Julie Babcock's poetry book "Rules for Rearrangement" considers how to carry on after a sudden loss


Poet Julie Babcock and her book Rules of Engagement

University of Michigan lecturer Julie Babcock’s recent poetry collection, Rules for Rearrangement, offers a journey to discover what those rules are. The book charts a thorough and far-reaching path through memories and ways to persist when someone has disappeared from one’s life. 

The Ann Arbor poet writes, “Everyone is filled with a heavy combination / of blockage and sun.” The obstruction and brightness feel relatable. People have their burdens and their joys. 

How might someone go about rearranging both what weighs them down and what buoys them? A stanza in a section called “Arson” asks for the following: 

Introduce your new self and explain your need. For instance: I need rules for
           rearrangement. For instance: I need to box memories. I need to let my 
           objects know it’s not them.

For Babcock, it can be a matter of space and objects. That same poem goes on to discuss how “Empty space you uncover will be awkward and shy.” Yet, “Former free space you cover will be angry.” This negotiation illuminates the effort it takes to design spaces, things, and even life differently than what they were before. The poet both rails against and is curious about the things around them and what happens to them. 

At the end of the collection when “He returns from the dead so they can discuss Bob Dylan who won the Nobel / prize for literature,” it becomes clear that the rules may be malleable and dependent on how someone approaches them because "'My love,' he says, 'nothing is every one thing.'" Allowing for this multiplicity offers permission for whatever way a person moves forward in the wake of a traumatic event. 

I interviewed Babcock about her new book, writing, and novel in the works.  

Q: Your first collection, Autoplay, explores Ohio and the Midwest. Where have you lived in the Midwest and what draws you to the Ann Arbor area?
A: I was born and raised in Mr. Vernon, Ohio. I planned to leave the Midwest after high school and my plan totally failed. Life took me in an almost perfect circle through Cincinnati, Indiana, and Chicago until I arrived here in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor was supposed to be a temporary stop as well, but I’ve now lived here 15 years and love so many things about it. Stellar people, parks—the Matthaei Botanical Gardens is one of my top favorite Ann Arbor places—and food!

Q: When did you start writing poetry and why? 
A: I’ve always been immersed in poetry. I learned to read by sitting with Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends for large stretches of time. I still have most of the book memorized. I felt like he was talking directly to me and that his words wove magic spells. I wanted to do that.

Q: Congratulations on Rules for Rearrangement winning the 2019 Kithara Book Prize! Your book was then published by Glass Lyre Press. Tell us what it was like to win this prize. 
A: A poet’s life is filled with a lot of rejection, so winning a prize is great! The manuscript was a finalist for several other prizes, and after coming so close so many times, I wondered if it would ever land. And then it did! I was thrilled to get the news and to be connected to such a wonderful press and group of people.

Q: In the praise for Rules for Rearrangement at the start of the book, one of the quotes mentions that the book is “wrought in response to the sudden death of her husband.” Did writing poems provide a way to get through this experience?
A: Yes, after I got through the first year of shock and basic survival, poetry gave me a place to live when my day-to-day life was too overwhelming. Grief is exhausting and full of super-charged thought-and-feeling collisions that happen at an astounding velocity. Poetry gave me a place where I could pluck out just one of those collisions and observe it like a stage set, walk through it, move some pieces around, and build something new.

Q: The subject of the book, a woman, is discussed in third person by the speaker. In the section called “Guide,” the speaker observes, travels with, and addresses this woman while also letting her choose her own path. How did you develop this voice? 
A: The “Guide” section came later in the writing process, after I had about 30 poems, wanted to write more, and yet didn’t know where to go. One day I was sorting through a stack of old papers and found a small, hand-stapled booklet poet Marianne Boruch had given her MFA students to welcome them to the area. It was basically a list of parks and the experiences they offered. I had forgotten about the booklet, and as soon as I saw it, I felt like an old friend had suddenly appeared to take my hand and tell me where to go. “Guide” is a mix of places mentioned in that booklet with places I’ve been since that time. Some are erasures of Marianne’s park descriptions and some are prose poems inspired by that sense of place the booklet invoked.

Grief is such a lonely, epic journey, and I hope this section of the book offers people on that journey a sense that someone else is there to walk with them, wherever they wander.

Q: The forms in Rules for Rearrangement are diverse, from erasures to various arrangements of lines, as you just mentioned. You write in the “Acknowledgements” that “Aimee Nezhukumatathil gave me new forms, and Marianne Boruch’s words and teachings continue to guide me.” How did you go about engaging with form when writing this book? 
A: I was so obsessed with form as I wrote this book! I wanted to capture the strangeness of my feelings, to give them concrete shape. For instance, looking at a standard poetry form—the couplet—was such a dissonant experience for me. The assumption that lines could go together like that in such a harmonious way when I was experiencing so many gaps and losses. I spent a lot of time-wrenching couplet-like moves apart to express this. And I also felt the heavy reality that much of my experience couldn’t be changed or moved. I spent a lot of time putting words into literal boxes where I couldn’t control the line breaks to capture that feeling.

I made a lot of my own rules about form. And friends and readers helped me be okay with that so I could have the confidence to see those rules through.

Q: I was fascinated by how trees appear as figures and almost characters in the book, such as in the line “The trees hang whatever they catch.” In another poem, “Two broken trees lean against one another / as if they still hope to grow / as if they knew she needed them.” Do trees offer some structure to the poet’s efforts to rearrange, or do they serve a different role? 
A: Trees have always been a source of wonder and comfort for me. There was an enormous weeping willow in the front yard of my childhood house that kept an impossible shape. And there’s a gorgeous magnolia tree in the front yard of my house now that’s, once again, about to burst into pink bloom. Branches, trunks, roots—trees connect what we can’t see below with what we can’t touch above, and they withstand so much change. The connection to family trees, the kind that chart ancestry, fill me with awe as well. It’s helpful to be reminded that we go beyond ourselves—that we are connected to other people and other systems.

Q: Food also peppers the poems, including enchiladas and the observation that “We are too awake / and hungry.” Does food play a role in grounding these poems to daily life? 
A: I love the pun in your question! Yes, food is such a reminder of both daily need and desire. It was difficult for me to eat anything for quite a while after my husband died. I carried around little containers of plain Greek yogurt and a bag of almonds and had to time myself to take small bites throughout the day. It took a long time for me to want food again, and when it happened, that desire was incredibly welcome.

Q: What are you reading and recommending these days? 
A: In the spirit of reading across genre, I wholeheartedly recommend Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer along with his new one, The Committed; Danielle Evans’ short-story collection The Office of Historical Correctionsand Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem.

Q: Speaking of other genres, you are working on a novel. Where are you at in the writing process, and what’s next for you?
A: The novel’s been fully drafted and revised a few times over in the last several years, and I hope it will be ready for the world soon. It started as a short story I published in The Rumpus that centers on a guy from Ohio who gets caught up in a Gone with the Wind fantasy and decides he’s going to make this fantasy happen for him and his much-younger girlfriend without her consent. I’m currently working on splitting the novel into three different points of view, and I’m excited that the guy’s point of view is now accompanied by points of view from two strong women with very different histories.

For me, listening is such a necessary part of writing—there are voices inside us that need to be heard as well as voices from people around us and our culture at large. So what’s next for me is more listening. And also holding space for magic.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.