(“Coffee with the Poets” interviews are conducted by Christina.)
From her poetic style to her lifestyle, Juleigh Howard-Hobson is a Traditionalist through and through. I firstly became acquainted with her as a poet via Hex Magazine. She called herself “a formalist” and so did I, so I was drawn to her not only for our poetic similitude but also our mutual roots of Traditionalism. With commonality of not-so-common interests, we find ourselves on the fringe of society, where poets usually are for one reason or another: outside of the status quo, setting their own pace in their own way with confidence in each step: “sure-footed,” as her poetry has been assessed; against time, insisting that if no one else will uphold the beauty of centuries-old formality, she certainly will! She’s garnered much respect and I’m honored that she accepted my invitation for coffee.
How do you take your coffee, or do you prefer tea, or…?
I drink plain old ordinary coffee, milk no sugar…think of the stuff you’d get out of a machine, stuck down in the basement of a hospital in 1972, that’s what I drink. To make it sound more interesting, you could call it honest and uncompromising like my outlook on life. Or you could psychoanalyze me and say that I developed a taste for it because I grew into coffee drinking age as café culture hit the west coast and that mass pretension ruined any interest I might have had in ‘gourmet coffees’.
I understand. 🙂 Tell us about your poetic background.
I began writing poetry when I was 16. Right after I discovered John Keats and found my first biography of him (Keats and His Circle, by Timothy Hilton from my high school library). I wasn’t so much reading about Keats as I was discovering things I felt like I’d already known. Everything felt familiar, every portrait, every anecdote, every date—I devoured the book. Within the week I was writing poetry, coming out with formal iambic pieces. Figuring out rhyme schemes. Counting meters. I was a punk rocker at the time, too, so being completely out of step with the current literary world was no problem for me (this was 1979, a bit before punk became another name for selling a music scene to young people). The fact that Shelley and Hunt were socially unacceptable in their time was a relatable revelation to me, and a source of inner strength.
My poetic influences were, and still are, the late Romantic English poets: John Keats was the touch point but it has always been Percy Shelley, Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron who have had the most influence on me (not always merely poetically either). There are others: John Donne, Robert Herrick, A E Houseman, Alfred Tennyson, Edmund Vance Cooke…I could write up a huge list, but 1) it’s pretty boring to read about other people’s preferences, and 2) all my books are packed up, waiting for our house to be hand built so I can’t just run my eyes over the shelves and write down names. I am always leaving someone out these days. We’re traditionally hand building our house and building up a farm around it from scratch, so it will be a while before I am able to put my books back in their bookshelves. I used to not just miss them but actively worry about them sitting in storage in their boxes, with images of mice, damp, mold, fire, you name it and…but now I tell myself that it’s all material and replaceable and I can let it all go. It’s easier now, now that a couple of years have passed, then it was in the beginning. But that’s a different story.
The influences these fellows (they are all fellows; I’d be lying if I tried to squeeze a female poet into that list. It’s not that I’ve rejected any female poets, there aren’t any of them that had any meaningful influence on me. Call it a shame, say I ought to dig deep and find some early nineteenth century female poets…blah blah blah…my influences were set long ago, there is not a thing to be done about it, or that I’d do about it. I like how I turned out with the influences I’ve had. Besides, if this is an age where we disregard gender, turning instead to the person inside the xx or xy straightjacket of biological gender determination, I’ll bloom where I am planted.) anyway, the influences these fellows have had on me is huge. They shaped my poetic roots. From them I learned iambic meter, from them I looked to pagan and mythic sources, from studying them I learned about rhyme schemes and how to write sonnets, and how to not bow to popular pressures and follow my own inner flame, so to speak. Shelley and Hunt were the biggest influences there. Byron was just always a giant shadow, somehow, maybe because his work was more precise and precision is important to formality, and his work was also a little unapproachable because he wrote from a place that I never felt at home in, but he has always influenced me. Shelley and Hunt could have been best friends of mine, and perhaps were (if not in that lifetime, in another).
As for my contemporaries—despite what the modern world says, there are more than a few formalists alive these days: my favorites are Christina Finlayson Taylor, Leo Yankevich, Robert Taylor, Joseph Salemi, Sally Cook, Tomas Axelzon and also Xenia Bakran-Sunic, who doesn’t actually fall into the Formalist School, but I really like her work—she is able to create lovely delicate poetry in the modern free manner, which is something most moderns simply cannot do. She was the only free versifier I would ever call a favorite until recently when I came across another—a poet named Will Southern. He captures raw emotion and holds it in words.
