January 27–February 2, 2020
Julia Johanne Tolo is a poet and translator from Oslo, Norway. Her translation of Paal-Helge Haugen’s 1968 poetry-novel Anne was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2019. She is the author of the chapbooks holes of silver (Ghost City Press, 2018) and August, and the snow has just melted (Bottlecap Press, 2017). Her work has been published in the Brooklyn Rail, Fugue, SLICE and Copper Nickel. Tolo works for the MacDowell Colony and this spring she is finishing her MFA in creative writing at Queens College, CUNY.
birth language / war language
middle of the day. the roads were clear as we
drove to the hospital. nurse helped me right
away. drank two extra glasses of water to get a
better scan. read online about what to expect:
size of a fig/bones beginning to harden/fists
opening and closing/tiny tooth buds beginning to
appear under her gums. her.
miscarriage. 1580s, “mistake, error” 1610s,
“misbehavior” see miscarry + -age. meaning
“untimely delivery” 1660s
meaning untimely doctor visits meaning
untimely purchases of cribs Oshkosh overalls
and tiny socks meaning tiny useless things
within minutes thin paper on the gynecologist’s
chair underneath my butt. within minutes
contents of my belly on a screen. nothing left
but an unmoving lump.
schedule a D&C. doctor taking what belonged to
me. what was I making. I failed to complete.
lining of uterus gently scraped. tissue examined
for two weeks I’ve carried a nine-week-old fetus. for
two weeks no heartbeat no movement no growth.
doctor pointing to different things. this is my
hand on your belly. this is the cooling gel. I’ll
show you on the screen don’t worry. that big
shadow. not moving.
the expulsion of a fetus before it is viable,
especially between the third and seventh
months of pregnancy;
meaning: too soon
spontanabort: a spontaneous expulsion like a
spell an incantation/may be caused by coffee
strawberries high levels of mercury in fish high
levels of doubt highly ambiguous feelings
towards the life being made and a history of
inadequacy and bad behavior
still a few weeks later, I can poke my finger in
the flesh of the belly and the belly pushes back.
for a moment I think there’s someone in there,
playing with me. body has not yet learned
that it is empty.
“miscarriage of justice” 1875
a situation in which someone is punished […] for
a crime that they have not committed
how to use miscarried in a sentence
if a pregnant woman has a miscarriage, her
baby dies and she
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I started this poem in the fall of 2018. I was translating this Norwegian-Iranian poet Mazdak Shafieian’s short collection Animal Grave Darkness and I was playing around with the idea of writing a response to that collection in the form of a long poem. Shafieian’s collection is dystopian; there’s imagery of dead babies in glass jars, deserted landscapes and dark cellars. The few people in his poems are seemingly lost in an empty world. That’s what I was reacting to. At the same time, I was developing an obsession with words that have been and are used to write and speak about birth. So my writing at that time was exploring the possibilities and limitations of those words. I was thinking about what meaning hides in words like “parturition,” “spontanabort” or “expulsion.” In Norwegian, the word that means “to give birth” (“føde”) also means “food.” I was writing the long poem that mixed together this research and my family history and I was workshopping it in Kimiko Hahn’s class at Queens College, and both she and my classmates were connecting to certain parts but were really confused by other parts. So I left it alone for a while and then a few months later I used parts from the long poem to make this one and it seemed to me that the material worked much better in this shorter poem.
What are you working on right now?
My thesis! I graduate this spring. There’s a lot of poems that I don’t know how to fit together, and then there is this more essay / memoir type of text about women in my family I am working on. I’m doing my degree in poetry, but one of the things I love about Queens College is how free we are to go in all kinds of different directions with our work.
What’s a good day for you?
