interview: Julia Lans Nowak
Julia Lans Nowak’s poetry could almost be mistaken for pieces from the past. With its precise, measured language and weary tone, her work bears hallmarks of Modernists like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but is both rawer and more elusive, like personal confessions wrapped in blankets of allusion. The mysterious nature of her work extends to both the collages she creates to accompany her poems and the music she creates under the moniker Oath. We spoke with her recently about her chapbook Forms, her extensive travels abroad, and the romance and danger of the metropolis.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
JLN: Yeah, of course. I’ve been looking forward to it.
I was reading through my copy of Forms again, and I just wanted to start by saying that your poetry is really wonderful. It’s so evocative.
JLN: Thank you.
It’s very evocative of the past—images of castles and tapestries and monuments to war—and I think the collages really augment this effect, with their grainy, film-like quality. But I never feel like I’m reading poetry from another era, it always feels very much of our time. Where do you look to for inspiration?
JLN: You know, that’s actually been kind of the problem for me… I feel kind of stuck in the past. My favorite poets are Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot. I probably got into poetry and started writing poetry because of Wallace Stevens single-handedly. More recently I’ve been reading a lot of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Mina Loy—nothing past 1950, 1960, and that’s something I’ve been really wanting to change. I just started a new grad program in writing at CalArts two months ago, and that’s been really good for me. I’ve presented this question to my professors. I’m stuck in more old tropes of poetry, and I’d really like to see if there’s anything going on now that I can relate to, or even just in the more recent past. So far I still haven’t quite caught up or found anything, but I’m going through the process.
Understandable, especially if you only just started a couple of months ago. Were you there before in a different program?
JLN: No, I’ve been doing another grad program in philosophy through another school called the European Graduate School.
Wow. Your breadth of interests is very impressive: you write poetry, you create visual art, you write music, and you have a master’s in philosophy. I don’t even know where to start, so let’s just start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
JLN: I grew up in Las Vegas from the age of four until I moved out, which was when I was 16.
What was life like in Las Vegas?
JLN: I get asked this question a lot, because of the place that it is. You tell someone that you’re from Las Vegas, and they go, “Wow! What was that like growing up there?” Despite having been asked that question about a thousand times, I still never have an answer. I don’t really know. It’s a desert and it’s a bit of a cultural void, and I just spent a lot of time inside by myself.
Interesting. That’s not maybe what I would have thought someone would say, but I guess a lot of the attraction to Las Vegas is adult-oriented.
JLN: Exactly. It’s a very suburban place. There’s a very small center with all of the casinos and tourist attractions, and the rest of it is spread out like hyper-American suburbs. There’s not really public transportation; there’s not some cultural city center. I mean, they try. They recently put up an arts building that holds events, but I haven’t even been to it yet. At least when I was growing up there, there just really wasn’t anything to do. I just went to school and went home.
I grew up in Connecticut. It was very similar.
JLN: Yeah, I bet it was. All of America I’m sure has that quality.
Were you artistically inclined as a child? How did you start writing poetry, or playing music, or anything like that?
JLN: I started writing, though I actually hated writing my whole life, and almost failed a couple of years of high school English just stumbling through my complete unwillingness and horror at writing papers. I didn’t start writing until I got into poetry, which was three or four years ago. I also started translating a bit when I was in college. I was doing Russian and Polish translation to English, and I started translating poetry into English, and when you translate it’s sort of like role-playing or play-acting as poet, in a way. You have to get into their mind and their process and be able to get across what they were trying to do. So through a culmination of translating and, again, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, I got pretty much only into poetry. I still don’t how to write anything else, which is a problem and also something I’m working on. I still can’t write an essay or a short story to save my life. But as far as everything else goes, like music, I played piano since I was four years old, and the high school I went to was a performing arts high school, so I was a piano major. You had majors in this high school. I practiced piano there for an hour every day and had to do at least one performance or competition every month. So it was a pretty intensive connection that I had to the piano for a really long time, but I stopped once I got to college, and then I just started playing in bands and playing whatever—like guitar, bass, keyboard.
You play a lot of instruments.
JLN: I think I did. Since I’ve been a bit more academically inclined the last couple of years—and since I’ve moved around a lot, I haven’t had my own equipment—I haven’t been playing much music the past couple of years, pretty much until the start of this year, and then I went on that tour with Kayla [Cohen, who performs under the name Itasca].