We do recognize some of these names; thank you. 🙂
Bukowski taught me what not to write (when he falls out of fashion for good, there will be no revival, he is far too much a man of one time) while at the same time reading his work taught me to trust in my own language, my own diction. I credit him with my being able to write iambic rhymed poetry in sentences that have the cadence of real spoken words. Which is a big debt to owe; I will always have a soft spot for him, even though he’d have been bound to hate that a Formalist likes him enough to mention him fondly. Oh well.
I have never taken a class in writing poetry. I do have a degree in English Literature, but with the exception of a screenplay writing class (in which I got an A) I avoided classes that could alter where I already was or where I was going, poetically speaking. There were no classes on writing in meter anyway. I never went on to write screenplays, so I was correct in thinking that being taught ‘how’ a writing genre needs to be performed kills any desire to discover how to create original work within it. Sort of like sausage making—you shouldn’t know too much about how other people make them if you want to continue to enjoy them for their flavor. I took the class to prove to myself that I could write anything if I wanted to. It’s the wanting to, of course, that changes everything. I don’t want to write certain ways; I don’t want to write certain things. I am very sure of that.
Your writing is prolific in print and online—both poetry and prose—sometimes witty and often serious, and sometimes an effective mix of both. There is so much passion that drives you to write. Feel free to explain.
I am quietly driven by a distant and cold outside force—you need to work it whispers at me in a recriminating tone, particularly if it thinks I haven’t been. Sometimes it whispers that I am wasting time. Other times it’s that I need to work harder. Or more. There is no pleasing it, there’s no negotiation. If I work hard, it is silent. If I don’t it’s a low but constant hissing loop in the pit of my stomach. So I work hard enough to keep it from ruining my inner life.
This isn’t to say that I don’t love every single facet of writing. I do. It’s my calling, though, I didn’t decide to write, I found out that I was a writer. Which I think might sound a bit arrogant, but I can’t come up with any other truthful way to explain it. Either way, calling or not, my task master is exacting and unyielding.
Yes, one could say that the task master is me. The calling is me. The drive is me. Of course it is. And it isn’t. Honestly, it would be gracefully relaxing to be able to finally say: There, I’m done. I did it. But… I can’t say that. I don’t think I ever will. How can there be an end to what makes me me?
There are times when I feel wretched and obscure, and then I tell myself that because I plan on living to be at least 120, I have plenty of time ahead to fill up with work…and sooner or later, traditional poetry will stop being the deplored great-grandparent of literature again. Rebirth isn’t just for pagans.
And of course, there’s the whole slow organic growth versus sudden pop fame growth aspect. I don’t want what I write to fade away with the turning tides of fashionability (as if you couldn’t tell), I don’t want to be one of the formerly best-selling writers whose books are literally sold by the pound to resale dealers a few years after I’ve peaked. I’d rather just stick around, slowly growing in the world’s regard. And that’s not merely rationalization or some mature-turn-about revisionism. When I was much younger than I am now, I played lead guitar and wrote and sung punk rock songs in a band—we even got written up in Flipside Magazine—but I decided that I hated that world. I hated chasing fame, I hated chasing publicity, I hated that I had to know the right people blah blah blah. It felt wrong to me, unfitting to the poetic ethics I held in my head. So I put the guitar down and never did pick it up again. Never wanted to. I made my choice and I know it isn’t the popular one, but it’s mine.
As for getting my unfashionable work published, that’s also part of the incessant driving: Send it out. Send it out. Nothing ventured nothing gained. Try. Try. Try again. Tastes change. And the thing of it is, tastes do. Ten years ago formal poetry was so rare as to be extinct in most living literary places…these days, it’s not. I’m not the only formalist, so I cannot take the credit, but I can say that my relentless submissions certainly helped open doors once tightly locked against meter.
I once knew a poet who published a hardback book of his own poetry, because, according to him, there was no way to get published otherwise unless you had an in with the journals or the magazines. His poetry was modern, too, so it wasn’t as if it was actually unpublishable like mine was. But, I was younger, so I didn’t argue with him. I’ve since searched for his name online, and it never shows up. Even his book is ungoogleable, though it was published. I actually have a copy. When I think back about him, I think about how I single-mindedly decided not to be like him. I just set my jaw and kept sending work out—I didn’t have an in with the journals, or the poetry departments of universities…but I just kept sending out my work anyway.
I eventually got a piece accepted at a journal. Then another. And so it goes.
As to what I write—that’s harder to explain I think. Sometimes I feel like a painter who repeats the same picture over and over—I’ll find that I use the same words again and again in different pieces. All the pieces will have the same tone. The same point. I have no idea why. It usually happens with sonnets, I can dash off half a dozen Shakespearian sonnets without a lot of self awareness. Most of them will be fine, and will eventually find homes. But I shake this sort of thing off, though, as soon as I notice. It’s not good to write in a comforting blur, so I’ll take myself off and write something difficult and sort of finicky like a Glosa where I have to notice everything I do.
