Behind the Words: Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

Posted by on Nov 7, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Julie DasbachWhen Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach’s poem, “The End of Daylight Savings,” was submitted for the second issue of Spry, we knew we had something remarkable on our hands. This haunting piece, the fingers of which adeptly grabbed at those near-nostalgic threads of the heart, remained in the minds of our readers for days upon days. There was no denying our need to share it with the world.

It is our honor to share with you that Julia’s manuscript, The Bear Who Ate the Stars, is the winner of the 2014 Split Lip Uppercut Chapbook Awards. We asked her to share her insights on the art of poetry and her life as a poet. Her thoughtful, evocative answers are sure to empower, inspire, and enlighten, and we’re so grateful for her time and energy.

Linsey: What is it about poetry, specifically, that speaks to (and through) you? Has poetry always been your genre of choice?

Asking what it is about poetry that speaks to and through me is like asking me to identify what it is about air that makes me breathe. Though creating and reading poetry feels just that natural and manifest, it’s not always easy.

To address some more concrete reasons I think I’m drawn to poetry, I’d have to confess my love for the narrative and lyric precision that poetry demands. The compressed nature of the form puts pressure on every word to be absolutely essential. It must not only carry the poem semantically, but more importantly, musically. I guess my penchant for poetry really does boil down to its music.

I grew up surrounded by its melody. For bedtime stories, my parents would read me Pushkin’s epic rhymed and metered fairy-tales or my dad might strum a few bard ballads on the guitar—songs whose lyrics were most often derived from poems. I guess you could say I got hooked on music from an early age and have continued to need a good daily dose of the lyric in my ears or on my tongue or on the tips of my fingers.

In terms of poetry being my genre of choice, Charles Wright has said that he was not the one to call himself a poet, but rather that “poet” was a title given to him by others. Similarly, I’m not sure I can be the one to name what speaks through me. I know that it is musical and most often driven by a strong sense story. Usually, it comes out in a shape we’ve called a poem, but I rarely set out with the intent to specifically write “a poem.”

I approach artistic creation from the impulse to write, and then enjoy the journey towards what emerges—be it poetry, prose, or the many hybrid forms in between. In fact, lately, with the troublesome political situation in Ukraine, I have found myself writing a number of pieces in what might be called a lyric essay form.

Ultimately though, why poetry? Because I’m fascinated and enamored by words, by the limitless possibilities of what they can do on or off the page.

I’d love to talk first about your piece “The End of Daylight Savings,” which we published in our second issue. This is a crisp, sensory piece; in reading it one gets the sense of the weight that each word carries. It’s a truly artful and moving poem. Can you talk to us about your creative process with this piece? How did this poem come to you, and how were you able to take its threads and weave it into the final product?

Thank you for such kind words about my work. It was an honor to have it appear in Spry’s second issue.

That particular poem was written during the third-year of my MFA, for Garrett Hongo’s graduate seminar on poetic genres, during the week on Greater Romantic Lyric. First, we read some more traditional examples by Wordsworth, Coolidge, and Whitman, and analyzed their movements. Quickly summarized, the trajectory of a GRL moves from the exterior landscape, to an interior recollection or memory-scape, and then back out to the natural world. Inspired by examples of contemporary poets like C.K Williams, “The End of Daylight Savings” plays with the out-in-out expectations of the genre, but interrogates the emotional and psychological landscape of the self in a post-romantic mode, through skepticism and questioning.

In Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth famously wrote, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” And while personal experience or emotion is not always the impetus behind my writing, this poem was based on a recollection—“in tranquility”—of being left alone in my house while my husband drove off into the wilderness to get a sense of clarity.

As with all my poems, the speaker is not me, but a lyric “I,” and the addressed is not my husband in “real life,” but an imagined version of him. With this poem, I wanted to capture the dissonance between the exactitude of the words exchanged and the ambiguity of the addressee’s physical as well as psychological state, as rendered through the unreliability of the speaker’s own.

This poem was a play of imagination and recreation. In writing it, I let my mind vacillates from the grounded, more certain spaces of house and memory, to an illusory wilderness where, as the writer, I too felt free to invent scenes of nature and body, to detach from speaker and addressee, and exist in the lyric wildness of “the lost hour.”

How do you approach the design and form of a poem? Does this come about organically through drafting, or is it something that you know when you start?

I rarely know how a poem will sit on the page at the start of composition. Initially, I just focus on getting my words down. When I get too caught up with the lineation or spacing, I tend to lose the impulse that made me start writing in the first place.

Sometimes, I do choose to work in traditional forms (villanelles, sonnets, syllabics, etc.) or under specific formal constraints (rhyme, meter, stanza, etc.). I find these can be very generative for curing writers’ block and also for pushing writing outside of its comfort zone. However, even if form guides the first draft, that doesn’t mean the final version will necessarily stay that way. And likewise, something that begins as prose might end up a strictly formal poem.