Speaking of moving, you have been moving quite a bit. You were in Berlin for a while, right?
JLN: Yeah, I spent most of last year in Berlin. I was in Melbourne for a year before that.
How was life in Berlin?
JLN: I think, and I’m definitely not the first person to think this—this isn’t a unique perception of Berlin—but it’s an especially dark and interesting place. It’s heavily romanticized, and if you’re susceptible to that kind of romantic feeling about places, you can really engorge it in your mind. I definitely was, especially then—I think I was 22—I was even more susceptible then than now to the sort of romantic experience. I think most people are who go there. There’s a pretty big difference, when you’re such an idealist and such a romantic, between what reality ends up being and what you had imagined it to be. I hope that everyone has that first time when they notice that difference. I guess that happened to me in Berlin.
That’s a good way to put it. It does, I imagine, happen to most people at some point. Good to get it out of the way when you’re still young.
JLN: I certainly don’t regret my time there. I learned a lot about myself, and what makes me unhappy. And therefore what I can do to be happy, and what to avoid, and never move to a city by myself again, things like that.
Unfortunately, mental stability is not very conducive to poetry. It always comes, at least for me, from some rift between experience and desire—between what you want a moment to be and what it is and what it isn’t—and the kind of insanity you find between those two extremes.
You had a radio show over there, right, called Crude Foyer?
JLN: Yeah, a couple of months into living there, I moved to Kreuzkölln, which is on the border of these two neighborhoods, Kreuzberg and Neukölln. The radio station was actually right on my street, about three doors down. It was a kind of residential street. It wasn’t really a main street. When I was moving in, I noticed this place a few doors down, with a glass wall in the front with a glass door, so you could see all these people—like cool young people lounging on couches and neon lights. Like, What the fuck is going on in there? And then I realized it was the radio station. I’ve always been a pretty big music dork. I definitely had the record collector mentality while I was in college, and things like that, so I thought I’d try it out. I really enjoyed it.
So I guess when you moved back to the U.S. that stopped?
JLN: Yeah, I was actually supposed to continue it. They asked me to continue it, and I really wanted to. I still might do it again. I got a little burnt out on it for a second and also started focusing more on school again. But I think I’ll actually start doing it again. I have some time in the next few months.
How would you do it here, from a distance?
JLN: I actually did a few from a distance on there already. I just make it on my computer, record myself talking, and put some tracks together. I did one from Rome, and one from Switzerland. I don’t remember where else.
You have traveled quite a bit. I noticed in your book, in Forms, that at the bottom of each poem, there is a place listed. Is that where each poem was written?
So they were all written in very different places.
JLN: For me, the place and the time of the poem is extremely important. That’s why I thought it was necessary information.
That makes sense. What does the Roman numeral refer to?
JLN: It’s the month. I can’t remember exactly, but I think sometimes I included it and sometimes I didn’t.
Most of them have it. Like Kraków, three, the Roman numeral IX, and then 14. It’s like a little code.
JLN: And that would have been exactly September 3, 2014.
You use many different languages throughout your poetry, and you said you would translate Russian and Polish. How many different languages do you know?
JLN: I grew up speaking Polish. I learned Russian in college. Over the years I’ve learned some German, French, and a little Italian. I think that’s about it. Small pieces of other things. Languages are very important to me. I’ve always felt like it was this thing that I could do best.
Do you make visual art, too, besides collages?
JLN: Not really. That’s kind of all I do.
I guess I was thinking of the image of the hands on your postcard series. Was that a collage?
JLN: Those postcards—it says on the back, but the art is all by different friends of mine. It was a collaborative project with friends whose art I really like. I wanted to start creating more tangible items related to poetry—tangible and more immediate, more visual. I have a lot of friends whose art I really like, so I asked a couple to combine their art with some poems. I’m going to continue doing that series—that was just the first one.
I really enjoyed both the poems and the artwork. I thought the artwork was also by you—I just assume you do everything now. [laughing] But I do like the collages. Where do you get your images from?
JLN: Mostly old National Geographics. Seventies National Geographics.
That would explain the preponderance of nature imagery. It goes so well with your words.
JLN: They’re very textural without being specifically evocative or invoking a certain image. When you’ve got a picture of nature, you can turn it into something abstract more easily than anything else. It’s difficult to turn a photograph of a person into a purely textural experience. If you just cut out a bit of skin, or something? The collages were just an accompaniment to the poems, just to have something else and create another world and another feeling.
