Contributor Spotlight: Julia Bouwsma

Julia headshot BWJulia Bouwsma’s poem, “We Are Just Three Mouths” is featured in Issue 73 of the Bellingham Review.

What would you like to share with our readers about the work you contributed to the Bellingham Review?

Two years ago, in the week following Thanksgiving, a very large weasel got into our henhouse. He killed twelve hens in a single week. It was terrible. We tried to plug all the cracks in the henhouse, but he kept finding his way in. We tried to live trap him, but it didn’t work. One evening, I was out back with the dogs when I heard screaming from the henhouse. I grabbed my rifle (an Ithaca .22 magnum) and caught the weasel mid-attack. I had never shot a living creature before. I didn’t want to, but it was the only way to protect the hens in my care. It was intense. I was shaking but also triumphant. And I knew immediately and instinctively that I would write about it. Writing is very much about accountability for me, about taking my place within the cycle of life and death and owning my part in it.

Tell us about your writing life. How long have you been writing? What’s kept you writing?

I first began writing poems when I was eight years old. A poet, professor, and dear family friend volunteered to teach poetry at my elementary school. Every week in third, fourth, fifth grade, she met with a group of us and taught us what what it’s like to have words blow the top off your head. We wrote poems, studied them, memorized them: Blake, Dickinson, Hopkins, Bishop. I knew then that poetry would be something I carried with me always.

One of my primary obsessions as a writer is the intersection of body, land, narrative, and identity. I think I began writing to create a personal mythology for myself, as a way of owning and learning how to live with different types of pain in my life. And I think that need, that process, continues to evolve over time, but it remains an underlying driving force. My writing is very physical. I try to take loss or fracture or absence and use language to turn it into something tangible—something you can hold in your hand or clench between your teeth. Something that will last.

What non-writing aspect of your life influences your writing most?

My land. My partner and I live off-the-grid on an old hill farm in the mountains of western Maine. (Fun fact: the farm was originally founded by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s paternal great-grandparents.) We raise pigs, layer chickens, have large vegetable gardens, and boil maple syrup. We live very close to the seasons, and there is a great deal of physical labor in the way we live. My writing is deeply informed by daily practices of manual labor, by the history of my land, by my proximity to life and death.

What writing advice has stayed with you?

I’ve received a lot of advice over the years, and I think almost all of it has been good, but the pieces that have stuck with me the most are those that I received at exactly the time when I needed them most. At eight it was: “You know, you don’t have to end every poem with the word ‘eternity.'” At twenty-five it was: “What are the poems you most need to write?” Last week it was: “If you have a problem you can solve, solve it. If you have a problem you can’t solve, write about it.”

What is your favorite book (essay, poem, short story)? Who is your favorite writer?

Brigit Pegeen Kelly passed away recently. Her work is something I think I have been carrying with me and writing toward since before I even knew who she was. It knocked the breath out of me when I got the news. I was in the pigpen (we raise pigs for meat) and happened to glance at the phone. It felt like the whole world stopped. The pigs were churning against my legs, squealing for their buckets of scraps. And I just stood there for a minute thinking about this web of words we are strung against—how there are poets and poems that I would not (nor would my poems) exist without. The thought keeps coming back to me—how someone writes words and sends them off into the air and then they eventually become the building blocks, the atoms that form other writers and other works. The whole process strikes me as very precarious, very harrowing, and also very beautiful.

That said, I don’t usually tend to think in terms of favorites. Often it’s more about context—how a work is useful to me in terms of a current project or obsession. Or a shard of something will just get stuck in my head until it burrows its way under my skin and becomes a part of me. My aesthetic tends to be sharp-edged, dark, muscular yet musical. I like a poem that kicks me in the teeth, that leaves me reeling.

What are you reading right now?

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children; Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat; Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mothers, Tell Your Daughters; Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. I tend to read books more than once and to read multiple books at a time.

What project are you working on now?

My debut collection of poems, Work by Bloodlight, was selected by Linda Pastan for the 2015 Cider Press Review and was just released in January 2017. I also just completed (and have begun sending out) a second collection, Midden, which is about the state of Maine’s forced eviction of an interracial community from Malaga Island in 1912. I’m not quite sure what the next project will be, though I have a few ideas floating around my head…

Anything else our readers might want to know about you?

Well, I wear a lot of hats, and I like it that way—it keeps my brain moving in a lot of different directions. I’m a poet, a freelance editor, a farmer, a small-town librarian. My hobbies include whitewater kayaking and dog training. We have four dogs, and I’ve competed with and titled my shepherd in competitive obedience, weight pull, and personal protection. I enjoy walking the trails behind my house daily and pretty much anything that involves being outside.

JULIA BOUWSMA‘s debut collection, Work by Bloodlight, was selected by Linda Pastan for the 2015 Cider Press Review Book Award and was released in January 2017. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Cutthroat, Muzzle, Puerto del Sol, Salamander, RHINO, and others. A former Managing Editor for Alice James Books, she currently serves as Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and as Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine. She lives and works on an off-the-grid farm in the mountains of western Maine.