Julya van der Sloot

This Side of West Interviews Julya van der Sloot

Interviewed by 2022-2023 Director of Submissions, Christopher Sanford Beck.

Julya van der Sloot is a fourth-year poetry student at UVic. They are a working stand-up comedian with credits in multiple cities. They love horror movies and astrology.

This Side of West’s Director of Submissions, Christopher Sanford Beck, was able to find a spot in the SUB to sit down and chat with the 2022 (Prose and) Poetry contest winner Julya van der Sloot. They talked about Julya’s winning piece, poetic process and power, subversion, and not getting too bogged down in the wordsoup. Enjoy! 

Christopher: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today! I’m so excited to get a chance to chat. So to start us off, what’s the backstory? What got you into writing?

Julya: I think that I always liked to write, but it was stand-up comedy that got me really into the idea of writing as a career. I found that it was just such a good outlet. And when I came to UVic I actually had no intention of moving into poetry. I wanted to do screenwriting and creative nonfiction and really focus everything directly into comedy. And then I did the poetry section in WRIT 100 and I really loved it. I don’t know, it just kind of became my focus. It was very unexpected and I did not see it coming.

C: That’s cool! Do you remember if there were any things about that initial introduction in particular that hooked you?

J: Totally. I had written some poetry in the past but it had been more therapeutic than anything. It was very much like therapy on the page, just dumping my mind out. And I think in the class I realized that there were so many other places you could go with poetry. I was really captivated by some of the poets we looked at. Mary Oliver in particular was one that I had just never known before and so when we started reading her work it really changed my perspective on poetry. And then a lot of the really good friends that I made were through poetry. So I kind of just stuck with it.

C: Did you stick with some of your other forms of writing at all?

J: I still do screenwriting, but I don’t do it at UVic. My goal with that is to do comedy TV writing one day. Stand-up comedy, I did stick with all the way through. And creative nonfiction. I still write creative nonfiction but I just didn’t take the fourth year workshop.

C: That’s a lot of different writing background! Are there things that you find poetry does better than other genres, or ways that you find that it helps you to express different things?

J: I think poetry is a really good place for me to explore some kind of darker themes. I find poetry fun because you can really play with the language and how it looks on the page, and I think there’s a lot of room for creativity. I like that I can write a poem and just use a noun as a verb and everybody’s gunna get it and not think I made a mistake.

C: Yeah everybody’s cool with it (laughter).

J: And I like that you can take something that’s very metaphorical and make it literal.

C: Definitely. There’s a lot more flexibility than certain other genres.

J: Oh absolutely. And if feel like there’s so much space to just really mess with things. You can have a poem that’s written from so many different perspectives, and I think there’s a little bit less pressure to come up with a fully formed narrative. You can do a poem that’s just a moment in time, whereas you can’t always do that with other longer prose forms. Which I really like.

C: To lean into that thread of different things that you can do in poetry that’re unique about the genre, I noticed in your poem there are some elements of surreality, I might say. Did any of that factor in for you when you were writing?

J: I think that there’s definitely some surreal elements in the poem. One thing that I really loved about this poem in particular is that I was able to move through three different scenes over the course of the poem. So it starts with my great grandmother, and then it’s me, and then it’s me and my dad, and there’s kind of this movement through. And I felt like something that I was able to do in this poem, that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought to do in another form, was to have that all exist kind of within the same moment. I didn’t want it to seem majorly transitional through those different moments, I wanted it to flow pretty neatly through all three of them. And kind of effortlessly, so it doesn’t feel like you’ve gone through three worlds by the end of it, but you have.

C: Right, yeah. That’s super cool! Do you think that there’s a part of working within the particular form that you did for this poem that allowed you to do that? What was it like to work with the pantoum?

J: Yeah, um, it was really hard (laughter).

C: I bet!