How long have you been performing as Oath?
JLN: When I went on tour in May, that was actually the first time I’d ever played solo, ever. And I think the show that you saw in Austin was maybe my fourth or fifth show of that tour. So I was still learning what to do and figuring it out.
Were you nervous?
JLN: By that show, no. The first three or four I was definitely terrified. I definitely have a really gnarly stage fright problem. Austin was nice because I knew so many people at the show, and the bookstore [Farewell Books] is so great. It just felt really comfortable.
You seemed to have good control over your performance and what you were doing. I wouldn’t have known it was only your fifth show. How did the rest of that tour go?
JLN: It was great. It was mostly about me and Kayla, who does Itasca. I really loved her music a lot and liked her a lot as a person, and we’ve become friends. I moved to LA and she was booking a nationwide tour for May, and she knew that I had a latent interest in starting to play music again. When she asked me if I wanted to go on tour, basically it was like a kick in the ass. I agreed, and then, in a panic, in a couple of weeks before leaving, had to put a set together, and it actually ended up working pretty well. I didn’t necessarily love the songs, but I got it done and was able to go on tour and practice performing and figure out what I like and don’t like about it, and what I can do better in the future. It was really great of her to have faith in me, not even knowing what I was going to do, and ask me to come along. It was one really big learning experience.
But you said you’ve played in other bands before?
JLN: Yeah, but nothing really of note, just a few months here and there playing different instruments for different friends.
Local bands in LA?
JLN: No, in the Bay Area. I’ve only been in LA for about a year—less than a year. When I was living in the Bay Area, when I was in college, I would play music with friends. We would play a few shows, but nothing that I was very attached to.
I saw you played Berserktown in August. Do you play often? Are you still playing?
JLN: That was the last show I did and it felt a little disastrous, so I decided to stop for a while until I came up with something new or got a chance to work on my music and performing more.
JLN: As I mentioned before, I have a problem with stage fright. But I actually thought it had mostly gone away, especially by the end of tour, after playing every day. I really didn’t feel it anymore. It was really easy for me to just go on stage and perform and enjoy it. But I’d gone to school over the summer for a few months, and came back the day before Berserktown, so I was really jetlagged and out of it and hadn’t practiced in two or three months. I decided to play that show with my friend Juan [Mendez], who does Silent Servant—it’s a sort of electronic project, and he DJs as well. But we didn’t actually get a chance to practice. We just thought, Eh, we’ll wing it. Then all of a sudden, I’m standing on stage and all of these people that I respect and admire, or just all my friends, are watching me as I’m trying to “wing it.” My legs are shaking, and I can hear the music in the other room, and all of a sudden I can’t hear anything else, and it was a 15-minute-long moment of panic. The second it ended I was like, I can’t do that again for a while.
Do you have any releases planned? Do you have albums or EPs or anything?
JLN: I’ve had a couple people ask me if I wanted to put a tape out with what I’d performed on tour, but as I said before, those were songs that I just scratched together for the express purpose of getting it together and going on tour. I don’t actually like them very much at this point in time. I would really, really like to make something a lot better, before trying to solidify it by putting it out into the world. Really, what’s kept me back from making music for so long is that I have such a high regard and respect for music. It’s so important to me that I don’t want to contribute to the mediocrity of it. It’s so easy now to put out a tape or put out a record. It feels like people just record something, and they’re like, Yeah, that’s fine. They just put it out, just go for it. Everybody is making music now, especially in LA. it really feels like that. I don’t really feel the need to put something out just to put it out. I don’t want something to be out in the world unless I can really stand by it and say, “Yes, this is the actual best I can do.”
Do you think you’ll keep working toward that goal?
JLN: Definitely. Kayla, who I mentioned before, who does Itasca, she decided recently to start playing with a full band. So I’m going to be in her full band and play bass. My boyfriend, Coleman, is going to play drums. I’m starting to get back into more regular musical practice. We’ve got a space, I’ve got instruments at my disposal, so I’m finally back in a situation where I can do that again.
That’s great. So you’re working now toward getting a master’s in poetry?
JLN: It’s technically in creative writing, but poetry is what I do in that.
Would you say your twin interests are mostly poetry and music?
JLN: I guess so, but I also feel like I keep those lives very, very separate. When I go to school, I don’t tell people that I play music. I don’t know why I would. There’s kind of academic Julia, who studies philosophy and goes to school, and there’s me when I go home, which is the other person. I haven’t really figured out how to integrate those two sides of my personality yet. I’m working on it.
