Julie Berry’s first book, worn thresholds, was published by Brick in 1995 and reprinted in 2006. A second collection of poems was published by Buschek Books of Ottawa in the fall of 2010. Her poems have appeared in a number of periodicals from Canadian Forum in the late seventies to most recently, The Malahat Review and Brittle Star, a UK publication. Julie’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies including Open Wide a Wilderness from Wilfred Laurier University Press (2008).
Being an elementary school teacher for most of her working life has given her the gift of a child’s-eye view of the world. In 2007 she wrote and presented, with the help of Steve Wadhams of CBC, The Poetry of the Woods, an award-winning CBC production of Outfront and this experience has led to her present job producing children’s radio programs. She was long-listed for this year’s Canada Writes competition with an excerpt from a work-in-progress,
"The Gilbert White Poems." Julie lives just outside of St. Thomas, Ontario with her partner, Jonathan and their dog, Guinness. Her four sons have grown and flown.
Julie says of her poetry, "I want to make something beautiful and powerful that wakes the reader up," and further on she adds, "Finding humour in the abyss, that’s poetry." We are delighted to share several of Julie's poems with you, and our interview with her follows below them.
I WAS THERE A MONTH BEFORE HE NOTICED
My attraction was to his cantaleupes. He coddled them—
yet repeatedly pinched back their delicate tendrilling
their determined attempts to escape through the cracks
of their casements & how could I resist his Grass of Parnassus
so brashly brought out of Rutland. Vehemently thriving
to this day in Sparrow’s Hangar.
A fortnight after I arrived his people came up
from South Lambeth. There was singing in the hermitage,
Virgil along the Bostal. When they left it was just him & me.
Something approaching the size of a Coneycroft Hill opened
in the sky with an invisible pivot-point top & bottom.
God knows what sort of ceiling anchor kept everything
right-side-up. All 230 square inches of skin on my scalp
sizzled with true patriot love. O Canada O glorious
O gravel pit.
We were coming in for a landing--
it was early morning. A southern Ontario September.
Thick fog. School buses delayed two hours.
We set down beside a creek without a name
at the bottom of a gully a mile north of Lake Erie.
A meandering kind of creek. You can cross a creek like that
& still be on the same side. Gilbert was amazed.
A raccoon mistook us for shrubs in the gloom.
Don’t act scared I said to him under my breath.
That’s the worst thing you can do.
Here’s how we got back to 1768:
we held our arms in front of us at shoulder height, curved
as if we were holding an enormous bag of groceries in each one.
We began turning counter-clockwise—our left arms
pulled us around. Our right arms
swung to the front.
We began spinning, slowly at first.
Then faster & faster. Keep your head up Gil, I said.
Focus on something that’s not moving.
THE DUKE OF RICHMOND’S MOOSE
Foreign animals seldom fall in my way; my little intelligence is confined
to the narrow sphere of my own observations at home.
Gilbert White THE NATURAL HISTORY
OF SELBORNE, Letter XXVIII to Thomas Pennant
At that time the wasps were thinning
& the hop-picking was nearly over.
Hedgehogs were boring into the grass walks
to eat the plantain roots. This was the year
nectarines rotted on the trees. The morning
he heard of the moose-deer, rooks were playing by pairs
in the air over the church mead & three black warty water-efts
with fin tails & yellow bellies were drawn up in the well-bucket.
The deer-moose had died the Monday before
& was being kept in an old greenhouse
slung under the belly & chin by ropes
so to be in a standing position--
long legs, short neck, ears vast
& loping, as long as the neck
with a head like an ass. Its lips were excessive
(a delicacy he’d been told) & its nostrils huge.
He wished to take measurements,
examine the teeth, tongue, lips, hoofs, etc. minutely
but it was in so putrid a state.
