Interview by Jenny Sadre-Orafai
(photo by Julie E. Bloemeke)
This month, Atlanta poet and photographer Julie E. Bloemeke’s series of abandoned buildings photos and poems are featured in Deep South Magazine. The project was a multi-year conversation between poetry and photographs featuring abandoned spaces in and around Alpharetta, Georgia. Alpharettan Julie E. Bloemeke chose to shoot the majority of the series in film, in part to document–and highlight–a medium also continually influenced by abandon. A graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, Bloemeke’s poetry has recently appeared in the collaborative chapbook Jasper Speaks: Download, in print and online literary magazines including A&U: America’s AIDS Magazine, Qarrtsiluni, Mason’s Road and Pebble Lake Review and is forthcoming in a number of anthologies including The Southern Poetry Anthology Volume V: Georgia (Texas Review Press, fall 2012). She is currently working on her second poetry manuscript.
JS: What prompted you to focus on abandoned houses?
JEB: I have always been fascinated by what we choose to abandon. Sometimes there is not much choice—natural disasters, foreclosures—but many times there is. Having spent most of my adult life in the south, I am captivated by what is left behind, particularly in regard to generational land. (And here it is important to note that I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, a city that has been largely shaped by abandonment, a city that I have chosen, geographically at least, to abandon, but that is another book entirely.) In graduate school at the University of South Carolina, I drove to a small–nearly non-existent–railroad town called Chappells. Under the years of kudzu and pine needles, there were rows of houses, derelict, yet still, though the weeds and neglect, suggesting a story in their details. Framed pictures hanging on the walls. Furniture still covered in a sitting room. Canned peaches, labeled, on a pantry shelf. It was as if time picked up and left this one odd moment, stilled in the woods, waiting to be found. I was captivated by these elements especially, by that jar of peaches. I thought about the person that picked them, who boiled the jars, readied the lids and sealing wax, prepared the fruit, whose handwriting was so carefully poised on that label. What prompted this family to leave what they left behind? Why would they have left something seemingly so personal, intimate, essential? We could never know, only guess, the myriad of reasons. And in the resonance of those questions is the essence of story; it is what remains with us, gnaws at us.
Did you take the photographs knowing poems would accompany them?
I wanted this experience to be organic, dynamic. My hope is that the poems and photos are in conversation, not overly literal or rigid. What I did while working on this project was listen to my instinct for the day. At times, I photographed abandoned places I never felt compelled to write about. Others pulled me to write about them but either did not captivate me photographically or might have been too hard to shoot technically for a multitude of reasons. Often there were snakes, buzzards, hornet’s nests, decaying floors and collapsing ceilings, all elements of danger. Sometimes I took the risks; sometimes I did not. And there was the human risk as well. I quickly discovered that a woman alone with a notebook and a camera on a rural Georgia property raises a lot of questions. I drafted about 10 poems in the series, but only about 4 of them are ready for the wider world. After a year or so of shooting and writing I began to step back, curious at how the poems and photos would riff off of each other. I am incredibly grateful for the seeming randomness of the beginnings of the project, the feeling of being called to buildings or spaces just to listen, to take in their energy. After the birth of my children, when so much of my world was multi-tasking and dense in the intensity of mother, I was energized by these moments of solace, reflection, of a returning of the self to art. These derelict spaces helped me to integrate my two lives, to remind me not to abandon one for the other. A story about my process: I shot frames of the dilapidated swingset mentioned in Pokeberry; the only color in all of the green overgrowth was the shock of the red swing seat. Yet somehow, pairing this photo with the poem seemed too obvious or stilted; it begged for something more nuanced, and so I chose photos from another building entirely, rusted nails and rotting wood from a barn wall, which I hope lends a far more intricate experience of the poem. Colorwise, alone, the photo and poem almost seem a contradiction, an antithesis. But is that only at first read? These are the questions that I hope the couplings raise. With Mailbox, the photo pairing was definitely more literal, but in that case it seemed that the poem (and photo) called for it. And given the posture of that mailbox, the way it served almost as sentinel, it seemed to be the portrait of something almost human to me. The angles in that shot, the regal stature of that mailbox still interest me. And, little did I know at the time, but that mailbox would serve as the impetus to my second poetry manuscript which explores (in part) how our evolving communications are causing dis/mis/reconnection in ways that a pre-tech world could have never conceived. Speaking of technology, I do not call myself a photographer—I think too many people easily do– but rather a snapshot artist of sorts. Some of the mechanical/analytical aspects of photography have largely alluded my tendency toward free-associative thought—there is so much to learn about light alone!—but I attempt nevertheless.
What do you hope the poems and photos offer?
Ultimately, I hope the poems and photos offer further internal conversation: What do we pass by daily that we often forget to truly see? How does the repetition of seeing allow blindness? How are these abandoned spaces resonant with the abandonment in our own lives, our choices of what to keep and what to let go? What emotions do the lost, the left behind, the neglected raise in us: nostalgia, regret, relief, indifference, grief? There are countless stories out there to photograph, to write, that only a few of them ever make it to the page is arguably another loss. We live in such a makeover/remodel culture—think of home improvement reality shows alone—that I don’t think we pause enough to consider what is left behind. I like to think that sometimes these places and spaces held their stories, and still do, through storm and snow, waiting just to be released from wilderness and seen, if only for a moment, before they slip quietly into decay, as if they had never been. I am incredibly grateful that they invited me to listen. I hope I have honored their voices.