Listening to the Distant Rumble of the Poem:

An interview with poet, editor, and teacher, Julie E. Bloemeke



A native of Toledo, Ohio – dubbed The Glass City – Julie E. Bloemeke allows light and shadow to pass through her intuition, spirit, and physical senses to ultimately spill onto the page with breathtaking results. Her willingness to remain open to what a poem may require translates to how she walks her path as well. Her debut poetry collection, Slide to Unlock, (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020) was not only selected by the Georgia Center for the Book as one of only two poetry books on the list for "Books Every Georgian Should Read, 2021," it was also named the 2021 Finalist in Poetry for Georgia Author of the Year, chosen from over 15 poetry collections statewide. Bloemeke’s approach to writing poetry, editing anthologies, and interacting with the world facilitates a connection and warmth that is sorely lacking and leaves the reader with a sense of being seen and felt through her “touch without touch.”


Broadkill Review: To begin, can you talk a bit about all of the writing roles you step into on a regular basis: poet, prose writer, editor, teacher, workshop leader, and lecturer? How do you make time for each pursuit, and do you have any rituals or must-haves with particular ones?


Julie E. Bloemeke: I am not sure that I ever truly make the time—I think any sense of balance in time is a bit of an illusion—but I do know the universe somehow always seems to conspire to create space. Often, when finishing a project, a lecture, or teaching, I marvel that it was able to come together as it did. And I love that feeling of magic and possibility.


I wonder some days if I am evolving into a shapeshifter—I gravitate toward the challenge of discovering ways in which poetry can travel unexpectedly in the world. My calling, and my most sacred room, is the creating and editing of poetry of course. Everything else radiates from that.


Speaking of editing, putting together the Dolly Parton poetry anthology—title to be revealed soon—with poet Dustin Brookshire, has been an extraordinary collaboration, as has working with Madville Publishing. The chance to transgress Dolly cliché, to invite in facets of Dolly previously unconsidered, and do so through poetry? It is a wonder. Our hope is to both subvert Dolly perception and to honor her all at once—and yet it is a fine line to walk. This project has also been an adventure in the making since my friendship with Dustin began over a decade ago; I am so grateful too that we’ve been able to arrange it so all of our royalties will go to Dolly’s Imagination Library.


My online teaching took off during the pandemic. In our social isolation, I wanted to offer a space that nurtured healing and would welcome a sense of community and connection with fellow writers. Meditation is such a sacred and essential part of my spiritual practice, so I was compelled to create a workshop where poets might be able to not only come to generate new poems, but to give themselves intentional space and put the larger world at bay for just a bit. It is one of the ways I feel I can give back, especially to those that have been so fatigued in their work of activism and advocacy; this is a way to create a container for their writing. My favorite workshops to teach are generative and prompt-based, often incorporating guided meditations—I enjoy composing these, curated for each particular session—that serve as a jumping off point. Breath work and exploring the sensory in poetry have dovetailed in as well. I am taking a break from teaching this summer but be sure to check out jebloemeke.com for upcoming announcements.


BKR: In her essay, “The Poetic Void: Toward a Definition of Poetry,” Elisa Gabbart asserts, “The poetic is not merely beauty in language, but beauty in incoherence, in resistance to common sense. The missingness of poetry slows readers down, making them search for what can’t be found. The encounter is almost inherently frustrating, as though one could not possibly pay enough attention. This is useful: Frustration is erotic.” And also, “It speaks void. It telegraphs mystery.” This feels fundamentally true, and it correlates strongly to your writing. How do you cultivate this “missingness” and “mystery” that so infuses your poetry? Or is it something intrinsic to your own spirit that can’t help but spill into the poems you write?


