Tension — that is what Julia Koets, assistant professor of creative nonfiction, felt growing up as a queer woman in South Carolina in the Episcopal Church.
When she was a teenager, she felt supported by her family and her community in Summerville, South Carolina, yet she did not feel comfortable enough to come out until she was in her 20s. As she reflected on her conflicting feelings years laters, many questions were raised, some she decided to address in a book of poems called “Pine.”
“Something I talk about in the book is that tension with religion, feeling like if the church is so much a part of your life, then in what way do you feel also like you can’t be fully yourself because of your sexuality,” Koets said. “So a lot of these [poems] sort of came from questions that I had.
“It’s complicated, because I also feel very much like I consider the South as my home. My family is still there so it’s not like, ‘Oh, this was so bad’ or something like that, but it’s just questions I had … from my own experience.”
The poems in “Pine” were released to the public Monday at 7 p.m. in a Microsoft Teams event presented by USF’s Department of English where Tyree Daye and Ruth Awad — both poetry authors — read some of their work and accompanied Koets reading hers.
Koets is also the author of “Hold Like Owls” and “The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays.” With her previous work, Koets has won the 2017 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Book Award, the 2019 Michael Waters Poetry Prize and the 2011 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize.
Through her new work “Pine,” Koets further explored some of the themes she discussed in her book of essays such as the story of Sally Ride, an American astronaut who came out as gay in her obituary, or the fears and desires she felt when she was hiding her sexuality.
She said the poems revolve around the relationship between two women that has to remain a secret because they feel they can’t open up about it. “Pine” is divided into two sections: potentiality — where Koets imagines the possibilities queer people could have outside of heteronormavity — and ephemeral, inspired by a quote from the LGBTQ archives she said talks about how queer people have sometimes been erased from public archives. Topics like desire or the act of coming out are represented in these sections.
“The book, through the different poems, kind of explores what happens as a result of that secrecy, and also connected to the secrecy is also this like fear of their own like desire,” Koets said.
“So, I talk about that in different poems … a lot of the poems are about what happens when that desire isn’t talked about, when that relationship that remains a secret, what happens to this speaker of the poems?”
Koets said that even if the poems are not purely autobiographical, many are based on her personal experience. The stories are situated in the South, according to Koets, and explore the experience of queer people in that landscape. In a poem titled “Field notes on loving a girl in secret,” she described how only late at night and in a private place two girls were able to speak openly.
“It’s not just like me as the individual speaker in all the poems, it’s also kind of considering who were other queer people who grew up in the South who might have also felt they struggled with having a language for their experience or for their sexuality for a while,” Koets said.
“So I was kind of asking questions about that experience of feeling like I couldn’t articulate my own feelings for a long time.”
Writing from a queer perspective is important because it is an underrepresented one, according to Awad, Koets’ colleague in the publication company Southern Indiana Review Press. She was one of the first people who read “Pine” before its official release and said she is “grateful to have a book like that in existence” as it helps create a sense of community for people who might feel marginalized.
“As someone who’s also queer, and has grown up in both the Midwest and the South, I understand that it’s hard to be queer anywhere in America, and I’m not talking about my own experience,” Awad said. “I’m just talking about in general, [American] culture is hostile to otherness, and the only way to counter that is to actively make our communities safer for folks who are othered or marginalized.
“Putting a book out like ‘Pine’ that is about queerness … helps draw people in, who recognize their experiences in that work. Creating that community and … network can be a first step in making those safer physical spaces in the real world.”
Gathering experiences like the one she conveyed in the poem “Eros as oxygen mask,” where she talked about the fear of desiring another woman and the feeling of having short breath after kissing her, and condensing them into poems took Koets about four years, she said. The reaction she has gotten from the people she already shared “Pine” with was encouraging to her as an author.
“I think people were interested in the ways in which I was talking about queerness in the South,” Koets said. “I think it’s been very affirming to get to hear people’s reactions to the book. You work on a project for so long, so it’s nice to finally have it out there in the world and for people to be able to read the poems in there.”
One of those who got to read the book before it was launched was Awad, who said she learned a lot from the way Koets approaches poems and said she believes people will enjoy the collection. She said she enjoyed the definition poems — where concepts are described and redefined — in the collection.
“I admire so much about ‘Pine,’ but I especially admire its definition poems: ‘Pine,’ ‘Shed,’ and ‘The Science Of,’” she said.
“In a collection about queerness, longing and categorization or belonging, these poems take on particular weight as they aim to define the emotional landscape of the speaker. I will also say ‘Moon Prayer’ is my kind of love poem: one with an undercurrent of danger.”
John Fleming, professor of English and director of creative writing, said he knows Koets’ potential from past works which has him excited to read it. He was present in Monday’s book launch to support his colleague.
“I know that she’s a wonderful writer,” Fleming said. “She’s one of those multitalented writers who writes both nonfiction and poetry, and is really successful at both.”
Awad was also excited to be a part of the book launch and said she feels those events are really rewarding for poetry authors.
“I’m excited just because it’s hard to be a poet,” Awad said.
“There’s not a lot of money or fame or notoriety in poetry. Poetry is really an absolute labor of love and I feel like the reward in it for us poets is that it draws the right people and like the people who are attracted to poetry, [who] deeply care about it. The event is going to be a good place to be in community with people who love the thing that you also love.”
Through events like book launches, Koets also hopes to connect to people who might relate to the book. She said this has happened in the past, and it has inspired her to continue writing.
“That was my hope, that the book would reach people that maybe had similar experiences and felt alone in some ways,” Koets said. “So I think hearing those kinds of things made me feel like it matters to tell these stories, and I think part of the reason it does matter is because there is push back and people feel afraid and are dealing with anxiety and fear with their own families or communities.
“I think it made the material feel in some ways more urgent … it felt like this is something important for me to write about.”