Emily goddamn Dickinson: A Conversation with Julia Mounsey
Julia Mounsey is a writer and performance artist. Her work has been seen at The Silent Barn, Cloud City, Muchmore’s, Fresh Ground Pepper, La MaMa ETC, Little Theatre at Dixon Place, Ant Fest at Ars Nova, and the Cocoon Theatre in Poughkeepsie. She has worked with Soho Rep, New York City Players, Young Jean Lee, and is a member of the performance group GRANDMA. Her poetry has been published in Bennington College's The Silo and in Washington Square Review. She is currently writing an evening-length show to premiere at JACK in Fall of 2016.
I met Julia at Bennington College. I've loved her work for a long time now, and was thrilled to see her published in the most recent issue of ONSQU. You can check out her poems here. She is a poet, playwright and all-around talent. She often has very good hair cuts.
— Laura Creste
LC: Julia when I first met you, you were a playwright and I didn't even know you wrote poems. And then I loved your poems in The Silo; I still remember some of your lines like "I put on my angry skirt." What is the relationship between poetry and plays for you? Can you talk about performance?
JM: Oh, man. To clarify: when we met, we were nineteen, in Vermont, and probably drunk. Also, I've been wanting to tell you: I'm re-reading Dottie Lasky and whenever she mentions her friend Laura it always feels like me writing about you. Laura, Laura I am sad for you / But more than you I am sad for me!
The relationship between my writing practice and my performance practice is something I struggle with. I hate reading my poems aloud - it makes me feel really stupid and dead. I don't know why. Having someone else read my poems usually makes me cringe too. I think I just love silence, and I love objects. I see my poems more like objects. I just want to give them to you and peace out.
Strangely, I am performing my own monologues now. It's been interesting, and not unsuccessful. It's the first artistic project in which I feel I've done exactly what I set out to do, which is an insane feeling. I thought that this new knowledge would carry over to my poetry efforts, but it hasn't really. I still feel like my poems turn to dust as soon as they come out of my mouth.
I'm hoping one day I'll walk up to the mic and Poetry Julia will take over my body and show me the way.
LC: Interesting. The experience of hearing your work does not feel dusty or dead, just so you know. What about writing and performing a monologue feels different from a poem? Is it about tone or persona or something else? And what about acting (in plays that aren't your own)?
[side note: I'm thrilled that Dottie Lasky's Laura makes you think of me! I think Dottie is a genius. Also, the first time we had a real conversation it was the last night of fall term and we were drinking Bota boxes of wine (a secret Santa gift) in Sam Mayer's room.]
JM: Your memory is incredible. I also think Dottie is a genius — I always give Awe or Black Life as a gift to people who don't read new poetry. I keep re-reading Black Life this year for some reason . . . I can't seem to stay away from it.
Performing a monologue is so different. I'm hiding when I'm doing a monologue. I'm not me. When I'm reading my poetry, putting on a voice or a character always feels really disingenuous. It doesn't feel possible. So I always end up feeling super vulnerable when I'm reading my poetry. All I have on stage is "me," which actually makes me feel less like me. Poetry just kind of leaves me without a mask, and when I don't have a mask I don't really know what I am.
Acting in plays that are not my own is almost always a nightmare, because I'm not a skilled actor and I'm also a control freak. I'm one of those horrible people that can only perform if the circumstances are completely on my terms. I'm a good collaborator in other ways, but no one should ever cast me in their play - I'm a monster!
LC: As a lifelong New Yorker, what's the best thing you've witnessed in this city? And the worst?
JM: The worst thing was probably the man who stuck his tongue out at me when I was twelve. I had my leg up on a fire hydrant because I was tying my shoe, and he came up to me and made this motion like he was pretending to lick my crotch. I literally ran fifteen blocks home.
I guess that's a big city thing... everywhere you go you're surrounded by humans, so you inevitably end up witnessing all the ways humans treat each other. How they violate and abuse each other, but also how they love each other. I think all my worst moments in this city have been when I've seen someone be violated or abused, or when I've been violated or abused. And all the best moments have been moments of love.
I can't think of the best thing I've ever witnessed here... I think as someone who grew up here I'm also jaded, and I always think there's another city out there that is more perfect. Every time I visit a new city I'm convinced I'll move there. Last summer I wanted to move to Vancouver. Before that I thought I would move to Budapest. Although, the feeling when I come home to New York after being away is unparalleled. Just the warmest thing. It's my goddamn home I guess.