JEB: Frustration is erotic! What a line! And yet, is it frustration that is erotic? Or is it delay? Or anticipation? Because I think too much frustration can also kill a poem. And yet, Gabbart illuminates such a crux of what seems to be shifting in poetry. What do I mean by this? I often wonder if readers don’t slow down enough to allow themselves into the marrow of the poem; they deny the invitation because emerging into that space requires intention. A poem should make you yearn to read it out loud, to put it in your mouth, to breathe within the words, to move the lines through your body as you walk and dance around the room. You should want to speak it, feel it, to surrender to the lush terror and joy of it as it runs through your heart, your pulse. And yet, we live in a time where observations with line breaks are often touted as poetry. They are not the same. To clarify, I am a fan of the aphorism in terms of therapy, emotional awareness, inner work. Often these sayings are exactly the guides, reminders, and signposts we need—not only to hold the self accountable, but to voraciously learn how to be better and do better. However, this, to me, is not poetry, because there is no covenant with craft, no deep attention to layers of meaning, symbol, image, implication. There is no love of language play, or of the sound and feel of it.


And yet, I must point out that in the speed and multitasking necessity that life in this century requires, there is a perception that it is a task, a chore, an obligation to slow down. Quite the opposite. We have to trust the silent spaces, the moments of contemplation, to choose to sit and watch the sun slide into darkness, the cicada emerge from a shell. This is where bliss and wonder reside, and yet, I think we have almost forgotten how; our world seems to want us to. Instantaneous communication demands we forget it; social media clamors that we *need * to forget it; apps and absence of patience *require* us to forget it in order to function. We are meant to delight in beauty, to find states of discernment and rest, to nurture mental expanse, and I find I am continually looking for ways to reclaim that.


I am so jazzed you brought up beauty in this context. I think of Mary Oliver’s “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” or to paraphrase theologian Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go to that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” My dear friend River Grey, a trans non-binary healer, spiritual mentor, and beauty disciple, wrote me once to say of their plants in London: “Even the leaf shadow on the dirty front windows has decided on beauty.” And so it has become something we say to each other often, now: “Choose beauty; decide beauty.” Or, if we are feeling cheeky, “No, I can’t possibly; I’ve decided to choose beauty instead.”

I do think it is intrinsic to who I am, and also something I wish to share, generously, fervently, adamantly. Being able to create suspense, tension, delay, anticipation, curiosity, wonder, a heightening, a charge, this is where so much resides for me, and for my work too. I have said often that I do not believe I write the poems I do; I believe they come through me; I am a conduit. And when I am doing my best, being the most engaged and aligned in my energy, then I am in service to the poem as I am meant to be. It is a highly spiritual practice for me; I own my voice and am grateful for my life, but I could never have written a single line without God, spirit, universe, meditation, play, the metaphysical. And yet, even with this being so much of who I am, I still question the throughline of longing in my poems. It is imperative that I do, or at least that is what I discuss with my therapist. Incidentally, a shout out to normalizing—and championing—therapy. As a creative, I have found EMDR and IFS to be especially helpful and healing.


BKR: What is your process when it comes to craft? Do you have any tricks, tools, or advice you can share with readers that have proven themselves invaluable to you?


JEB: I am not much into tricks, but I do believe that poets have to follow the green light of their individual intuition when it comes to their writing practice. Do not just rely on the screen. As a Taurus, an energetic/sensual on the erotic blueprint, poems feel very sentient to me, and I think when we truly commune with them we *have* to get into different forms of practice. Don Greiner, my mentor at University of South Carolina, taught me to read aloud *everything* I write. I do this with poetry and prose. I did it, in fact, with this interview. This practice allows the poem/the words to come through more senses and resonate in alternate ways. I’ve been known to hang poems on my walls at home, walking past them over weeks to make edits; James Dickey kept multiple typewriters in the house with starts of poems, editing when he passed them by; Gerald Stern carries poem drafts in his pockets. I cut up my poems with scissors and rearrange them; I play recordings of myself reading poems as I drive so that I purposely cannot see them on the page, but rather feel them in the air. Listening to recordings of your poems weeks later is incredibly helpful in attending to craft. Also, putting poems away for months, even years, and then going back to them is essential. Poems need time to ripen, marinate. Looking at poems *through* different mediums—on the screen, on the printed page, in handwriting, even in different fonts—is also imperative to my process. I am not a poet of immediacy, though I greatly admire those who have honed their craft to be able to do so.


