Poet Spotlight: Juliet Cook on dolls, body, and uncomfortable poetry

Juliet Cook’s poetry has appeared in a small multitude of magazines. She is the author of numerous poetry chapbooks, recently including From One Ruined Human to Another (Cringe-Worthy Poets Collective, 2018), Dark Purple Intersections (inside my Black Doll Head Irises) (Blood Pudding Press for Dusie Kollektiv 9, 2019), and Another Set of Ripped-Out Bloody Pigtails (The Poet’s Haven, 2019). She also has two more chaps forthcoming — red circles into nothing (forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing) and the rabbits with red eyes (forthcoming from ethel). Cook’s first full-length individual poetry book, Horrific Confection, was published by BlazeVOX. Her more recent full-length poetry book, A Red Witch, Every Which Way, was a collaboration with j/j hastain published by Hysterical Books in 2016. Her most recent full-length individual poetry book, Malformed Confetti was published by Crisis Chronicles Press in 2018.

I enjoy the way your chapbook, Dark Purple Intersections (inside my Black Doll Head Irises), offers a cohesive narrative arc. Please tell us about your collection and how it came into being? Did you plan to have a narrative arc to these poems or did you discover the narrative as you started writing?

For several years, I was working on this collection in bits and pieces. I had it tentatively titled “45” on my computer, because I tentatively planned to complete it when I was that age. It ended up taking longer. Basically, any time I wrote a few poem lines or a possible poem that was focused on personal age related issues, personal body based issues, negative memories of past relationships, and so forth, I’d place it in the collection-in-progress.

So I did plan to have a narrative arc, but during most of the writing process, I wasn’t focused on how I was going to arrange that arc. I was focused on the writing.

When it reached the point where I was ready to actually format it into a chapbook manuscript, there was some revision, including lines removed, lines added, and removing some whole poems — but the most challenging and time consuming part of finalizing the manuscript was deciding how to order all of the poems. I just had various different poems and poem lines semi-randomly bunched together, 2-4 on a page, and had to decide how to format their order, both thematically, and in a certain time frame sort of way — but not entirely past to present, more of a back and forth, semi-circle sort of interrelated intersection. As I was reading and re-reading the poems, I was tentatively numbering them — but then I’d think I had 1-7 numbered the right way, but then I’d end up changing my mind or writing another poem and suddenly having a 5.2 and 5.3 in the mix. Furthermore, I’d occasionally change what had been two separate poems into one whole poem or add another three lines to a poem and so on.

It took some time, but when I finally got all the poems ordered in a way that I thought worked stylistically and thematically, I then removed all of the numbers and bolded the first line of each poem.

Not too long after I had the manuscript completed, I then started to feel kind of weird about the collection, because I feel like it might be almost TOO confessional in a way that makes me seem really unappealing — not in terms of my poetry itself; but in terms of my negativity, my  lifestyle choices, my relationship issues, my body-focused issues and related attributes — but that was what felt the need to come out in this collection, uncomfortable or not.

Covers for Dark Purple Intersections (inside my Black Doll Head Irises) and Another Set of Ripped-Out Bloody Pigtails — both out in 2019.

I’m interested in the idea of poetry that is uncomfortable, both as a writer revealing aspects of their inner self (as you describe) as a reader discovering something outside their comfort zone. In what ways can discomfort have value in poetry?

It can generate emotions. It can help some people feel differently or think differently or find out and explore aspects of what other people’s minds and lives are like. It can help some people realize that they are not alone in regards to certain uncomfortable or disturbing or disconcerting thoughts/feelings/experiences or the desire to share the real them.

On the other hand, some people are uncomfortable with sharing personal details about themselves and thus tend to be uncomfortable with other people sharing personal details and thus are uncomfortable with certain kinds of poetry and art. Some people don’t want to be challenged or disturbed. Some people would rather hide themselves from truth.

Personally, I sometimes wonder why certain things cause me to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed or guilty — and exploring such things poetically is part of my attempt to reveal parts of myself instead of hiding myself. I feel like if I hid too much inside myself, I’d be terribly unhappy because I’d feel invisible, somewhat fake, and unreal. But oftentimes I don’t really know how other people feel about my poetry and so I still feel somewhat invisible even after I repeatedly share myself that way. Overall though, I guess I’d rather generate discomfort  to certain others instead of feeling unreal to myself.  

That doesn’t mean I don’t care about other points of view, especially if they have some openness and depth. I am willing to consider some perspectives that make me feel uncomfortable too, as long as they’re not forceful or controlling. In my mind, poetry is not forceful or controlling, even if its content is challenging, uncomfortable, or unsettling. Some people get angry about challenging writing. I tend to get angry about lighthearted silly cliches and lack of depth getting more attention than depth.

As the title suggests, doll imagery is used throughout your chapbook. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to this imagery and how it’s used to examine the nature and value of women’s bodies in the world?

In some ways, some parts of society view and treat girls/women like dolls, with implications that our faces and bodies are more appealing than our brains. In other ways, some people find some dolls to be creepy and scary and disturbing. In other ways, most dolls stay the same size and shape for their entire existence and can only be changed by how they’re dressed or made up — unless you actually rip a doll apart and put it back together in a different way. I think I try to incorporate elements of all these aspects of dolls in my poetry.

Sometimes I feel stuck inside myself. It’s more of a mind thing than a body thing, although there are aspects of both. It’s how my mind interprets others and myself — and how my mind views my own body. How my mind feels as if I’ll never last forever inside anyone else’s mind; at least not the whole real me, but only their own interpretation of me; similarly to how different people interpret dolls differently (and to how different people write, read, respond to, and react to poetry differently).

