behalf of Sweatpants and Coffee, learn more about what makes this pretty poet tick.

Oven Roasted Brussels Sprouts by Saleeha Bamjee WP

Tomi: Julia, how exciting to be named a Poet Laureate! Tell us the story of how you were appointed.

Julia: Alameda had a Poet Laureate named Mary Rudge for a long time – about 10 years. Mary passed away early in 2014 and the position was vacant. I was asked to apply by some folks at the city, and decided I would. I was surprised to be selected – I am known for many other things besides poetry, but poetry is my first literary love. So I’m pretty chuffed about the title.

Tomi: When and how did you start writing poetry?

Julia: My first exposure to real poetry came in 9th grade when I was home sick and my mom brought me some books from the library. On a whim, I asked her for poetry, and she brought me a large engraved picture book of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I fell in love with the cadences. Another of the books had “Kubla Kahn” and I loved that, too. Very old-fashioned stuff, but soon I was reading Plath and Alice Walker and Marge Piercy and writing my own rhymey and not-rhymey verses. “Rhymey” is a technical term, right?

Tomi: Of course it is. Now, who would you say is your favorite poet, and what are a few of your go-to poems when you feel the need to be inspired, comforted or just need a few beautiful, brilliant words?

Julia: Favorites for many years have been Sappho, Rumi, Piercy and Walker – their words always resonate and make me feel larger, somehow. Sylvia Plath is interesting but she is impenetrable sometimes. She needs a hammer and chisel to break open. I am not a fan of McClure and the Beats in general, though there are some that I like. I was Harold Norse’s secretary for a summer in the early 90s. He was a good teacher. TS Eliot, Charles Simic, Sparrow – whoever is getting printed in The Sun – those poets are very good in general.

Tomi: You’ve written and published a lot more than poetry: you worked diligently through your great aunt Doris’s diaries and published them in two volumes. What inspired you to take on that project, and what did you learn from it?

How has the response been to the Diaries?

Julia: The Doris Diaries project has been an homage to my great aunt – she was an amazing writer but never published her best work. She wrote her life story and self-pubbed it at age 96 – but the magic had gone out of her words. The diaries are so vibrant – it was like discovering a trove of Virginia Woolf. Her way of telling stories, of accessing the human heart – lovely. I have been publishing these myself, but BookTrope is going to reissue the two I have done, and will support more volumes to come. All the profits I’ve received from publishing Doris’s words have gone to Reed College in Doris’s name, as scholarship monies.

People love Doris and her stories. I have a good following on Facebook and Twitter (look for The Doris Diaries) and I get comments and feedback every day from people who feel her pain or laugh at or with her. I’ve had nothing but good since I started publishing Doris’s diaries.

The Doris Diaries Julia Park Tracey

Tomi: I love that you’re donating the profits, and I think Doris would have dug it, too. I’m glad her life and stories are being shared and touching people, that’s awesome.

You also have one novel under your belt, and one to be published by BookTrope this fall (a very steamy novel, I will add). Give us a glimpse into those novels and what sparked you to write them.

Julia: My first novel was literary fiction and was my thesis from my MA program. It’s called Tongues of Angelsand is about a Catholic priest and the politics of falling in love when you’re vowed to celibacy. It was inspired by my former husband, who had been a priest before we married. It’s edgy and sensuous but not overtly sexy. It’s really about coming to a fork in the road and deciding what kind of life to lead – fulfilled or thwarted? Living truth or living a lie, and how your choices change your life.

The novel that BookTrope is publishing this fall is a fun, sassy chick-lit suspense novel about a tattooed and pierced reporter who stumbles across a big story and has to race the clock to save an Indian burial ground from real estate developers, and beat the competition, too. Plus she has lots of hot sex. It’s called Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop and is the first in a series of three (or maybe more). I have been a journalist for 30 years; you can count on the newspaper atmosphere to feel very authentic. You’ll have to guess about the sex, though.

Tomi: Oooh, having been a beat reporter myself, I look forward to that.

So, as if all this writing and publishing and poetry isn’t enough, you do a lot of good work in your community, including teaching workshops in journalism, creative writing and marketing for authors.

