Bruce Isaccson Interview

BI Julia and I were good friends for thirty plus years. I moved to Nevada in 1995, but we spoke on the phone several times a week, she was an editor and a partner in Zeitgeist Press. I’m 67 years old now, and I can say that Julia was the closest friend I had in my life. She came up and spoke to me one of the first times I ever read my poetry in public. We would see each other in the Café Med, and I visited her often even after I had moved to Nevada. She was a mentor to me as a writer and a publisher. That’s the scope of our friendship.

96 What was she like?

BI One of the things people tend not to realize is that Julia was very shy. I won’t say she didn’t like meeting new people, but she was shy. It was not in her wheelhouse to push out in front of everyone—except in the service of her literary and writing activities. By my calculations, Julia put over a hundred and fifty thousand copies of her books in circulation, hand to hand, in the Med or wherever, walking up to people and saying, “Hey, take a look at my new book.” When I first met her, those were saddle-stitched chapbooks. She always kept the price super low. When I first met her, I think she was charging a dollar a book—some of those sell for really high prices now.

But she was shy, and she’d look at people kind of sidelong, and say, “Would you like to page through it?” People would, and many bought them. The price was so low, people must have thought, “This is a new way of spare-changing.” Julia didn’t mind that, she thought this was for her some kind of a proletarian (this is my word) bona fides. She was part of the Telegraph Avenue street community, and she wanted to be. She was also a highly capable and trained writer, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her parents were both very high-level intellectuals. But she wanted to be on the streets, close to the lives of average people.

She was doing one book a year for the whole time I knew her, thirty plus years, and people got used to that and looked forward to them. I think we calculated she did upwards of seventy-five books in her lifetime. She always traded. If somebody said, “I don’t have any money, but I have this pendant”—she would always trade a book for something like that.

But she was very shy, something people tended not to realize about her.

96 Her performance persona, from the “Weird and Proud Button” to the soap bubbles to the eyeball rings—that was something she could hide behind.

BI I think so. I put a little distance between her and the outside world that appreciated her through her writing. But also it was a stance, and image. She wanted to project an image of herself as a very different kind of writer. She always wore the same—for lack of a better word I’ll call it a uniform—black flowing robes, sometimes a cape, the beret with the orange trim, her chicken-bone necklace, the rings with the eyeballs on her fingers which were a metaphor for her seeing the world as a poet and writer. She felt it was an advantage to be identifiable. But it was also a defense.

96 On a more mundane level, what kind of food did she like?

BI She loved to eat. She and I used to go out for Indian food. She liked spicy stuff. We used to have breakfast together, omelets at the Med. She loved coffee, that was always part of the ritual. She loved Mexican food, anything spicy and ethnic. She had kind of a cast iron stomach.

96 I get the impression that she was quite abstemious. There’s no reference to drugs or alcohol in any of the poems.

BI She didn’t want drugs or alcohol. It wasn’t a moral thing. Part of it was that she had severe epilepsy, and she took medicine that would have been incompatible with drugs or alcohol. Julia’s vice was writing. Also, she did not have lovers. She wasn’t naive. I don’t think she was a virgin. By the time I met her she was not involved in that way. She had decided she was a loner. She had a lot of friends who phoned her up and talked about their private lives with her. She was supportive, empathetic to a fault. That’s as close as she got.

96 Did she ever speak of her experiences at that girls’ high school in Pasadena?

BI In her Selected Poems there’s a picture of her then, in a high school production of The Madwoman of Chaillot. It was a complicated time. Her parents divorced as soon as she graduated high school. The family was breaking apart, it was a painful period. She was very close to her parents; there was a grandfather too, whom she revered. She would speak of being raised in a very conservative way in Pasadena. Her father was on the faculty of CalTech. Her home life was strict, and she rebelled against it. I think she rebelled against it for the rest of her life.

96 Was the rigor more at home or at school?

BI I think both, but home was the toughest. The school was a private one, I don’t know if it was Catholic, but it was very conservative.

96 To relax, did she like to go anyplace special or do anything in particular, or did she just withdraw to her kaleidoscopically decorated apartment?

BI When I first met her, she didn’t have a television. She did eventually get one, and she watched it. I think it made her feel plugged in to what America was becoming. She would talk on the phone with friends. She was very close to her sister, Debbie, whom she would visit. Another thing she really liked was going to flea markets. There’s a big flea market weekly at the Ashby BART station; Julia would go there with Debbie, it was a ritual. Of course she sold and traded her books too, but she did that everywhere she went.

You have to keep in mind that Julia had had polio as a child, and she couldn’t really walk very well. Traveling was difficult. Just walking could be a challenge, and it became more so as she got older.

But most of all, she loved readings.

96 It seems she was more or less the ringmaster of the Café Babar readings.

BI Let me give a little perspective on that. There had been live Thursday night poetry readings in North Beach, going back to the late nineteen-fifties. The last important iteration of that was the Spaghetti Factory [an actual spaghetti factory, converted into a café-cabaret in 1955]. Julia was a regular at those readings. The locus of the readings moved around quite a bit, as San Francisco gentrified, but it came to rest at the Café Babar in 1985. Babar was known then for its Wednesday night jug band shows. Julia was already an elder in the poetry community at that time, and she had a face that couldn’t hide what she felt.

96 I wonder a little about her marginal status. She’s strangely unknown for a writer who had so long a career. I wonder whether she would have said yes if a larger publisher had made her an offer.

BI That involves speculation on my part. We certainly discussed it. I think if City Lights had wanted to do a Pocket Poets book, she would have loved that. But there are a number of other factors. One of them was that Julia was very successful at getting her poems into print—just not into generalized distribution. Even now, my press, Zeitgeist, that publishes most of her work, can’t get small press distribution. I can’t get the main Berkeley distributor to do anything with our press. I think she should have gotten much wider recognition. We live now in a time when there’s real interest in marginalized voices. Julia, writing about the homeless and street people created a unique body of work that addresses this.

I think she will be accepted into the mainstream, I think this is not so unusual. The literary establishment, during her lifetime, was unlikely to be thrilled by the weird and proud lady in black, it didn’t look dignified. But Julia’s voice, in the poems, can’t be ignored. Because the poems are uniquely accessible, children can enjoy them, there’s no profanity, they’re full of real observations, there’s no fancy-pants pedaling in circles. It’s accessible to ordinary people, and that’s the aesthetic Julia believed in.

I’m not really worried. Ken Rosenthal is completing a documentary on her, the complete Jerusalem poems have just been published, her books continue to sell.

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