Meet Jules Wood, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley. As if Jules’s poetic undertakings as Editor-in-Chief of the illustrious Berkeley Poetry Review weren’t enough, she also uses her editorial position to promote the voices of marginalized groups. In this week’s Staff Spotlight, I talk to Jules about editing, writing, and the social implications of poetry.
Amanda Silberling, Blog Editor: This year, you’re the Editor-in-Chief of the Berkeley Poetry Review. What is your past with BPR? How were you selected for the job?
Jules Wood, Adroit Poetry Reader: Actually, I was Editor-in-Chief for issue 44 as well! Co-editor, that is. Noor Al-Samarrai and I were both chosen to be managing editors for the 43rd issue and worked so well together that we decided to take on the role of editor-in-chief when the previous editor moved on. Noor graduated in the spring (and is doing some fantastic work with maps and urban spaces), so 45 is left to me alone—but I’m really grateful that I had her support through the publication of our first issue.
AS: What makes Berkeley Poetry Review different from other literary publications?
JW: BPR is one of the oldest and most well-known fully undergraduate-run journals (we were founded in 1974). Most university journals are presided over by a faculty member or graduate students, but BPR’s content is solely chosen by our undergraduate staff. We have the fantastic poet C.S. Giscombe as an advisor, and he’s an invaluable resource, as he currently edits the Mixed Blood Project and was the editor of Epoch Magazine for many years. But he doesn’t directly influence what is accepted into the journal. He doesn’t even read it until after it’s published, unless we want his advice on something specific. There’s a lot of trust placed in our hands as poets and scholars and leaders— and while especially as managing editor in my sophomore year that felt terrifying, now, in my final year, I feel like it’s made me a stronger poet and editor to only have my peers standing between my decisions and the opinions of the poetry community. So, I think BPR has a lot of guts. I think our freedom often makes us choose the poet who risks more, rather than the one we fully understand and recognize. I think it makes for a jagged—and through that roughness a more diverse, thought-generating, and exciting—journal.
AS: What do you think makes a poem stick out to you as an editor? Is that different from what sticks out to you as a reader?
JW: I’ve always liked the images people use to describe such intangible things like “what made me read that particular poem that closely”— like this, “stick out.” What makes a poem become thin and three-dimensional and leave a shadow on my laptop screen? So the way that our editorial process works, every poem is read by several readers, and the poems that receive a positive vote are read by the entire staff in our weekly meeting—but I skim everything before I send a rejection. So for me, reading the thousands of poems that didn’t quite get a positive vote from their assigned readers, I think form is often what catches my attention. I’m sure to read a poem that deviates from straightforward delineation a little more closely. Of course, if the form ends up seeming arbitrary, I’ll pass it on, but some of the strongest poems we’ve published have engaged with their forms in a multivalent, productive way. Another thing I look out for is “strange” syntax — if my brain, usually so numb to easily-processed syntax, trips, then I know to look more closely at how the poet is using language. Again, a great way to find an interesting piece while moving quickly.
AS: Do you ever find that your editorial work affects your writing style?
JW: Yes, absolutely. When I’m reading a book of poems out in the world, I’ll usually be rather generous with it — if I don’t care for a decision the poet made, I make note of it and move on. I approach books with the goal of learning as much from them as possible, since I’m taking the time to read them. I don’t mean to say that I don’t look to learn from our submissions — I absolutely do, daily — but I am forced to be more critical. I can’t accept a poem that has a lot of moments that I admire but that doesn’t ultimately add up to a finished piece, or a poem that has a fantastic concept behind it outlined in the cover letter but which doesn’t stand on its own. So I find myself more and more occupying an editorial role with my own poetry. Is that stanza a productive interruption, or an indulgent language-spree? Does this poem benefit from being a sonnet, or should it remain 13 lines? Are adjectives really necessary? As opposed to exploring, in the kind of retroactive way I hear a lot of other poets describe, why they wrote the poem the way I did. I sometimes miss the generosity I used to have with myself, but I like the poems I’m writing now, and that matters to me more than the ease of process.
AS: Are you planning to make any changes to BPR as Editor-in-Chief this year?
JW: I feel like BPR has made many excellent changes recently. For one thing, we updated our “mission statement” to include not just a call for great poetry — but great poetry that engages actively with prevailing conceptions of race, gender, ecology, and poetic form itself, what the staff of BPR views as forming the core of the most important (and artistically generative) conversations of our time. BPR has always been political, and this new statement is what we need to publish what matters. What this means is we want poetry from people of color, we want poetry from women, we want poetry from queer and non-binary individuals. The Berkeley campus is a large, diverse space, with room for many, sometimes disparate voices, and it’s important to us to recreate that space that we often love, often feel safe in, but that more importantly makes us think and speak deeply. We try to spread this message by finding minority-specific spaces for calls for submissions, clearly stating our mission on our website and social media profiles, and most importantly by actively publishing and promoting the voices we seek.
AS: Why do you think it’s important to showcase underrepresented groups of writers?
JW: There seems to be a huge disconnect between how disenfranchised groups are being represented in media and what is happening on the ground in oppressed communities in the United States. As a friend of mine pointed out earlier, it is appalling and ridiculous to see pictures of Taylor Swift dancing in front of a line of twerking black women on the same Tumblr feed as you see pictures of women of color in Ferguson, MO, protesting the murder of a community member in the face of police brutality. As women like Janet Mock speak out so clearly and eloquently about their experiences, trans women, especially of color, are facing stigma and staggering levels of violence. Poetry is often, and maybe inevitably, political as it adopts the most charged language and the most clear rhetoric of the time in which it is written, and the people experiencing these conflicts, whether directly or through shared understanding of oppression, have access to the language that poetry needs.
AS: In terms of your own writing, what have you been working on lately? What do you have planned for the future?
JW: Oh goodness, this feels a little embarrassing to talk about after all that. As a white, queer, femme, cis female, I’m finding it more and more important to use my creative work to unpack my various and somewhat conflicting identities, see where they intersect, see where they want to speak to one another. I’ve approached this project in many ways — I’ve written from a personal place about my experiences in high school in Mississippi, but using a dizzying form; I’ve cut up books by famously racist poets until their language represents their politics; I’ve collaged words from old science textbooks until they’re decidedly queer; I’ve mentioned makeup in almost every poem I’ve written. Again responding to the question about whether my editorial work affects my writing, this is obviously another place where it does: in searching for work to include in BPR, I discovered what poetry I felt was most necessary, and I’ve started to try to contribute to that body.
Jules Wood is a senior studying literature of the African diaspora at UC Berkeley, and is current editor-in-chief of the Berkeley Poetry Review. In 2010, she won a silver award for poetry in the YoungArts program, where she returns every January to mentor young writers as a Resident Advisor. Her poetry has appeared in Word Riot, The Cossack Review, and The Adroit Journal.