Take the ugliness and the beautifulness and stick them right next to each other: An Interview with Juliet Escoria
The writing of Juliet Escoria can take you to the biggest LOL moments ever at the same time that it is also taking you to the deepest darkest corridors of your emotions. Or the reverse. Either way, her poems in her first collection WITCH HUNT take you on that journey, and it goes on for longer than most poetry collections. I feel like among my generation of poets there are a lot of short ass books, which is fine. Not so with this collection, though: she gives you 138 pages of pure poetic power, sent in conjunction with the supernatural witches on the other side of our universal plane.
I have never met Juliet Escoria, but I am friends with her husband Scott, and I feel like I can call her a friend, so full disclosure and all. This collection is her second book, following her story collection BLACK CLOUD, published by Civil Coping Mechanisms. This poetry collection was published by Lazy Fascist Press. After reading, I was filled with questions to ask Juliet, which she was kind enough to answer. Our conversation is below.
I’m sure you’re asked this question a lot about this book, but here it is: How did you start writing poetry? Did it seem like a creative release after having written prose/fiction more in the past?
I started writing poetry way before I ever wrote anything else. In high school, I liked to wear too much eyeliner and cut myself and write bad poetry. But I stopped writing it for a long while, because I felt like I wasn’t able to look at my work objectively—I didn’t know if my poems were good or bad, or how to make them better. So I started writing some nonfiction, and a lot of fiction, instead. I think doing so made me better at self-evaluating, maybe?
And yes, so much so. I’ve said this before but the poetry book really wasn’t ‘supposed to’ happen. I was supposed to be writing a novel. But it felt overwhelming and not fun and so I started writing the poems as a form of procrastination, as though poetry was a bad habit. And I guess maybe it is. Or it should be. In the 21st century, it definitely feels like an awfully self-indulgent art form.
How long did it take you to write this book? What is your editing process like with poetry as opposed to fiction, such as your last book?
Some of the poems were written shortly after I finished Black Cloud, and some of them were written in the spring of 2015, but the majority was written between November 2014 and January 2015. In those two months, I wrote as many poems as I could every day. At night, I showed them to Scott, and he told me what he thought. The next day, I’d edit yesterday’s batch before moving onto that day’s new work.
Black Cloud was kind of easy to figure out if a story ‘fit’ into it or not—I knew I wanted for it to feel very unified, and as though each story had a relationship to the others. The problem with a poetry book, it turns out, is you can spend a ridiculous amount of time reorganizing, cutting poems and adding them, moving sections around, etc. I started to make myself insane.
But overall, the editing process for poetry was way easier. In poetry, the moving pieces are limited—sound, images, emotion, the way it looks on a page… that’s about it, I think?—and so it’s way less of a juggling act.
While you were writing this book, you began your current married life with Scott McClanahan, right? How has being a married person influenced you?
Yep, in November 2014 we’d been married for four months—so very new newlyweds.
To be honest, I was pretty nervous about getting married. I have a bad track record with relationships. But marriage has been good for me, or maybe Scott is just good for me. It’s made me behave a lot less selfishly.
The one thing I miss about pre-married life is the ability to get totally absorbed in your work in an unhealthy way. When I was super in the thick of it with Black Cloud, I was going to bed at five or seven in the morning, chain smoking, not bathing—and I felt very lonely but in a really nice way, like sort of holy or something. I’m probably over-romanticizing things in hindsight. But yes, in a healthy marriage, you have to do things like eat meals together and spend time together and bathe fairly regularly, which prevents me from completely losing myself in my work for days on end. Which is probably better for me in the long run.
Do you believe different artists have different visions or at least styles? If so, how do you believe yours has developed?
Yes, definitely. One of the things that used to overwhelm me was just how much of everything there is—good and evil, selflessness and selfishness, beautiful and ugly. For example: We were trapped in Rainelle for a couple nights, during the recent flooding. The first night I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and went outside. It was like 4am. It was dark as shit out there, totally silent except for the sound of the neighbor’s generator, it smelled like sewage and gas, and there was this feeling like doom had been dumped everywhere—because it had. Down the street, people’s houses were destroyed and some of them were lying in the water dead. But also. The fireflies were out, dozens of them, even though I’d read that they’re only active at dawn and dusk, and they were flying all over the place, all over the grass and above the tops of the trees, even though I’d read they usually hang out in little bushes. It was beautiful. It was just too much. And then in the days after—people have volunteered, donated, done all these amazing acts of kindness. But also. Apparently people were coming in and pretending to be FEMA so they could go through the trash and do shit like steal banking information. From people who had lost just about everything, and didn’t have that much to begin with. What are you supposed to do with things like that? Not a whole lot. But you can write about them. You can take the ugliness and the beautifulness and stick them right next to each other. Doing that kind of thing is important to me in my work.
In one poem titled “David Foster Wallace’s Rock Idol was Axl Rose” you have the following line:
Instead of marriage or death,
they just assaulted and sued
each other a couple of times
which I guess is a
lesser kind of marriage,
a lesser kind of death.
I felt this was interesting because you are taking the most sincere festished person (Wallace) with a person who was pretty insane and probably is perceived through more of an ironic lens (Rose). However, the correlation between marriage and lawsuits (both legal relationships) and assault and death (both darker and painful) makes a connection that I think makes sense, with something seeming different but actually being the same. For example, Wallace and Rose both were male celebrities who weren’t able to properly deal with either their personal issues or fame or both. Is this an accurate reading of that poem or am I reading it totally wrong? How do you as the writer perceive that poem? When did you write it?
Tbh, I never thought it about that much—the connection between the two of them. I was thinking that they’re both kind of mythic, but mostly the title is a joke about wearing bandanas. I love it when that happens: when a reader is able to get something out of my writing that I didn’t even know was in there.
