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Nothing Ordinary About Her

An Interview with Julie Marie Wade

By Gregg Shapiro

Prolific, award-winning lesbian poet and memoirist Julie Marie Wade is a powerful presence in South Florida. A professor of poetry, memoir, lyric essay and hybrid forms at Florida International University, she is the author of 11 books, including the 2019’s The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose with Denise Duhamel. Her work is even incorporated into The Betsy Poetry Rail at The Betsy Hotel in South Beach. Wade, who lives with her wife Angie in Hollywood, has a new book, Just An Ordinary Woman Breathing, part of the 21st Century Essay series from Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University Press, out in February 2020. She was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions.

Gregg Shapiro: Julie, you are one of the people featured in filmmaker Freddy Rodriguez’s Open Dialogues: Stories from the LGBTQ Community, to be screened on an ongoing basis from February 8 through May 17, 2020. How did you come to be involved in the project?

Julie Marie Wade: It was all just serendipity really. My spouse Angie and I had gone with our friend Denise (Duhamel) to an art opening at the Hollywood Art and Culture Center. Denise and I wrote a book together called The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, and our cover art was provided by a fantastic artist named Michelle Weinberg, who was a guest curator at this exhibit and whose work we wanted to support. While there at the Center, I happened to meet Jeff Rusnak, Director for Development, and he mentioned the upcoming Open Dialogues project to me. Jeff took an interest in my work and later reached out to me about being interviewed for the documentary. I’m always interested in any way I can contribute to the visibility of LGBTQ+ lives, so I was happy to participate.

GS: In addition to being one of the subjects of the doc, you provided “wall text” for the project. What can you tell me about that?

JMW: I haven’t seen the wall text yet, but I’m looking forward to viewing it at the opening reception. All I know at this point is that I gave permission for an artist to create a visual-textual rendering of one of my poems from a book, published in 2014 by A Midsummer Night’s Press, called When I Was Straight.

The first half of this book is comprised of a series of poems all bearing the same title “When I Was Straight” and one of those will be incorporated into this exhibition of LGBTQ+ art next month. The premise of this sequence of poems is simple: people are most often presumed to be straight (as well as cis-gendered) and treated as such from the time they are born, often even before they are born, which for some of us necessitates a complicated and often painful coming-out process later on.

As I was growing up, I remember how often my parents referenced my future life as a wife (to a man) and mother and how vigilantly they and others curated my heterosexual development. In this way, I never had a “queer youth.” I was never encouraged to explore my gender expression or my sexual orientation because these were treated as foregone conclusions, and I know I’m not alone in this experience. Instead, what I have is a queer adulthood that was first preceded by a compulsory heterosexual youth. The poems in “When I Was Straight” illustrate how it felt for me, “the strai(gh)t-jacketing,” if you will, to come of age inside a life that doesn’t match your truest self or your most authentic desires. (Link to poem on Verse Daily: www.VerseDaily.org/2014/WhenIWasStraight.shtml)

GS: As a Hollywood resident, what does it mean to you to be part of such an event taking place at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood?

JMW: Notions about “queer places” circulate widely in the culture, it seems. People might expect an exhibition of queer art and artists in San Francisco, New York City, and Provincetown, for example, and in South Florida, I think Wilton Manors and South Beach and Key West are presumed to be the queer(est) places. But I’m living proof that queer people are everywhere. I grew up in the small, conservative suburb of Fauntlee Hills (West Seattle) and later lived and taught in the tiny, rural enclave of Barnesville, Ohio. I’ve been a long-term resident of Pittsburgh, PA, and Louisville, KY, and now I live in Hollywood, FL gay as ever, gaily married since 2014, and legally recognized as gaily married since 2015.

I’m delighted to be part of something that celebrates Hollywood queers and queerness and by extension, our ubiquity across the human landscape. We really are “here and queer,” and I hope this exhibit continues to guide those who may be fearful or reluctant to embrace us to do more than “get used to” our presence. The Open Dialogues exhibition will provide an opportunity to encounter us as individuals, to glimpse more fully who some of us actually are.

GS: Being a writer of both poetry and prose, when you get an idea for a piece do you know immediately what form it will take, poem or essay? Or does the form reveal itself to you as you are writing?

