A couple months ago I stumbled upon the poetry of Judith Roche at the Ballard Library and was really captivated by the subjects that she highlighted... the elements of nature, her garden, the irony of life, and the sadness upon seeing the environment destroyed in any way. I was just happy to find a poet whose soul I resonated with, and then to find in the front of her book that she lived in the same city as me, was pretty crazy!
Immediately, I emailed her to see if she'd be willing to chat with me about life and her story as a writer and she was so gracious enough to agree! We met at the library near her house in Seattle, but the library rooms were full, so she kindly drove me to her peaceful home so we could talk in a quiet place. Even though we stayed in Seattle proper, it was in a part of the city I'd never explored before that felt very much like a secluded sanctuary for people who love both nature and the culture of the city. It seemed like the perfect place for Judith to live and the inside felt like a cross between a cabin in the woods and a seaside cottage. I set up my recording gear at her kitchen table as we talked about aesthetics and how much I dislike a lot of "eco-friendly" design. We sat facing the window that looked out onto her greenbelt and watched the frequent diners visit her bird feeder. You can listen to our conversation or read about it below!
Alexa Ashley: I'm here today with Judith Roche who is an author of four collections of poetry and an editor of many others. She is a teacher at multiple schools, a mother, a grandmother and an award winner of two American Book Awards and today we're talking about her story and how she's come to have respect for the environment. Thanks so much for being here today, Judith!
Judith Roche: Thank you for interviewing me!
Alexa: For sure! Can I hear a little bit about your story and your journey… how you got to where you are today?
Judith: Well, it's hard to know where to begin. I always wrote. It took me until I was about thirty-two to take myself seriously as a writer. At about 30, my whole psyche changed. What happened is I went to Alaska and spent a lot of time in the wilderness (including the wintertime) and when I came back I was focused on environmental issues and writing and just... doing what I could through writing to help the environment. Then I worked for One Reel, which is the producer of Bumbershoot (by this time I was known as a poet) and I managed the literary part of the program and curated the writers, put together the panel discussions. There's not much literary component left, but there certainly was in the past.
I'm not there anymore, to advocate for it... and we were interested in environmental issues as well. Through a lot of grant money we were able to produce this book about salmon and I did an awful lot of research about salmon and (we) produced this book which is all indigenous writers. I edited it and we found writers from the entire Pacific Rim, not just here. There were Washington writers, Oregon writers, British Columbia, Alaska... Russian and Japanese (the Ainu people in Japan). They were all indigenous people talking about salmon and all professional writers. So that was pretty amazing and then with this interest in salmon (after we did this book) I continued writing about salmon a lot.
Then I got the grant from Seattle to work on the salmon project …they asked artists to respond to the plight of salmon (at that point Chinook Salmon had just been declared endangered, which was shocking to Seattle because salmon is the soul of our land). The Ainu writers of Japan really worship the salmon as well and in their houses they had little windows, which were called god windows, and in the first fish ceremonies that we're familiar with here, they would pass salmon in and out of this little window. There were so many things in salmon lore, I learned and it was just so fascinating to me and also so spiritual. So I write salmon poems that were displayed at the Ballard locks for 13 years, but I think they're down now. It was in auditory form, so you would press a button and listen to the poems while watching the salmon go through the locks.
Alexa: That's really neat.
Judith: Yeah, I thought that was good public art and I continued writing about salmon, writing essays, more poems and such and then I was asked to join Black Earth Institute, which is an organization... they like to call themselves "a liberal think-tank"... that works on social justice issues, environmental issues, and spirituality; deliberately on spirituality because so much of what we consider leftist or liberal is very secular and the right has claimed the spiritual aspect. Most of us (in the Back Earth Institute) are not attached to any religion as such, but just as I am, to the spirit of the land.
Alexa: Are most of the people in the Black Earth Institute writers?
Judith: I think they're all writers now, in various capacities, yeah.
Alexa: Is it hard to join?
Judith: Actually it is! (Laughing) Last year, or the year before it was open to new membership and there were seventy people who applied and we picked seven.
Judith: And it was so hard because so many really, really accomplished people, who were doing good in environmental work or social justice work applied and we had to say no to an awful lot of really good people so it was kind of painful. But we have seven new members who are quite advanced in what they are doing. Many are in academics, some are not but all are doing or making and most are well published. One lady does events, like she just did a black lives matter event, so just doing social justice work in general.