I compose almost all of my drafts in longhand because there is an element of automatic writing involved for me energetically. And often—humorously—I cannot decipher my own script, so I’ll misread my word choice, and sometimes it turns out to be better than the initial one. My poem drafts are all in spiral notebooks, along with journal entries and ephemera that I have glued among the pages—flower petals, ticket stubs, receipts, hotel keys, museum entry stickers, covid tests—because to me the poem is meant to be companioned by these other objects to keep it company. Sometimes they inform the poem; sometimes they have nothing to do with the poem. But there is something so compelling to me about handwriting being surrounded by object—and the visual—so it is also no surprise I gravitate to ekphrastic work. I am very tactile and enjoy holding objects when I am in creative process; for instance, it is not a secret that I plugged in a rotary phone and made calls on it while working on Slide to Unlock. The heft of the receiver, the spin click of the finger wheel, holding down the switch hook—all of these actions activated memory and helped me attune to the poems. I am also fascinated by how other poets approach creative process—I think immediately of the issue of Poets & Writers that featured notebooks by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Terrance Hayes among others.


BKR: In your Tinderbox Poetry Journal interview with Kai Coggin, you speak about a time in your life after your son was born that you stopped writing and had to focus all of your creative energy on motherhood. However, when your second child went to preschool, you started feeling a call to poetry again. You say “I perceived this as a fallow period until I realized it was rife with the ripening. Meaning, when the poems did call me back, they called me back with authority.” Can you expound on that authority? How did it manifest, and how was it different than before your children?


JEB: This is such a great question, and one I do not think we address as much as we should. I was not only birthing children, I was also being born into parenthood, a rite of passage that is not honored enough through attentive ritual. And when the poems came back—at first through photography, exploration of the outer world, abandoned houses/spaces, (remember they only later returned to me through words)— they did call with authority. I would be driving down the road and hear a line, so I would pull over to write it. I composed drafts in carpool and in waiting rooms, at the park and in parking lots, or, a few times, locked in the bathroom for a minute of privacy. It was as if the poems were waiting for me to calibrate so that they could at last come through me; they were champing at the bit to be heard and seen. I dreamed a lot of lines during that time—sometimes in waking they let me harness them; sometimes they did not. Before children, I had a tendency, I think, to overwork poems, to be more self-conscious or doubtful in my practice. I was also attuning to my intuition too— a continual and organic process— and developing my instincts. I owned that I was a poet at that stage of my life. However, when I was in those chapters of not writing, when I thought I had truly lost the connection to poet energy and the nexus of it; I was bereft, unmoored. So when it returned, I reclaimed it with a passion and ardor that I could not have had before. And I have a deep and reverent gratitude for this sense of being found again; thankfully that sense has stayed with me.


BKR: You say, “Being a poet inherently defies definition really, but it is, in part, the dedication to the honing of a practice, to truly capturing the essence of something. For me it has roots in the spiritual; I consider it a calling, to see what is divine and reverent in all things, especially the things we take for granted or forget to see” in your interview with Jared Rypkema (Bridge Eight). Can you elaborate on poetry as calling?


JEB: Oh, thank you for reminding me of that! Jared and I had so much fun working on that interview! I believe being a poet, for me, is a calling; it is what I was born to do long before I came into the world. It is a practice, an attuning. It is wrapped up in inner work and getting low with my defenses and wounds so that I might do and be better as a conduit for the words. It is ever mutable; it challenges and humbles me; and though I tend to resist it—it insists on disruption, discomfort. It demands that I make way for the poem, sit with it, ask it what it really and truly wants to be, and how I can best help it refine that place. As I am writing from a loft in downtown Toledo just now—one of the rare moments I have of solitude to devote to my work—my poems are printed out, affixed on the wall next to me. I ran out of space, so they are also running up the stringers and risers of the staircase. I am surrounded, cocooned by words in process. These groups of poems are all in various stages of editing, but I have been spending time with them, asking them how they are in conversation, what they want this next book to be for them. A few have revealed themselves; others are taking their time. A few might have to be coaxed from behind the words they hide behind. But when I give them this space, when I say I am listening; I am here, they will meet me in that. They always do. And I have to trust that process, again and again, even when I doubt that I can. And this all, to me, is otherworldly, gleefully messy, magical, holy, reverent. Imagine! That of all the ways the poems could have chosen to come into the world, they are deciding on me—my channel of aesthetic and history, my way of working narrative, my editing predilections, my foibles and trials, my thorns and my quarries, my life and experience. It is a wonder, all of it.