JMW: If I’m free-writing, say, with my students, as I often do, then I encourage all of us to stay uncommitted where genre is concerned and just focus on writing in response to the prompt (usually a generative question or series of questions) or “in the spirit of” the writer we are reading. My notebooks are full of free-writes and other jottings that are neither poetry nor prose, just literary ephemera, raw and unshaped. As I re-read what I’ve written, I’m looking for images or insights or questions that invite further exploration and that in the process might become a poem, a lyric essay, a work of memoir, even a short story—as I’ve slowly begun to find my sea legs in fiction. Usually by the time I’m transplanting words, phrases, and sometimes longer passages from a notebook into a computer file, I do have a sense of the genre in which I’m working and the larger project to which I hope the work-in-progress will eventually belong. Every once in a while, the outcome surprises me, genre-wise, and sometimes—more and more often, I’d say—I find the outcome can’t be easily identified as one genre. So, the text I thought of as a long, experimental poem, say, or a short-form memoir, during composition, might in fact become something I’m ultimately more comfortable calling a “hybrid form.”

GS: One of the first things that stood out for me about your new book Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing was the references to characters from The Wizard of Oz in the “Overture”. What impact did The Wizard of Oz have on you as a child, and later as a queer person?

JMW: From my first viewing of The Wizard of Oz when I was probably seven or eight years old, I’ve been fascinated and enchanted by so many aspects of the story. I feel certain I read the book by L. Frank Baum as well, but it was the film that resonated most deeply with me—its dichotomy between black-and-white Kansas and Technicolor Oz, the beguiling ruby slippers whose power is not fully revealed until the story’s end, and the way each of the actors from the black-and-white world “doubled” as a character in the Land of Oz. The film is a visual delight from start to finish, and I was so compelled by the contrasts and symmetries of the project—things I couldn’t have named then but also couldn’t have ignored. Oz is really a poet’s paradise because every object and entity is vividly depicted—both literally delectable and metaphorically charged. Those glittering red shoes. That Yellow Brick Road. The apples, Eden’s “forbidden fruit.” The witch’s broomstick and hourglass. And, of course, the field of luscious poppies, later covered with snow to rouse Dorothy from her slumber. (And since I grew up in Seattle, sometimes called the Emerald City, I couldn’t help but feel a personal connection to Dorothy’s destination.)

As an adult, I have often found myself returning to The Wizard of Oz as an implicit queer touchstone. I’m not sure I’ve ever named it consciously as such, but your question helps me do just that. When I try to translate the queer affinity I have with the film into words, I realize I’m reading it as an allegory for coming out. If I’m Dorothy—and how can I not project myself into her shoes when her shoes are at the heart of this story!—then the cyclone for me is that storm that’s coming when my own gay identity collides with the presumed/compulsory heterosexuality of rural Kansas, here doubling as my childhood/adolescent world. Dorothy’s already set off on her own when the storm comes, and then she gets scared, understandably, and tries to go back, but everyone else has hunkered down in the cellar, and she finds herself alone. From then on, Dorothy is separated from her bio-family and her first home, but her journey is only just beginning. Benevolent Glinda and the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion—they’re all emblematic for me of family of choice, the people who really see you/see her/see me, clearly and in color. The Wicked Witch of the West, with her minion monkeys, is the Religious Right and all the fear-mongering, hate-stirring forces at work in our culture against queer people.

But Dorothy is strong, she has allies, and in the end, she learns she has the power to travel wherever she wants to go—in fact, she always has. I used to wonder why she would choose to go back to her first home where they couldn’t even see her in color there. But that’s just where our stories differ. I wouldn’t use those shoes to take me back to my first home but to take me toward my new home, my autonomous adulthood as an out gay person. (Hollywood, Florida, let’s say—its own Technicolor Ozscape, with ocean and royal Poinciana trees as well!)

Perhaps, though, if a queer rendition of the story were to play out in literal terms, Dorothy goes back to sparsely populated, conservatively valued Wamego and opens its first Pride Center, organizes its first Pride Parade. If those ruby slippers stand in for the power of queer authenticity—which I can’t help but think they do—Dorothy will not be daunted by any homophobia she encounters anywhere.

GS: In the book, you refer to movies such as Freaky Friday and The Sound of Music, as well as television shows including Saved by the Bell, Beverly Hills 90210 and The Munsters. Can you please say a few words about the role of movies and television in your formative years?

JMW: I was an only child with a “wild imagination,” so I think movies and television shows helped me stave off loneliness and also provided me with a kind of instant and visceral camaraderie that was different from the company I kept with my literary heroes and heroines. I’m thinking about how much I loved to read and how much I loved to watch as a child and wondering why those two impulses seem in retrospect to have been so separate. I think with reading—because I was always writing, too, and always identifying with writers of literary texts as “one of them”—I couldn’t open a book without thinking about how I would expand upon the story or emulate (though I didn’t know that word then) the author’s style and approach in a parallel story of my own. I guess I was reading to learn how to be a writer, even before I knew that “reading as a writer” was an established pedagogical tool/practice.

