“Night, Brahms, Silence & Birds: A Conversation with Julia Guez”— curated by Lisa Olstein

Julia Guez is the author of In an Invisible Glass Case Which Is Also a Frame (Four Way Books, 2019). Her poetry, prose, and translations have appeared in Poetry, Guernica, The Guardian, Kenyon Review, PEN Poetry Series, and The Brooklyn Rail. Four Way Books will be releasing her next collection of poems, The Certain Body, in 2022. Guez teaches creative writing at Rutgers and is the Senior Managing Director of Program Design and Implementation at Teach For America New York.

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Julia Guez: In a piece on Elizabeth Hardwick for The New Yorker, Darryl Pinkney remembers Hardwick saying that there are really only two reasons to write: revenge and desperation.  I wrote The Certain Body in a state of desperation, while very sick, in the city of New York, in the spring and summer of 2020.

LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

JG: I love that way of thinking about what form sets free.  We often talk about what forms “fix,” “limit” or “constrain.”  So much they open up, though, too. 

During my long-haul with COVID, I began to read and write a very different kind of poem (including one called “In a New Form” which appeared, first, in Ocean State Review.)

Every indentation in that poem signals a line or lines from “You, Very Young in New York,” “Repeat Until Time: The Heraclitus Poem,” or “The Sandpit After Rain” (which are the three poems in Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems). 

When I was reading Three Poems, a cento began to take shape (made of all my favorite lines).  There were so many(!)  Something happened mid-way through the making of that cento, though.  That book in my hands, I remember sitting up, thinking this would not be a cento at all, if I could hold up my end of things.  It would be a back and forth.  “Together” “we” might “say” “something new in a new form.”  At the time, finding a new form seemed to be an absolute necessity.  “Saying something new” seemed necessary, too.

LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

JG: When I was working on The Certain Body, I would listen to guided meditations through the night. (I can recite every word of this one from Mark Williams).  During the day, I would listen to BrahmsBach and Bill Evans – Live in Buenos Aires, 1979.  Outside of our window, there were so many sirens.  Between them, the city was quieter than ever, so quiet you could hear birds(!)

The writer, Andrew Dansby, reviewed The Certain Body for The Houston Chronicle.  The last section of this very thoughtful piece is devoted, entirely, to night and to birds:

When Guez began to emerge from her illness, she found her senses heightened. From her home in Brooklyn, she noticed the sounds of traffic were muted and the sounds of birds were pronounced.

Not surprisingly, birds flutter throughout “The Certain Body.”

Night falls throughout “The Certain Body,” which isn’t surprising, considering the ways profound illness can twist days and nights into a mess of muddled hours.

Night, Brahms, sirens and birds all have a place in the new book; meditations do too: the opening poem, which appeared, first, in Iterant is called “Meditation at Callicoon.”

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm? 

JG: In 2020 (and 2021), I was under the impression that my experience of COVID was impossible to understand, explain, treat, code, cover or cure; in a word, early on, I believed my long-haul to be somehow unique. 

According to COVID Survivors for Change, there are millions of long-haulers here and around the world.  We are re-reading The Body Keeps the Score. Many now follow @thenapministry on Instagram.  Some of us have learned to use The GEN Grief Toolkit. The very best have been organizing.

Ed Yong’s work on long-COVID has been keeping me company since The Certain Body came out; I have taken my time, making my way through various essays in Disability Studies Quarterly, beginning with one about completely re-orienting to time and the mind and the body from Ellen Samuels.

LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

JG: Readings online, readings in Jersey City, New York and LA, Seattle and Portland, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Austin allow me to shift back into the creative space of this book.  Outside of readings and workshops, I am finding my way into some very new space(s). 

We have welcomed a new addition to the family.  We live in a new city now.  I am working on some new poems (all about The Gowanus Canal).  

I have a new role at work which allows me to work remotely.  That has meant some new routines, designed to help me transition out of “work” mode without any kind of “commute.”  Some combination of TM, palo santo, tea, ping-pong, Galaga and football in the yard with my three sons never fails to help me find “play” mode.

Work is very full at the moment (which makes me particularly grateful for the play that brings me back to center).  My sense is that a lot of the new poetry and translation will come more from “play” than from “work” (or somewhere half-way between them) hopefully steering clear of both “revenge” and “desperation.”

Lisa Olstein is the author of five poetry collections published by Copper Canyon Press: Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (2006), Lost Alphabet (2009), Little Stranger (2013), Late Empire (2017), and Dream Apartment (2023). She has also published two books of nonfiction: Pain Studies (Bellevue Literary Press, 2020), a book-length lyric essay on the intersection of pain, perception, and language; and Climate (Essay Press, 2022), an exchange of epistolary essays co-written with Julie Carr.