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A Conversation with Juliet Cook

A Conversation with Juliet Cook

March 2009
Interview by Cynthia Reeser, for Prick of the Spindle

A beautiful refrigerated woman in white uniform
taught you beautiful equals mean; sickly equals unclean.
Beautiful equals tell you what to do. Order you.
You’ll be painting this plaster of Paris sunflower.
You’ll be using this laminated color chart.
You’ll be eating out this Styrofoam bowl.
Macaroni held together with glue.

From “when flesh equaled rotten peach”
–Juliet Cook, Horrific Confection

Juliet Cook—DIY publisher and Blood Pudding Press maven—is the author most recently of Horrific Confection, an e-book available through BlazeVOX. In a recent conversation, Cook discusses the driving force behind her poetry, which often evokes imagery in the spirit of her own personal feminist sensibility—a sensibility in keeping with the burgeoning ‘gurlesque’ movement. Read on for the scoop on what motivates her, her thoughts on society and creative expression, who inspires her, and what is in the works for Blood Pudding Press.

Cynthia Reeser: What inspires your themes?

Juliet Cook: My most recurrent themes seem to revolve around my perception of consumption (in its various definitions) as being a kind of antithesis to creativity—and how society seems set up to quell creativity and expression in general; how society seems set up to reward self-repression and a kind of non-imaginative productivity. I am interested in a kind of production that is creative rather than a kind of production that involves churning out machinated products. Yet I feel that I am encouraged by various sources, even well-meaning sources, to suppress my urge to individuate and to just go with the assembly line flow. Sometimes I feel that the only way I can offer any resistance to this flow is by creating these little art objects that are my poems. Sometimes this seems like a futile or frivolous or even self-indulgent sort of resistance, but at least it’s something—and even if my poems don’t make much of a difference in the larger scheme of things, they do make a difference to my own state of mind and my own sense of self-awareness. Also, my themes are tied to my angst surrounding femaleness—societal perceptions versus personal perceptions, inner versus outer, trying to reconcile the fictive versus the real when it comes to self-constructs and larger constructs. I am interested in feminism, but not so much in a feminist movement as in how to enact a personal (and conflicted) feminist sensibility in a more microcosmic realm. When it comes to femaleness, I tend to think of the assembly line flow as a doll injection mold and I like to think of my poems as being resistant little mutants instead of succumbing to the mold.

CR: Do you think the creative societal repression is true of English-speaking contemporary societies, or of American society in particular?

JC: This is a difficult question for me to answer, because I’m certainly no expert on other societies (or even on American society, for that matter; I’m not a professional social or cultural critic, but at least the fact that I exist within the context of American society gives me some expertise in that regard). One thought that does enter into my mind is that in less privileged societies, peoples’ resources (both external and internal) are likely going to be more tied up with more subsistence level struggles, in which case, there may be even less space for multifaceted creative expression, at least in the realm of art. Certainly, people can still think creatively and find creative ways to express themselves outside the context of art. The freedom to pursue artistic expression is a kind of privilege, which is probably why a lot of people think of art as being elitist.

As for other English-speaking contemporary societies that do offer the privilege to pursue artistic expression, I have the feeling that certain European societies tend to value artistic expression more highly than does American society (in part because in American society, definitions of success seem to be pretty closely linked to making lots of money), but as I said, I have no particular expertise as a social or cultural critic.

CR: Do you think that the personal, microcosmic realm is where feminism has evolved, or would you say this is simply true for you as a writer?

JC: Well, one truth for me is that I tend to get overwhelmed sometimes almost to the point of debilitation or immobilization if I start to think in terms of the big picture or the vast scheme of things—and that kind of debilitation is a hindrance to my personal creativity/productivity in the artistic realm (and pretty much every other realm). I can get a lot more positive things accomplished if I focus on making a difference within my own personal microcosm. Certainly, I am interested in connecting with others—in corresponding, dialoguing, and cultivating a sense of creative and/or feminist community, but in order to keep it manageable for me personally, I like to keep it on a pretty small scale. I think that larger scale political movements can be productive and powerful and sometimes very necessary, but I don’t feel that they are the best forum for me personally.