The stench was hardly supportable--
he had to stay clear of it
the walnut-cracking machine
aunt nelly was a fitch from fingal
small like a wren
inside her she carried
an immense drawstring bag
crammed with small kindnesses
her husband ingersoll was well-read
a farmer with a butterfly collection
and a killing jar he kept on the kitchen counter
he was born and died in the same house
painted once as high as he could reach
without a ladder
late april snow covered the green grass
the morning i dropped in for tea
a vise-like creation sat on the kitchen table
somebody had been using it to crack walnuts
i tried it out a few times
while aunt nelly boiled water
fussed with a plate of cookies
uncle ingersoll called from the dining room
would you like to see the automatic nut cracker?
he was using a walker so the trip through the kitchen
down the back porch steps
across the wet lawn took a good half hour
the walnut cracker had been out all winter
tinkered with it a few minutes
nelly yelled from the back door
it’ll never work
he reached for the switch
plug it in he yelled to nelly
i took a step back
alarmed that electricity was involved
it started up right away
people miles away that morning
in shedden or frome
planting peas or leaf lettuce
likely straightened their backs
turned their faces to the southwest
but when uncle ingersoll dumped
the pail of last fall’s walnuts
into the large funnel-shaped pipe
the trees the house the clouds
the planets and all their moons
collapsed under the weight of the din
all creation tumbled together down the pipe
and cracked in a rupturous clatter
i pressed the heels of my hands over my ears
and squeezed my eyes shut
the machine broke up the shells
spit them out one side
the meat of the walnuts dropped into
a small china bowl underneath
uncle ingersoll reached down
turned the machine off
the silence was a solid embraceable thing
i carried home
sometimes i take it out and hold it
and dream of someday making something
as loud and useful
as the walnut-cracking machine
not the heaven of raccoons
philosophically and logistically speaking
there are some problems with my theory
of separate heavens for separate people
as my sister pointed out the other night
when we met for coffee after going to
the funeral home
wouldn't it be lonely she wondered
my response involves advanced theories of quantum physics in which the universe is
expanding so fast that there are infinite alternate universes created which are almost
identical to other universes except that in one universe there might be raccoons up
intrees while hound dogs bark underneath them and in another universe the raccoons
are in the cornfield feasting while in heaven right next door somebody has plugged
a radio into a long extension cord and music from the local radio station has scared
the raccoons away and bushels of corn are picked by a woman who loves the feel
of the perfect ears in her hands because this is her heaven you see not the heaven
Interview by Shelly Harder
SH: When and why did you start writing poetry?
JB: I started writing poetry in my early twenties. I was keeping a daily journal and sometimes the entries felt like poems. I was married before I was 20 and had two kids by the time I was 27. Four kids by the time I was 32. I began teaching school when I was 24. A busy time but whenever I found the time I would scribble poems into my journal. During a maternity leave (thank goodness for maternity leaves!) I sent a poem to Canadian Forum. I don’t think I’d sent anything out before that. I was very surprised when they accepted it. I can remember the day that I received the acceptance notice in the mail. I opened the letter with my second son in my arms. He was a newborn and he got a wild ride that day. I danced, I truly danced around the house.
So why did I start writing poetry? Because I liked playing with words and I liked making poems. I was reading a lot of poetry and I loved it, and wanted to do it as well as the poets I was reading. It was a thrill to have a line come for me, the perfect line. Writing was an escape from the chaos of mothering and teaching and living life. It was also in some mysterious way a direct line into those very parts of life. Kind of like being in a poetry-coma while hooked up to life support, where the life support is your daily life—the sick kids, the lesson plans, the breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Being a teacher and a mother gave me a lot of practice focusing on a still point while kids pulled at my clothes and yelled my name. I’m way too good at it, even today.
SH: What have been the biggest influences on your poetry over your life?
JB: My grade 13 English teacher told us that reading Tinturn Abby by Wordsworth made him cry. It didn’t make me cry but I was impressed that a poem could make a grown man cry. A poem by P.K. Page described how I felt about a boyfriend way back then—“Adolescence”. . . “and white was mixed with all their colours.” I loved that poem.
