Juliana Spahr is reluctant to self-define. Her ego is undetectable. She doesn’t romanticize her status as an artist or activist. Spahr doesn’t know why she took up writing; no one in her family was a writer.
“Probably because I read a lot and I went to a liberal arts college, took some writing classes and just kept doing it. Just circumstantially, not for any good reason,” Spahr said.
But Spahr’s writing and her life defy her statement. Getting to know her is to be introduced to an impressive intentionality and to a mind constantly at work. Her poetry, she says, is a way for her to think through things. But if you ask Spahr what she does, she says, “I teach.”
Spahr teaches poetry at Mills College. She also grows fruits, vegetables and native plants at her home in Berkeley. She writes criticism and gives lectures. She raises her 8-year-old son with two partners.
The number of books she’s written depends on how she counts. Published books — not including books she’s edited — she numbers at five, yet she still doesn’t know when something’s finished.
“I just kind of give in and publish a book in some form. That’s when you know it’s done — when you can no longer edit it,” Sphar said.
The time it takes her to publish a poem varies wildly — a couple of weeks to six months, depending on how long or complicated the poem is, or if she loses interest and tries to bring it forward again.
“That Winter the Wolf Came,” Spahr’s latest book, caught the attention of the New York Times and was reviewed by Times writer Stephen Burt. It was released in August.
In “That Winter,” Spahr intended to write about oil; however, halfway through, she realized she didn’t want to write a documentary poetry book.
“I was trying to understand something about the entry of oil into all parts of our lives, through plastics, fertilizers, ingestion, and then I just kind of gave up on that,” Spahr said.
The book ended up being written for Commune Editions, a press that she started with Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover which publishes mainly anti-state, communist and anarchist books.
Spahr’s activism goes beyond her poetry. She took part in the Occupy Oakland movement and demonstrated through her recent work with her friend and collaborator Stephanie Young that she is concerned about “the white room” of the MFA and of the mainstream literary scene. She has said that poetry will not reshape oppressive structures.
“A period of concentrated interruption,” Spahr said, and laughs. “Politically, I have very few hopes in reform.”
That interruption might come from capitalism’s inability to sustain itself or from environmental collapse.
Spahr said various sorts of crisis often force a rethinking of the structures that have been created and that define our lives with our complicity but without our consent.
“I’m interested in decentralized structures. There’s not a lot of evidence that this nation-state thing is doing a lot of good work,” Spahr said.
Spahr was born in 1966, in Chillicothe, Ohio, an industrial town that housed a paper factory that made the town smell and that generated a lot of waste. When NAFTA took effect, a lot of industry moved out; the town is getting smaller all the time, she said.
She studied literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York and got her doctorate in English from State University of New York, Buffalo.
Though she’s an internationally known poet, Spahr isn’t sure that she has ever written something she is proud of.
While she thinks, her face is frank, without pretense. Her eyes are busy, looking around the room.
“I took classes when I was an undergraduate and had to write an undergraduate thesis. My thesis director, as a gift, gave one of my poems to someone who was starting a new magazine and it got published and I just kept doing it.”
After teaching at University of Hawai’i at Mànoa for six years, she moved back to the continent in 2003. She moved because Hawai’i is isolated and expensive. She still misses the Islands.
She enjoyed Hawai’i’s thriving local literary culture and it was there that she wrote “Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You” (2001). The work deals with what it means to be local; in particular, to a place that you’re not actually from.
Her next book, “This Connection of Everyone with Lungs” (2005), was about thinking through lyric — a term used loosely here to describe conventional poetic forms.
“I’d been schooled as an experimental writer and there was a lot of dismissal of a certain lyric or bourgeois subjectivity.”
Spahr started reading more internationally and found that there was a very long tradition of politicized lyric. Inger Christensen, a Danish poet, helped her see lyric differently.
“One of the reasons we really liked her was because she was both doing very contemporary, experimental work but she also could speak to traditional poetics. She gave her job talk on the history of the sonnet, which surprised us, given the experimental nature of her own work. She’s quite deep in that way,” said Cynthia Scheinberg, English professor at Mills since 1992.
Scheinberg served as Dean of Graduate Literary Studies at Mills while Spahr was Director of Creative Writing.
“She has a doggedness — she doesn’t give up on ideas,” Scheinberg said. “Personally, she’s very humble and understated. You would never know that she’s traveling around the world and doing this kind of work if you were just talking to her.”