I don’t think that feminism has evolved in any one place. I think it has evolved through a combination of group work and communication, including written communication, which may sometimes disseminate the ideas of a group and may sometimes share individual feminist sensibilities. I think that sharing individual perspectives is important to feminism and the kind of feminist sensibility that I personally embrace is an inclusive one.

CR: One might think from reading your poetry that you have a horror of beauty. In “when flesh equaled rotten peach,” you write, “A beautiful refrigerated woman in white uniform / taught you beautiful equals mean; sickly equals unclean. / Beautiful equals tell you what to do.” Can you respond to this?

JC: I think that our society has a warped relationship to female physical beauty (as it is most often portrayed and defined in mainstream media outlets) and its consumption. On one hand, being in possession of that kind of beauty seems to confer certain privileges and power; on the other hand, it’s not often a very enviable kind of power. This kind of power to which I am referring is associated with a ‘beauty as a commodity’ sort of framework (as opposed to beauty as a creation or beauty as a performance). When female physical beauty is viewed as a commodity, there is a sense of desirousness and covetousness surrounding that commodity, but also a sense of resentment and envy, which sometimes manifests in inclinations to destroy or degrade the commodity.

To put this less theoretically, I am often exposed to people acting like ass-kissers in the face of female physical beauty, yet talking trash about that same beauty behind its back and oftentimes in a sexually degrading way, as if that beauty needs to be put in its place—but what is its place—and why?

Physical beauty will eventually degrade of its own accord anyway (i.e. aging) so why do we desire it so much and allow it to hold so much sway over us? That strikes me as both a legitimate question and as a superficial preoccupation and it disturbs me that I am not immune to such concerns.

It bothers me that I am concerned with my own desirability as a female physical specimen. Despite being a fairly intelligent and free-thinking individual, I have not been able to transcend that concern. In some of my poems, I am trying to figure out WHY. I am also trying to replace my feelings of commoditization with those of creation. I would rather play a role in creating my own reality instead of automatically subscribing to a reality that is dictated by mainstream media.

CR: Do you see your poetry continuing in the tradition of poets like Sylvia Plath? Though you have your own style, I can’t help but recognize that your use of language evokes hers, especially in theme and the clever way she entwined imagery and words.

JC: I don’t think of Sylvia Plath as a direct influence on my style, although I have heard that comparison before and I do like her poetry. Oddly enough, her work did not resonate for me strongly when I was younger, but did have a significant impact when I revisited her material in more recent years. Her Ariel-era material especially had a kind of evocative subconscious power for me.

I think that she was somewhat ahead of her time in terms of presenting thematic concerns about not fitting neatly into the domestic sphere. I somewhat relate to her sense of feeling torn between wanting to be a part of a happy family unit versus wanting to be an uncompromising, independent entity who is powerful in her own right. I relate to feeling misfit-like in general.

I relate to what strikes me as an almost paranormal undercurrent of dark female energy in some of her strongest work.

CR: What poets do you read—is there anyone who inspires or informs your writing?

JC: I am a pretty voracious poetry reader, so it is somewhat difficult to narrow this down, but I have a predilection for contemporary poetry (especially poetry being written by those who are alive and writing now) and small press, independent poetry (as opposed to poetry associated with academic or mainstream presses), and poetry written by females. Certainly, there are exceptions to these predilections.

My poetic tastes and sensibilities are fairly diverse and are subject to shifting over time, but one of my current interests involves poetry that seems poised on the brink without plummeting over. I tend to be interested in poetry that’s ALMOST over the top. Poetry that borders the grotesque. Poetry that borders the pornographic and is visceral with a voluptuous horror. Poetry that experiments with such borders without dissolving into nonsense or total absurdity. Sometimes it’s a very fine line and I tend to be interested in flirting with fine lines.

Some of my favorite poets and poetry collections in recent years have involved content that seems to be walking that fine line, such as Lara Glenum’s collections (The Hounds of No and the new Maximum Gaga, both published by Action Books) and others put out by Action Books—Danielle Pafunda’s collections (Pretty Young Things by Soft Skull and the more recent My Zorba by Bloof Books)—and several female writers who have had books published through Fence Books in recent years, including Catherine Wagner, Chelsey Minnis, and Ariana Reines’s The Cow.