Julia: I like working with kids, so I teach journalism classes to kids after school. I have taught poetry or creative writing to all ages of classes – mostly through volunteering in my daughters’ classrooms over the years. I have three daughters plus two stepchildren, and so I’ve had kids in school for about 25 straight years. That’s a lot of volunteering. I have also done workshops at writing conferences about marketing and PR for writers – I ran my own boutique publicity firm for three years, specializing in PR for non-profits and artists, most of whom can’t afford a PR person – so I learned how to DIY, and that’s how I teach it.

It’s important to be a part of the community you live in, to make it better. I can’t throw buckets of money at projects like Bill Gates can, and my time is limited by family and work, but when I have a skill to share, and I see a need, I will offer it up. For example, I made my poetry book launch a food drive for our local food bank – to thank them for when I was a single mother and was a food bank client. I have made the “admission fee” to various events a new or used children’s book, and then shared those with local preschools. I have donated books or free consultations to the many silent auctions that our local charities have. Even if you don’t have money or time, there are things you can do. In September, I am reading aloud for an hour at a Banned Books read-a-thon. Anyone who can read can do that. It’s a pay-it-forward kind of thinking.

Tomi: That is a lot of do-gooding. Thank you for that, sister. Anything else you’d like to share before our Poetry Coffee Break is over?

Julia: The biggest help to me in the last few years has been to gather a strong community of other writers around me. Not to work alone – because writing is very lonely. You work in a vacuum and it’s hard to tell if you’re a genius or if you suck. Find other writers who can support you and give feedback, cross-market or go to events with you. I have had a handful of supportive women close at hand for the past three years especially, and they have made a world of difference to my writing, my sense of connectedness, and my outlook. Don’t go it alone – take a buddy!

Elegy for October 1989

After the earthquake, we half-laughed and half-cried
as we picked through our belongings
strewn in sliding piles on the tilted floor.
That night, we blinked for endless hours in the dark,
all of us in one bed, covers pulled to our chins.
Our eyes snapped open like Roman shades
when ceiling creaked or house settled.
The house seemed a trap, yet our only haven.

The earth bumped and shrugged some more,
tore me back under to the dark place, where I remembered the attack,
how I’d screamed and fought my panic, losing;
and I felt some embedded part of me hit open air,
torn from its protective sheath,
burning like a first breath, like pepper in the eye:
I am weak, there is something much stronger than I am.

I was weak then; they outgrew my control:
the faceless one,
the moving ground,
the shudders and hiccups that followed, for weeks, years,
that still send me, adrenaline-crazed, to doorjambs,
while my teacups and windows rattle.

Over Lake Merritt

I come down the steps of the bank building,
invisible in the evening rush,
a check in my hand for the money from the house
that is no longer mine, the life
that is no longer mine,
pinwheeling, careening toward whatever and who the fuck,
from some bliss and pain and secrets,
dead to their world, they dead to mine;
pelicans wheel above,
pterodactyls on the hunt,
their reptile legs tucked under,
their cold yellow eyes,
silent but screaming that aik aik that I hear
when I can’t open my eyes at night, when I am awake and yet asleep,
when I reach for what I had that is gone,
when I wake and am cold.
When I rise and am silent.

*originally published PEN West anthology, April 2007

You can follow Julia Park Tracey on Twitter and Facebook under her own name. Look for the Twitter hashtags #poetlaureate and #whypoetrymatters, and like the new Facebook page, Alameda Poet Laureate, for Julia’s latest poetry and literary happenings.

Photo credit: Creative Commons License “Oven Roasted Brussels Sprouts” by Saleeha Bamjee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tomi L. Wiley is the Poetry and Short Fiction Editor for Sweatpants & Coffee. She has written and edited for mainstream and private media including Southern Living and Oxford American magazines, edited numerous manuscripts and literary anthologies, procured authors and coordinated panels for the Southern Festival of Books and am a past President of the Tennessee Writers Alliance. She studied poetry in France as part of a program with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is a published author and poet. She digs ice cream, goat cheese, red wine and very loud jazz. She is working on her first novel.

Where I’ve Been

Everyone says, “Oh, I’ve been so busy.” I have, too, but in a low-key way. In January of this year, my brother-in-law Dennis was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer. I had just made a rigorous plan for my books, writing, and marketing for 2014, and had gathered full momentum already. But I realized that some things are more important than writing blog posts or tweeting about my writing projects. So I put most of my work aside and made myself available to help.

