Julie Bruck is the author of two previous collections of poetry, The End of Travel (Brick Books, 1999), and The Woman Downstairs (Brick Books, 1993) which was chosen co-winner of the 1994 A.M. Klein Award for Poetry. Her third collection, Monkey Ranch (Brick Books, 2012) has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award in Poetry for 2012. Her most recent work has appeared in many literary journals including The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, Valaparaiso Poetry Review and The Walrus, among others. She is a Montreal native, and now lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughter, and two enormous, geriatric goldfish.
For more information, visit Julie Bruck at her website.
The following poems are from Monkey Ranch.
Why I Don’t Pick Up the Phone
Because it’s the school nurse
saying one child has written
on another child and the ink washed
off but the writing remains:
We can’t read it, but you’d
better get down here
right now and do something.
Because someone is in a locked ward
for their own protection, meaning
someone else had to commit them,
and now walks around with a heart
like a hammered anvil.
Or, another has fallen and even though
you’re next of kin, you’re too
far away to catch or comfort.
I do not lift the headset; sift
instead what’s coming as the tide
sorts its affairs. What washes
up should bear signs of who
it carries, like an eyelash stuck
to the edge of a stamp – and no, smartass,
I don’t mean caller ID. If I can’t
have the living glance of the guy
from Western Union when he hands over
the onionskin, then just give me
two minutes more at the window, kids
from the daycare returning to their ark,
clinging to their red rope like little
shipwreck survivors, before I pick up
and let the world name names.
His paintings were small, suggestions
of houses, pinpricks of green for trees.
She’d set her glass down, say, Paint
like you’re blind, from memory and passion -
two words he especially didn’t care for.
She’d say, Paint like you’re on fire.
But their house was already burning,
and he was going blind and deaf.
So he’d carry the painting back down
to the basement, resume with
his thinnest sable brush. He would
never touch her the way she wanted,
though she kept asking him to,
like this, in front of everybody.
Girl in Her Brothers’ Bedrooms
Since she shouldn’t be up here,
here she is, older brothers away at college,
their musk still territorial. She drifts
between rooms, igniting the dust-motes
in diagonal shafts of winter light.
Their closets secret Elvis scrapbooks,
complete stamps of Borneo with wax-paper
hinges frail as insect wings, jars
of uncirculated silver dollars. She pockets
some to spend, but that’s not why she sifts
the gun-metal desk drawers, inhales
their rich peat of eraser and pencil stubs.
Called to eat, she takes the stairs by twos,
holding in mind her return ticket to the smoothed
chenille, the water-stained maple night-tables,
to the drop in the belly as she stands
on the thresholds of her brothers’ rooms.
Old enough not to climb back down, she’s
still too young to jump. An unfinished letter.
A subway token. A dime. That vertigo.
TTQ – What originally attracted you to the world of poetry and when did you decide to start writing the stuff yourself?
Julie Bruck – When I was growing up, my mother was a student of Irving Layton’s, at what was then Sir George Williams University in Montreal. Our home was one in which poetry was valued, read and written--so of course, I wanted nothing to do with it. Writing poetry isn’t diamond mining, but I saw how hard my mother labored at her poems, tearing through draft after hand-written draft. This was about as appealing to my teenage self as a poke with a sharp stick. Things changed when I was in my early 20’s, and took some writing classes as electives. I had started college as a photography major, but found that poetry offered similar pleasures, particularly the way a poem could isolate and frame a small detail, evoking something mysteriously larger than the sum of its parts.
TTQ – Do you feel that poetry is the most difficult style of writing to master and what words of advice would you give to aspiring poets?
Julie Bruck – I’m married to a fiction writer, so I hesitate to crown any genre as the most difficult—poets certainly do less heavy lifting than novelists. Poetry is demanding, but that kind of hard work can be a reward in itself: you solve one problem, move on to the next. And while you’re head banging over a particular difficulty, once in a while, a surprising poem can fall into your hands ready-made, with all its fingers and toes.
I think the biggest challenge, for poets of any level of experience, is to both constantly expand their awareness of the traditions every poem talks back to, while writing playfully, with no monkey on the shoulder. We need the examples of our forebears to enlarge our sense of the possibilities for each poem, and yet we must trudge ahead, as Paul Muldoon puts it, with “a kind of willed ignorance.” It’s a crazy-making contradiction, but I think it’s essential. This is something I’ve had to learn and relearn. It’s endless. Read widely. Write wildly. Read. Repeat.
TTQ – Sharon Thesen says that your latest collection of poetry Monkey Ranch (Brick Books, 2012) "is like the best sort of letter from a friend - full of gossip, lively observation, and serious wit." How would you best describe Monkey Ranch?