In most of the poems with doll references in this collection, I was thinking about a doll I actually have — a tiny white eyeless doll. I initially acquired it in my early twenties, during an acid trip with a small group of friends. We walked into an arts and crafts store and several of us bought these tiny white eyeless dolls. For at least 15 years, I kept my tiny white doll in a coat pocket. Then when I was 37 years old, on the brink of divorce, and moving stuff out of a house, I somehow lost that coat (or accidentally left it behind) and thus the tiny doll within its pocket.

A few years after that, when I was living inside a new space and had a new life and a slightly different brain, I saw a very similar doll in a different arts and crafts store and I bought it. But now instead of keeping it inside a coat pocket that’s often hidden in a closet, I have it displayed on my mantel, next to a black baby skull with devil horns and a light purple baby skull.

How did you get started as a poet? What keeps you writing?

I was drawn to poetic words and rhyming verse as a kid and wrote some of my own rhyming verse. I started writing some non-rhyming, angst-ridden verse as a teen. By my later teens, some of my creative words were partly inspired by some alternative music (including Siouxsie And The Banshees and Kate Bush).

I chose to earn a BFA degree in creative writing in college and loved the experience, although now if I read most of the poetry that I wrote back then, I’d probably think it was pretty bad. I was drawn to over the top and macabre fictionalized characters and horrific fairy tale entities — but looking back on it now, a lot of my poetry wasn’t personal enough yet.

For years my writing didn’t emerge as naturally as I wanted it to, so it was usually a long process to get a poem how I wanted it. After years of growing increasingly personal but still working on a long process to get a poem how I wanted it, when I was 33, my poetry finally started to emerge more naturally.

Then when I was 37, I suffered from an unexpected carotid artery dissection which lead to an aneurysm which lead to a stroke, which resulted in some brain damage. My recovery process involved having to relearn the alphabet and relearn to read and write. I truly believe that my passion for words, creative communication, and poetry significantly helped with my recovery. For a while after that, my poetry came out shorter and more abstract, but within a few years (and up until the present), it tends to shift in between the abstract and the overly personal. The shifting is interesting because some of my poetry is languish-based and pretty broadly open to interpretation, whereas some of my poetry is pretty obvious in terms of fairly basic language, but still open to interpretation in terms of emotion. In my mind, most of my poetry is emotional, but the emotions others garner might be different than the emotions I was feeling when I wrote it. That doesn’t particularly bother me, because I think all poetry and art is open to interpretation.

One of my primary goals as a writer is remaining true to myself, but continuing to evolve over time. Sometimes I wonder if my content is somewhat stagnant. Oftentimes I don’t really know how other people feel about my poetry and so I feel somewhat invisible even after I repeatedly share parts of myself via my writing. Sometimes that bums me out, but regardless of how others react to my poetry, I’m pretty sure I’ll keep on writing anyway, because it’s an ongoing creative expressive necessity; not a temporary popularity contest.

Do you have a particular place where you like to write? Any particular materials you prefer to use (paper and pen, computer, notecards, etc.)?

For many years, I used to start all my poetry writing on the floor in a notebook or journal, using pencils or pens — and then when a poem progressed to a certain point, I’d move it to the computer. Now I almost always just write and revise on the computer. I used to save rough drafts on paper to an extent. Now I just replace them with what feels finished at the time on my computer. I do print out copies of my finished poems though and use the printed copies to keep handwritten notes of where each poem is submitted (and rejected and accepted). I read online literary magazines on my computer, but I never read or write poetry on my cell phone. I also never read my own poetry on my cell phone at a poetry reading. If the poems I’m reading at poetry readings don’t appear in books, I print out the poems and read them from paper. Maybe my poetry writing and organization is an amalgamation of contemporary and outdated, but hey I’m part of Generation X. I took a class on the Internet (aka the World Wide Web) when I was in college. We didn’t have computers in our dorm rooms. I didn’t have my own computer until I was 23 or 24. In most of my twenties, I bought the Poet’s Market book every other year, used that to investigate literary magazines, and mostly submitted my poetry through the mail. Now I investigate almost everything and submit almost everything online, as well as reading lots of poetry online. But not on a little phone when I’m sitting in a room with a bunch of other people. I work on the vast majority of my poetry stuff when I’m alone.

You’re also the editor and publisher of Blood Pudding Press and its sister blog-style magazine Thirteen Myna Birds. Can you talk a bit about these projects and your work as an editor? What excites you about this work?

Making my own small contribution towards publishing the creative work of others, rather than only focusing on myself. Plus of course I also get very excited by some of the creative work I’ve encountered this way.

I’m more sporadic than I used to be with my press and my magazine. I slightly toned down my sense of urgency to rush myself, because it’s not like I’m competing in some sort of major race, but my own natural sense of urgency started feeling increasingly overwhelming and stressful. I have a hard time relaxing, so at least I can attempt to work at my own pace, rather than rushing myself into some sort of speed dial competition.

I do sometimes worry that I’m a relatively meaningless slow poke, but at least I’ve stuck with my creative projects for many years and published quite a unique variety of creative work.

Are there lessons you’ve learned through editing the work of others that has carried over to your writing?

I’ve certainly been inspired by other writers, but that happens for me via reading; not via editing. Via editing, nothing in particular comes to mind that has carried over to my own writing, but I’ve had a few experiences where people have become extremely offended by me offering small editing suggestions or have lashed out at me for rejecting their work. It’s ironic, because most poetry editors are also poetry writers who have had their own work rejected plenty of times. Sometimes I get sick of writers lashing out at other writers.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

I’m not really sure, other than the fact that I will very likely stay attached to poetic/artistic expression in one way or another.

I’ve always had a fear of death/non-existence — and the older I get, the worse that seems to get, because of the speed racing of time and other factors. I hope I can stay alive long enough to further evolve and expand my own creative expression, as well as staying open to communicating with others.

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