Juliana Spahr is a writer of literature, a literary critic, a shaper of literary communities through editing, and a relentless collaborator. Her most recent book, That Winter the Wolf Came, is available from Commune Editions.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
Sometimes that I’m a poet. Sometimes that I am socially a poet but I write in different genres. Sometimes that I teach people how to write poetry. Sometimes that I trained as a literary critic but I now teach people how to write poetry.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Time, text messages, email.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
If someone said that they wanted to do what I do and they meant teach people how to write poetry in higher education, I would explain to them the structural conditions that were present when I got hired. I would explain how there tend to be less than one hundred jobs each year in creative writing and how there are more than three thousand MFA graduates in any one year. I would explain how I got hired when there was a bit of a hiring bubble for creative writers, a sweet spot when there was a lot of growth in creative writing majors and MFAs and so there were some more jobs than usual and yet nowhere as many unemployed MFAs. I would also explain how probably having a PhD has something to do with my employment, although I’m not sure how much. Then I would try to say something hopeful about how, well, good people will still be needed in the future, no matter how bad it looks.
If they said that they wanted to do what I do and what they meant was socially be a poet but write whatever they wanted, I would explain to them both the MFA (how much it costs, the limited possibilities of a full scholarship, and what it does and does not offer in terms of this being a poet idea) and alternatives to the MFA (the reading groups and the free schools but also how one doesn’t need the degree to write really good work and have someone else publish it or self-publish it).
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Yes. For sures. Other people are often nice enough to publish work that I have written. That is success.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
My son is a descendent of Fletcher Christian, the mutineer of the Bounty. But I am not. I don’t know much about my ancestors. My dad grew up in an orphanage. So I’ve lost 50 percent of any possible family line. The other I know little about. But can I say that Fletcher Christian is my favorite ancestor if only in that I have had some of his bloodline in my body for some months?
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I have a diary from childhood where I wrote that when I grew up I wanted to be a farmer’s wife. I grew up in southern Ohio. I was saying something about the power of owning land I think. And also about the power of the patriarchy. It was structural, this wanting to be a farmer’s wife. I didn’t have any specific farmer in mind.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
It is August so there will be shooting stars. There are friends. There is wine. It is high desert, so warm during the day but cooler at night. There is a meadow. There are hot springs or a creek somewhere in the area. I prefer there not to be a fire at night.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
I seem to have locked myself out of my checking account, but if it is over $200 right now, I am going to feel lucky. That said, I make a salary. I’m not pretending to be poor.
What’s wrong with society today?
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Something other than capitalism.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Humans seem to always do it, through all of time. So maybe if not necessary, it is at the very least a conventional form for the expressing of feelings. The way that children seem to do it so compulsively seems to suggest that it might be something that our brains have evolved to do. Although clearly it isn’t necessary in the way that say oxygen is necessary.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
The dumb ass too high rents that chase my friends away.
What are some of your favorite smells?
I frequently walk out into the backyard on a foggy morning and say to myself it is a beautiful California day and what I mean when I do this is that I smell the ceanothus tree right outside the backdoor.