In this interview, Julie Marie Wade speaks with us about writing Catechism: A Love Story, and Kristina Marie Darling discusses the book’s design and layout decisions.
Published by Noctuary Press, Julie Marie Wade’s Catechism: A Love Story blurs and blends the distinction between genre. Translating the human experience through a fluidity between concrete and abstract, this story speaks to the heart and the mind. Within beautiful language and phrasing, a variety of questions are raised and explored throughout (ranging from examining language, existence, tradition, societal constructs and expectations, and the speaker’s self). Catechism is, to use a cliché, a page-turner. Truly though, it is a page-turner that you try to savor, telling yourself, “no, stop here, save this section for tomorrow” to make the book last longer, to inhabit the compelling story, language, and imagery for as long as possible.
Holly Mason: What can you tell us about the composition & composition process of this book? Also, how long did this project take you to complete?
Julie Marie Wade: Well, Catechism: A Love Story is my third lyric essay collection, but in some ways, it feels like my first. I say this because the composition process for this book was so different than for my previous collections, Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010) and Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011). Back in 2002, when I was a Master’s student in poetry at Western Washington University, I took an intriguingly titled course with Brenda Miller called “Special Topics in Nonfiction: The Lyric Essay.” At Western, as in the program at Florida International University where I now teach, students were required to take courses outside their specified genres, and for this, I will always be grateful.
Once I took the Lyric Essay course, I wanted to keep writing lyric essays in addition to poetry, and so I did, for years, but somehow it didn’t occur to me to consider how the essays might be assembled in book-length form until my partner Angie suggested it. Sometime around 2006 or 2007, she encouraged me to take a look at all the lyric essays I’d been writing and explore the possibility that I might have at least one book, possibly more, in my literary hopper. For this, too, I will always be grateful.
I set about the process of assembling the book that became Wishbone—the title was Angie’s idea—a posteriori. The same thing happened with the collection that became Small Fires.
These were books I never wrote as books but put together through a process of selecting and sequencing essays I had written over several years.
Once both of those books had been assembled, I was living in a new city—Louisville, Kentucky—and beginning a PhD program in Interdisciplinary Humanities. I knew from experience that I worked best when I had one or more side projects to work on in addition to the main project—in this case, the dissertation—at the helm of my creative/academic life.
That summer of 2008, which is also the summer when Catechism: A Love Story ends, I began drafting a new book. This time, I decided I wanted to make the bulk of my formal decisions at the outset.
I had this idea that had been brewing for a long time of writing a kind of secular, perhaps even a kind of subversive, catechism—a book of questions and answers, with emphasis on the questions.
I thought how I had spent many years writing predominantly about my childhood and adolescence, and while glimpses from those times in my life appear in Catechism, I wanted to write a book that spanned the first seven years of what I considered to be my adulthood.
Although I don’t use any dates in the volume, the collection spans late summer 2001-late summer 2008, with each year roughly corresponding to each of the seven chapters or sections of the book. My guiding question for the project was: What happens after you reach adulthood? What next? Of course I was only seeking to answer this question in light of my own experience, but it seemed an important one to probe given how much emphasis had been placed in my youth on becoming the “right” kind of adult—successful, accomplished, and desirable to the right kind of men. My parents had wished for me a life of greater certainties, fiscal and otherwise, than they imagined were possible with a vocation in the Humanities and literary arts. They had always wanted me to be a medical doctor of some kind, but I had chosen to go a different way. The real deal-breaker, from their perspective, though, was that I had also chosen to give up the prospect of a heterosexual life once I fell indisputably in love with Angie Griffin during that first year of graduate school.
So Catechism plumbs the what next? of a life I wasn’t supposed to have—a life that there had been no primer for, given that I had been groomed for something entirely different from my earliest memories at home and school.
I decided to use the seven Catholic sacraments, which had featured prominently in my religious education, to anchor the book’s seven parts. I arranged them in this order before I began writing to provide a series of narrative guideposts for the experiences and meditations on those experiences that the book would include: Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick, and Confirmation. Once I committed to this title and these sections, I wrote into the form, which was new and challenging and thrilling for me, and I think the form elicited a certain kind of diction and imagery that I might not have accessed otherwise.
