Talking with Julene Tripp Weaver about her path to poetry and her poetry idols

Our March Poet in Residence, Julene Tripp Weaver, is right now having a moment. This month, she's reading multiple times all over the region and her most recent poetry collection, Truth be bold — Serenading life & death in the age of AIDS was nominated for a Lambda Award. She's squeezing more activity into the month of March than most poets in Seattle manage to do in a year. But Weaver isn't an overnight success; she's been quietly putting out and reading quality work in Seattle for a couple of decades, and she'll keep writing and reading even when the spotlight moves to another poet for a while. Weaver was gracious enough to make some time to talk with us about her career, her moment, and what's next.

I've known you for more than 15 years now! You used to read at the open mic I hosted at Elliott Bay Book Company from 2002 to 2008. Even then, you seemed like a confident and talented poet.

When I lived in New York, I did readings. After moving west, because of the process of resettling and going back to school for my Masters, readings were not a priority. But I was writing - mostly in my journal. At a birthday party I attended, a biker made a statement: "If you're a biker you've got to ride." I translated that sentence to, "If you are a writer, you've got to read."

It was one of those light bulb moments, and I started reading publicly again in May 2002. Elliott Bay was my favorite venue because of your gracious hosing style: inclusive, supportive, fun, and welcoming to anyone who wanted to read. I appreciated that it was a full range of literature, not simply poetry, and that your venue in Pioneer Square created a community. The two highlights for me was the haiku challenge you sponsored and subsidized, and during intermissions when you read your writing. I met so many people I am still in touch with at those open mikes. Your nurturance of writers and independent bookstores is a gift you give to Seattle.

That's unbelievably nice of you. Thank you. Can you talk a little bit about your journey into poetry?

My undergraduate is in Creative Writing, with an emphasis on Poetry, from the City University of New York, I primarily chose Hunter College to study with Audre Lorde; but the City University of New York (CUNY) also gave me the opportunity to study at Brooklyn College with Joan Larkin. This was back in the early 80s and I was returning to school for writing because my early desire to write was squelched by family and circumstances. I had to leave home, and had a career as a laboratory technician for fourteen years. When I moved to Seattle, I went back to school for a Masters in Family Therapy, so my first years living here were full.

In 2016, Dustin Brookshire, a poet who edited a journal in Atlanta, invited me to write a piece about my writing history for his blog.

Your poetry seems, to me, to be inextricable from the work you did for many years as a medical HIV/AIDS case manager.

Do you think poetry helped you cope with what must have been a very difficult job?

Yes. I worked in AIDS services for 21 years, 18 of them as a case manager, and writing helped me with the work because any social work evokes secondary trauma, and writing is healing.

This job was a perfect fit because I was in a Family Therapy Master of Arts program at LIOS (Leadership Institute of Seattle), and was looking for work that was meaningful. I wanted to work with people living with HIV/AIDS because I knew I was positive. This job gave me an opportunity to serve a community I was part of and to learn as much as possible, which was one of my goals for self-preservation.

At Hunter, Professor Louise DeSalvo, PhD, became a strong mentor. Two of her books, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, and The Art of Slow Writing, document a psychological study by James Pennebaker, which show that writing heals trauma. In my private practice, I use writing as an assignment to create a new narrative, and to ease loss and grief. There are many interests I've pursued that inform my writing, self-healing, and therapy practice: dreams, body work, herbal and alternative medicine, which I use for myself and with others toward healing.

Do you think your job provided necessary inspiration as a poet?

The work provided a very rich field for persona poems, elegies, and to process emotions and experience. At that time, I was writing for the Health Corner Column, a newsletter for the Babes Network, a peer support organization for women, which I helped found. I wrote articles on how to support the immune system using prevention with food and herbs.

My first AIDS poem came to the page in a Continuum Movement Poetry in Motion Intensive in 1996. The AIDS poems flowed out of me after that intensive, so yes, my work inspired much writing. But I also write on other topics. My second book, No Father Can Save Her, is autobiographical, with many poems on growing up in New York City during the sexual revolution, interracial relationships, grief from the loss of my father, and mental illness.

I believe there are wells inside us to be uncovered. When my mother died last year, I wrote many mother poems; after I traveled to Istanbul I wrote about that experience, my poem "Istanbul Secrets" won 2nd Prize in the InterBoards June 2015 contest, judged blind by Lesley Wheeler; another poem was published this year in the Bosphorus Journal, an English language Turkish journal. Any experience provides fodder for a poet or writer.

Who do you like to read?

Reading has been one of my favorite indulgences since childhood. To make a list in different genres would be way too long, and miss too many good writers, so I'll just give a recent book or so in each category. There are so many excellent writers.

Poets: Most recent is Tara Hardy's book My, My, My, My, My. Before that I read Lana Hechtman Ayers, The Four Quarters, an homage to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets; Tina Schumann's Requiem a Patrimony of Fugues; and Jesse Minkert's chapbook Rookland.