Some forms are purely ornamentals—fancy little poems written just to be written. They are interesting to do, hard to do well, and I find that they don’t serve for deeply meaningful works as much as plain old sonnets or rondeaus serve me. I don’t have to think outside of myself when writing a sonnet—the words fall into line then and there, as I write. Rondeaus are about the same, with them coming to me by virtue of their first four syllables and then falling into being around them. Other forms are more crafted than created—I keep a small blank book on my desk that I’ve copied forms into—like a handwritten cookbook, in all honesty—and I flip through it and see what forms inspire me. Sometimes none. Sometimes they all do.
I write of glory, of hopefulness. I write about nature and what lies behind it. I write about lost causes, and lost loves. Ghosts and echoes. Bright flowers and grey clouds. The old ways. If I had to put a color palette to my work, it would be shadowy, with pastels. Mostly. There are brighter and darker bits. Some are downright brash. But mostly, I think my works are numinously hued.
Would you mind sharing some of your personal favorites and providing back-stories?
Nature clutches at shanks, rips tender skin,
Pulls and swipes and trips up the unwary
Who wander too deeply to find ways in
To places undiscovered. Thick burry
Weeds, brambled vines, branches hung with poison
Thorns, leaves that sting and stalks that cut across
Like whips all lie in patient wait for them
Who would explore the pathless woods because
Nature does not like to share its world, does
Not care for trampling feet and pushing hands,
That thrust themselves into the wild. There was
Never any agreement made with plants
To abide with man. Nature knows too well:
Humanity will always find and tell.
* PHAUNOS—god of the forests
This sonnet was written in my head before I wrote it down. We had just bought the land that we are homesteading now, and the 5 acre forested hill that lies in the back of it was formidable: thick with underbrush and thorn…and shadowy feral spirits that weren’t too approachable. It’s still not the most friendly woods in the world, but lately the thorns and whips have not been quite so defensive about our few-and-far-between forays into their heartland.
Invocation to the Dawn
Come more than merely morning, more than light—
Come fog that glows in misty swirls as sun
And dew combine. Come pink come blue come white
Dawn coloured clouds. Come sparrows who take flight
In shafts of gold. Come azure streaked with one
Bright blush of red. Come. Come, replace the night.
For we have had too much of night, tonight
Too much of darkness pierced with far off light
Of stars that are too numerous. Come one
Bright star, come brilliant orb, come yellow sun
While all the stars and planets take dark flight,
Come and bring your glory. Come tendrils white
That furl, unfurl, and make the black sky white
Where they touch distant edges of the night.
Come stretching rays that throw upwards in flight
Thick golden beams, each spanning out to light
The dawn pathway of the approaching sun.
Come, greet the morning. Come. Come see the one
Lone object of the night: the moon, last one
Of the celestials fading to white
With the gold dawning of the day. Come sun,
Come now! We’ve said good evening to the night,
Said welcome to white waxing of the light.
Our lips send forth our invocations. Flight–
Take our words! Like eagles, words take flight!
Like swifts, each bird wheeling upwards, each one
Drawing toward the fierce dawning of the light,
Wings spread and open to the morning’s white
Brilliance. Come daylight, come sunshine, for night
Retreats against the rising of the Sun!
These are our invocations to the Sun,
Our words—here said aloud and given flight
To stave away the dark excess of night.
To celebrate the coming dawn each one
Word is said. Come dawn, bring forth day, bring white
Gold rays and brightened bands of falling light.
Come sun! Come bring your brilliance. All as one
These flights of words come forth. Come day! Come white
Sun, new light, bring the dawn to end the night.
This sestina wrote itself out as I sat back and listened to it go. At least that’s how I remember it. I wrote it as one of the nine ‘cycle’ poems for my book The Cycle of Nine, each of these poems begins with the last line of the cycle poem ahead of it—this one takes its first line from “It Will Come” and gives its last line to a sonnet titled “Ur es af illu jarni”, which is a line from the Old Norse Rune Poem. (Interesting dogleg: “Ur es af illu jarni” has since gone on to be included in ‘Hailig Runa’ a series of 24 sonnets I’ve been working on for my next collection, many of these have been published in Heathen Call Magazine….now back to “Invocation to the Dawn”). I have always imagined that the speaker of this sestina has long blonde hair and holds her arms up to the sun she addresses…perhaps she really does.
Oh may your casket smother you because
You won’t be buried dead. And may you wake
In ground-chill dark, 6 feet below, mistake
Your ability to free yourself, sores
Sprouting from your fingertips as you try
To pry, to claw, to push your panicked way
Out of your prescribed resting place. I pray
And will that you won’t drop dead too fast. I
Will that you suffer. I will your breath to
Come in hard-laboured oxygen-starved waves:
Short and incomplete. I want all the graves
Around to shudder as you suck the few
Final molecules of breathable air
Into your lungs, alone, alone, down there.