J: What I found was working with the pantoum reminded me not to move too quickly, because you’re always coming back to a previous statement. And the more that I developed the poem, the more that I realized that. Initially, the conversation with the father was not in the draft.  But as I continued to write and workshop it and edit it, I realized that because it is such a political poem, the form was almost reflecting the way that you can cycle through the same arguments over and over and over again, but you’re sort of running into a brick wall when somebody’s not hearing you. And that’s when I added in that second half of the poem, to explore that transition a little bit.

C: There’s a lot of different constraints that you can put on yourself when you’re working with particular forms, and I think pantoums seem like an incredible way to slow down and force yourself to revisit what you’ve said in the past and how that can connect to the future.

J: Absolutely. And I took a lot of liberties with the exact wording of things. But that was very fun for me, because it kind of becomes a puzzle that you’re trying to put together. Which in many ways I think reflects the content of it as well, because you’re repeating yourself over and over again, trying to say the same thing in a different way, and it’s also cyclical through generations. Like what my great grandmother experienced is something that’s still relevant to me today. And I think it’ll continue to be that way for a long time.

C: Did you have an idea that that was the way things were going to go when you chose the form, or did you kind of say, ‘Oh I’m gunna try to write a pantoum,’ and then have it flow from that?

J: I knew that I wanted to write a pantoum about something political. That was a priority when I started writing. I think I tried a few different things that I wanted to touch on, but as I continued to write it I kept coming back to this idea of my great grandmother. The poem actually started because I was thinking of the idea of having ‘taken by coat hanger’ in the beginning, and then putting that into the end as ‘taken, hung, coated.’ And because of that I started with my beginning and end already planned out. It was cool to work with the constraints, but that was something that I came up with because of the pantoum form that I never would’ve thought of otherwise.

C: Yeah that makes sense, that’s super cool. Do you find that in general, with poetry, there’s a way that you like to approach things? Do you often have a sense of what you want to say in terms of a beginning and an end, and then you kind of fill it out, or do you have a different process?

J: I try to usually just write whatever’s on my mind. I like to follow forms because I think it keeps me disciplined in writing.

C: I can understand that, yeah!

J: I find it’s really helpful to pick a form and just stick with it. But I also think that my process is typically a really quick first draft, and then I like to spend weeks and weeks going back and editing, combing through it with a thesauruses, seeing if I can find a more accurate verb here, playing around with the language, figuring out if the images are clean and sharp, or if they’re lacking. It’s interesting because this poem has a lot more abstract ideas, so it pushed me to come up with more concrete images, which was fun.

C: That’s super fun. It’s always a challenge when you’re writing poetry that has really heady themes or things that aren’t super concrete, to find those perfect images that tether it. And this poem does that incredibly well. That’s something that takes a lot of effort. Are there certain things you’ve picked up as ways to navigate that process in revision?

J: I find that it’s really helpful to have another person look at it with fresh eyes, and to just be open to feedback no matter how harsh it may feel (laughter). Which is something that stand-up comedy has absolutely prepared me for, because there will never be feedback as harsh in a workshop as an audience that is not laughing at your jokes.

C: That’s so fair, yeah! (laughter)

J: I have a few really trusted, close friends, who will look over my drafts for me and just give me either in-line feedback, but most of the time just questions that they have, and then I get to decide if I want this poem to answer that question, do I wanna leave that open-ended, what needs to be answered, what needs more clarity.

C: That’s a tough process to go through, but it’s good to have that kind of structure and rigour in your editing! With this piece, it won the contest for a reason. It’s incredibly well-crafted with precise imagery, the tone and voice are all super well-developed, it seems like something that you’ve put a lot of labour into. Did you have any particular challenges when you were writing it?

J: It was challenging to navigate what about the poem is universal and what about the poem is specific to me. The title of the poem, the dates, are the dates of when Roe v. Wade was first put into law and then when it was overturned. So I wrote the poem as a memorial for that legislation, and I think I wanted to be conscious not to make it all about me, because it’s not all about me. I wanted to take this experience of my great grandmother and my own and still recognize that there’s so many more experiences in between that aren’t even discussed. So I think it was a little bit challenging in that sense. And then I also had some challenges with some of the biblical references and imagery. I don’t know if it was a challenge so much as it was fun to look things up and figure out what would fit with the poems. Like finding out the names of Dismas and Gestas, who were the two people who were crucified next to Jesus, who were forgotten in history.