The book has been described as a collection of “thematically linked essays,” but to my mind, it’s really a single essay, a book-length essay. All told, given my other concurrent projects in the PhD program, I think Catechism took about two years to write. I’m fairly certain I had finished the book in its current form by the end of 2010.
HM: Why and/or how did you choose the sections, the seven Sacraments, as the ordering of the book?
JMW: Something else that isn’t in the book explicitly but which undergirds my writing of it is the fact that when Catechism begins—that first year of graduate school and autonomous adulthood for me—I was enrolled in a secular, educational environment (a state university, no less) for the first time in my life. I began school on my third birthday in 1982 with accelerated preschool at West Seattle Christian School. I attended WSCS through fifth grade, then skipped sixth grade, and transferred to Calvary Lutheran School, which was the middle school analog to Calvary Lutheran Church—the church my parents and I had just begun attending. For high school, my parents decided, despite their own strong Protestant commitments, that a Catholic education, particularly at a school like Holy Names Academy—widely regarded for its excellence in preparing young women for college and careers in math and science—would be best. So I attended Holy Names Academy for high school and then went on to complete my undergraduate education at Pacific Lutheran University, the same school from which my father had graduated in 1964.
By the time I arrived at graduate school, I was no longer a practicing Christian. I had strong ideological objections to the misogyny and homophobia I had encountered in both Protestant and Catholic contexts. But I will never forget something that my undergraduate English professor, adviser, mentor, and now friend, Tom Campbell, wrote in his letter on my behalf when I began applying to graduate programs in English. He wrote that I was the kind of student “on whom nothing was wasted.” I cannot imagine a better compliment than this—or a better credo. I want to be the kind of person on whom nothing is wasted, even experiences that are fraught or disappointing. So what was I going to do with all that religious education? Could it be salvaged? Was there some way I could make sure that nothing was wasted on me, even as a lesbian agnostic living a life outside the purview and endorsement of the Christian churches of my youth? I think Catechism, without being so baldly conscious of this fact, is an answer to that question. It is, at the very least, an attempt.
I want nothing to be wasted on me, even the language of a tradition I no longer use and the rituals of a faith I no longer have.
And of course, I do think love is the ultimate sacrament, that which subsumes all others. I believe love transcends gender and race and class and orientation. I believe love is bigger than any institution that professes to define, prescribe, or contain it. And so why not write a Catechism that is a love story—with a human beloved as well as a love story with language itself and new ways that language might be used?
HM: The book contains much intertextuality and meditation on poetry… What writing influenced this book (both included in Catechism’s pages and not)?
JMW: Much of the writing that influenced this project is alluded to in the book or even embedded directly. There’s a lot of Sappho in this book, especially early on. In December 2002, the first Christmas present I gave to Angie was Anne Carson’s translation of the Sapphic fragments, which of course still holds a prominent place on our shelves. Adrienne Rich was one of the first lesbian poets I began to read as an undergraduate, and her poem “Splittings” quickly became one of my favorite poems of all time. The second section of the book begins with a meditation on the word “split,” and though I don’t directly quote Rich here, this poem informed my decision to use that word. I think often of how “Splittings” ends, and I do write about the poem explicitly in my lyric essay chapbook, Tremolo: “I choose this time for once to love with all my intelligence.” How I love that resolution! When I was nineteen or twenty, I told my mother that if I ever got married, I would want “Splittings” read at my wedding. She knew Adrienne Rich was a lesbian because I had told her this fact proudly, almost wanting to take credit for the poet’s courage in coming out.
My mother said, “It’s bad luck to have a lesbian poem read at your wedding.” But perhaps not so if you end up having a lesbian wedding yourself someday!
The section where I think my poetic influences coalesce most notably in the book is Anointing of the Sick. Here, snippets of poems begin to appear on the pages—snippets from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Four Quartets” (which for me was a strong, structural influence on this book)—and also from Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” These were two of the most formative poets from my undergraduate education, poets who kindled the fire that led me to keep pursuing poetry in a Master’s program and then a Master of Fine Arts program after that. And when I did become suddenly and seriously ill while teaching Humanities at a boarding school in rural Ohio, one of the things I did to fight the threat of unconsciousness that came with such a high fever was to recite poems. I write in Anointing of the Sick, “I think in poems now. Fevered poems,” but I hope more than telling that I’m showing that experience to my reader, recreating the fevered state and the process of using poems as anchors for consciousness and sources of comfort during those difficult days. The first poems that captured my attention were the poems that came rushing back to me most vividly and viscerally then.