My late brother-in-law Dennis, in the mountains he loved so much.
My late brother-in-law Dennis, in the mountains he loved so much.

Dennis was a Vietnam veteran, in the 25th Infantry, 1969-71. He was just a kid, but he did his duty, was injured twice, earned two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. Along the way he was sprayed with Agent Orange. One of the most stunning things the VA man told Dennis earlier this year was that, because of where Dennis was on certain dates with his division, “That was the day you were killed. It’s just taken this long to catch up to you.”

I took Dennis to the doctor when he needed a ride. He wasn’t able to drive with his oxygen tank, and walking was also a challenge, but we sped around the open corridors of Kaiser Santa Rose popping wheelies in a borrowed wheelchair. I sneaked a few Playboys to him. Because of various health reasons, radiation was not an option, and neither was surgery. Chemo was brutal. He suffered multiple strokes that left him incapacitated and in a long-term care facility, was anointed by the monsignor and made a miraculous recovery to almost his former self. He was able to walk, talk and reason again, and soon was home. But there could be no more chemo. It was a matter of enjoying what time he had left.

I was with Dennis on his last day in early June, a scant six months after diagnosis, taking my turn at companionship, preparing food and tracking medicine. It was a very long day. He wasn’t himself, didn’t feel well, and the hours dragged. By the time my sister Carolyn got home from work, I was exhausted but it was clear he wasn’t well, so I stayed. The nurse came late that night, and we had him settled for bed. But when we went to give him his next round of meds, he had stopped breathing. That was it — life and death, just a breath between the two. We held him and said thank you and how much we loved him, and he was gone.

A few days later my sister asked if I would speak at Dennis’s memorial, and while I was honored to do so, I knew I had to figure out what to say, and for me — a lifelong writer — that was an assignment that, for once, kind of sent me into a tizz. I don’t get writer’s block, as a rule. Because I have been a journalist and have written to deadline since high school, on newspapers, in the heat of rushing to press, very little stops me from getting words onto the page. But this was a tough one.

During the springtime and early summer, my husband and I had purchased a fixer-upper, and I found that throwing myself into cleaning house, clearing garbage and weeds, and shoveling dirt — I could think again. So I wrote the short essay of my life, and delivered it at his funeral earlier this month. And after the sound of the gunfire salute, the playing of Taps, and the long memorial barbecue afterward, I found that I still have a writing path, I still have a career that needed my attention, and I kind of wandered back to my desk.

So here I am — and that’s where I’ve been. And I have news. Not fallen from heaven like a meteor, unexpected and surprising, but some things I have worked for over the years, with diligence, endless writing and earning my way up the ladder.

Last week, I signed with BookTrope, a new publishing company that is changing the way books get out into the world. I am very excited to be a BookTrope author, and the first offering will be my new chick-lit novel, formerly called Shell Game, but with a title change  in the works. The heroine is Veronika Layne, a tattooed and pierced young reporter who stumbles on a mystery in her town, and has to race against real estate developers to save shell mounds from destruction. Drawn from my days as a weekly news reporter in a small city, this heroine is smart, rebellious, and persistent, has a crush on her rival reporter, and is determined to save the day. Sassy, sexy, smart — Veronika will steal your heart. First in a series, by BookTrope!

BookTrope will also republish both of my Doris Diaries books as well as my novel, Tongues of Angels; watch for that news on social media and links here. The Doris Diaries will become part of the “matriarchal legacy” line at BookTrope, and will be released together in March 2015 as part of Women’s History Month.

And last but not least, I got this letter in the mail yesterday:

The letter I received naming me Alameda's Poet Laureate.
The letter I received naming me Alameda’s Poet Laureate.

It’s true! I will be appointed as Alameda’s Poet Laureate (a two-year term) in September at a City Council meeting. Very exciting! I will be leading poetry readings, visiting the schools and senior center, and judging contests. I will be using the hashtags #PoetLaureate and #whypoetrymatters on social media — look for them!

So I’m back on track, with lots to do. Thanks for hanging in there and know how much your readership means to me, today, and every day.

