Julia Caroline Knowlton: The Edge of Our Comfort Zones

Julia Caroline Knowlton is an MFA candidate in poetry at Antioch University in Los Angeles. A Pushcart nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets College Prize, her poetry has appeared in numerous journals such as Ghost City Review and Piedmont Journal of Poetry and Fiction. Her chapbook The Café of Unintelligible Desire was published in September 2018. She is Professor of French and French Program Director at Agnes Scott College, and holds MA and PhD degrees in French literature from UNC-CH. She earned her BA in English and French at Duke. You may read her work at http://juliacarolineknowlton.agnesscott.org/.

Brittney Rowe speaks with Julia about her journey as a writer below.

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Congratulations on the publishing of your chapbook The Café of Unintelligible Desire! Can you tell me more about it?                           

Thank you! I became interested in chapbooks during my MFA work. I had been organizing my poems in groups, playing around with how they might form a full manuscript, and the poems in my chapbook begin to coalesce and resonate with each other. I submitted to several chapbook contests and also submitted it to various publishers. I was fortunate to have a choice between several publishers, and decided to go with Alice Greene & Co. in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I love the imagery used in “Postcards from Paris” that you published with us in 2018. What inspired you to write this piece?                                                      

Thank you! Those poems are the result of my decades-long love of the city of Paris, a city I discovered for the first time as an undergraduate French major. Paris has historically welcomed artists and writers, including American writers of color who did not feel at home in the USA. Some of my favorite writers include James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce, all of whom sought artistic refuge in Paris. Stein famously wrote “America is my country, but Paris is my hometown.”

How do you think writing poetry has influenced your life?

I began writing poems at around age ten. I grew up in a very musical, highly literate household: my parents valued language, literature, and all of the fine arts. Writing has always been a natural way for me to make sense of the world, especially when my experiences do not seem to make much sense. In other words, writing poems helps me to wrestle meaning, through language, out of situations (such as illness and loss) that seem to contradict the very possibility of meaning. 

When did you first become serious about writing?

I first became serious about writing in high school. I encountered works of literature that transformed me, such as Jane Eyre and the plays of Shakespeare. I want to note that this was in the 1980s, and no writers of color or LGBTQ writers were included in high school classes whatsoever at that time. Nevertheless, the literature that I read revealed what I would call the mystery of limitlessness. I began writing in an attempt to capture glimpses of that limitlessness. In rare moments, when writing, I feel and see a bit of mystery—always fleeting.

In reading your interview with Diane Gottlieb, I became especially intrigued with how you describe poetry as “an encounter with the blank space surrounding it.” You then go on to say, “poetry is a representation of silence and its own absence.” Can you tell me more about these ideas and how you see the influence of silence reflected in your own poems? 

Poems are unique in their spatial disposition on the page. With the exception of poems that run longer than one page, they are literally “held” by the silence that surrounds it. If we think of silence as the opposite of language, we see that the poem is surrounded by non-language. Another interpretation is that silence is itself its own form of language. In that sense, a poem is in communion with the meaning communicated by the silence that surrounds it. One of my favorite poets, Stéphane Mallarmé, spoke in rich and beautiful ways about the contributions of silence to poetry.

So much happens when we are silent—when we sleep and dream, when we brood, when we fall in and out of love, when we finally die. Think of it; most of us are silent, much of the time, while we actually write. Silence is the “leaving and arriving” of language. Let me differentiate here, however, between this somewhat pure “esthetics of silence” and political silence. Women have been silenced politically for ages, and I completely oppose that!

What inspired you to pursue an MFA in poetry?

When I was right out of college, I was really interested in doing both a PhD in French and an MFA in creative writing. I did the former, got married, had two daughters, became a tenured professor and published author, got divorced, went through a frightening and lengthy period of illness, and came out on the other side of all of those experiences sixteen years later.

My desire to do the MFA never left me; obtaining it is a mid-life gift to myself. The real gift is that I have not become a better writer simply by completing the academic requirements for the degree; rather, the entire MFA experience has changed me in ways that are now coming through in my writing. This is especially due to the social justice emphasis at Antioch, where I am completing my MFA degree. The main aspect of the social justice emphasis that has transformed me is my own necessary, painful confrontation with my own white fragility and white privilege. The writer Eula Biss has written in a raw, honest way about this type of confrontation. Writers such as Claudia Rankine and Terrence Hayes have also pushed me hard out of my comfort zone, which, as I’ve emphasized, is crucial for any artist. It is a question of coming to a new place of hope and humility. That place is where new writing can begin.

What motivates you to keep writing?

Writing is as natural to me as breathing, so even if I try not to do it, I can’t not do it. That being said, I do maintain certain disciplines. One is reading: every writer must first and foremost be a steady and devoted reader. The other is the actual writing practice: the poet Mary Oliver has stated the one must “keep a regular appointment” with one’s own writing self. My appointment with myself is at 7 am, every day that it is possible. My best writing time is 7-9 am: language, coffee, and my mind rising out of the night’s darkness of sleep and dream.

Outside of pursuing an MFA, you hold a MA and PhD in French literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And, currently, you teach French at Agnes Scott College as the French Program Director. What draws you to French culture and language? Do you see your background in French literature reflected in your style and thinking in writing?

These are good questions! I began learning French at a very young age, in a public-school system in Shaker Heights, Ohio. I believe that my musical ear, combined with my interest in language, combined to provide me with a natural aptitude to learn French. Once I started at age eight, I never stopped. I took French throughout high school, majored in it in college, and did my PhD in it. I have been a college professor of French language and literature for twenty-two years. I was drawn to this area of knowledge because of the vast amount of literature written in French; this goes back to the idea of limitlessness.

One of my favorite French writers is the medieval writer Marie de France. French culture, like any culture, is complex, and I do not love everything about it at all times. Even after all these years, I still get a pang of homesickness for my native USA and my native English at times, when I am in France. That being said, I am in a very deep and abiding love affair with the language and culture. There is a kind of subtle elegance that I do not find in English. French humor and wit are also fascinating, and different from American humor and wit. I also love studying the history of France; I have particular expertise in eighteenth-century France.

My fluency in French and the time I’ve spent in France does influence my writing in English; I have had mentors and editors point out turns of phrase or grammatical idiosyncrasies in my poems that are due to my knowledge of French. The French seems to “seep into” my English. This is definitely true of my inner thinking as well. One of my professors explained that a bilingual mind often resides in the interim space entre les langues—in-between two languages, neither fully in one nor the other. Perhaps that “in-betweenness” is the space where poetic language truly resides.

 What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing an education in languages, cultures, and writing?

My advice is not to stop; push through the long, arduous “intermediate” phase of learning a new language, because one morning you will awaken and realize that you dreamed in your second (or third) language! That is the sign that you are really mastering it. It is a cliché, but true, that encountering other languages and cultures is one of the best ways to learn about one’s self. That is because one is constantly thrown out of one’s comfort zone, and that is a good thing. I think we should always be near the edge of our comfort zones, as artists. Complacency never leads to anything cool or new. 

Read Julia’s most recent Roanoke Review publication “Postcards from Paris” here.