But I never had any illusions that I was going to grow up to make movies or television shows; those media seemed magical and pleasingly mysterious to me as a viewer. I went full-on vicarious with at least one, but often many, members of a given cast. The same thing happened when my parents took me to see plays. I wanted to find my place in these stories, to try out roles I imagined I might someday actually inhabit, but just as often, roles I somehow knew I never would. For instance, I loved Fraulein Maria in The Sound of Music with my whole heart, but I knew I didn’t want to marry a man with seven children—or any children, for that matter. Maybe on some level I already knew I didn’t want to marry a man at all, but I still liked the idea of waltzing and gazebos and big, romantic moments. I also had a hopeless crush on Baronness Schraeder and would have liked very much to watch a film about what happened when she returned to her castle in Vienna.

And with television, I think, far more than with movies, I was desperately seeking some glimpse of a “real world” I believed my parents were sheltering me from. (Retrospect has confirmed that they definitely were sheltering me from something!) While movies always registered as fantasy for me, television struck a mimetic chord that I didn’t truly begin to “un-hear” until adulthood. In my youth, I studied sitcoms more diligently than my catechism, as though there would be a test to follow.

GS: What can you tell me about the “numbered great sadnesses” in Part I of the book?

JMW: The first part of the book includes a catalog of sadnesses, or disappointments, from my childhood. Fortunately, I can say I’ve outgrown most of these, since my adult life isn’t organized around feminine ideals/standards of beauty and my sense of my own personal worth is no longer attached to those ideals/standards. But if a memoirist’s job is to inspect the past closely—and I believe it is—I reckoned in this book with my first, I guess you could say, education in what made a girl “appropriate” and “acceptable.” A huge part of my early life was characterized by an onslaught of messages about the need to be pretty and slender, to not take up too much space or make too much noise or challenge authority in any way. I wasn’t born knowing that there were other possibilities for my life, of course, and I didn’t figure out what I really valued until after I’d spent a lot of time striving to meet and exceed other people’s expectations for me. In the end, I think, all the ways I “failed” to become an “appropriate” or “acceptable” girl actually helped me pause and step back and notice that those initial sadnesses and disappointments didn’t have to be mine. (I could renounce them!) Contrary to everything I had been taught, implicitly and explicitly, I could in fact have a very happy life that never involved wearing make-up or high heels again. I could even fall in love and be loved by someone who wasn’t a man, a Christian, or a Republican, and that relationship, as well as my life’s vocation, did not have to hinge upon how good I looked or how well I lived up to a June Cleaver standard of acceptable womanhood.

GS: You also included “memos” in Part I.

JMW: The memos are a poetic rendition of the kind of talking/writing to myself that I kept throughout my early diaries. If we think of memoranda as important bulletins containing information to file and reference as needed, I wanted to convey in this book that I spent a good portion of my early life studying the world around me and the messages I received from parents, teachers, peers, church leaders, et al, and that I then “translated” those messages into memoranda that would help me, I thought, better navigate the expectations for my life. Like the Virgo I am, I thought if I could organize the messages I received, I might be able to make fuller sense of them, including the many contradictory points of guidance and advice that I now recognize as gendered double binds.

GS: Early in the book, we are given examples of parental cruelty, particularly in things said by your mother. Do you think this was intentional on her part or do you think it was her version of expressing love and concern?

JMW: What I can now see quite clearly—and what I’m hoping I was able to convey to some extent in this book, as it is the first time I’ve written at all about my mother’s family—is how much my mother’s approach to raising me reflected her own insecurities as a woman and the cruel messages she received from her mother and family when she was coming of age. My mother was made to feel all her life that she wasn’t as pretty as her sister, and as a result, that she wasn’t as worthy of love. She internalized a lot of damaging messages about what made a girl or woman valuable, aka “beautiful,” including the imperative to be as thin as possible, and she learned in her home life that love was something to be earned, even something to be competed for.

I see now how much my mother was hurt by her upbringing, and I wish she had been able to inspect the messages she internalized before she passed them on to me. As an adult, I understand that her intentions were to “give me all the advantages”—she used this phrase a lot when I was a child—which she thought meant making sure I was as pretty and thin and “feminine” and “appropriate” (read: heterosexual) as possible to earn the approval and even the love of others. I don’t think my mother has never known what it means not to worry about appearances or the judgments (even phantom or feared judgments) of others, which breaks my heart. It simply wasn’t possible, I think, for my mother to raise me differently or more “progressively” because she couldn’t imagine alternatives to what she had been taught about what truly mattered in life. For me, a lucky combination of progressive teachers and mentors, paired with my own life-long habit of writing through questions and quandaries I had, culminated in a belief that alternatives were not only possible but attainable.