HM: I am curious if you could address the fluidity between the concrete and the abstract throughout the text?
JMW: I’ve always wanted to write about Big Ideas—love being prominent among them. During my teenage years, I labored away on a project called The Adolescent Dictionary of Abstract Thoughts in which I attempted to define and explain each significant abstraction in my life, beginning with the Biblical “Fruits of the Spirit” from Galations: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
I might have been unusual in how much and how often I wrote as a teenager, but I don’t think I was unusual at all in my adolescent fixation on abstractions. Once I became capable of more abstract thoughts developmentally, I was enamored of exploring them. The problem was that I needed a way to ground my abstract thinking with concrete details and specific examples. I am especially sensitive to this phenomenon now when I teach introductory creative writing courses to college students. They typically want to write about Big Ideas as well, and so instinctively, they rely more on abstract nouns than people, places, and things that will anchor and engage their readers. Big Idea writing tends to be vague, lacking in images, and consequently dull. The ideas themselves aren’t dull at all—quite the contrary!—but the challenge is getting to them through the most precise and sensory-rich portals.
When I arrived at college, I was part of an interdisciplinary Honors program that offered a series of simply extraordinary courses. These classes had thematic titles, and many were team-taught by faculty members from different disciplines. So, for instance, the first class in the sequence was called “Community, Legacy, Identity, Faith,” and it was team-taught by a Philosophy professor and a Classics professor. I think the idea was that we were going to take on big abstractions like the four in the course title by entering through the more particular passageways of different philosophers’ lexicons and different pieces of classical literature. Later, I was able to take virtue seminars with titles like Faith (taught by a Philosophy professor), Charity (taught by a Nursing professor), Hope (taught by a History professor), and Self-Restraint (taught by an Environmental Sciences professor—though perhaps tellingly, I dropped this course after only one week. I did not have enough self-restraint to continue when there were other Fruits of the Spirit to explore!).
Even though theoretically I understood that we were taking on Big Ideas and exploring them in light of particular disciplinary strategies, it wasn’t initially easy for me to write about abstractions in concrete ways. Maybe this process is never easy for any of us ever, but it was particularly challenging then. Part of this, I suspect, had to do with the fact that at least for me, most of my life experience had been hypothetical up until this point. I lived more in my mind, more in a subjunctive state, than in an active state of exploration and discovery. I had been very sheltered. I had very little experience of the larger world beyond my school, church, and home, which all conspired to reinforce each other’s values. When I told my Classics professor Eric Nelson that first semester of college that I was writing a book on the nature of love called Letters to St. Valentine, he was very kind to me, but he also suggested that I might need to wait a decade or so to gain some real-world experience with and perspective on a variety of forms of love before I endeavored to write such a complex book. He was right, of course, even though it hurt to face that reality then.
At the time, I had not yet encountered Jorie Graham’s remarkable poetic observation: “The longing is to be pure; what you get is to be changed.” But after I came fully into my own adulthood, fell in love, fell out with my parents and organized religion, and began to chart a new course for a life of partnership with Angie that took us through many degree programs, jobs, and states of residence, I felt ready to reflect on the changes that had taken place since I gave up on that longing to be pure—my own identity more abstract than concrete—and I was finally able to write Letters to St. Valentine in a form that became Catechism: A Love Story.
HM: And in connection with the last question, could you talk a bit about the hybridity and form of the text?
JMW: I’ve always been a bit genre-wayward, genre-rebellious, unable or unwilling to color within the lines that seemed to separate poetry from prose.
In more recent years, I have challenged myself to write some fictional stories that follow a more traditional narrative arc and some creative nonfiction that unfolds more along the lines of fictive storytelling than experimental, autobiographical essay. (This was the challenge I gave myself for the creative dissertation I was writing while also writing Catechism. Perhaps because the power of juxtaposition is so strong, I wrote my most formally innovative lyric experiment alongside my most chronological and narratively driven creative nonfiction project, helping me to see and experience as clearly and vividly as possible the differences between the two forms…).