Alexa: That’s awesome. I'm curious about Alaska... what did you do there and what about your time there made you re-evaluate your life?
Judith: Oh, okay! That's a story… (She laughs) you're not going to like it either! This is the mid 70s and I'm a single mother with two children. The father's in the picture but not for me... and I was, at that point, substitute teaching, which was pretty grim and I had an Alaska boyfriend who said "come up to Alaska and make tons of money... on the pipeline!" So I left the children with their father and made for me what was a ton of money, in those days.
Alexa: What did you do?
Judith: Oh, worked on the pipeline, I was a laborer, I did a lot of drilling, riveting... you know… this and that. Pick up and carry and put this together... on a big crew. So... that was fun (Laughing).
Alexa: Did you like it or not really?
Judith: Oh, I did! It really was fun.
Alexa: Yeah, I love physical labor, actually.
Judith: Yeah! I do too! And you know there was this whole thing of women in construction and I thought I was being very groundbreaking and I was. And of course, you know, the guys really resented women being there and such… (she laughs) I'd been a high school English teacher so I just used my best...
Alexa: Teacher voice?
Judith: My best English teacher voice... so I didn't get too much flack from guys but a lot of the other women did. Anyways, I came home and was able to buy this house.
Alexa: Which is a beautiful house that we're sitting in. There's a lovely bird feeder on the porch and looks out onto a peaceful green belt...that's awesome!
Judith: Yeah, and I've been here ever since. And then there were times with the Alaska boyfriend where we were out in the Alaska wilderness a lot and we did some serious hiking and some serious being outside and float trips down the Yukon... and it was really pretty amazing and adventurous...for me, a high school English teacher raised in Detroit! And then there was that feeling in Alaska of "you can do anything you want to do!" I kind of got that. I’d been writing poetry my whole life... hiding it under the mattress not showing it to anybody… and reading and writing and reading and writing poetry... I've loved poetry from the time that I was very tiny and I read a lot of it when I was in grade school. When I was a child it was all the old 19th century poetry, of course, then which was what I could find. So then later I'm learning about contemporary poetry and such and when I got home from Alaska, my whole mindset had changed.
Alexa: What'd you do?
Judith: Well, I started publishing a lot and then I got the one real job, which was curating a literature program basically and also I was part of an artist in residence program for Washington State and went around and taught poetry... including in prisons, which was also pretty interesting. I realized that writing is really just a lifesaver for many people you know?
Alexa: For the writer, the reader or both?
Judith: Well, both but I’m speaking of the writer. You know, children who really couldn't express themselves were able to express themselves. I like to say, language is the closest thing to consciousness. Language is consciousness in a lot of ways. So just writing, and the act of writing it down, stimulates that consciousness. That's great, and I was able to bring that to a lot of kids and in prison it was particularly important cause those guys were so repressed and had such stories to tell and such personal pain... just that kind of expression was great.
Alexa: So you taught them how to write?
Judith: Yeah, I was doing two-week poetry residencies and so you, know... brought a lot of poetry in, showed them a lot, encouraged a lot of writing... encouraged them to tell their stories... and that's really empowering for people.
Alexa: And therapeutic as well… even healing.
Judith: Yeah... it's healing. That's the right word. I've also taught incarcerated girls in Tacoma at Remann Hall and that was really amazing too. I taught at Seattle U and at Cornish and at SPU and you know, various universities but I've not had an academic career.
Alexa: Has it been more like adjunct teaching positions?
Judith: Oh, it's been adjunct and at Seattle U, I was writer in residence for a while.
Alexa: I'm sad I missed you at SPU while I was there. It would've been really cool to take a class from you.
Judith: Yeah, it was really fun.
Alexa: Do you still teach?
Judith: I do, at Hugo House! In fact I'm teaching next Saturday and a six-week class in the fall.
Alexa: Do you still like to teach?
Judith: I do! I really do. And you know, I'm pretty retired from most of the work I've done right now, but I'm certainly writing; and teaching at Hugo House is perfect for me; it's now my favorite kind of students... intelligent adults who bring whole lives to what they're doing... and how refreshing is that? They have things to say and it's a whole different thing than teaching...