I’m a big believer in listening to the poem and letting it guide its final outcome. During revision, I try to discover the unconscious intentions and thought processes that were at work during the act of creation, and then bring those to the surface, in part through the way the poem appears on the page.

With poetry, the ability to encapsulate an idea in very few, strong words is often critical—this is something your work evidences extraordinarily well. Do you find that much of your writing tends toward the brief? How do you know when you’ve finally found the perfect formula?

If only the perfect formula existed. And if it does, I haven’t figured it out. But I think that’s just what makes writing an adventure of discovery—there isn’t a single formula or right approach. Like light transforming as it refracts through the various sides or angles of a prism, so too, I think, happens with language as a poem or piece of writing is composed. Not only are the results strikingly varied, but also in some sense, spatially and temporally endless.

It’s always a challenge to know when you’ve really “finished” a poem. Sometimes, I know when I’ve hit upon a work’s last line or final movement, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is complete. In fact, as soon as I start submitting a poem to journals, I begin to rethink the work and tinker with it again. But perhaps that’s as it should be—a poem is never static but always filled with the possibility to metamorphose.

In response to brevity, I have to admit that I do enjoy writing and reading poems that fit on a single page, or in contemporary presentation, a single screenshot. Perhaps it’s the ghostly lingering of a past poetry mentor of mine saying that you have to work really hard to earn that next page, and there are a lot of poems that simply don’t earn it.

On the other hand, I am up for a challenge and so, also love poetic sequences. They are a way to engage in an extended meditation or narrative that goes beyond a single page and simultaneously meet the pressures demanded of a shorter poem. I am always fascinated by the movement and tension enabled by the white space between individual sections—the dissonances and harmonies that it allows to develop.

In The Modern Poetic Sequence: The Genius of Modern Poetry (the only book-length investigation of its kind), Rosenthal and Gall describe the sequence as “a complex music of feeling [which] involves a number of radiant centers, progressively liberated from a narrative or thematic framework.” To me, the best sequences are composed of such “radiant centers” that not only create a sustained lyric movement, but that can also stand on their own as poems, independent of the sequence from which they were forged.

You first moved to the US from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine in 1993. Would you consider yourself bilingual or multilingual? If so, how does your grasp of multiple languages enhance your writing?

In a 2004 interview in The Adirondack Review, Ilya Kaminsky, a poet whose writing I greatly admire, responded to a similar question saying, “I fiercely resist being pigeonholed as a ‘Russian poet’ or ‘immigrant poet’ or even ‘American poet.’ I am a human being. It is a marvelous thing to be.” Likewise, while I am multilingual (I speak Russian & Spanish), I’m not sure I’d consider myself a multilingual poet (yet), as few of my poems use Cyrillic text or its transliteration—this is changing as I write more poetry and prose that addresses the current political situation in Russia and Ukraine.

I do recognize and embrace the heavy influence of the Russian language on my writing. In fact, a number of my poems interrogate the struggle of connecting to a Russian-speaking homeland and literary tradition, while writing far outside of it. In “Songs of Home,” a sequence of mine forthcoming from the Southern Humanities Review, I imagine myself conversing with the Russian poets whose words I’ve grown up with and whose cadences continue to infuse my writing. I weave English translations of their poems (noted in italics) in with my own words, seeking to understand how we remain linked by the Russian language even while writing in English. To bring up a different example, in the persona poem, “On the Pripyat, 2006,” published by Tupelo Quarterly, I dismantle the word “Chernobyl” into its Russian sonic components and explore their semantic implications within the Russian language and context as well as the English language space of the poem.

So actually, in answering this question, I think I’m arriving at the conclusion that in fact, I am more of a multilingual poet than I initially thought. My impulse is always to be cautious of letting one particular aspect of identity define a writer. But language lies so deep within our bones that we remain naively unaware of it—of the very marrow that gives rise to the lifeblood sustaining us.

Your first chapbook, The Bear Who Ate the Stars, was selected as the winner of Split Lip’s Uppercut Chapbook Award. Congratulations! We’re so eager to read your work. How did this chapbook come together, and what can you tell us about it?

This chapbook is an embrace of my obsession with the body—its impermanence and permeability. The poems engage personal history, myth, and etymology as ways of understanding or coping with the fragility of flesh and the tenuousness of human relationships.

But instead of rambling on with descriptions of my own writing, I’d be much more eager for my readers to make what they will of the collection. Once published, I believe that words don’t belong to the writer anymore—they belong to the reader.

The most exciting part of getting the chapbook out is hopefully having the opportunity and privilege to discover how others see the world of my poems. I’d love to hear your thoughts via any medium—email through my website, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon review, etc. I hope for my poems to be more than a two-dimensional address, but rather the start of a dialogue that transcends the printed page or glowing screen.

