I met Julie Mannell at a birthday party when I was 20. She was a year or two older than me, and had just finished an impressive tenure at McGill that had included founding the McGill creative writing society and winning many prestigious academic awards. I had just begun my second attempt at an undergrad at Concordia, the school for people who are cool enough to live in Montreal but not smart enough to get in to McGill.
The birthday party was for a person who, at the time at least, was very Cool and Important. It was attended by academics, authors, and the people who tend to be drawn to that flavour of wordy human. I was very stoned. She was several gin and tonics deep. By all metrics, we should have been outshone by those around us—two girls at the threshold of our twenties, surrounded by Accomplished Adults. Julie was wearing a black headband and knee socks that made her look even younger than she was, but she spoke with a confidence, determination and good humour that betrayed her exceptional wisdom.
I decided then that she was much cooler than everyone else at that party. Over the years since, my admiration for her has only grown—an admiration that recently reached an all-time high while I read her CBC Poetry Prize-shortlisted poem, Phone Sex for a One-Time Lover on the West Coast, in my Montreal apartment this fall after getting my heart broken. I ugly cried for several hours. I would read some of the poem, cry violently, get my shit together, read more poem, ugly cry again, repeat—until something that has been stuck in me for a long time became unstuck, blossomed up out of my body, out my eyes, and ran down my face, and left me more whole than I’ve been in God knows how long.
In advance of her March 1st reading at Crobar, she answered some questions about reading and writing.
Me: What do you look for in a poetry reading?
Julie: I really hate being bored. The other day I asked this table of regular reading attendees who their favourite reader was and they couldn't remember a single reader. That was baffling to me. These people easily go to two or three readings a week and I bet they've been doing it for at least three decades. A strong reading keeps you captivated the whole time. An issue is that most writers aren't used to performing on a stage which has a separate set of demands than writing for the page. If you need to pick a piece to read then it should either be hilarious or devastating. Nothing in-between. Also, make sure there is clear rising action, the scene is relatively self-contained and there is not so much dialogue it is confusing. Don't be too theatrical but practice it a few times so you know when to pause and breathe. Authenticity is important. I think what is most important to me in a reading is that I can focus the entire time the person is on stage. Sometimes when I am at readings I totally disassociate from my body and it's not because I'm moved—it's because I'm so fucking bored and embarrassed for the reader that my soul has to physically leave my body.
One time I saw Mary Gaitskill read a really long short story and she did it perfectly. In my mind, that was the pinnacle of readings. It was so scary and horrifying and you could hear a pin drop. I was 21 and it changed my fucking life. Sometimes people think you have to read short to keep people's attention but I don't agree. Gaitskill, granted, had earned her time on stage and she made good use of it. If you are just starting and they give you seven minutes on stage then read for five and leave them wanting more. There is nothing worse than a person who goes on and on forever. You have to earn that space.
One last point because I have to go to these things a lot and they are mostly bad. It's really important the organizers pick a venue that's comfortable for the audience: seating, baristas who respect the reading, proper sound equipment and access to bathrooms throughout the reading. Organizers also should be mindful of how many readers they have and when they institute breaks. You can only place so much responsibility on the reader.
Me: What kind of writing do you actively seek out?
Julie: That's a really good question. I think there are certain few people who I trust and will actively seek out what they recommend. The last recommendation was Ottessa Moshfegh and then I binge-read her. Also, many many many people told me Tess Liem's Obits was phenomenal so I bought it and was very slow with it. I loved it so so much that I keep buying it for others.
Me: What is a piece of writing you weren’t actively seeking, but you found anyway, and you’re glad you did?
Julie: I found this in the pocket on the back of a seat on a Coach Canada bus to Welland, Ontario. It is easily one of the best things I've read all year. I think Mary B. Morrison is a badass and a hero. She just doesn't give a fuck.
(I also found prescription receipts inside and keep trying to return this book to its owner but the phone number doesn't work so I'm not sure what to do except to go to the pharmacy in St. Catharines)
Me: What is does your ideal artistic community look like?
Julie: I do what I want and everyone likes it. I like what they do too.
Me: Can you tell me a bit of info that isn’t on the CBC website that was a part of your process writing “Phone Sex for a One-Time Lover on the West Coast”?
Julie: A lot went into that poem. I'm not sure which info you had in mind. I guess one thing I can say is that the poem is the product of several failed poems. I took the strongest parts of the failed poems and put them together like a collage and I felt the end product accurately represented a specific tone or mood present in Toronto for much of 2015-2018. Keep your shit poems is the lesson here, I guess?
Me: Why do you write? Who do you write for?
Julie: I don't know why I write. I read somewhere that people who are incarcerated write the most because writing is how people assert their humanity. When I was five, my teacher discovered me walking around trying to write a story but I didn't really "get" the alphabet yet. I started writing poetry after my father died when I was twelve. There was no poetry in my house. Make of that what you want I guess.
I picture various people when I am writing. They are specific though. For example, I picture the kids from my childhood in Fonthill and also picture this guy, Ryan, from McGill—I imagine them reading my writing and what their face looks like. I don't really even talk to Ryan anymore but he's this rich hardcore academic dude from New York. I guess I figure my mission is to create something that appeals to Ryan and the kids I grew up with. I try my best to not imagine my mom reading my writing but I do sometimes. She hates it when I write. We don't talk.
Me: Are you excited to be back in Montreal?
Julie: Ambivalent. It was my home for a longtime. It still feels the most like home. I have a lot of friends but left on bad terms with some people. I tend to focus on the negative. Sometimes I avoid entire cities due to a single person. It is like they are haunted. Montreal is extremely haunted for me.
Julie will be headlining Lit at Crobar (1221 rue Crescent) on March 1st. Montreal is haunted, for sure—but surely it's by friendly ghosts? Let's find out.
Find out more about Julie at her website.
You can read her 2018 CBC Poetry Prize shortlisted poem here.