Spotlight: Julia Griffin

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A Light Heavyweight Tells All

by Melissa Balmain

“I basically don’t do anything but cook, write, make ice cream, panic about schoolwork, and walk my dog,” Julia Griffin told me in July, via Zoom. “Oh, and read.”

As any fan of hers would, I instantly expanded that modest list in my head:

Oh, and appear supernaturally often in Light.

Oh, and help readers smile even when the world is historically unfunny.

Oh, and make other poets—especially those who contribute to Light’s Poems of the Week feature—wonder how the hell she does it week after week after week.

Since her Light debut in September 2017, Julia has published more than 185 poems in Poems of the Week and our biannual issues. That three-year tally isn’t just a record for Light contributors but, I wager, a record for any poet in any journal.

Like most champions in most fields, Julia started training early.

She grew up in England, the daughter of classicists who taught at Oxford. Her father loved reading to Julia and her two sisters—favorites included works by Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, Edward Lear, and A.A. Milne—and delighted them by making up comic songs and poems, or adding verses to ones they knew. “So I think it was always, always my father” who sparked her interest in writing, Julia said. “I always wanted to be a poet.”

At age 9, she wrote a rhymed verse about witches going to a party: “I was very pleased with it and the teacher read it aloud. I remember in the course of it, an old woman materialized who had enormous toes, which she had to do because of the rhyme.” Later, “I got into a stage of writing sarcastic rhyming couplets about things that were happening to me in school,” such as an “absolutely terrible” production of Hamlet.

Though she would write her requisite share of angsty teenage sonnets, Julia never lost her taste for funny verse. High on her list: the rollicking, brilliantly rhymed lines of Gilbert and Sullivan (who surely would have admired the rollicking, brilliantly rhymed lines that Julia would go on to produce). “I could still probably sing you most of their big songs,” she said. “If you want to write formal comic verse, the 19th century is just so good for it.”

The late 20th century was less good for it, in Julia’s case: “I think I was trying very hard at being a serious academic.” After earning degrees in classics (Cambridge) and English literature (Oxford), Julia taught at a women’s college in Tokyo, then joined the faculty of Georgia Southern University, where she has spent 20 years and written frequently on Shakespeare’s classical influences.

Still, since the early 2000s, she has more than made up for lost verse. First came “sarcastic poems about my professional life.” Next: a flirtation with creative prose, followed by a 35-page verse novella that she wrote in 14-line stanzas à la Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. By 2006, “I started writing so much that I started saving the poems by date,” Julia said. Then, in 2014, her mother became seriously ill. Poetry “was the only thing that was an escape. … I started writing and writing and writing.”

At one point, while her mother was in a coma, she found herself sitting beside her while drafting a humorous poem about Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “I thought, ‘Am I going mad?’ But it was a refuge, it really was. … You know how lovely it is to be in middle of writing a poem. The whole question of ‘Who am I and what am I doing?’ is answered: ‘I’m writing this poem.’ It’s just so lovely. So definite.”

And so, despite loss after loss—her mother died in 2018; a beloved dog and her father followed in 2019—Julia kept cranking out poems at a mind-bending rate. Her tally so far: “probably a couple of thousand.” In addition to publishing in Light, she has brightened the pages of Better Than Starbucks, Lighten Up Online, and Mezzo Cammin; some of her light-verse collaborations with her late father have won UK prizes. Except during the two months right after her mother’s death, Julia’s work has almost always been comic and—to the joy of Poems of the Week readers—topical.

“I’m obsessed with the news like anybody else,” Julia said. The Guardian, with its wealth of offbeat stories from around the globe, is “kind of up on my computer all the time and I’m sort of scanning it.” Among the things she scans for: scientific news. Animal news. Unintentionally absurd phrases, “especially if they’re endearing.” (For rib-tickling examples of all the above, see here, here, and here.)

But perhaps more than any other Light contributor, Julia also gravitates toward “stories that are really, really beautiful.” In other hands, such stories might yield verse that’s pat or treacly. In Julia’s, the results are subtly funny, deeply clever, and even touching.

Take “Opera Verdura,” in which she muses on an unexpected response to the pandemic. Like many of Julia’s poems, it’s informed by her scholarship—one worn so lightly that readers who don’t catch her reference to Orpheus’s plant-charming ways (lines 5-7) can still be drawn in by her vivid images and inventive-yet-unforced rhymes:

“Barcelona Opera Reopens With An Audience Of Plants”
—NPR

And as the four musicians played,
The audience discreetly swayed,
While green ancestral traces stirred,
Deep in their sap, of something heard
Long since, by any count, in Thrace,
Where one of this same restless race
Had called upon their sympathies;
And so, although there was no breeze
In this strange greenhouse, they breathed in
The cello and the violin
Like watered air, and every stem
Sang with the sunlight played to them.

Or consider “Singletwins,” inspired by a medical anomaly:

“‘One in a 50m chance’: woman with two wombs carrying a twin in each”
—The Guardian

One in a fifty million chance:
A mother with two wombs,
One double crib;
Within,
Twin, twin,
Both sole and sib,
Fed in adjoining rooms
Until their final severance,

Which also means deliverance.
Two lately-hidden blooms,
Each its own soul,
Bones, skin,
But kin,
One half, one whole,
Or as the world assumes
One in a fifty million chance.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the above, Julia’s thesis at Oxford was not on concrete-poem master George Herbert, but on his older brother Edward. Less surprisingly, “Singletwins” is—like most of Julia’s work—the product of obsessive revising.

Julia writes by day, she said. She writes by evening. Sometimes she wakes in the middle of the night to write more: “It’s always kind of a temptation. I like the small hours—it feels like a friendly time.” But no hour is unfriendly. “I’m just sort of naturally thinking about [poems] all the time, really, and phrases come into my head and sort of ideas for things. Sometimes when I’m walking the dog and so on, I try to write down phrases that come to me, though often they escape.”

For a long time, it seemed nothing could keep those phrases from coming. Then, this past August, Julia suffered another huge blow—the sudden death of her partner, Larry Weiss, a lawyer whose love of Shakespeare equaled her own. She stopped writing.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever want to write again,” Julia told me by phone. “It seems so pointless when there’s no one to be proud of you. The point always was to show my mother, to show Larry. I can’t seem to get up the energy for it.”

Still, she hoped the urge to write would return. “The thought of a future without it is very dark,” she said. Dark for her fans, too. The idea of Julia not writing wasn’t just painful to me, but impossible—like imagining her without a basset hound in her life, or without a ready smile and Oxbridge lilt. Or without a head.

Four weeks went by without any poems from Julia. Five. Then, in mid-September, not long after our phone call, I read a particularly good Light submission about whales and felt myself smiling. The punchy rhyming! The kickass wordplay! Could it be…?

It was. The next week another poem landed in my queue with that telltale zing. And another—plus revisions.

You can’t keep a true champ down.

Melissa Balmain is the Editor of Light.