The other night I gave the launch reading for Catechism at Books and Books in Coral Gables—here in my now-home of South Florida—and one of my colleagues asked the question I always try to dodge at readings: “What’s the difference between a lyric essay and a poem?” I write and publish in both genres and have done so for many years. You’d think I’d have a better, more confident answer to that question by now. Yes, lyric essays are typically produced in paragraphs, not stanzas, yet my lyric essays frequently have poetic stanzas embedded within them, and prose poetry is a recognized sub-genre of poetry that uses block text rather than enjambed lines. So is the lyric essay really a prose poem? No. I don’t think it is. And yet, how can I prove it? Maybe I can’t. Many poems are long. Some poems are book-length. So the fact that a typical lyric essay might be longer than a typical poem is not conclusive of any difference either.
Maybe I need an image to illustrate the difference, at least the difference as it pertains to me and my work so far. I think a lyric essay is a poem that has let down its hair. In poetry, there is a heightened attention to sound and cadence, leading with the aural rhythms of the language. As a consequence, the enterprise often becomes very associative, but there is some impulse in me, when I’m writing a poem, to bundle and cluster, to sweep the many strands of hair up and bind them together. Perhaps this is another way of getting at poetic compression. Some kind of tighter synthesis happens—a bun or a knot—that can be recognized as a gestalt, a one that holds the many. A lyric essay is comprised of many of the same elements of poetry—the attention to sound, to rhythm, to associative exploration, but the hair comes down in the end. It extends beyond even the end of the essay. The essaying is the combing and the spreading of the hair across the pillow page. Nothing is tucked back in. There is an implied ellipsis at the end of my lyric essays that I do not find is present at the end of my poems. They are always to be continued…
HM: Julie, you are active in your feminism. Your activism is inspiring. Do you have any feminist and/ or writing advice for our readers?
JMW: Well, I think if you identify with any ideology strongly enough, it’s natural that it shapes the way you move in the world. I identify as a feminist, which from my vantage begins with the conviction that women and those of non-binary genders are equally complex and valuable human beings as men. But because those who are not men are not reducible to one category—any more than men are reducible to one category!—feminism has to be about more than just gender parity. It has to be about acknowledging the presence and value of the diversity of subject positions that comprise our world, including gender, race, class, orientation, national origin, religion, physical and mental abilities, and many more idiosyncratic variables. I think for most of us this means there’s a two-fold imperative: interrogating the ways in which we are privileged by systems that are fundamentally biased and non-egalitarian and also using the ways in which we are marginalized within those systems to help us cultivate greater depth perception and consequently greater empathy and compassion.
Being a woman in this culture as well as a lesbian means that I have direct experience being overlooked, undervalued, silenced, and shamed, but it also means I can practice “seeing from the margins” to illuminate experiences and points of view that others might not be privy to.
At the same time, though, I have to be aware of the fact that I am also tremendously privileged—meaning granted advantages that I cannot and did not earn—in and by a system that favors white Americans of middle-class upbringings and advanced educational levels like my own. That awareness of my privilege is part of what makes my feminism feel urgent to me. I learned about my privileges and how to articulate my privileges in large part through the graduate education that my privileges made possible, and now it feels like a social responsibility to me to write and teach from the feminist values I hold.
My advice to any feminist is to use your feminist values in every aspect of your personal and professional lives. Let the feminism you have cultivated follow your talents and your passions. For instance, if I had been naturally inclined toward medicine, I could imagine myself today as a feminist doctor with a practice focused on creating the kind of safe and supportive environment for women and queer people that I have often found missing in my own encounters with medical professionals. But it wouldn’t make sense for me to devote myself to medicine when my talents and my passions have never led me toward the hard sciences. There are other people who have those gifts who can bring a feminist consciousness to that kind of work. I know I would make a poor business leader, an ineffectual CEO or administrator of a large company—even as I greatly admire female executives who pave the way toward large-scale leadership roles for other business-minded women and marginalized people.