Photo courtesy of Ohio State University Press

GS: In Part II, you are credited with being the “finest speller in first grade”. What was involved in the process of choosing which words to s-p-e-l-l out in the piece?

JMW: Well, the process of spelling out certain words seemed to happen pretty organically as I was writing. I got myself back into the mindset of what it was like to be seven years old—when I first started competing in spelling bees—and I remembered how I would go around spelling words in my head and also out loud, just to make sure I hadn’t forgotten the order of their letters. Whenever I encountered a word I didn’t know, I would ask someone how to spell it or look up the word in a dictionary. For literary purposes, I tried to spell out some of the most interesting words in this section, both sonically and semantically, words that seemed worthy of a closer look. And of course, while I did actually compete in a lot of spelling bees throughout elementary and middle school, spelling out the words in the essay has the bonus effect of drawing the reader’s attention closer to individual words and the experience of parsing language, looking carefully at all its constituent elements, which is something lyric essayists in general like to do. Take nothing for granted—not a single syllable or sound. That’s one mantra of this genre that here I’m making explicit/undeniable for my reader.

GS: Religion is a major component of the book. On p. 96 you quote a family member as saying, “first come the questions, then come the doubts”. My question is where are you now in this realm?

JMW: I’m still an active questioner, an active doubter. I’d answer to the names agnostic and non-religious, though I prefer the term secular humanist because I believe in people and our capacity to grow and do good and learn from mistakes and work together to create change. I don’t believe we need organized religion to achieve these goals, and so often organized religions has interfered with these goals. I hasten to add that I know many people who find great comfort and inspiration in their faith, and I don’t begrudge them that. I’m fascinated by how religion could lead to anything but anxiety and outrage, though I know it does for some people. I simply have no personal context for how this works.

Religion, specifically conservative Christianity, was one of—probably the most—harmful forces at work in my formative years. Being “raised in the church” for me meant subsisting on a steady diet of misogyny, heterosexism, homophobia, and xenophobia, even though I didn’t have access to any of that language back then. What I learned simply from an early age was that questioning was considered suspect, sinful, one way of disobeying God by failing to put my complete trust/faith in Him. I was expected to accept certain ideas—that only one man and one woman could make a marriage or a family, for instance, or that anyone who didn’t accept the tenets of Christianity was going to hell—because these were presented to me as sacred truths. I’m heartened by the rise of more inclusive and progressive kinds of churches than the ones I knew growing up, but for my own self-preservation, I’ve chosen to live the best secular life that I can and keep religion in the background except when analyzing my own past experiences with it.

GS: Part IV contains the mantra, “That now was then. This now is later.” Please say something about that.

JMW: Something I find challenging but also perpetually exciting as a memoirist is how to navigate time. I’m writing, by and large, about events which have already transpired under that broad umbrella we call “the past.” But there are so many pasts—from the most recent to the most distant—and so many versions of the same moment in time. This refrain emerged in the text as a way for me to move around my recollections and re-dramatizations of the past with swift, economical leaps. Some parts of the past are further away from the present of my writing (now also in the past!) than others, but I am most often writing the past using the present tense to conjure a sense of its now-ness—the vividness of a particular moment as it unfolds. Since some of those “nows” inevitably happened earlier in the timeline of my life than others, some moments happened “then” and others “later,” aka “after then and closer to now.” (I also like the fact that this refrain evokes Now and Later candies, a delicious, if excessively chewy, staple of my youth!)

GS: In Part IV we are introduced to your math teacher Mrs. Korkowski. Are the algebraic sections in Part V supposed to be linked to the previous section? If so, please say something about that.

JMW: Oh, I would like to take credit for that connection, Gregg, and perhaps it’s there unconsciously, but I didn’t plan it exactly that way. I envisioned this book as a long lyric essay in sections, with each section evolving in complexity alongside my speaker—Proxy Julie. As she grows older and more experienced in a variety of ways, her lexicon expands, her frames of reference expand, and so I figured the lexicon and the framing of each section should reflect that increasing capaciousness. Part V, which is the final section in the book, is also the longest—about 15,000 words—and it has the most complex frame: that of a mathematical proof.

Years ago, I read the play Proof by David Auburn, which has always stayed with me, and I knew I wanted to find a way to bring the poetics of math into my own work. To some degree, I’ve brought math into most of my book projects because the concepts and language of math are as thrilling to me as they are mysterious. I’m not, strictly speaking, “good at math,” but I admire math—just as I admired Mrs. Korkowski, a gifted practitioner of the subject. As a writer, it made a kind of intuitive sense to me that the culmination of this project should be a poetic kunstlerroman housed inside the structure of an inductive proof.