Now that you’ve published your first chapbook, what do you think is next?  Are there any projects you’re currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?

My first next step is to just keep writing.

Over the summer, I helped organize an online Poem-A-Day challenge for a virtual writing group. We would respond to daily prompts and one another’s writing via a secure website to which only the challenge participants had access. Never in my life had I written this many poems in such a short time span—not even during my MFA.

This challenge was one most rewarding and generative experiences—in large part due to the amazing pool of writers who joined me. And although not all 30 pieces I produced are drafts I will return to, the discipline of daily writing resulted in wonderful surprises, and a hefty handful of works I’m proud to call poems.

While we tried to keep the writing going on a weekly basis after the challenge, in my case, school and life got in the way, as they like to do. So, my project for the winter holidays will be to organize another month-long challenge and see what comes of it.

On the publication side of things, I hope that the next step is a full-length collection. I have two currently in need of homes, and I’ve been sending them out to various book prizes and publishing houses. Submission season is just heating up so here’s hoping for good news in 2015.

When you published “The End of Daylight Savings” with us in issue 2, you were pursuing your MFA and serving as Poetry Editor of Construction Magazine. Are you still actively studying and editing? How does being an editor and student impact you poetically?

I am still studying, but I am now on the critical and theoretical side of things in a Comparative Literature Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania. While coursework doesn’t leave much time for extracurricular creative composition, being in an intellectually stimulating environment keeps me inspired. Even if I can’t always make time to write, I feel the urge to, and so when I do sit down in front of the screen or page, I make the most of my time and just let those pent up creative juices flow.

As for Construction Magazine, I continue to manage the poetry, but have also taken over as Co-Editor-in-Chief. We are currently undergoing an entire redesign and will be transitioning from ongoing publication to an issue-based model. I think being a practicing writer impacts my editing far more than the other way around. Being on both the submission and reader side of things has given me a more sensitive and careful approach to rejection. It is easy to read only the first few lines before deciding that this writing isn’t worth your time. However, I’d hate for someone to put so little faith in my work before seeing where it can go, and so, I make sure to read every poem beginning to end, before making a final judgment.

Editing has also helped me to understand the subjective and often arbitrary nature of the submission process. As artists, we deal with so much rejection that in order not to go crazy, we have to remember and trust the token breakup line: “It’s not you. It’s me.” Which in our world translates to: It might not be your writing, it could just be the publication.

Getting work rejected or accepted depends on many factors that can have little to do with the quality of the piece itself—your work might not fit the publication’s aesthetic or that particular issue or the editor might just be having a bad day or your poem is about shellfish and the editor had a bad experience and your brilliant poem is a reminder of an incident he’s just not ready to face. All this is to say, serving as an editor has made me take rejections a bit less personally. But in the end, whatever the reason, just like a break-up, rejection always hurt.

Listen to Julia read “The End of Daylight Savings:”

We encourage you to hear Julia read her Burlington Book Festival’s Short Works Writing Contest winning poem, “Origin,” and to read her author interview with Split Lip Press.

The Bear Who Ate the Stars is now available for purchase, both on Split Lip Press’ own site, and on Amazon.

Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach came to the United States as a Jewish refugee in 1993, from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and grew up in the DC metro area suburb of Rockville. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon and is a Benjamin Franklin Fellow in the University of Pennsylvania’s Comparative Literature Ph.D. program. Her research focuses on the lyric rendering of trauma in contemporary American poetry composed by emigrants of the former Soviet Union.

For her poetry, Julia has been awarded Lilith Magazine’s 2013 Charlotte A. Newberger Poetry Prize, 2014 William Carlos Williams prize from the Academy of American Poets, and named a finalist in Consequence Magazine’s 2013 Poetry Prize. Most recently, she won Burlington Book Festival’s Short Works Writing Contest and was the runner-up of Southern Humanities Review’s Auburn Witness Poetry Prize.

Julia’s manuscript, The Bear Who Ate the Stars, won Split Lip Magazine’s Uppercut Chapbook Award and is now available from Split Lip Press. Like Honey and Milk, her first full-length book manuscript, was a finalist in Red Hen Press’s 2013 Benjamin Saltman Prize and Silverfish Press 2013 Gerald Cable Book Award, as well as a semifinalist in the 2014 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition and its First Book Prize.

Julia’s poetry has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Guernica, and Nashville Review, among others journals. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Construction Magazine. Find out more by visiting her website.


Linsey Jayne is a wave-headed poet with a penchant for jazz who received her MFA in creative writing at Fairfield University. Her writing has been published in such publications as The Standard-Times, The Dartmouth-Westport Chronicle, and exactly.what. She has served as the chief poetry editor for Mason’s Road, as well as the student editor for the Bryant Literary Review and the opinion section editor of The Archway. Linsey is currently at work on her first collection of poetry, entitled Idle Jive.

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