Judith: ...college students. Kids bring a whole other thing to it. They bring they're freshness to it and their...
Judith: Yeah, they're playfulness and just child-ness to it.
Alexa: And they're imagination…
Judith: Yeah imagination and you know... certainly that's there in college students as well but they have other agendas obviously.
Alexa: And (that playfulness) is kind of taught out of us in school growing up... in high school and college you're taught exactly how to write and "this is the way you need to do it, this is how you express yourself."
Judith: That's why poetry is so liberating... because it's not that kind of writing that you're taught.
Alexa: That's really cool. What do you feel like is most inspiring for you in your poetry... how do you get into your "happy place" or "writing place?” Do you have that?
Judith: I always say... I don't always say... but a large part of it for me is reading. I read something inspiring then I want to start writing from there.
Alexa: And then respond to it?
Judith: Yeah, or it will just give me one line... just one line and then my mind will go off in a totally different direction... sometimes. It's not so much responding… it triggers something in me. So a lot from reading, a lot from just the environment, from being outside in nature and you know, just feeling deeply part of it.
Alexa: Do you go outside a lot and spend time outdoors in nature? Where do you go?
Judith: Yes, well I spend time hiking and walking and just being in nature that way... I garden a lot and just, you know... having my hands in the dirt is kind of... grounding. That's important to me.
Alexa: I found a lot of botanical references in All Fire, All Water.
Judith: Yeah, and so then I'm interested in something and then I read about it. I do a lot of research actually. You know, for the (works on) salmon… I didn't come knowing all that stuff… you have to research it! Another big interest of mine is mythology, which is part of the whole spirituality thing. So I've done a lot of research on that and the ancient Greeks have been important to me... Euripides, Heraclitus, Sappho... I've done a lot of research on Sappho.
Alexa: What are some of the other people that you love to read?
Judith: Robert Duncan is a poet who's been very important to me, Diane di Prima has been really important to me and she fed that whole mythology thing for me in her book Loba, which I really loved. I mean who else? So many, so many it's hard to say one. But I was able to study with Robert Duncan and Diane Duprima and that had been very important to me. Anne Carson, I've been reading a lot recently... I really like her.
Alexa: I will have to check out all of those people. I imagine if I like your work I might like them too because you're pretty influenced by them.
Judith: I am! I'm influenced by almost everything I read. I'm reading Bob Hicok right now. I'm just reading a lot… Carl Phillips I like a lot. There's a lot I like. I just keep reading poetry.
Alexa: One of your lines that I read.. I think it was in Wisdom of the Body... really struck me and I was wondering if you could possibly expand on it or do you like to keep things ambiguous?
Judith: I'll see what I can do (smiling).
Alexa: It was, "I believe that art saves lives and love makes it worth living them and that could be the other way around, too"... I love that, could you expand on that a little?
Judith: Yeah, well... that’s' what I've been talking about. My teaching... it has been so healing... it's not me… it's just dealing with art and making art and what that does to people. Giving people art is so healing and I do believe that art saves lives and love makes it worth living!
Alexa: I guess that's pretty self-explanatory but I thought that was really beautiful.
Judith: Thank you.
Alexa: Yeah! Do you have any words of wisdom for people who want to either write more, get better at writing or get better at taking care of the environment… connecting with the spiritual nature of the environment?
Judith: Mm, okay for writing I do. Read. Just read, read, read. And we were talking (you and I personally) before we started about aesthetics... that's what develops your aesthetic is reading.
Alexa: Consuming all different types of content and styles?
Judith: Yeah and finding out what you like and what you don't, defining to yourself your aesthetic and for me, it’s of course connected with my love of nature and that aesthetic. Just feeling the connectedness of all beings and all things of the Earth is for me, the bottom line of spirituality. Feeling connected to the salmon, feeling connected to my earth out there (As Judith's cat jumps on her lap in order to be connected with her...) Hello, cat on my lap. To my trees... just feeling that connection to the living, breathing thing that it is. Even the Earth, which we don’t think of as breathing but it, is in its way.
Alexa: So would you say... just taking the time to observe those elements can make you feel more connected to the environment?
Judith: Yes… to think about the soul of the rock and finding soul and spirit everywhere.
Alexa: Cool, thanks so much Judith! I really enjoyed talking with you and learning more from you.
Judith: Thank you! I enjoyed it too.