 

 

 

 

 

Merry, merry month of May

I spent April in a frenzy of family activities, spring break, out-of-town visitors, and then playing catch-up, but when May 1 rolled around, it was nose-to-grindstone time. I am working a 31-day fast-draft challenge to finish my WIP, a genre chick-lit novel that is sexy romantic suspense. It will be released under the Scarlet Letter Press indie imprint in early summer under my pen name of Jae Bailey. More deets to follow. But trust me. It will be fun.

News on Reaching for the Moon:More Diaries of a Roaring Twenties Teen (1927-1929) — the second Doris Diaries volume received an honordoris_cover2able mention at the San Francisco Book Festival.

One of my short stories, from my unpublished collection, Wedlock: A Fictional Memoir, won honorable mention, that is, fourth place nationally in the Women’s National Book Association short fiction contest in late April.

I taught three rounds of kids’ journalism classes in Alameda over the school year, and, in fact, just finished the final class today. Three sessions of four weeks each gave the kids exposure to news-writing, what makes a story, parts of the newspaper, and the difference between hearsay and fact-based news.  With students from fourth through seventh grades, the classes were rambunctious, enthusiastic and ultimately dynamic learning environments, as we talked over animal rights, the Olympics, climate change and racism, depending on the prevailing winds. Good times for all, and a real newspaper of their own making in their hands at the end of each 4-week session.

I’m freelancing on some magazine work just now, and will have some stories up in the next few months. I have deadlines next week, and have been interviewing and gathering info along the way. My favorite kinds of assignments are literary, food and beverage, and arts, and that’s just what’s on the agenda for me. I’ll post links when the stories go up.

The other news is that I set aside Volume 3 of The Doris Diaries for now, which I had planned for fall release, and am focusing on Doris in San Francisco. The year is 1938, and I am working hard to get a manuscript together for a July 1 deadline — for a historical book award. The prize is publication, so I am writing hard and fast to make it happen. If that falls through, I will still shop the volume to regional publishers, and I have high expectations of success with Doris’s vivid writing and historical cachet. Go, Doris! I can’t wait for her fame flag to fly.

Happy May, and may all be well with you.

 

What I’ve learned: Publishing and the march of times

When I was in my twenties and reading voraciously and spewing poetry on the page like a hydrant hit by a drunk driver, I wanted to get published more than I wanted a happy marriage, a suburban house and 2.5 children. In fact, I didn’t have a happy marriage, although we did get that house, and three whole children; my desire to be published outlasted everything but the children, who are grown up and doing very well on their own now; thanks for asking.

I subscribed to Writers Digest and Byline Magazine, and kept a journal and wrote every single day, if I could, if I didn’t have sick babies or sleepless nights, or, you know, life in general, which means I wrote a couple of times a week. Mostly about how tired I was. But I wanted, oh, how I wanted to be a writer. It was the being, not the doing, that I wanted, more than anything. This was before the Internet, and email, and the writing I did consisted of me with a notebook, scrawling verses, and me, with stationery, sending letters. I wanted to be a published writer now, today, not tomorrow, and not, by all that is holy, when I was forty, or fifty, or sixty, with Birkenstocks and a gray ponytail, just getting my first book of crappy poetry published. I wanted precocity. And I wanted it yesterday.

Then we got a computer and a modem, and email.
And we got the Internet.

I made a few email pals via chatrooms and I joined some listserves, and about that time I went into college classes and started working on my Masters’ degree. There were no MFA programs yet. And then, almost overnight, there were MFA programs everywhere. My university switched over from the MA in English with a creative writing concentration to the MFA in (whatever) the semester before I graduated, so I could have paid for another three terms, or just finished up and been done. I finished.

I submitted work, and it was rejected. I went to open mics, where I sat through the horrors of other people’s work, and the horrors of reading my own. I went to writers’ conferences, those soul-sucking, money-sucking ventures where sci-fi poetry dudes in tweed with elbow patches flirted awkwardly, and my goody satchel contained a copy of Writers Digest, an emery board, a couple of free pens and a Visa application (kind of like the first day of college, minus the condom). I sent out work, and some of it was accepted. More and more, as I went on. My rejections were better, and then my acceptances were easier, and then I learned to target my subs, and my ratio increased.