C: Yeah I had to look that up! (laughter)

J: I also had to look that up! Which is fun. I like that part of it, but it’s definitely a challenging aspect of it. But it’s sometimes my favourite part, the research that goes into it.

C: And you can tell when there has been a lot of research that’s gone into a poem, because it’s able to walk that line of being personal and having real emotions behind it, but then also being meaningful for a much broader audience. That’s a hard line to walk, and I think it goes to show that you did your research really well and crafted it really well. So that’s cool to hear about! You brought up the religious allusions throughout, I mean obviously with the topic and the culture wars in the states and Canada, it’s not surprising that those came in, but I’m curious where the religious themes came from for you.

J: So I grew up in a very religious home, and a lot of the questions that I had growing up, specifically regarding abortion and the things that I didn’t understand about it, everything was always answered with a religious explanation, or excuse, for why certain people didn’t deserve rights and other people did. So I found it was interesting to write this poem because I realised in real-time while writing that what I was starting to do was actually using biblical references to argue my own point. And I think that part of it is speaking the language of who the narrator is speaking to. So if the language of the father is very religiously motivated, when the speaker defends herself and says, ‘Even Jesus was human enough to think for himself,’ then that’s the narrator’s way of using this religious thing and kind of turning it on its head. And then I also thought about the idea of martyrdom and crucifixion, and who is allowed to be grieved and celebrated to that extent, and who’s not. Because people who die from at-home abortions are not celebrated in their death, they’re used as a cautionary tale. Extremist religious groups will say that they deserved it because that’s what happens when you “kill somebody else.” So I think for me it was really important to challenge that concept of the martyr, because two people were crucified next to Jesus and we don’t hear anything about them, but this one person was the perfect victim or something like that, and so they get to go down in history and be celebrated and martyred, while so many people don’t get to experience that.

C: That seems like it ties in with what you said earlier about the poem being in memoriam in a certain way.

J: Absolutely.

C: Was that difficult to take that upon yourself, to write that?

J: I think I very much recognize that I am far from being the spokesperson for abortion rights (laughter), so I don’t think that I saw it as a project that I was taking on to make a big change or a big statement, because people who know me already know that my values align with the pro-choice community. So I didn’t really feel pressure in that sense. I didn’t feel like this poem was going to change anyone’s mind, and I don’t expect it to.

C: Interesting, yeah, because that’s something that I was going to ask about. Do you think that in general poetry has any of that emotional power to sway people in certain ways that might come from it being a more indirect form of communication?

J: Absolutely! I think it absolutely has that power. 100%. I just didn’t write this poem with that intention. And I think that that made it a lot easier, and took a lot of pressure off.

C: That totally makes sense! I think it’s cool how you can have something so incredible come out of a process of working through certain ideas and having a lot of background context and things you wanna draw in, that you can create something so amazing without saying “I’m gunna set out and do x, y, z.” I think that speaks to the power of the poetic process and to your abilities as a writer. It’s super cool to see that.

J: Thank you! I also have spent a lot of time trying to convince people who are anti-choice of why abortion and reproductive rights are necessary, and I haven’t gotten anywhere, so I’m under no illusion that a poem is going to make all the difference. I think I wrote it more for the people who have experienced marginalization based on reproductive rights.  

C: Definitely! Well, I don’t really have a clean segue, but we’ve been talking about this poem in particular, which is pretty serious, but I know that some of your other work, like stand-up, is a bit of a less serious form of expression. Do you ever feel like there’s tension between the funny work and serious poetry? What’s it like to have a foot in both of those worlds?

