DH: Julia, I very much appreciate the basic premise of A Part of Me—that deeply felt experiences with other people become a part of our identity. What can you tell us about this idea and how it came to you?
JND: For some time I’ve been writing from memory and personal experience in both my essays and poems. As I’ve looked at my work and life as a whole, I’ve concluded that even the most seemingly fleeting moment of connection with someone—such as the circus performer in my poem “Acrobat”—has had an impact on my life and way of thinking.
DH: What can you tell us about the photographs and how they came to be part of your book?
JND: You’re referring to the final section of my book: Photographs of Misfortune. I grew up immersed in family photographs. My paternal grandmother’s frayed Victorian album held tintypes, cabinet cards, and carte de visites of family members, long dead. These photographs fascinated me and made me feel very close to kin from an earlier era.
In trying to learn more about photography of the 19th century, I discovered Dr. Stanley B. Burns’s archived photographs. The images in Burns’s books, which often depict suffering and loss, touched and inspired me. Writing poems about these images gave me a chance to explore the past and imagine the stories behind the images.
DH: The endings of the poems in A Part of Me often present a kind of tribal or community utterance, rather than what we ordinarily think of as “poetic insight” about the experience under examination. An example that caught my attention was “Donuts,” which ends this way: “A decade has passed since I witnessed this scene / I will never forget it / and regret I couldn’t help her then.” My theory is that you’ve chosen to write more about family and community than about your speaker’s sensibility. What can you say about how you’ve chosen to end some of the poems in this book?
JND: You’re right in your theory, David. Family and community are central concerns in my work. Growing up and still living in a close-knit rural community, I have observed people all my life. As I suggest in “Donuts,” the reaction of the man to the woman’s request startled me, though her fear troubled me more. I felt sorry for her that she asked for something as simple as a box of donuts and was refused so publicly and cruelly. I also felt guilt that I couldn’t help her. My poems’ endings often draw a conclusion about a situation that has moved me.
DH: What are the particular aspects of family and community that you have tried to convey in A Part of Me?
JND: I have tried to capture aspects of love, hope, and support that family and community offer, but also regret, fear, and grief that are inevitably part of life, too.
DH: Do you see this gathering of poems as telling a story about your speaker? If so, how would you describe that story?
JND: Yes, A Part of Me is a story told in episodes from my childhood, youth, and adulthood about experiences and impressions that have shaped me.
DH: Your choosing to use plain diction and uncomplicated syntax for your poems makes them very accessible for your readers. How did you come to settle on such straightforward language for this book? Do you use more complicated and challenging language for other subject matter?
JND: In both my prose and poetry, I use conversational English. My topics are basic and often rural, and my language reflects that, even to the point of including my Western North Carolina dialect, as in the poem “The Wind.” I imagine my readership to be mostly non-academic, and I want to be as clear and direct as possible to get my meaning across. But I also think there’s a power in simple language that can speak to all readers, regardless of their academic background or experience as poetry readers.
DH: How has your background as a prose writer informed your poetry?
JND: In writing fiction and nonfiction, I’ve focused deeply on characters and their struggles. My poems, too, tell similar stories. But I love the way a poem allows me to explore a situation quickly and concisely.