Poet Julie Bloemeke, an Ohio native, has been around Atlanta for almost two decades. Locally, she was the first-place-prize recipient in poetry competitions for both the Atlanta Writers Club and the Emory Poetry Council. And she was the inaugural poetry director for the 2016 Milton Literary Festival.
Sibling Rivalry Press has just published her debut book of poetry, Slide to Unlock. (Full disclosure: the press has also published books by ArtsATL contributor Megan Volpert].
ArtsATL sat down with Bloemeke to discuss her new book, her approach to poetry and how modern technology has affected our world and personal relationships.
ArtsATL: The book draws many parallels between the way we are socialized into marrying and the way our phones train us to communicate. On balance, do you think that smartphones have been more of a good thing or a bad thing for romance?
Julie Bloemeke: It is something that fascinates me, particularly in regard to how we navigate our boundaries of intimacy in our ever-evolving relationship to the digital. It may seem innocuous at first, receiving a friend request or a ping from someone we haven’t spoken with in years, but part of what I hope Slide to Unlock explores is the permission to give ourselves space — to pause and reflect on the choices we make in how, or if, we connect. Is the reconnection an opportunity for healing? A sense of peace and resolution we thought might not be granted in a lifetime? A seductive danger?
Maybe the most erotic, empowering choice we have is to say “no” to invitations to connect. Talking on the phone would bring up too much, even the act of hearing a long-unheard voice has too many ramifications. It’s a way of taking charge of healing and keeping boundaries.
Maybe it is a way, too, of bringing back the lost art of letter writing. It is also why every copy of Slide to Unlock contains a blue piece of stationary from Paris. The paper is a gift, an invitation to the reader to write a letter to someone here or long gone, to themselves, and secret it somewhere where it may or may not be found. It is another way of honoring connections in the pause.
ArtsATL: Slide to Unlock contains many injections of faith, from its exploration of virginity to repeated “oh God” moments, but what’s the relationship between religion and the telephone?
Bloemeke: What fascinates me endlessly is how worshipful we are about our phones, how we respond to them, involuntary, how they are an extension of us. Just observe the sheer panic when someone loses one. Or consider the language we use to describe them — something I visit, revisit and spelunk into with Slide to Unlock. They are our cellular phones — of the cell, of the body, of the very thing that comprises us.
The act of checking even becomes a kind of faith — waiting on messages, on signs, on connections, on answers. Notice the attention the phone garners, how integrated it is into our lives: we ache to upgrade it, we spoil it, we bling it, we charge it — arguably on its own altar. It is our camera, our notes, our grandfather’s saved voicemail from before his death, our access to answers. It is our music, our games, our timeline, our email, our social, our navigation as we walk and drive, our reality (Pokémon Go). It monitors us as we exercise, teaches us to meditate, delivers a daily poem or Bible verse; it clocks us in for work, keeps track of menstrual cycles, our calendars, introduces us to strangers, guides our sexual encounters. It is our addiction and our necessity, and our brains are, over time, increasingly altered by the chemistry and habit of it. That too suggests a religious ecstatic component.
ArtsATL: The plot and characters of this poetry collection are so clear that it’s practically a novel. In fact, it can easily be understood as memoir — or at least autofiction. How did using poetic forms work for you and against you in telling this story?
Bloemeke: If Slide to Unlock is to be “understood as memoir” it is with the caveat that the “I” in the poems is persona — fallible, often apocryphal, at times unreliable, meant to bring up the uncomfortable questions, poems that terrified me to write and publish.
Ultimately, the intention I held for Slide to Unlock as I was working was that it would be a collection that allowed readers to feel a sense of companioning and healing in their navigations of connection. I have been absolutely astounded by the highly personal stories others have shared with me about the impact that reconnecting in the digital world has had in their lives. To be clear, Slide to Unlock is not about me; it never has been. It is about what the poems wish to be. It is universal through the guise of memoir. If I don’t follow how the poems lead then I am not heeding my calling.
ArtsATL: You’ve been around the Atlanta poetry scene a long while, yet this book is your debut. How long has this manuscript evolved?
Bloemeke: The poems were mainly written in longhand, in 17 journals over a decade. I began submitting the manuscript in earnest in 2014, rearranging the entirety of it a few times over the next four years. I reordered sections, took out a swath of poems, tweaked poems already written, tightened and refined. In four years, I submitted the book well over 100 times. We don’t, as creatives, talk enough about the depth of persistence required to sustain that energy in the submitting process, to keep believing, even when it seems you are the only one that does. I am still incredibly moved and grateful by how many editors took time to write such encouraging, engaged and detailed responses to what worked and did not work for them in the manuscript.
And what Slide to Unlock continues to teach me — now in a whole new way that it is out in the world — is that we are never alone in the journey. And I hope anyone that reads it feels that too.
ArtsATL: The poems and acknowledgements page include many winks at Richard Linklater’s movie Before Sunset. At times, the plot of Slide to Unlock matches up with the film trilogy quite precisely. How did this film come to be a touchstone for you?
Bloemeke: The way Linklater’s movies broaden our sense of time and pause gave me permission to play with the idea of being left on hold or leaving one on hold. That there were nine years between Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and Before Sunset and Before Midnight was maddening and invigorating, because the viewer is placed in the position of wondering, almost obsessively, what is in the pause. In waiting for Before Midnight, how not to rewatch Before Sunset looking for deeper clues, more resonance, layers one might have missed before? How not to heighten our love and affinity for it? Each time the experience deepens and elevates, each time it becomes more sacred. I am so grateful for that awareness, and I look forward to the full circle of being able to read Slide to Unlock at Shakespeare and Co., perhaps in 2021.
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