BKR: Your debut collection Slide to Unlock (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020) was actually written and out in the world before the pandemic burst on the scene. The collection was chosen as a finalist (by Stephen Dunn, no less) for the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award through University Press of Colorado and Utah State University Press. It was also a semifinalist in several book prizes including the Crab Orchard Review First Book Award and the Crab Orchard Review Poetry Open Competition (Southern Illinois University Press), the Washington Prize (Word Works Books), and the Hudson Prize (Black Lawrence Press). How do you account for the almost synchronicitous occurrence of the release of a book containing poems written over a 10-year period and the spot-on feel of life during shelter-at- home isolation and social distancing of the first pandemic year?


JEB: I can’t. Because to me it was never truly in my hands. If we have our ear to the ground, and we listen for the distant rumble of the poem, we write where it calls us, not for what we wish it to be. I have had a Victorian mania for phones and distanced connections since childhood; the way developments in technology continue to alter human behavior fascinate me. Think about how much we’ve forgotten: the way we would sit next a phone waiting for it to ring. How we would pick up a receiver, listen for a dial tone, and quickly hang up so as to keep the line open. Prank calls and party lines. The sheer revelation of call waiting or the answering machine. The way we memorized friend’s numbers like song lyrics—80’s kids will still know immediately how to call Jenny for example. The resource of the phone book and learning how many people with your last name lived in your town, running your fingers over all the possibilities of those you did not know, or maybe one day would. How we used to call a certain number for time and temperature. Do you remember yours? In Toledo it was 9361212. And, it still works! Only now you have to include an area code. Also, consider the phone as sentient presence in literature and cinema, as recurring metaphor. How would The Great Gatsby be without the telephone, which becomes a crucial presence and narrative device? The phone is prop, excuse, recipient of anger, gateway to the erotic, secret keeper and secret exposer. So over a decade, I was obsessively mulling over this and writing through it. I could have never predicted or anticipated that a book based in “touch without touch” would emerge into the world when we had no choice but to connect *without* physical touch—our intimacies were screens and zoom calls, text, and video chat. We were touch-starved, longing for embrace, to cuddle, to feel the oxytocin of heart-to-heart, skin-to-skin, to just be in the presence of those we loved.


It is difficult for me to really talk about the timing honestly; I was so humbled and awed that the book itself took on a type of work I prayed it might—and that Seth and Bryan at Sibling Rivalry Press hoped it might too. Readers wrote to tell me it offered solidarity, companioning, a feeling of being seen, all, I am sure, amplified by the eerie timing of its emergence in a pandemic. The poems also took on new meanings in ways I could have never fathomed when I wrote them; Slide to Unlock somehow made people feel less alone, and that, as Lucille Clifton tells us, is what we most hope poems might do.


On another note, Slide to Unlock also seems to have contributed to deepening conversations about the complexities of connection via technology—about perception, mannerisms, interpretations of human correspondence, about the way we read into *how* someone communicates as an indicator of their ardor, enthusiasm, or intentions. I think it is far too easy to think about this in a binary way; there are nuances and layers to everything, and our assumptions trouble the water. I gave myself a challenge with this collection that I always hope I came within range of meeting: How does one write about what is inherently ever-changing—technology, apps, iPhone language, upgrades, the outdated and the analog—and yet still ensure it has some feel of universality? “Gospel of Text, Books I-IV” is one of the poems that I hope navigates this space specifically. And notice, of course, that this poem still only covers the first four books. Hmmm…


BKR: This collection has a powerful sense of inevitability woven throughout. A prime example is the poem “The Hang Up”. In the second section you write, “How we hold/ to each other, wanting/ to shatter the impossible/ onslaught of time,/ how we were broken/ without knowing/ how broken.” How do you think this corresponds to the question of human connection?