J: I’m so excited about this question. So right now I’m in a space where I’m trying to incorporate more comedic moments into my poetry, which is quite fun. But historically, my poetry is a lot more heavy. And I think the combining force between the two of them is subversion. I learned how to write well through writing jokes, and all that you’re really doing in writing a good joke or being a good stand-up comedian is subverting audience expectations. People wanna be surprised and have a twist or a punchline that is subversive. And I think that people want the same things in poetry. I don’t think that people want to always know exactly what they’re getting into. I like comedy that makes me think and I like poetry that makes me think, and I like for my work to be able to do the same, regardless of genre. I will say that, surprisingly, for me writing comedy is way more frustrating and anxiety-inducing than writing the saddest poem I’ve ever written. And this is probably one of the saddest poems I’ve ever written. But it was fun to write! So I think that a lot of it is about balance, but regardless of what I’m focussing on in that particular time, writing one is always gunna help me with writing the other. The more comedy that I’m writing, the better my poetry’s gunna be, and vice versa.

C: I love what you said about both modes sharing this expectation-subversion piece, and this piece of surprise.

J: I can’t remember the quote verbatim, but Jordan Peele went from writing comedy to writing horror, and he’s talked pretty extensively about that transition and about how the element of surprise and subversion is the same across both genres, so writing comedies really informed him in writing horror. I don’t write horror, but I do feel like writing comedy has informed any other styles of writing, because I always wanna be subversive.

C: That’s so cool. Well, on the topic of the different types of work you do, what’s on the table for you? What kind of work are you doing right now? What do you see in your future?

J: Well, right now I am still playing around a lot with poetry. I’m writing a lot of weird stuff and playing with writing more unlikeable narrators and unlikeable speakers in poems, which is really fun for me. In terms of my longer-term plans, I am planning to move out to Toronto next year and really pursue comedy full time. And I will hopefully be doing a little tour in June, but I just want to keep doing whatever I can, whatever keeps me working and writing.

C: Yeah, that’s awesome! Where are you planning on touring?

J: Through Vancouver Island! It would be a Pride tour. It’s not set in stone yet, but I’m quite hopeful about it. We’re doing a few more trial shows, just to see what the audiences are like everywhere, but we’re hoping to do a little bit of a queer comedy tour.

C: Sweet. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for that! Maybe just to wrap things up a little bit, you’ve given a lot of implicit advice and shed a lot of light onto your process and what that’s like for you, and I’m wondering if you have any advice for young writers, especially in UVic’s program.

J: I think my advice is to get involved with something that you’re passionate about within your community. Because a lot of times, as a writer, it’s really easy to get trapped in your head and feel like having a bad day or not being able to write well one day or being uninspired or those kind of things are the end of the world. Sometimes it’s important to have something that’s a little bit humbling (laughter). Volunteer! Do something to get yourself out of your own head for a little bit, because once that all-encompassing and horrific insecurity that every writer has is tested a little bit, it becomes a lot easier to write, and to not feel so much pressure. Because at the end of the day, yes it’s powerful but it’s also just words and we’ve gotta have other things that we care about and we’re passionate about or we go crazy.

C: (Laughter) Definitely. I think there’s a lot of focus on trying to be really involved in a literary community, and especially at UVic and in Victoria, there is so much of a writing community, but I really like that advice to remember that there is more out there and that you should be doing lots of things.

J: Yeah even if it’s not volunteer work, just any hobby that doesn’t have to do with creative writing. Anything that will bring you joy and is not directly tied to your ability to put words together of a page. Because that’s not the only thing we can do.

C: Exactly. Yeah, thank you. I needed to hear that in my first year (laughter).  Well thank you so much for sitting down with me, I really appreciate it. I’m very impressed by the poem, so it’s awesome to get to hear a little bit more about it, and about your writing and your work.

J: Thank you, yeah it was one of the most fun poems to write with one of the heaviest topics, so that was kind of interesting, but I think that working within a form really helped with that.

C: No I think that’s super cool. And it got me hyped to write!

Christopher Sanford Beck