I intended to be a Phys. Ed. Teacher when I went to University. The young man who coached the intramural flag football team showed me his paperback copy of Walt Whitman. By second year the idea of being a gym teacher didn’t seem like such a good idea after all. I happened upon an anthology called I am a Sensation that was put together by Gerry Goldberg and George Wright with the assistance of students at Kipling Collegiate in Toronto. It included poems and prose written centuries earlier along with very fresh, new poems. It grabbed me by the throat. I abandoned the whole educational enterprise 6 weeks into my third year and headed west to find myself. Who didn’t? It was the early seventies.
Came home, got married, had kids. Got a career.
Early influences were Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman and Walt Whitman. I still pick up that old paperback copy of Leaves of Grass and delve into it. Later, after the shock and awe of motherhood had died down a little, I continued to read and write poems. At first I believed that I could never be a “real” poet because I lived in a small city in the middle of nowhere. People who wrote real poetry lived in Paris or in the English countryside with their poet husbands. Sylvia Plath was a poet I admired but she lived a life that seemed glamorous and impossible for me. I would never have the kind of life that would generate good poems. I read everything I could get my hands on and I read in every spare moment. I read entire books, I’m sure, standing in doorways. All of my books are a mess. It’s inevitable when you read while brushing your teeth.
Bronwyn Wallace changed my life. And she allowed me to speak, to write in my voice. I wish I could have met her. “The more particular you are, the more general you will be.” I think those are the words of Diane Arbus, but I first encountered the words through Bronwyn Wallace.
Two other poets need to be thanked here. Janice Redecop and Ted Plantos. These poets were writers-in-residence at the local library in St. Thomas, Ontario. In the early nineties I was a closet poet. Nobody had seen my work and I had been writing for over 15 years. Long story short. My second life began. They were kind and encouraging. My first workshop group formed itself, and with the help of Ted Plantos, we published two little books of poetry. We called ourselves “The Roundhouse Poets”. I belong to another workshop in London now and the monthly meetings keep me going.
SH: Can you say something about how your poetic style evolved, and what you generally try to accomplish in your poetry?
JB: How my poetic style evolved. Well, poetic style is a slippery topic, isn’t it? I don’t like that question. Let’s go on to the next one. The first poem I wrote in my voice was “dissection kit” in worn thresholds. Unbeknownst to me, the poem was a prophecy. It’s interesting how poems, like some dreams, are prophetic.
What I try to accomplish in my poetry? I want to make something beautiful and powerful that wakes the reader up in some way. That’s what I like about poetry too. I want to be surprised. I don’t mind being mystified and unable to say what the poem is “about” but I want to feel like I’ll never be the same person after reading it. Writing a poem like that is my goal, every time.
SH: In your poetry, you mention place names of southern Ontario. In what ways has this locale shaped and inspired your writing?
JB: I was born in St. Thomas and have lived here for all of my adult life. I grew up in Toronto, in Rexdale, mostly. It would have been truly awful except we lived next door to a public library and the Humber River was within walking distance. In those days parents let their kids loose to spend hours of unsupervised exploring. At least my parents did. Weekends we’d get into the car and drive west to Port Stanley, where my dad’s parents had a 35 acre farm crisscrossed by a couple of gullies. My great aunts and uncles lived on farms and in small villages around there and we were a close-knit family. Fingal, Shedden, Lawrence Station, Iona Station. Tryconnell. Port Bruce. In one of my earliest memories I’m sitting in a laneway of fine sand, letting it fall through my fingers. There’s a tobacco kiln nearby. The smell of curing tobacco in the air.
I tried my hand at market gardening on this farm in an attempt to pay my university tuition. Ploughed, disked and harrowed the fields, planted sweet corn mainly, cultivated it and applied pesticides and herbicides galore. I grew a lot of corn but didn’t make any money at all.
