Juliet Escoria’s first collection of poetry, Witch Hunt, is out now on Lazy Fascist Press. For a poetry book just over 150 pages, Escoria manages to explore a myriad styles; there are haikus, long, free-verse poems, letters to ex-lovers, and prose-poems that are all held together by the writer’s razor sharp wit. Witch Hunt narrowly avoids sentimentality and self-pity by way of Escoria’s expert and often pithy writing- although on the surface many of these poems appear to be looking inward, it doesn’t take a microscope to realize that she’s talking about things much bigger and more universal.
Hate Poetry? Great, you should read it. Love poetry? Cool, I’m sure you’ll be into it. Hate yourself and/or those around you while simultaneously feeling like you are the only one with the sense of humor to “get it”? Nice, I’ll meet you at the cool kids table with Juliet Escoria.
1. I read a good chunk of these poems on my iPhone. I hope that doesn’t bother you. There was something oddly satisfying about reading poems about Axl Rose in that manner. Is how people read or view your work or anyone’s work important or relevant to you, or is it just most relevant that it gets out there?
No, I don’t care at all. I think physical books are nice because they are objects, and you can touch the cover and the pages and there’s something good and important in that. But there are nice things about reading on a phone too.
2. I really loved 29th Street. You have the talent to avoid sentimentality when writing about such personal stuff. Your work is always avoided being heartbreaking because you, as a writer, are always in control enough to sidestep that racket. I wanted to ask, is there anything from your personal life that you wouldn't write about?
Thank you, that makes me feel good. I tried to think of something and I can’t really—I guess partially because I have written very little that constitutes as “nonfiction.” Fiction is a good security blanket.
But I think if I wrote more nonfiction, I still wouldn’t sidestep any topics, as long as I felt the piece was good enough to justify the subject matter. The exception might be critical things about my parents – they’re really wonderful and I’ve put them through enough shit already.
3. The collection is very eclectic in both style and content. There is something zen and almost koan-like to some of the poems, in both style and pithiness, but also in their ability to magnify the microscopic or unnoticed (I’m thinking Just The Tip, On The Construction Site Behind My House). There are some haikus, and then some much longer free-verse poetry. What draws you to work in all these different forms?
I wrote maybe 2/3rds of this book in a very short period of time. Between November 2014-January 2015, I sat down every day and tried to write as many poems as I could. (I didn’t include all of these poems in the book, because some of them were bad.) This made it so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about what I was doing – I was just grabbing whatever was running through my mind and trying to polish it into something that seemed interesting to me. It’s a good way to write poetry. You don’t have time to get precious or conceptual. One thing I can’t stand is poetry that is consciously a ‘meditation’ or ‘exploration’ of something – there’s nothing more unpoetic than that.
So some days I didn’t know what to write about and I’d look out the window, and see people cutting down bushes and laying down concrete. Some days I’d be thinking about how I seem to write better when I’m hungry & frustrated. (I don’t really buy into the idea of writer’s block, btw. Maybe when somebody can’t figure out what to write about it’s because they’re boring – the world is complicated and amazing and disgusting and magical and scary and there’s a million things to write about, always.)
In general, I don’t think poems should be longer than a page. The longer works in the book I don’t think of as poems at all, but they’re not quite stories either. And the horse haikus are just an extended joke.
4. Your book trailers and videos are great. Do you shoot them yourself? Do you work with other people? How does this process function for you, creatively, as opposed to writing?
When I was living in California, Sunny Katz, one of my oldest and best friends 4ever, helped me shoot things. Now my husband Scott helps me. He’s great, because he likes to make videos too, and he’s got his own thoughts and opinions about what will and won’t work. The first trailer for Witch Hunt – I’m not sure I would have made it if it wasn’t for him. I had the idea of the video, but I thought maybe people would get mad about it, and I also wasn’t sure I could pull it off logistically, considering I don’t have access to a harness or any kind of special effects software. But he helped me decide that if the video made people mad, then fuck them, and also convinced me I could pull off the hanging just through editing.
Videos vs. writing: it’s a completely different process. I can edit a video even if I am physically and mentally exhausted, for example. I can’t edit writing that way.
5. In line with this question, I've seen videos online of you reading with video projections and I know and have seen Black Cloud’s accompanying videos for each story. I’m curious if these are to be seen as supplements or compliments to your writing?
I guess both? I do think the videos add a layer to the stories and poems, but I hope they’re substantial enough on their own. I like being able to utilize the creative part of my brain that is more visual than verbal, but I also just think it’s important to keep moving the medium – storytelling through writing – forward. I completely don’t understand the writers out there who are trying to duplicate the mid-20th century novel/poem. Anyone with a computer and a phone has access to a camera and video editing software now, so why not use it?
