What inspired you to write this collection of poems, and how did you prepare for it?
I was inspired to write this book by relentless curiosity about the world around me and a love of the prose poem form. Preparation consisted of many years of a regular writing practice. I have a fortune taped up in my study: “Little and often makes much.” I wrote this book bit by bit over many years of journaling, generating, shaping, and revising.
You write intimately about your childhood and growing up around Philly. What is it about the city that has you coming back, and what role did it play in your poems?
My biggest pull back to Philly is the love I have for people here, no doubt about that — parents, siblings, nephews, extended family, and friends. Several of the poems in Home Studies are set in the Philadelphia area and South Jersey, in particular the ones about my family of origin.
I grew up in Wynnewood and moved to Iowa to attend Grinnell College when I was 17. I felt the need to launch, to move away, to claim my own space and set up my own life. My primary home has been the Midwest ever since. I love living in Minnesota, but there are times I wish I hadn’t travelled so far — although I’m glad I did because otherwise I wouldn’t have met my partner and daughter.
It’s wonderful to come back to Philadelphia; this area is a touchstone for me and always will be. I love the energy, diversity, and down-to-earthness of the city. It was so fun to read at Head House Books on Wednesday, right off of South Street, because when I was growing up on the Main Line, South Street was the coolest place in the world. I’ve been to some other fabulous and unique places at this point, but South Street is still way up there.
In the book, you speak a lot about an arson attempt that affected your family. Can you delve more into how you used poetry to cope and speak openly about it?
My partner, daughter, and I lived in a small town in North Dakota for four years, and while we had many wonderful friends and neighbors there, we also had an unstable neighbor who tried to burn our house down. We already felt like outsiders as a lesbian couple with a recently adopted Russian daughter, and the experience of the fire really drove that point home. Writing was my way of processing the experience of the fire, so I could carry it with me as art, not as a burden. I wrote off of found objects from the thrift shop where the arsonist had worked, and created a prose poem series that told the story of what had happened and how we moved on.
I believe that sharing difficult experiences in language can be a powerful form of healing and connection-making. The novelist Virginia Woolf said, “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” I try to share my truth as best as I can and as best as I know it at any given time. I don’t think this means that writers have to share everything all the time — but if something feels like it wants to go out into the world, get it ready for the journey and let it go.
How has being out over the years changed for you, and what impact has poetry played in that?
I came out in my early 20s, so about 20 years ago, or half of my life ago. My favorite word to describe my sexual orientation is queer, since it encompasses the complexities of gender and attraction as I have lived and experienced them. I also identify as a lesbian. My partner, the poet Michelle Matthees, and I have been together for 15 years. I think that poetry has definitely helped me to be more out, that being out in my writing has helped me to be more out in my life. It’s been wonderful to see the social changes that have happened over the past two decades so that more and more queer people in the world, though certainly not all, can be who they are more openly. I’m so glad that the transgendered community is finally getting the attention it deserves. Here’s to safe public bathrooms for all!
You’re a proud parent and it shows through your writing. What have been some of the unique experiences of partaking in same-sex adoption and parenting?
Yes, I am really proud of my daughter, who is 21, living on her own and making her way in the world. Let me brag for a minute about the tattoo she got recently, which is of a beautiful bird surrounded by the Russian words for love, family, and freedom. It’s been powerful to see her integrate her identities and all the strands of her family and heritage.
The international adoption process was definitely an interesting one for my partner and me as a same-sex couple. My partner adopted our daughter from Russia as a single person, since we never would have been able to do it together. We were able to do a same-sex, second-parent adoption in the U.S.
I remember adapting school forms to make them fit our family — crossing out and replacing “father” with “mother,” for example. The feeling of being different, sometimes “the only one in the room,” can be lonely. But we’ve also been fortunate to have supportive family and friends, and to build community in the places we’ve lived, though that can take time.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of LGBTQ writers, and how has your career been affected by the inclusive environment?
There are so many queer writers doing powerful work. I love that we can be more out in our writing than ever before. I think that levels of outness and acceptance have increased enormously, and that has been a beautiful thing. Of course, it’s also a shift where there are perhaps less predominately-queer spaces — and this can be a mixed bag. Perhaps some sense of community is lost, but then so much is gained. I feel fortunate to live in a time when LGBTQ writing is of interest to a broad audience of readers. As I frequently deal with domestic themes within a queer life, I have come to think that at least one goal of my writing is to bridge that space. Who hasn’t been bored out of their mind while cleaning the kitchen?
I love the energy, openness, and fluidity of the younger LGBTQ community. I want to keep learning from them as well as from all of the great LGBTQ writers and people who have come before me.
For more information on the book and author, visit juliegard.com.