LC: UGH gross guys with gross tongues are a special kind of awful. My cousin had some guy lick her ear on the train, when she was 11 years old I think.
So, we both occasionally write about terrible men that we know. How do you deal with writing about friends, family, ex-lovers? What, if anything, do we owe the people we write about?
JM: Yup. Misogyny is certainly an inspiration for me, as I'm sure it is for many women and feminine people. Although usually the misogyny that ends up creeping into my work is my own. Sometimes I feel like all of my work is an examination of my own misogynistic thoughts and tendencies.
I like that question: what do we owe the people we write about? I guess we owe it to them not to humiliate or degrade them. Yeah. That's that's where I draw the line. It's one thing for a person to be made uncomfortable, but if you are purposefully trying to cause some kind of pain... that's not good. But discomfort is a tricky thing. I find myself writing a lot about female acquaintances of mine - women I have some kind of relationship with but don't know them well. I'm fascinated by those relationships of mine. I tend to mythologize people. I always wonder what those women would say if they knew I was devoting that much creative energy to them. They'd probably either be flattered or disgusted, or both.
LC: I saw this play last night Dear Elizabeth by Sarah Ruhl, which was about the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Bishop was a stickler for the truth, but at one point she tells Lowell he's wrong to include his ex wife's letters in his new book of poetry. She tells him the poems are wonderful, but it's a cruel thing to do, and "art isn't worth that much." We could probably all use a Bishop in our lives.
(Remember you gave me Ruhl's play The Clean House for my 23rd birthday?)
Anyway, I think your acquaintances should be flattered that you're writing about them. Especially because they're working as an inspiration for your art, a point of invention, rather than you coolly dissecting their characters.
In a roundabout way this is also making me think of How Should A Person Be? We recently did a micro interview with Sheila Heti and asked who are some of her favorite female geniuses.
Same question to you: who are the female geniuses you most admire?
JM: SHEILA! I love her. I had such an intense relationship with How Should A Person Be? - which I recall, you lent to me the first summer after college. I went nuts for it. I love books about friendship between women (can we talk about the Neapolitan novels please?) and I'm also obsessed with fame, which I think is one of the preoccupations of that book. I think the monologue I'm doing now is partly about fame. Or rather, the question of how much agency one has in designing one's personality — can I sculpt it into something other people will adore? Life as practice, I guess. I think that concept can be very callous when viewed a certain way, which is why I'm interested in it. Kind of capitalist, and frightening. Very much my thing.
Good you asked about female geniuses because I saw Erykah Badu DJ last night in an Italian restaurant in Williamsburg. It was kind of amazing, because Erykah is a terrible DJ. She didn't really know how to use the board. She actually had this posse of cute men around her who would occasionally adjust the levels for her, or help her with the laptop. She essentially just played us her favorite songs, and we all sang along and danced. It was so dumb and so great. She just has this incredible magnetism and this really infectious energy. And occasionally she would pick up the microphone and sing along and it's just like, total honey. She just has a thing that I find undeniable, and that tends to interest me more than talent or skill.
There's a passage in Patti Smith's Just Kids that Sam Mayer and I have talked about - when Patti goes to see The Doors, and she's watching Jim Morrison and has this moment of clarity in which she becomes acutely aware of how he is affecting his whole vibe, and how carefully constructed his image is, and she's like, "Oh, I can do that." I think about that a lot. I think genius can be absorbed and constructed, and used as a vehicle. And I think that in itself is also a talent. Yeah - maybe what makes some people geniuses is their ability to affect genius.
But, women. I love Dottie. I love Brenda Shaugnessy. I love Sylvia Plath. I think Bjork is a visionary — another musician with a thing, I saw her at Carnegie Hall and she seems 10 feet tall on stage. Kate Bush. Judith Butler. Maggie Nelson. Audre Lorde. Grace Lee Boggs. Emily goddamn Dickinson.
LC: I love your list. Can we throw Virginia Woolf in there too? And Zadie Smith. And Anne Carson.
JM: ANNE, duh. And Lucie Brock-Broido, who I'm into right now. And Pina Bausch, jeez! I can't believe I forgot Pina, she's my queen. I've written a couple poems for Pina but have never shown them to anyone because they're dumb — I love her work so much I can't even write about it!
LC: Thanks, Julia. This was great. Can we continue this in person?
Last question: what's a line of poetry or something else that you love?
JM: Here's Emily, writing about me:
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes -
I wonder if It weighs like Mine -
Or has an Easier size.