Joshua Marie Wilkinson: First off, you’ve been living in Istanbul for the last five years. Can you tell us what you know is happening there now?
Julie Doxsee: Actually, I have been in Istanbul for six years. I am not Turkish, though I feel connected to Turks through friendships, colleagues, lifestyle, and through my Turkish-blooded children. What is happening right now is something Turks own, and as an “inside” outsider, I feel proud to be connected to this outing of the Prime Minister as he rockets about on his power trip. Sometimes his public speeches are so baffling I just laugh, stunned, but when I realize he is serious, the gravity of his power really affects me (for three weeks, off and on, I have been on the verge of vomiting). Last week one government authority claimed that the police water cannons were not laced with chemicals, as evidenced in photos, but with “medicine” that is good for the people! For now, the exhilaration that comes with the protesters’ resilience outweighs the gas bombs and water cannons the police are pummeling them with. The government henchmen are shooting themselves in the feet over and over again. They have created protesters of people who wouldn’t normally get involved: mothers, grandmothers, residents of Taksim, business owners, tourists—anyone whose daily lives have been upended by the chaos, anyone who has been horrified by the police violence. This man is thrusting so much hatred and violence into the faces of beauty and love that make Turkey so amazing—calling his own people enemies and “chapullers.” Now that the worst is over (I hope), only good can come of it. Turkish culture has been through a lot; the past 90 years have been an unprecedented trial for a new kind of secular Republic. Turks have grown and become empowered by standing up to a disillusioned megalomaniac, and they are winning with intellect and honor.
JMW: What’s your sense of how living in Istanbul has changed you poetry-wise or in terms of your relationship with language more broadly?
JD: Istanbul is a vastly complex city, historically, politically, economically, and culturally. When I first moved there I had previously visited five times as a tourist, and had barely scratched the surface. Getting to know the city is a poetic undertaking in itself; I found myself really drawn to knowing the city concretely, using language that would ground me in the details of the history while at the same time allowing me the linguistic fantasy of filling in the gaps. Since I moved to Istanbul I have written two poetry manuscripts—one quite abstract and microcosmic, one (The Next Monsters) more public and political. As a teacher of non-native speakers I find that in my daily life I use clear, detailed language as much as possible. Certain English metaphors and figurative phrases don’t work in Turkish, though Turkish has a wealth of “sayings” and metaphors and tons of bad words. In other words, it is not as though Turkish non-native English speakers refuse creativity in favor of the concrete. I think I mean that literal language that tells a story ends up shifting the gravity to the story itself. Turks are amazing storytellers with really quirky stories to tell. This storytelling is something that really inspired me on my first trip to Istanbul in 1994 and kept me coming back. The quirkiness, the history, and the people have enriched my writing life incredibly.
JMW: Your new book is just about out with Black Ocean—Congratulations! Tell us about it?
JD: Thanks! Well, the book began as a series of vignettes from daily life as I began to discover what it was like to live my life in Istanbul. My commute to work took me along the upper Bosphorus coast and into the forest near the Black Sea, where at the time there were several gypsy encampments and, further in, a little enclave of villagers and their children and animals. The university I work for is known for its enrollment of privileged students, and I found the contrast quite striking. Riding a dolmus (like a VW bus) down a dirt road, surrounded by “slums” and noticing that everyone on the dolmus was either donning Gucci or village garb (for women this means headscarf and poofy, flower-patterned pants). I remember being on the dolmus once and hearing a peeping sound. I thought for sure a kitten had snuck on board, but it turned out there was a villager coming back from the farmer’s market with a box of baby chicks. Another day the bus was stranded on the dirt road because a black cow and a white horse were standing together in the middle of the road. Every passenger was moved by it, and we all laughed together, yanked from our conversations and iPhones and stuff to join together in the moment. Everything about that moment felt so Istanbul to me—communal and humorous and strange. Darker sides of life also enter the book. As my interest in the noticeable gender issues in Turkey began to increase, I keyed in on the statistics about domestic violence. The poet in The Next Monsters knows violence intimately, and sort of toys with it eerily as a means of forgetting and reforming identity. Some of the work is written in fractured fugues, complicating this identity and the emotions that come to surface through the process.
JMW: You have two new sons, as well, Julie, and seeing you last week I was astonished by your capacity to function with these little fellows, their attendant needs, on so little sleep for so long. What’s changed for you since your twins were born?
JD: Everything has changed; I don’t analyze it too much because I don’t have time! The biggest differences are the sleep deprivation, the inability to hold a conversation for too long, and the fact that I can’t think about myself (or much of anything other than mothering) for now. Being in mom-mode is intense—any mom would agree. Twin-mom-mode must be some kind of superpower that has graced me, and I honestly don’t know where the ability to function comes from. I do know that for the first month I was entirely clueless, and that I had to learn the very basics of how to be a mother during that time—I had to learn by just doing it. I find myself wishing that in my pre-mother years I had had more sympathy/empathy for friends who are mothers. I am glad that I have so many friends who are mothers, and even twin mothers, so that I have people in my life who can look into my eyes and say, “Yeah, I KNOW,” without me having to explain things too much.