So I was published.

Then I wrote a novel. I sent it out. I sent it out. I sent it out. I sent it out. And I sent it out. I gave up. I got a call, I got some letters, and I sent it out some more, and then I shelved it. I got divorced. I went back to newspaper work to earn a living, and then had the opportunity to start an indie newspaper with some smart people. Within two years, they wanted to expand the publishing business, and to print a novel. I showed mine, and they agreed it was a good start for the company. It was published.

You’ve never heard of it, so you know how that went.

But I was published. Right? And I was working as a writer, and I was writing, so I was being a writer. Right?

Guess how old I was? 40.

And over the next few years, I pushed that novel around, I taught some classes, I found a new project, I spewed out a couple more projects, including indie publishing my women’s history project, and working in a women’s publishing consortium. And this thing called social media popped up on the screen, and indie publishing was no longer a filthy abomination, and I’m still writing every day, and I don’t wear Birkenstocks and my hair is not quite gray yet.

On my self-made book tour for the Doris Diaries last fall, one of the book stores dismissed me, saying, “She’s not Stephen King.” A reviewer dissed the books and the project, because “It’s not like Anne Frank’s diary.” I had readings that went awry and events where the mic or the computer or the slide show didn’t work. I tore out the entire back of my vintage dress just getting out of my chair at a reading in my hometown.

Still no red carpet. I rode in the 4th of July parade last year dressed as Doris. Dorky? Yes. My idea of fame and fortune? Not exactly. But what the hell?

At some point along the way, I realized that I couldn’t be precocious because although back then I had the will, and a lot of the skill, I didn’t have the experiences, the treasure trove of life to explore. I hadn’t have the goods. No material. Somewhere, later, I realized that all of those struggling months and years were my apprenticeship. And I mine that shit on an almost-daily basis now.

About three years ago I stopped using the words “submit,” “acceptance” and “rejection” with regard to my writing work. I stopped giving the power of my worth as a writer to people who might or might not like it. Now I send out my work, and they like it or they don’t. It serves their needs or it does not. My work is good. I wouldn’t have lasted this long in newspaper, which is about as fiery a crucible as you’ll find for a young writer, with deadlines and editors who won’t worry about crushing your little feelings to get the story right. Editors who kicked my ass about word choice, grammar, punctuation and spelling eons ago. Before Spellcheck. Before Autocorrect was a thing.

So here I am. Not as successful as you, and way more successful than you’ll ever be. I’m somewhere in the middle, making a living at it. I’m writing what I want, sending it to people who will probably like it, helping others who ask for advice or “new eyes” on their work. I mentor those who ask for it. I share resources. I support my sister and brother writers. I keep working at it. I might get “there,” wherever the hell that mystical place is, someday. I might even have a gray fricking ponytail.

It doesn’t matter as much, knowing, as I do, that at least I’m on my way.

NaNoWriMo in just three days

MAM33juliawithtypewritersideDude. Where did October go? I was sitting over there filing my nails and making glib promises to write a novel in 30 days, and suddenly Halloween is here and I have to get started writing. Like, soon.
I have a title. It’s called “That Thing I’m  Gonna Start Writing.” I have no outline. I figured it would come to me in a dream. I have nothing simmering in my head, waiting to burst out onto the page.
The last few times I NaNo’d, I knew exactly what I was going to do, and I was revved up and ready to go. This year I am mid-book-tour, with a reading, an author fair and a research trip to another state planned (hello, Albuquerque!). In other years, I had been blogging about the book ideas. Once I wrote creative nonfiction. Another year I wrote 30 poems in 30 days. I’ve used NaNoWriMo in my writing classes to inspire students, and have guest-spoken in a middle-school classroom to budding authors on the delights of NaNo. I felt utterly confident about the ease of the project.
But here, now. In three days. I have no excuses. I have been working on other people’s projects. I have been producing nonfiction. But I haven’t been writing – my own sweet words. And chances are, as with many other areas of my life, that what I really long to do would get pressed to the side or nudged to the bottom of the list while I deal or manage or fix it for others. So. No title. No outline. Just a general idea, little more than an elevator pitch. One sentence with which to start a novel.
I’m not ready. But I’m ready. If you know what I mean.
Read all about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) here.