Lyric essays are inductive by nature, and they are also close cousins—perhaps even siblings—of the prose poem. And the first time I ever saw a prose poem and learned to call it by that name—sophomore year of college, Robert Hass’s “A Story About the Body,” which also appears in this section of the book—I was instantly reminded of the first inductive proof I encountered in my tenth grade geometry textbook. I just knew they had to be related! 

Lastly, as you know, this book ends with an original sonnet, which I find to be the most overtly “mathematical” of all the poetic forms. I’m no great sonneteer by any means, but it felt important to me that the coda of this project be a sonnet to honor the inextricable link between art/music/lyrics and the sciences.

GS: The title of the book comes from the last line of part IV. Please say something about how it was chosen.

JMW: I have two people to thank for the title of this book—my acquisitions editor at The Ohio State University Press, Kristen Elias Rowley, and my long-time poetry hero, Sharon Olds. “Just an ordinary woman breathing” is the last line of Sharon Olds’s iconic poem, “The Death of Marilyn Monroe,” a poem I read and was riveted by in college and a poem I now teach in my own creative writing classes.

When I submitted this book to The Ohio State University Press, I had titled it The Hourglass: Meditations on the Body because the hourglass, literally and metaphorically, appears throughout the book as a touchstone image, a symbol for both the passing of time/mortality and also for a certain kind of female beauty. Marilyn Monroe, perhaps the most famous “hourglass” of American popular lore, was also idealized in my family as the epitome of femininity and desirability—and the fact that she died young, at 36, meant that she was immortalized as forever young, forever beautiful.

When Kristen gave me notes on the book, she explained the press’s hesitancy to publish a collection with such an academic title as the one I had chosen, given that this is not a textbook or a treatise. Kristen said that while my book was intellectual in nature, it was also visceral and emotional, and she suggested we needed a title that would do justice to the poetics of the project as well as its concerns with consciousness. She gave me a list of possible titles she had derived while reading the book, and the one I chose—the one that we both ultimately agreed stood out among all the others—was Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing.

This title is a way of paying tribute to one of my favorite living poets, who was also a formative poet for me and one of the first poets who inspired me to write honestly about my own life. I think for people who know the Sharon Olds poem, this title will resonate as a literary homage, but even for people who don’t recognize the title or aren’t able to place where they know it from, it does in fact conjure a feeling that matches the tenor of the book (thank you, Kristen!) and also grows into a multiplicity of meanings as the reader proceeds throughout the book. 

GS: Finally, to paraphrase a Frank Bidart book title, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing is a “book of the body”. Recently queer fitness guru Jillian Michaels has been making waves with her comments about plus-sized musician Lizzo. How do you feel about that?

JMW: Well, if there’s a “side” to be taken here, then I’m on Lizzo’s side: She doesn’t deserve—no one does—to be the subject of public scrutiny and critique for her body size, whether by Jillian Michaels or anyone else. But I also think this incident exemplifies one of the double binds that is at the heart of why I wanted to write a book so intensely focused on embodiment.

We as a culture don’t seem to know how to talk about women or interact with women without focusing on their bodies. I noticed that many of the people who came to Lizzo’s defense online emphasized her beauty, praised her for how good she looks, regardless of or because of her size.

Ironically, Michaels’s original post asked the question about why we aren’t celebrating Lizzo for her music rather than her body. She then went on to make a comment about diabetes, presuming—unkindly and inaccurately—that Lizzo’s size would ultimately result in her becoming diabetic. But the original question is an interesting one, once we divorce it from this context.

In a culture like ours, even when we want to be “progressive,” we have a hard time not focusing on physical appearance. I can see how being more inclusive about the kinds of bodies we celebrate has value, but it’s not enough, and sometimes I fear it is actually moving us in the wrong direction. Lizzo is a talented musician; is commentary about her physical appearance, no matter how well-intentioned it may be, actually relevant to her vocation as an artist?

Our cultural obsession with remarking on women’s bodies, even under the auspices of “paying compliments,” is something I’m reckoning with in Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing. I wonder if any woman, no matter how intelligent or accomplished she may be, has ever made it through the day without some comment or gesture or innuendo related to her physical embodiment — some fixation on the packaging she comes in rather than the content she contains.

For more information on the Open Dialogues: Stories from the LGBTQ Community at the Art & Culture Center / Hollywood, go to www.ArtAndCultureCenter.org/Open-Dialogues.