I'm working on a memoir and love to read about people's lives. I'm slowly reading Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran. This is a topic I think about a lot with my recent book revealing my status for the first time publically. Also, David Wojnarowicz's Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, and Tom Hansen's American Junkie. Earlier, Elizabeth Alexander's The Light of the World, which was incredible.

For fiction, Kiese Laymon's Long Division; John Treat's The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House, set in Seattle about the early AIDS epidemic; I discovered Richard Wagamese when I visited a friend in Canada and read Ragged Company; I'm looking forward to Amber Dawn's new novel, Sodom Road Exit; and of course anything by Tom Spanbauer or the Dangerous Writers.

And for essays, Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey and Mary Gaitskill's Somebody with a Little Hammer.

In fall 2017, I read along with a class syllabus! Professor Patrick Horrigan taught my book in an English Honors class at Long Island University-Brooklyn. The class, "How to Survive a Plague: Art and Literature in the Age of AIDS," used David France's book, which I had already read. I am deeply honored that my book was taught alongside his. I met with the class through Skype for an hour and forty minutes to answer their 27 questions, which were sent to me in advance. After our time ended, they had more questions, so I responded with a letter. This semester he is teaching, "You Always Hurt the One You Love": A Survey on American Literature, and using individual poems from my book next to Walt Whitman poems written in 1865, when he nursed injured Civil War soldiers. My case management experience during the epidemic is comparable.

I read many books about HIV/AIDS and gay history. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's That's Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation; Martin Duberman's Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS.

For psychology books: I have studied Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. A few authors I've read extensively are Pat Ogden, David Siegel, and Stan Tatkin.

I am active on Goodreads, recording and commenting on books. I mark as "to read" far more books than I'll ever have time to finish. It is a resource that helps me remember books and helps me focus. Like most readers, I have a pile of books waiting to be read and a constant urge to buy more. I've been using the library lately and have stopped cold turkey going to the Friends of the Library sales. With so many writer friends it is hard not to buy books.

You're having a very busy month this month! Can you tell us a little about what you're working on?

This past year I have been busy promoting my book, which came out in April 2017. I gave many readings including one in New York City at the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division, housed in the Lesbian and Gay Center, which is where the LIU professor heard me read. This month I had three readings: one a webinar for Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, one at Soul Food Books for the Ice Cream Anthology, and one at Open Books with Tara Hardy. On April 26th I will read in Portland, OR, at Another Read Through bookstore with Penelope Scambly Schott, and Christopher Luna. Later this summer, July 7th, I will host an Ice Cream Anthology reading at Poetry in the Park (Marymoor).

This year I sent my book out to contests, which has been expensive but fruitful. My book is a Finalist for the Bisexual Book Awards, and for the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award. I'm heading east to attend these two gala events. As a native New Yorker, I'm always thrilled to go back east. Also, it is nominated for The Golden Crown Literary Society Awards.

Truth be bold is a beautiful book with good poetry and a stunning cover. The art is by Duane Kirby Jensen, whose art also graces my second book's cover. I'm grateful to have the perfect art to match my words on all three of my books.

I'm in two writing groups. One has been ongoing since 2003 after a Tom Spanbauer week at Haystack in Cannon Beach, Oregon. We bring prose pages for feedback, which we read out loud; and I am in a poetry critique dyad with a poet who was part of a long-term poetry group. The group dissolved when several members moved.

As my current book promotion energy shifts, I will work on my memoir and pull together another poetry manuscript from my body of published and unpublished poems, diving into the process to find the themes and arch that makes a book. So, I have two more books to develop.

Do you see a difference between the performance of poetry and the writing of poetry, or do you write the pieces to be read aloud?

Writing is a physical act, it is embodied, so I read my work out loud. Writing is meant to be voiced and heard. When I revise I read my poem out loud over and over to get the rhythm coming through that particular poem. After I did my first "Poetry in Motion" movement intensive I loved it so much I ran workshops for ten years including a series at Cancer Lifeline. So yes, writing poetry is connected to the verbal: in the workshops, breath and audible breath (sound) is used to alter our internal space and then see what evolves. It is hand-to-page work so the line and images are as important as the writing that comes because in is energy in the body that is moving.

Do you have any performance idols?

My performance idols are Patricia Smith, Anne Devere Smith, and Tara Hardy. I took a performance workshop with Tara at a Poetry in the Park years ago.

Before I left New York, an actor friend coached me in reading to an audience. I appreciate feedback to improve my readings, and believe writers needs oratory skills to do their work justice. I remember the first time I read at Elliott Bay you commented that I had reading skills. And I did. I do not take reading my work lightly because it is how the work is felt, people need to hear it and respond at a gut level. Audre Lorde would ask after someone read, "How do you feel?" I'm aware I can improve, I tend to have a low voice, so I prefer to read with a microphone.