Sometimes you either have to commit murder or write poetry like this. I chose the latter because if I must go to jail, I’m absolutely only going for higher principles and lofty purposes…never just for merely personal disdain. I’ve gotten very good at curses…
There is an artistry to jumbled leaves,
A subtlety no one may create: wild
Spread masses of greens grown blossom rich, piled
And beguiling in form, and in hue. Wreaths
Of petals wrapped around their stalks, all hung
From languid vines, serpentine and vivid–
Or blooms standing pale and sweet, beauty half hid
In the emerald shadowiness that’s flung
Down from protective trees. With a sudden
Gust the garden is motion and color—
Dotted with nodding heads, moving over
Their swaying stems—one is all, all is one.
Unformed, unbridled nature has an art
All her own, verdant, expansive, apart.
This is one of my charming ones, a pretty sonnet made up from the eternal cottage garden that lies in the depths of my soul. I love English cottage gardens, the impossible sturdiness of the fragile flowers, the white pink lavender green of them, the bees, the lovely trees that form a back drop, the green stems that flout the fences, the winds that make them come alive. Our homestead is too raw and uncivilized as of yet, though I have carved out a passably artistic potager for the more practical vegetable beds …and a real cottage garden will manifest again soon enough. Meanwhile, I hold its image inside.
A trunk so deeply broad and wide that it
Swallows other grown trees around that strew
Long swathes of darkness out across the bit
Of grounds that lies beneath. A massive yew,
Which guardians here both grave and spirit
Long forgotten. Yet still a billet-doux
Of tiny fallen needles here is made
Each evening as the wind comes through the shade.
The tree that this was inspired by was not a Yew, but a huge and ancient plum tree that grew in a corner of our old garden. It had a twisted trunk and a sorrowful personality…it was the last of an old orchard, planted a century before the post-war suburbs we lived in claimed its fellows. The kids would dig all sorts of strange things up from around its roots, including a top to an old iron wood stove that they thought was a coffin lid when they first struck it. In the spring the tree would send down drifts of white petals as breezes moved through it, they would cover the ground in swirly heaps every evening. It was an imposing tree, impossible to ignore, and it had a majestic dignity to it. I think it wanted to be a Yew. Sadly it finally succumbed to an internal rot, and we had to let it go before it fell on neighbors (it was in a corner, a terrible place of ‘what if it falls this way?’)…I did keep a seedling though, which is still growing. It will one day make its own billet doux of petals. On a side note, I have a sapling Yew Tree now here on this new land. It has a bit of old plum spirit to it, somehow. Ha, my explanation is so much longer than the poem…I sound like a folk singer.
I love these! Thank you. I love The Cycle of Nine and will look forward to your sonnet sequence, “Hailig Runa,” and I’m glad we’re friends as I’d hate to be the subject of the power of your word curses such as “Maledictus Requiescat.” Wow! Beautiful work by you, as always, and I’d like to conclude with one final question. What do you ultimately hope to achieve in the literary sense?
What is my ultimate goal? Selfish poet’s answer: I’d like to be remembered as a real poet. I want to meet up with the poets whose works and lives have colored mine for so long and be able to look them in the eye and say “Here I am.” Of course, since that will have to take place mostly in the Otherworld, it won’t be any time soon.
Expansive poet’s answer: I hope people find something to take away for themselves in my work. I hope that the inspiration which sometimes feels as if it beams down to me (as opposed to my own doing) finds the readers it is supposed to. Inspiration is a gift from the Gods, and in many ways I feel as though I am the one who, while being given the gift, is trusted to give the gift away. Which is a quiet joy. Truly and ever.
Juleigh Howard-Hobson’s poetry has appeared in The Lyric, Antiphon, VerseWisconsin, The Alabama Literary Review, Hex Magazine, Caduceus, Heathen Call, Mandragora (Scarlet Imprint); Poem, Revised: 54 Poems, Re-visions, Discussions (Marion Street Press) and many other places. Her work has been nominated for both “The Best of the Net” and The Pushcart Prize. She has four poetry collections out, including The Cycle of Nine (Ravenshalla Arts) and Remind Me (Ancient Cypress Press). She lives in a radical traditionalist manner, on a farm, nestled beside a dark forest, in Deep Cascadia.
(2018 Update: between the time of this interview and now, Juleigh has published a new book through The Red Salon titled Our Otherworld. It’s a superlative formal “tour” of the mysteries of the European folk in which the poet is a “tour-guide” of a sort, explaining what is seen and unseen as she takes the reader deeper and deeper into our “Otherworlds.”)