Mostly, what I excel at is small scale. I love working one-on-one with graduate students, helping them bring their books to fruition. I love working with relatively small graduate and undergraduate classes, helping even students majoring in other disciplines discover the power of self-expression through writing. Self-expression and the translation of experience into art is at the core of my feminism. Since the literary arts are where I naturally thrive, I want to devote myself to writing and teaching writing, to speaking to my experiences as a woman and a lesbian through my writing, and to bringing as many diverse voices as possible into my creative writing classrooms, so my students know they are not “the only one” of any subject position they might hold.
I believe there is no job or role that is inherently more suited to feminism than any other.
Activism need not be restricted to rallies or protests or petitions; it also includes the many cumulative acts of speech, art-making, and lived example that bring a justice- and compassion-oriented worldview into every kind of career and hobby.
Feministing isn’t the verb, the thing we do that is feminist in and of itself. This strikes me as far too singular and far too abstract. Instead, feministly, the adverb, can be a natural concomitant to everything we do. We can write feministly, we can teach feministly, we can doctor feministly, and so on and so on, giving feminism the greatest possible wingspan.
Speaking With Kristina Marie Darling
HM: What role(s) did you have in the making of this book? Can you explain a bit more for us the work you did on Catechism and what that was like?
KMD: When working on Noctuary Press titles, I think of the interior layout, cover design, and all other aspects of the book’s visual appearance as an extension of the work’s content. I usually do most of the interior layouts of the books, and enjoy all the opportunity for creativity in this task. . Book design is a kind of collaboration with the text, and I always look forward to the writer’s ideas and feedback in this area of production. Julie had a vision for the book’s cover, and I’m grateful for fabulous suggestions regarding cover art.
HM: What was your process like in making decisions about layout and design for the book?
KMD: Sometimes the work just tells you what needs to be done in terms of the design elements. Given the theme and the structure of the collection, Roman numerals seemed a natural choice for the chapter headings, table of contents, and individual page numbers. We also work with a fabulous designer, David McNamara of Sunnyoutside Press, who suggested the wraparound cover. David was totally right that this would heighten the impact of the artwork Julie had chosen. I have to say that when working with David, he’s been very helpful with various technical questions (of which I ask many!) and overall he is a wonderful advocate for small press publishers.
HM: What made you interested in working on this project, Catechism?
KMD: I’ve been following Julie’s work for years. Her writing is beautiful. When she sent the manuscript, I was actually closed to submissions and away at a literary arts residency on the Adriatic coast. I couldn’t resist opening the file, and then I couldn’t stop reading this captivating manuscript. I accepted it right away, because I wanted to make sure no other editor got it first.
There’s a reason Julie’s work has gotten so much well-deserved recognition. She’s a gifted prose stylist who also addresses ambitious and compelling philosophical questions in her work.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2010), winner of the Colgate University Press Nonfiction Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir; Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), selected for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series; Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature; Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series; Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Books, 2013), selected by Bernard Cooper as the winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize; When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), selected for the American Library Association’s Over the Rainbow List; Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016); and SIX: Poems, selected by C.D. Wright as the winner of the AROHO/To the Lighthouse Prize in Poetry.
She has received the Chicago Literary Award in Poetry, the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, the Oscar Wilde Poetry Prize, the Literal Latte Nonfiction Award, two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes, an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, the American Literary Review Nonfiction Prize, the Arts & Letters Nonfiction Prize, the Thomas J. Hruska Nonfiction Prize, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for feminist literature, and eighteen Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poems and creative nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Alaska Quarterly Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Arts & Letters, Barrow Street, The Bellingham Review, Blackbird, Bloom, Brevity, The Cincinnati Review, The Common, Denver Quarterly Diode, Dislocate, Fourth Genre, Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, Harpur Palate, Hunger Mountain, Juked, The MacGuffin, The Kenyon Review, Literal Latte, The Los Angeles Review, Nimrod, Open 24 Hours, Pank, Passages North, Phoebe, PoemMemoirStory, Poet Lore, Quarter After Eight, Redivider, The Rumpus, Saint Ann’s Review, The Seattle Review, Seneca Review, So to Speak, StoryQuarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, Verse Daily, Water-Stone Review, Weave Magazine, and Zone 3.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry, most recently DARK HORSE (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her work appears in The Gettysburg Review, New American Writing, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly, Founding Editor of Noctuary Press, and Grants Specialist at Black Ocean.
Featured Image: Light Night Lantern, from Pexels