Julie Bruck – I’d say it’s a book about seeking some kind of balance for living our lives as (mostly) upright primates, a quirky stab at reckoning with what refuses to be neatly squared away.
TTQ – Who helped you with editing Monkey Ranch and do you find that process to be an arduous one at the best of times?
Julie Bruck – Alayna Munce at Brick Books was Monkey Ranch’s editor, and she is the greatest. Editing and being edited is arduous, but writing is so solitary that having someone as eagle-eyed as Alayna consider a book manuscript as a complete organism is an enormous privilege. She asked big and small questions. We agreed and disagreed. She had me take a second look at an array of decisions I’d assumed were irreversible. I wrote six additional drafts of what I’d thought was a pretty polished manuscript, and I’m grateful for every drop of sweat she wrung from me.
TTQ – Monkey Ranch has been nominated for the Governor General's Award in Poetry for 2012. What would winning that award mean to you personally?
Julie Bruck – I was knocked over by the announcement, and feel so honored to be among the five finalists. While I’ve lived in San Francisco for 15 years, I’ve come to feel more, rather than less connected to Canada. I think that my work reflects that, so this recognition felt particularly affirming. I’m trying very hard not to speculate beyond the 1st of November, when I’ll have a chance to meet and read with the other finalists in Montreal, and to stuff a carry-on bag with St. Viateur bagels. If that’s where the journey ends, it will have been an excellent adventure.
TTQ – How long did the entire process of writing Monkey Ranch take from start to finish and are you particular about the environment or time of day that you write in?
Julie Bruck – Monkey Ranch took about 12 years. I’d married and had a child, changed countries and coasts, not to mention jobs and such, so my usually glacial writing pace was even slower this time. It was also a particularly challenging manuscript to sequence, and I wrestled with that part for two of those years.
I don’t have elaborate rituals or keep to a strict writing schedule. I do lock myself inside my (parked) car once a week though, and write for 30-40 uninterrupted minutes. I find that having generated those car pages makes whatever I’m working on go better.
TTQ – You’re a Montreal native and you mentioned that you now reside in San Francisco. Do you find that both cities have a vibrant poetry community and do you think overall that poetry is going through some kind of resurgence or is it primarily ignored by the masses?
Julie Bruck – Both Montreal and San Francisco have vibrant poetry scenes, but they’re very different ones. The English-language poetry community in Montreal (or at least, the one I knew through 1997), was really small, which made it both intimate and accessible. San Francisco itself consists of multiple neighborhoods folded into its hills and valleys, and the poetry communities here reflect that topography: they’re numerous, diverse, and hard to keep track of without being in constant motion.
Poetry does seem to be having a resurgence as a social force, which is a hopeful sign. There’s an annual literary festival here called LitQuake, which draws thousands of people, and their Saturday night LitCrawl takes attendees along a mapped route of events held in restaurants, bars, and even a bee-keeping supply store. It’s encouraging to see literature bringing out such sheer numbers of people. On the other hand, as someone who is primarily devoted to print, I worry about the future of the book, about that intimate relationship between a book and its reader.
TTQ – What are your three favourite poetry books of 2012 and why?
Julie Bruck – I’m usually at least a year behind the current books, which has me reading 2010 and 2011 titles at the moment. I love poetry that dramatizes what C.K. Williams has called the theater of its thinking. 2010-11 included some fine examples of this, including Nikky Finney’s blisteringly original, Head Off and Split, Bob Hickok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full, Stephen Dobyns’s Winter’s Journey, and speaking of Sharon Thesen, her most recent book, Oyama Pink Shale.
TTQ – Do you believe in reading your newest poetry live in front of an audience first before publishing it on the page and do you feel that "spoken word" is a relevant style of poetry?
Julie Bruck – It’s helpful to read new work aloud before it’s in print, sometimes just to test its musical muscle, but especially when it turns out to be a dud and needs to go back to the drawing board. That can feel like tossing something into a canyon—something that just keeps falling and falling. On the other hand, some poems that work fine in print just aren’t as theatrical in performance. The trick seems to be figuring out which are which, and the poems I neglect often turn out to be the sleepers when read aloud. Actually, the same thing happens with poems in print. Often, the poems I’m most hesitant to submit turn out to be the ones that connect with the most readers. Go figure. I love that about poetry—it’s always slippery and surprising, and we are always its students.
TTQ – What’s next for Julie Bruck?
Julie Bruck – A walk to Walgreen’s Pharmacy with her 14-year-old daughter’s handwritten list. Like any parent, Julie Bruck tries to be reality’s faithful servant. Then, there’s the utter unreality of the upcoming trip to Montreal for the finalists’ reading. Just being on these parallel journeys feels like plenty of “next”!