Growing up in the suburbs of Toronto gave me a perspective that most kids don’t get. I fell in love with rural southwestern Ontario at a very young age because I knew the suburban desert. I will never stray far from the gully in my writing, whether it’s a poem about Taipei, Taiwan or Bas Cap Pele, New Brunswick.
Becoming intimate with a place grows your capacity to love other places. This explains, partially, my five-year love affair with the long dead Gilbert White and his beloved village of Selborne in southwest England, which is another story.
SH: Particularly when reading, “I WAS THERE A MONTH BEFORE HE NOTICED,” I was struck by your sense of humour, for example in the lovely enjambment that descends from “O Canada O glorious” into the bathos of “O gravel pit.” How would you describe the role of humour in your writing and perception of life?
JB: My father had a great sense of humour and my memories of childhood involve a lot of laughter. I was blessed with a quick tongue and the ability to perceive the ridiculous in the ordinary. This can often be funny, but not always. When you have the ability to turn everything into a clever joke that will make people laugh, you run the risk of living on the surface and being a very superficial person. I fear I am that person a lot of the time and I try to be careful to fall down an abyss of two at least once a day. Finding humour in the abyss, that’s poetry.
Also, having four children means you must develop a sense of humour. It’s a matter of survival. I was an elementary school teacher for thirty years, half of them spent with kindergarten kids. Again, a sense of humour was a requirement to maintain sanity. The other thing about spending so much time with young children—you know a thing or two about play. If you want to write poems but you don’t know how to play, how to be silly or how to put two things together that are absolutely not supposed to go together—you will have trouble.
The funny bits in my poems are, for the most part, the residue of play. Also, I pay attention to life because life is hilarious much of the time. One little example from my first book, worn thresholds—in the poem, “touching ground.” It’s about my mother and my children and a Christian mystic who buried small bites of herself in the garden. I’m driving my sons to a local hockey arena for an early-morning practice. My youngest is with us because there’s nobody at home to look after him. It’s still dark outside.
holding the opening of his new rubber boot up to his
ear thomas shouts from the back seat i can hear the
Oh, yes, and I’m an obsessive journal-keeper and moments like this must be recorded or else they will fall through the cracks of that abyss I mentioned earlier.
SH: Both “the walnut-cracking machine” and “THE DUKE OF RICHMOND’S MOOSE” draw attention to their orientation toward the past. How do you conceive of the relationship of the present to histories both near and far?
JB: The older I get the closer I feel to the Big Bang. Time began telescoping down for me when I hit middle age, when my kids started growing up and moving out. As a child World War II, the holocaust and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima seemed like remote times, far removed from me. They certainly had nothing to do with me. The European conquest of North America was so long ago it didn’t catch my attention at all. All of that has changed, of course, as I have reached my juicy-crone stage. I would describe my relationship to time as more like living in a giant soup or stew with the principal ingredient being time. The past, present and future rub shoulders in this big soup pot. It’s getting pretty hot in here, these days.
SH: What do you think of the newest directions in poetry. Do you find any you like? Or dislike?
JB: Conceptualist poetry is a newish kind of writing (to me, anyway). Some of it I like. Some of it is way beyond me. It often doesn’t speak to me at all. I don’t think it’s a shortcoming of the poetry. I think it’s my own laziness as a reader. And my impatience. I have tried my hand at it and some of the poems in my present manuscript contain work inspired by Craig Dworkin, in particular. The procedure I adopted was a good way to give readers the flavor of Gilbert White and his times without being insufferably boring and prosaic. It’s the next best thing to reading Gilbert White’s journals yourself, in their entirety. Everyone should read his journals in their entirety, by the way.
SH: What can we expect from you in the future?
JB: In the future? I’m going to finish this book about Gilbert White and then I’m going to revisit my life as a teacher. I kept meticulous, detailed journals while I was a teacher and I completed a collection of poetry called writing school as part of my Master’s thesis at the Ontario Institute of Education. I wasn’t ready to write about being a teacher right after I exited the teaching profession but now I am.
I want to write about that.