That’s so funny, because it seems like poetry lends itself to music pretty readily.
JLN: Yeah, people say this a lot, and I can see what they mean, and in theory I agree, but at least as far as my poetry goes, I don’t really feel where it connects to music yet.
Your poetry isn’t lyrical in a singing kind of way.
JLN: No, I feel very wedded to the seriousness of the page and print. Music doesn’t feel that serious to me. Or at least when I play music, I don’t like taking it super seriously. It’s something that I just enjoy doing so much. I love playing, I love doing it, whereas poetry has actually been the long-suffering experience. When you first start writing poetry, and then you’re like, Oh god! I’m a person who writes poetry now. I am one of those people.
So you didn’t embrace your interest in it?
JLN: It was really hard. It wasn’t like I had a life-long goal to become a poet. It kind of came out of nowhere. I just started writing poetry one day, and then it was like, Oh, what do I do with this? What does this mean? Going from that point to going to school for it was this very long and difficult process of accepting that that’s what I do. I come from a very practical, conservative family, for example. I never had this image of someone asking me what I do for a living and me answering, “I write poetry.” It kind of makes me hate myself to even say it out loud. It’s just what happened.
You have to do what you love. Do you write poetry every day?
JLN: No. I wish. For me, as we mentioned before, poetry is extremely tied to place and time, and capturing and solidifying a certain experience and the essence of a certain moment. I’ve grown very comfortable here in LA. I really enjoy my life—it’s a very calm and happy life. I don’t have these strong moments of emotional experience here, which is both a positive and a negative thing. It means you’re a more stable person, but it also means you’re not overwhelmed by something to the point of needing to express it. I actually feel like I need to travel; I’ve written some this year while traveling. I’ve written a couple things in LA, but it’s been really hard actually to write here just because of this sense of calm. Unfortunately, mental stability is not very conducive to poetry. It always comes, at least for me, from some rift between experience and desire—between what you want a moment to be and what it is and what it isn’t—and the kind of insanity you find between those two extremes.
If I were to check in with you in five years, what would you see yourself doing ideally?
JLN: Well, I’ll have finished two master’s degrees. What those precisely are good for I suppose I’ll have found out by five years from now. Now, at CalArts, I’ve been trying to push myself towards publishing. I’m an editor for a literary magazine there, and have become an organizer for reading events and things like that.
What literary magazine?
JLN: It’s CalArts’ magazine, and it’s in its last year, so this will be the only year that I do it, but it’s called The Black Clock. When I moved to LA and decided to start a more “adult” life—a little less traveling, a little less dicking around—I had to think a lot about what I was going to do. I want to be involved in writing in some way, but obviously Poet with a capital P is not exactly a profession. I think publishing and/or teaching is what I’m leaning toward. I’m trying to get into publishing. I also doubt that I’ll be living in LA that much longer.
JLN: Well, I’ll finish my degree in two years. Mostly for the reason I was mentioning before—the kind of emotional relationship with the city, tied to what I was saying about Berlin and its kind of heavy romance. I know I’m not the only person who thinks this way because I talk to people about this all the time, but LA is an unromantic city. You don’t really see life happening here the way you do in other places. You’re pretty isolated: you can’t just walk down the street and see people living their lives in front of you, and also nobody really sees the way you live your life. You’re either inside, or in a car, or at where you’re going. It’s like a three-point process in LA, and very little happens in-between. The most exciting thing that can happen to you in a car is getting in an accident.
Where do you think you’ll go?
JLN: I’ve been thinking about moving to New York—just thinking about it, though. I’m not really sure. I’ve been talking about New York a lot with my friends. We’re all, for some reason, feeling a pull towards the city. It’s also a city where it’s kind of difficult to stay afloat financially, whereas LA isn’t. It’s really easy to live here. I live in a lovely house, with a lovely view of LA, with two people I really love. I don’t have to work that hard to be able to afford it. New York is the opposite experience. It’s working really hard to live in your little box.
There’s certainly a romance to that, too.
JLN: Of course. That’s what I’m worried I might be pulled back into. I know that I am. I know I’m going to be pulled back into some romantic city experience. LA is just kind of a break to collect myself before I throw myself back under the wheels of some city that will inevitably crush me again.
Interview by Sean Redmond.
Photography by Renate Winter.