JEB: That is one of the highest forms of praise you could extend, thank you. As a student of Dickey’s, he often reminded us—intensely—that a poem must have a sense of inevitability. So that you used that word is especially serendipitous. “The Hang Up” is a poem with a deep personal history; it is one of the more vulnerable and raw poems in the collection I think. My hope is that the poem plays within realms of connection, all in unexpected conversation: There is the relationship between the two lovers—I intentionally did not reveal their ages until late in section II—but also their relationship to their individual past selves and the speaker’s present. There is both the presence and absence of parents— the phone ringing on the wall, unable to find, connect, save. There is geography, the breach of the written letter—which serves as a lodestone throughout the collection—silence as a means of connection; there is the lock of body; the lock of memory. There is the way memory itself serves as connection, this last parting irrevocably seared between two people that were both simultaneously choosing and not choosing to leave. And there is the connection to the world outside of the relationship, the expectations of who we should be or become.


I will confess this too, because I always love a bit of intrigue: the poem also works on a subterranean level that I have not shared publicly; it contains easter eggs and references that only a very few people in my life are privy to. And I love that it has those secrets, and that I can release the poem, but still have a few locked boxes in stanzas that are meant only for me as the poet, or perhaps the chosen few that have sleuthed it out.


BKR: The synopsis of the book states that your poems “reveal how digital language and communication, while designed to create intimacy, can leave us adrift.” In the poem “Electric Mail”, the lines “Still we type, touch/without touch, come closer.” Can you elaborate on this concept that technology has created a dearth of connection while creating a mirage of intimacy?


JEB: This is one of the questions that haunts me. We are absolutely redefining intimacy by the way we relate through technology. The whole phenomena of catfishing aside, we create a digital self that is not exactly a self “in person”—a phrase which is so captivating and odd on its own. We forge new connections over apps, over text or email exchanges, and then when we meet face-to-face, we finally feel the energetic space of the other person— we experience how they embrace, witness their mannerisms and body language, see how they interact with others around them, feel how they breathe, smell, maybe even taste. And sometimes, in that skin-to-skin, body-to-body is a contradiction of what we thought we knew or perceived. Or maybe it is entirely energetic—a resonance, an aversion, a surprise. Messaging/text does not require body language—sometimes a comfort for more difficult conversations; sometimes an erotic filling in; sometimes a chance to be heightened by the signature of how one uses words, language, punctuation, emojis without ever hearing their voice; sometimes a tool for passive aggressive or controlling behavior, among many possibilities of course.


I also think, at least in American culture, we are continually eroding deference, consideration, empathy. When was the last time someone began a text to you with the words “how are you,” for instance? And truly meant it? I also think back to when my parent’s generation began texting and how they would sign their texts, “Love, Mom” and we would get a giggle over it. Texting has become a means to get information quickly without the disruption of a full conversation. And yet, where text can be so charged, so artful, is when we call on it for different or unexpected gestures—it is, in its own way, a letter in your mailbox, a light up not limited to just “hey, I need something” but hey, I love you; have you seen this; I thought about you; this inspired me, etc. It can also lead to metaphoric exchange, breaching the genre of what we assume text to be.


In Slide to Unlock, for example, sending a photo of a painting is a way to say “I miss you” when the speaker is unable. But it also takes on all of the implications and inferences of text, how we “read into it" (another curious phrase) to build, as the poem “Infidelity” reveals, “a body of story.” And sometimes, that “body” we create has nothing to do at all with the person that instigated the creation.


BKR: You’re a native of