I like summer and fall days, and I like to be outside for at least a bit of the day, for a walk or just to lie in the sun. Hopefully there is coffee and friends and good food. If I am able to force myself to write, that would make it a really good day.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I moved to New York to study writing at the New School where I got my bachelor’s degree, and I moved to Bed-Stuy with some friends because it was the cheapest rent we could find that wasn’t impossible to get to from school. I lived there for a year and then I moved to Flatbush / Ditmas Park because that’s where my boyfriend lived.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I’ve been in Flatbush since 2014. There are a lot of big single-family homes and long streets with gardens and dogs and children, which was really surprising when I moved here, and not something I thought I would find in Brooklyn, back then. Pretty close to my apartment are some of my favorite restaurants, like Café Tibet, Lea, Mimi’s Hummus and Koko Ramen, all on Cortelyou Road. I like that I can walk to Prospect Park; I like to go for runs on the weekend. There are new businesses closing and opening on Cortelyou Road all the time, and on Flatbush three corner stores close to us have closed since I moved here. I see the prices for apartments in this neighborhood rising. It’s the most beautiful New York neighborhood I’ve lived in, and the only place where I’ve lived long enough to get to know my neighbors and people who work at businesses in the neighborhood. That’s really nice.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I went to a reading at Unnameable Books a few years ago. It was in the summer and we sat outside in their little backyard, and it felt so strangely intimate because of the small space, but at the same time I heard everything going on in the street close by and on either side of the yard. People were bringing snacks and beverages and I couldn’t tell if they worked there or if they just wanted to share. I think that intimacy and smallness in a place that at the same time feels public is typical of Brooklyn.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I think it means to be able to talk to other people who care about poetry. I don’t know that I have been able to find a poetry-specific community in the sense that it is mine to keep. But I am borrowing the community at my school and that is so nice, just to sit in a room and listen to people only discuss writing and reading poetry. What I have found is friends who love books and movies and music, and who have smart and interesting thoughts they want to share with me; that makes me very happy, and feels like community.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Two Poet of the Week alums, Morgan Parker and Natalie Diaz, are among my absolute favorite writers. I read their work over and over and find something new to love each time.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Geir Gulliksen, who is a Norwegian editor (actually Karl Ove Knausgaard’s editor), but who is more importantly a wonderful writer, was the first poet I became really obsessed with. I read everything he had written when I was seventeen, and it was very instructive to me, in tone and in Gulliksen’s way of looking at the world. I guess he was a passive mentor, or at least an unaware one. I think I met him once! I found someone’s wallet on the street in Oslo and the name on the cards was Geir Gulliksen. I got a hold of and met up with this Geir to give him the wallet, but I was too shy to ask if he was the poet Geir Gulliksen. I hope so.
Jennifer Firestone was my professor at the New School, and she is such an amazing teacher. Her class really helped me figure out my voice, and her own writing is really special. My favorite book of hers is Gates and Fields.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier. I admire everything Long Soldier does with form in that collection; poems move around the page in a square, are divided down the middle by a physical line, and range from sprawling erasures to blocks of text that read like essays. Her language is so precise and irresistible:
I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation—and in this dual citizenship I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.
I think about “I must friend” and “constantly I must live” a lot.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Emily Dickinson! I just got her collected poems from my parents. I have been told to read her many times and somehow I have managed to avoid it. I can’t wait to start. When I worked at a bookstore, we got her Envelope Poems from New Directions and I remember I was so attracted to that book, with the facsimiles where you can see the poems just as Dickinson wrote them.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
Physical books, one at a time. If there’s more than one I am reading at the same time, it’s most likely because I don’t like any of them or I am very distracted. I don’t take notes. I may sometimes underline if I’m reading for a purpose other than pleasure in order to remember what I liked best or thought I could use for something. I usually earmark my favorite pages and when reading poetry I almost always end up writing response poems on some of the pages of the book.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d really like to write a book-length poem. I guess I sort of already tried and failed as mentioned, but I’ll try again. I translated a long poem from the Norwegian, Anne by Paal-Helge Haugen, and although I loved that book before I translated it, after spending all that time with it I think I understood even better what a long narrative poem can achieve. I am so attracted to play between genres, and a long poem feels like a place where that just happens naturally. Also, the narrative really gets to stretch in a long poem, and there is so much room for making different meanings, even though you are (hopefully) being very specific with your language.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
At work after everyone has left or before they come in. On the subway. I like to read at cafés / bars / restaurants, but not write.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Prospect Park, because of all the big old trees and how it always smells like barbecue. Brooklyn Public Library, because of those gold decorations by the entrance. Greenlight Bookstore and McNally Jackson Williamsburg, because of all the books and the nice people reading and talking about them. Pioneer Works mostly because of that trail you can walk on the hill in the yard.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate what doesn’t exist, your body still at night
And what I can’t keep you from doing (twitching, tossing, staying awake) is invisible too, like love
For every dream in me as good as sleeps in you.
The food is great.