6. Do you consider yourself more of a fiction writer or poet? Did you always write both?
I’m a fiction writer. That’s what I see myself as. I do write poetry, and I do write nonfiction, but fiction is where I feel most at home, and for me, it’s the most rewarding. Which is odd, because I’ve written poetry the longest – I’ve been doing it off and on since I was a child. I didn’t start writing fiction in earnest until my mid-twenties.
7. As a sort of follow up, how do you decide what becomes a poem and what becomes a story?
I don’t think about it too much as it’s happening. I guess some of it has to do with the size of what I’m trying to get at. One example: I could totally make the poem “Wild West” into a story, but what I cared about getting across was this feeling of being out of place, rather the story of the tragedy of this person I knew who killed himself, or the story of Phil Lynott. I also don’t have a problem with reusing material—I’ve lifted some sentences and phrases word-for-word from Black Cloud into the novel I am working on now—so I’m not too concerned if later I want to revisit the subject matter from “Wild West” for something longer.
8. How important is humor to you when writing, if at all? While these poems are heavy I detected quite a bit of humor (albeit, very dark).
(PS would really like to start a tumblr called NATURE POEMS ARE BORING)
I don’t think humor works if you’re consciously trying to make something funny. That being said, I wanted my next book to be overtly funny because Black Cloud is only funny in a subtle way, and it’s only subtly funny if you have a somewhat fucked-up sense of humor– and I don’t think that’s very representative of my personality.
There was this Craiglist ad that my friend Sunny found a long time ago that has imprinted itself on my brain. It was in the personal ad section, and the headline said something like “Do you like to laugh? Do you like to smile? Do you like to chill?”
I can’t say I like to smile, and I’m definitely not ‘chill,’ but I’m pretty sure just about everyone likes to laugh.
9. How important is hindsight or distance for you in your writing? Craig Finn of the Hold Steady didn't write about Minneapolis until he moved to NYC, Hemingway wrote his great stories about growing up in Michigan when he lived in France. Do you make any sense of this?
I think it depends on the subject matter. One of the poems in the book, “Saga of a Treadmill,” was about something I saw that day at the gym. The complication is something that happened outside of me, and so it was easy to write without much hindsight at all. But then other things – I had a mental breakdown a few years ago, and I tried to write about it immediately afterward and it didn’t work out. I think I’ll have to wait at least a few more years until I can make sense of it. So maybe I personally need more distance when I am writing about things that happened to me internally.
Moving somewhere else has definitely given me a better perspective on the place I lived before, but I don’t think you have to be outside of a place in order to do it justice. Or at least I hope so, considering I have some poems about West Virginia in the book.
10. What poetry inspires you if any? / What inspires you outside of poetry?
There’s a lot of poetry I like, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot that inspires me. (I define ‘inspires’ as ‘makes me want to get up and make something.’) It’s cliché, but the only poetry I can think of that gives me that feeling is Plath’s—there’s something so aggressive and confrontational in her work, and I really admire that.
Things I’ve read somewhat recently that made me want to work to be a better writer: Lucia Berlin, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Alejandro Zambra.
Reading my husband’s work makes me feel inspired. So does reading my friends’ work.
I really love rock documentaries. I don’t even like the Flaming Lips, but the documentary Fearless Freaks made want to make all the things.
11. Do you ever think of who might make up an ideal reader of your work? Is audience something you think about at all?
Witch Hunt is a poetry book published by a small press. I knew from the beginning that it was going to be read by a limited audience: people who read poetry books published by small presses. So I wrote the book while consciously thinking about that. Some of the poems are reactionary toward small press, poetry world ‘issues.’ So in that way I was thinking about my audience.
In general, though, I write for myself. I write what I would want to read. I particularly care about what the teenage-version of myself would want to read, because that person was deeply troubled and miserable and felt really misunderstood and alone.
12. I love the poem Flame War and how you reverse the conceit of the witch hunt, looking at it as a way to see people’s true colors; in some ways an opportunity for people to show their true selves – and then looking at its resulting burn at the stake cathartic and sexy not painful or full of shame. As Americans there's no doubt we love a good witch hunt. Why do you think that is? Do you think most people secretly feel this way, fantasize about being burned at the stake?
I’m pretty sure very few people fantasize about being burned at the stake, but I do think there’s something fantasy-like in a witch burning – putting a ‘dangerous’ woman in a submissive pose, publicly humiliating her, watching her scream and writhe as her clothes and then flesh burn away.
Now we use the term witch hunt as a metaphor, but it still has the same motive: publicly establishing a moral superiority. There’s a disturbing phenomenon happening now among liberals, which is a desire to publicly establish moral superiority but masquerading this as compassion/awareness. It’s similar to Christians using the Bible to condemn gays and people who go to Planned Parenthood – they’re taking something capable of great good and perverting it into something bigoted and hateful. I don’t think it would be as disturbing if liberals didn’t posit themselves and their beliefs as the opposite of bigoted and hateful and oppressive and closed-minded, but that’s often exactly what they are.