Although these books all inhabit different stylistic approaches, they seem to share a sense of revolting, bodily-based horror associated with femaleness and a desire to birth this horror or abort it or deconstruct, reconstruct, or vivisect it. Several of these books and writers are also associated with the ‘gurlesque’, which is a burgeoning new poetic movement that has been under discussion at Delirious Hem and elsewhere, and I have been following that conversation with interest. I’m interested in the idea of juxtaposing cuteness or other seemingly innocuous girlie traits with horror, danger, disgustingness, grotesque, burlesque, sexual insatiability, etc. I’m also interested in poetic/art content in which the female body is some kind of representational battleground.

By no means is this the only kind of poetry that appeals to me, but it’s definitely a strong interest and in fact I’m currently working on a review of Lara Glenum’s Maximum Gaga, which will likely appear in the April issue of Gently Read Literature. I also think that a few of my new poetry chapbooks inhabit a gurlesque kind of approach in their own way, especially my Mondo Crampo published through the dusie kollektiv 3 and, to a slightly less extreme degree, my Pink Leotard & Shock Collar, to be published later this year by Spooky Girlfriend Press.

In addition to those already mentioned above, some other poets I’ve especially enjoyed in recent years have included (but are most certainly not limited to) Arielle Greenberg (who I think came up with the idea of ‘the gurlesque’), Sabrina Orah Mark, Larissa Szporluck, Kristy Bowen, Rebecca Loudon, Lynn Crosbie, and Tory Dent.

Of course, I also like the various poets I’ve published through Blood Pudding Press, which includes a few of those poets named above and which also includes (but again, is most certainly not limited to) Kyle Simonsen, Melissa Culbertson, Susan Slaviero, Jill Alexander Essbaum, Misti Rainwater-Lites, Rachel Kendall, Matina Stamatakis, and many others.

CR: What is important to you in writing poetry?

JC: Attaining verisimilitude and authenticity according to the logic of the poem.

Even if a poem is oblique or bizarre, it still has its own logic to abide by and remain true to. I like largely unbridled imaginativeness, but I like it to be contextualized. I am not a big fan of slapdashery, Dadaism, or mere clever wordplay. I am a fan of multiple connotations and underlying evocations. I am also a fan of provocation. When it comes to my poetry, I am not interested in toning it down or making it more accessible or palatable to any kind of mainstream whatsoever.

I also think it is important to give something back to the poetry community. In a way, I might prefer to devote all of my creative time and energy to reading and writing poetry, yet I think that would be a bit too self-indulgent of me. I think as someone who is moved by contemporary poetry, I should also make an effort to contribute to a dialogue within the poetry community. This is why I try to make some small strides within the realms of blogging, reviewing, and publishing others’ poetry.

I am a fan of DIY poetry, indie presses, small print and online literary magazines, and chapbooks.

Many of the poets I mentioned above are also involved with poetry publishing, which I admire and which also makes sense to me. After all, if one is passionate about poetry, then why not try to approach and support it from multiple angles? Even small strides can make a difference if lots of different poets are pitching in. Sometimes I wish I had the resources to do more for poetry.

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Juliet Cook’s first full-length poetry collection, Horrific Confection is available in its entirety as a free BlazeVOX ebook at http://www.blazevox.org/ebk-jCook%20REAL.pdf. A print incarnation of the book is also available for purchase, art trade, or as a review copy by contacting the author directly or visiting the Blood Pudding Press online shop at www.BloodPuddingPress.etsy.com. You may find out more about Horrific Confection, including what others are saying about it at Cook’s website—www.JulietCook.weebly.com. In addition to her full-length book, Cook also offers various print poetry chapbooks through the Blood Pudding Press shop and an e-chapbook, Projectile Vomit, is published online by Scantily Clad Press.

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Juliet Cook’s own small press, Blood Pudding Press, has published ten chapbooks in the last three years, with more projects forthcoming. Currently in the works is Spider Vein Impasto, a new multi-writer poetry chapbook. Following that, two single-writer poetry chapbooks will be published by the winners of the first annual Blood Pudding Press chapbook contest, to be announced very soon. As well, Cook is accepting submissions on an ongoing rolling basis for Blood Pudding Press’s spooky little sister, the online blog-style literary magazine, Thirteen Myna Birds, for which guidelines are available at http://13myna.blogspot.com.

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