JMW: Hearing how your children are beginning to sound out, babble, make funny and engrossing sounds got me thinking about how our bodies make language in those old, elemental ways. What have you learned about language from these two little guys?
JD: I have learned that language is not necessarily about words, though I have always believed that. The way I communicate with my sons, and the way they communicate with each other, IS elemental, and says more than any language I have ever used. Listening to the different utterances and histrionic inflections in the babble is so entrancing—it is nature’s way of getting mama to begin a kind of attention to baby’s needs and joys and developmental leaps. I hear my own voice slipping into a high register that makes the babies respond and engage, and I don’t know where the voice comes from. It just sort of takes over involuntarily, and I end up with perma-smile, speaking in babble-English with my own histrionic inflections. The boys giggle and giggle when I am at my best with this new talent. . .
JMW: What will it be like to return to Istanbul with your sons this fall?
JD: I would love to know how to answer that question, but I don’t. Beyond the turmoil of the protests there will be worries about the economic fallout, worries about the chance that laws affecting my life could be imposed (I have this paranoia that certain content in higher education will be restricted), worries about how my children’s education will be affected, worries about how to manage everything and still be a good mother. At the same time, I will be glad to return; it is home, and it is where I feel constantly inspired.
JMW: When we met in Mesa a couple of weeks ago, I remember you mentioning the emotional roller coaster you were on while you were deep into your pregnancy. Can you talk about how that’s ebbed and worked?
JD: When I found out I was pregnant with twins, I started reading about the high risk nature of my pregnancy, and I ended up seeing over and over again that twin pregnancies are difficult not just because of the extra weight and concern about losing a twin, but because the surge of hormones is double that of a singleton pregnancy. My double hormones lead to major nausea and even fainting, and also to a period of intense crying (wailing loudly, rather) out of the blue in inconvenient places (such as in the middle of a crowded café in which my crying was actually louder than the music playing). I would cry outrageously for fifteen minutes, then it would blow over and I would become a perfectly normal person again, ready to cook dinner or do the laundry with a smile on my face. It was weird. . .Throughout my pregnancy I felt lonely and wanted a community of women who were experiencing the same things I was going through. Most people around me were subjected to a version of me that was being operated by double-hormone emotions. I perceived people as having an inability to understand my situation; add to that the fact that I was in Turkey and feeling more alien than usual there. I craved the company of other mothers, and only among other mothers did I feel more myself as I started to adapt to my new identity. It is strange to think about now because of the natural amnesia that occurs postpartum. When I was pregnant I could command myself to cry, and it would work! I could send myself into an enormous, cleansing round of sobbing and it was sometimes really relieving. Once I started to have constant back, pelvic, and foot pain I was just crying all the time, telling the guys it was time to come out and shutting myself in my bedroom. I am pretty sure that people around me just didn’t know what to do with bloated, hormonal me. Now I pretty much smile all the time and/or go about my motherly duties in a sleep-deprived catatonia. The only thing that makes me emotional is sad news stories about children. I have a hard time remembering my pregnancy identity, though I want to; it was definitely the most intense and dramatic period of my life.
JMW: I feel like I’m surrounded by poets with kids or kids on the way. Any parenting advice for these expecting poets?
JD: I advise them to feel assured that after six weeks, things will get easier. I would also advise leaving the house as much as possible to get some perspective and asking for help when needed. Learning to ask for help was a really hard thing for me to do. New parents who are used to having a writing life may just have to get used to the fact that they can’t write for a while (for most maybe a few months, but for me longer with the twins). My whole pregnancy and birth experience were so intense for me; I plotted out a way to write about it so that I could send my story into the air. I really wanted to get my experience into words as soon as I got to the states in April, but so far this interview is the most I have written about the experience. My urge to tell the world came from a really confusing double-hormone place, and the memory of that confusion has dulled a lot. I remember many details, but I feel like they must have happened to someone else. At any rate, poet-parents, you will write again, and it will be sooner than you think, but for a while time will move in very strange, difficult, and joyous ways. Also, when it gets hard, just imagine caring for TWO baby infants at the same time and you will feel better.
JMW: I remember talking to you about that particular effect of amnesia when we met up in Mesa. What’s your sense of that amnesia with respect to your pregnancy, your sons’ birth, and the weeks after the birth? Can you tell how that kind of sweeping forgetting will affect your writing life?