I genuinely do believe in magic. I don’t think magic is something we’re capable of understanding, and so therefore it seems stupid to try…but it just seems obvious to me that if you make a music video where you kill your girlfriend, then something’s going to happen as a result. I don’t think I could kill off a parent character in a piece of writing because I’d be terrified it might cause harm to my parents IRL. “November Rain” on YouTube has over six hundred million views. That means the image of dead Stephanie Seymour has been imprinted in a fuckton of people’s brains. There’s a power in that. Every action has a reaction, but sometimes that reaction seems neither equal nor opposite.
Just like bandanas. Even if you’re wearing one for a semi-legitimate reason, like maybe you sweat a lot, it’s still probably not a good idea. You’re still fucking things up for yourself in the future. It’s bad for your soul. Bandanas. Just say no.
Do you think you are able to write better in a city (like New York City, where you got your MFA) or in a less populated area (like West Virginia, where you live now)? How can a place change an approach to writing?
I sucked at writing in NYC. Mostly because it is so expensive, and I had to work so much it didn’t leave me time for much else. And also there’s so much to do. Even like, shopping. In New York, I spent so much time looking at and trying on and buying clothes I couldn’t afford. There were super cute stores literally around the corner from my apartment. Here in Beckley, I guess I could go to TJ Maxx or Salvation Army or the Hollister at the mall, but I’d probably have way better luck shopping online. So there’s more time to write, right there.
In one poem, you write about how you like suckers when you go to banks. Who cares about “deals.” That is a deal. I have 2 questions:
1.) Where did you grow up? because I thought suckers was a Midwest dialect slang and I thought you were from California.
2.) What is your favorite flavor of sucker and why?
- I grew up in California, yes. But before we moved there, we moved around a lot. I lived in Ohio for a couple years when I was preschool-age. So it could be that. But also the word “sucker” is so much cooler than the word “lollipop.”
- Cream soda Dum Dums obvs
Have you ever read a review of one of your books and gotten pissed or do you not really care too much about stuff like that?
I haven’t had many negative reviews–I guess that’s one of the benefits of being on a small press, a limited audience–but the ones I have had mostly made me LOL. Someone on Amazon called me a moody Tumblr girl and on Goodreads somebody said I was a self-obsessed douche bag. Those weren’t upsetting to me. The ones that piss me off are the ones that seem to completely miss the point. It really bothers me when people read my work and are like, “Hm, there’s drugs in this book. It’s a drug book!” It’s not a fucking drug book. It’s really nice that drugs seem sooooo crazy to you but like…drug use is just a symptom.
I just checked Goodreads and I have a new review for Witch Hunt: “this book was poop. very lazy, one-dimensional poetry. only liked two or three pieces (one of them being the scan of a gas station receipt)”
That seems like as good of a blurb as any.
In one poem the “you” talks about how “your” father describes his abusive mother, and she sounds just like you. I guess to try to scientifically discover the connection between these two generations kind of ruins the poem, but if you were forced to answer: would you say its more emotional and social in its lineage or more biological and natural? It seems to get the mystical witch vibe going, and I loved it.
My grandmother is a mystery to me because she died before I was born, and when she was alive I guess she was pretty difficult. But she was very troubled; from my limited understanding, I guess her upbringing was more or less terrible.
The thing that fascinates me about her, besides the fact that she is such a shadow, is she was bipolar. She was a bipolar, untreated housewife in the ‘50s. I look at people like her, and even at people like my uncle–who was also bipolar, completely brilliant, and seemed to have a good life and did some very cool things, but he also was institutionalized long-term and spent a lot of his life on government assistance and had terrible health and died fairly young. It makes me so grateful to be alive in 2016. Mental health treatment still needs a lot of work, but it used to be so much worse. If I was born 50 years earlier, I can’t imagine I’d wake up excited about life most mornings.
Also, mental illness makes me feel like a monster sometimes, like there is something foreign and evil living inside me—a kind of curse. My mother paid for me to go to an energy healer once, and they said when I was a toddler, I made some sort of pact with my grandmother’s spirit, that there was some sort of curse and I agreed to break it?–which sounds insane, but in a way I do feel like I am living for her, and for my uncle. I’m the bipolar Jackson (my real last name) who found their way through the mental illness.
What are the next writing projects you are or will be working on?
The novel that I tried and failed to write in grad school, that I intended to be writing while I was actually writing Witch Hunt, is finally getting somewhere. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn’t have a title yet but it’s a fictionalized version of my high school years.
After that, I’d like to write some more stories. I miss stories.
What is your day job? Do you like it?
I teach college. I love it. I get paid terribly but West Virginia is cheap so it’s OK. Most of the week, I sit around in my pajamas, and then for a few hours I get spiffed up and try to make writing and reading interesting to a bunch of people who might not care about either that much. I don’t have a set schedule, which is great, because too much routine makes me anxious, and I rarely ever get told what to do. My favorite part is the rare instances when we are discussing a story or a novel or whatever and you can almost see a lightbulb going off over their heads.
What is your earliest memory of the concept of witches?
I know that when I was little, like six or something, I was a witch for Halloween. I never wanted to be a princess—I wanted to be a witch, or a pirate, or the grim reaper.
What is your favorite movie about witches?
I don’t know if I have a favorite. Usually witches are treated as something kind of corny, like in The Craft (although I love that movie). Scott and I watched The Virgin Spring recently, and that is “about” a witch, I guess, although witchcraft isn’t a big theme of the movie. It’s more like the first domino in a series of events. Maybe witches are similar to sex and drugs: a subject better as a backdrop than a leading role.