JD: The amnesia is not so much mental as it is physical and perhaps emotional. As I was on the way home from the hospital with my babies, my body was adjusting to its new condition and I realized I had no memory of what it was like to be pregnant—even two days later! I could remember in terms of sort of flat definitions (i.e. it was awkward, it was painful, it was uncomfortable, it was huge, it was weird), but my body had forgotten what it felt like. If I get a headache or an earache I remember the feeling of having a headache or an earache, but this physical memory just didn’t exist. The birth was similar. I was unmedicated for my labor and birth and my body sent me to some twisted, scorching, planet X of alien pain, it was so intense. Two days later, again, I could not remember what the pain really felt like (that is not to say that I didn’t have a significant amount of healing to do. . .). I had heard that this amnesia happens—I am certain it exists as a biological function so that people do not stop having children. It may also be the body’s way of getting mama into mama-mode without dwelling too much on the dramas of pregnancy and birth. It took a few weeks for my body to adjust to the hormonal shift, too, and eventually it was bizarre to think that the hormones were affecting my life so much for so long. I have a feeling this amnesia will affect my writing life when I actually begin to write about it. How does one write about forgotten physical states of being? I don’t know; there are some poems in me somewhere that will wrench out of me when ready (here I acknowledge the obvious gestation metaphor). When I think casually about how to express the physical extremity of the experience I just see a whole bunch of exclamation points and a few question marks on a page.
JMW: Did you write at all through your pregnancy? (If so) What was different about the writing you did then? (If not) Did it build up in you?
JD: I didn’t write at all at any time during my pregnancy. I attribute this to a few different things that are common in early pregnancy, such as nausea, extra hours of sleep and dulled brain. The brain goes into “take it easy” mode during the first trimester and for me it was like being on some kind of sedative. When I started to feel better, I just wanted to read, and by my third trimester I was working full-time, and plans for a long non-fiction book about my experience were brewing. For a while, though, maybe the last 6-7 years, my writing process has not involved writing every day, or even writing regularly. I have often gone through long periods of not writing; a project will build up until I feel it is ready to come out (there’s that metaphor again). When the time for emergence comes, I forget about everything else and spend as much time as my schedule allows sending the brewing book to paper. I am still waiting for a day my non-fiction book will emerge; I am pretty sure it will be brewing for while longer.
JMW: Does all this change you’ve been experiencing—your sons’ births and development, political unrest in your home, moving between Turkey, Arizona, around the States, and back—alter the projects you’d set for yourself?
JD: I am still fixated on this one project, about pregnancy and birth, but as a result of being in the States during the political unrest at home, I find myself addicted to reading, watching and listening to news more actively that I ever have. I respond to and engage with and scream (internally) about corruption in positions of power, twisted versions of capitalism, the political abuse/misuse of women’s bodies and blind fundamentalism. I am not certain whether it is because I am now a mother, and as a result have no tolerance for how screwed up some parts of social life are because of government, or if things have just gotten so ridiculous—not just in Turkey but around the world. The day before the protests began in Turkey, I was eating Chinese food. My fortune cookie said, “Make a change for the better. Try politics.” I don’t eat Chinese food much, so I don’t know how common this advice is from a fortune cookie, but it struck me because I had already begun to feel more politically active and had even fantasized about starting an NGO. I don’t know what will come of this. Hopefully at least one book, and, perhaps if I continue to be pulled toward politics, the cookie may live up to its name.
JMW: So, where does this leave poetry?
JD: This is a really important question for me. I have had a strange relationship with poetry since I got pregnant. I’ll admit that at certain points over the past year, poetry has felt like a luxury that no longer belongs in my life. I even experienced a sort of mourning for it, as though I had said goodbye to it forever. It feels strange now to say that because, of all things in my life, poetry is still what keeps my blood pumping and my feelings about the world in good perspective. I will write poems with my boys as soon as they can hold crayons in their little hands—providing the ground for a rich creative life is one of my highest goals as a parent. As for what my fortune cookie suggested, I know now that my identity as a poet IS political, especially when so many voices from social life these days attempt to defame poetry for being irrelevant. My definition of poetry has expanded as a result of my status as a new mother who will soon be going back to a country in upheaval. For one thing, I don’t think poetry has to be written, and in fact some of the poems that I have discussed here about my birth experience may never emerge (was it Woolf who admired/acknowledged the value of a poem/book that remains in the mind?). I see poetry in my own body. I see poetry in the way my boys’ hands curl around an object, and in the way their limbs have gone from flailing about to discovering the ground. I also see it in millions of Turks from many different backgrounds and beliefs coming together to use intelligence to stand against unconscionable violence. This awareness of how my identity has shifted, how poetry has shifted, will make my kids who they are and who they will be. As I teach them about poetry I know it will be about more than just words—I will be teaching them to have good hearts.
Julie Doxsee is the Canadian-American author of three books of poetry: The Next Monsters (Black Ocean 2013), Objects for a Fog Death (Black Ocean 2010) and Undersleep (Octopus Books 2008). She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Denver (2007) and an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2002). In 2007 she moved to Istanbul, where she teaches academic writing, creative writing, and literature courses at Koç University.