Interview // The Land Broke Me Open: A Conversation with Judith Roche

by Wendy Call | Contributing Writer

In August 2016, I was lucky to interview poet Judith Nault Roche, who passed away at her Seattle home in November 2019. Judith was born in 1941 in Detroit and grew up there, going on to live more than half of her life in Seattle. She worked as an editor, arts and literary performance curator, high school English teacher, creative writing professor, and Alaska pipeline worker—not in that order. 

Roche’s four books of poetry were Ghosts (1984), Myrrh / My Life as a Screamer (1993), Wisdom of the Body (2007) and All Fire All Water (2015). An anthology she edited, First Fish First People: Salmon Tales of the North Pacific Rim (1999), as well as her third book of poetry, Wisdom of the Body, won American Book Awards. Judith’s poems also appeared in many literary journals nationwide, including Washington-based publications Crab Creek Review, Raven Chronicles, Spindrift, and Willow Springs

Judith was commissioned by the Seattle Arts Commission to create a poem for each of the five Pacific Northwest salmon species. Her “Salmon Suite” poems are installed at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.

In this interview, Judith discussed the role of place in her poetry and in her life. She began the interview by asking me if I had seen an arc in her work. I had been studying Judith’s poetry with a young poet who was my student at Pacific Lutheran University at the time: Hilary Vo. (I am grateful to Hilary for carefully transcribing our full interview.) Hilary saw this arc: Judith’s poetry began in Ghosts by exploring body as place and the human body in the ecosphere. In the middle part of her poetic career, with the books Myrrh / My Life as a Screamer and Wisdom of the Body, her poems focused on the ecosphere and the self, reaching beyond the body. Judith’s later poems, in All Fire All Water, turn away from the body entirely, to focus on the ecosphere and its non-human inhabitants.

Did you write any of the poems in your first book, Ghosts, before you became a mother?

No, they were all post-mother, but that was because I was a child-mother. I was nineteen.

You come from a family of union organizers. How was your creative work influenced by your parents’ organizing work? 

I haven’t been out there on the front lines doing that, but I have written things and I’d like to think (and hope) they are helpful to the cause. I have a poem in Ghosts about a conflict between my mother, who was doing work in the world, and me, who was so in love with art. 

I read in your poems a strong sense of being part of something larger than yourself.

That probably does come from my mother and father. I was certainly closer to my mother and there was more talk of philosophies, ideas, and theories with her. My mother loved the idea of art. But she thought it was important to do things in the world that made a difference. I got my love of art from her, from her stories of ancient Greece, the Arthurian Legend, and Victorian poetry. 

How did you get from Detroit to Seattle?

It was 1967, and [my husband] wanted something big and wide like the sea and the mountains. I wanted to be a West Coast hippie. We moved from Ann Arbor to Anacortes, with a six-year old. I taught high school English for several years. The marriage broke off there. [My second child] Robin was about two and we moved to Seattle. There was no way I could have stayed in Anacortes because there was no [special] education for him. 

I really am a city girl, in spite of the fact that I am so deeply attached to the water and the land and the hills and the salmon and the animals. A lot of people think that there is a dichotomy: if you’re a city girl you don’t understand nature. But they fit together in me, and for me.

You offered a workshop with Humanities Washington, as part of the 2012-13 Speakers Series. Tell me about your experience teaching “The Poetics of Place.”

That was great! I did some gigs in Eastern Washington and one at the Northwest Indian College. One of the most interesting ones I did was Tukwila, in a library, [with] Japanese Americans in their 70s and 80s who had been interned [during World War II]. They wrote amazingly wonderful things; they wrote about the camps. It was very moving. 

What are you currently writing? 

I write a lot of Michigan poems now. I call these the deep memory poems because it’s so long ago and a long way away from me. This [the Pacific Northwest] is my land. I’ve been here for 40 years and I don’t want to go anywhere else. My Detroit is long gone; that makes the work valuable. Michigan is deep in me, like childhood is deep in us.

How do you think your perception and expression of a place are different when you’re drawing from deep memory?

Because it’s such deep memory, you don’t know whether or not it’s true. I recently wrote a poem about going raccoon hunting with my dad and the dogs. This is memory through the child’s eyes. My parents kept us close to the land. 

I’ve always said that the land broke me open. Writing just broke open in me after I came back from Alaska, after working on the pipeline. I’d go for three months and work; I had to leave my children with their father. I only did three stints, but I made enough money to put a down payment on my house. I don’t know if I ever could have had a house otherwise. By law, there needed to be 10% women on the pipeline. Of course there were very few women that knew anything about what they were doing, including me. I was never asked to do anything difficult, just drilling and riveting. That’s easy.

You worked seven-fourteens [seven 14-hour shifts] while you were on the line. When you were done, you would go back to town. I had an Alaskan boyfriend, so I was out on the bush a fair amount, and on many-day float trips on the Yukon. I came back [from Alaska] more focused on the writing, and thinking, “I could do this.” The feeling in Alaska is you can do anything you want. This was all before Ghosts

Tell me about your decision to attend the New College of San Francisco to earn a Master’s degree in poetics.

I knew that I had to study and learn more if I was going to continue to grow as a poet. I went there because Diane Di Prima was there. And I studied with Robert Duncan, who was like a god.

What do you consider the most important elements of poetry with a sense of place?

We need to ground poetry in the place, but put in the point of view of humans or animals, as well. Poems that are just description of the beautiful landscape are so boring; there needs to be story.

And you have written poems from the point of view of fish. How did you create your “Salmon Suite” poems?

After Ghosts was done, I applied for the grant to do the salmon poems at the [Hiram Chittenden] locks. I did a tremendous amount of research to learn the lore of salmon, the culture, and salmon biology. 

Which of your poems would you pick as being most exemplary for their sense of place?

I would say “The Salmon Suite” and “Fishtown, Lower Skagit.” That’s pretty deeply sense of place.

I often think our writing hides in books, because many people don’t engage with books in the way that they engage with the landscape, the built environment, and public art. 

I love the idea of public art! This marries my mother’s vision and mine. I feel deeply that public art is a graceful way of educating. We don’t want art to be in the service of education, because that kills the art. But we learn from art with grace in it. We want art to inform, and make people think, and be provocative. What we know about ancient civilizations is through their art. We don’t know them through their politics. And there will be a time when nothing is left of our civilization, but the art will stand.

Wendy Call is co-editor of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide (Penguin, 2007); author of No Word for Welcome (Nebraska, 2011), winner of the Grub Street National Book Prize for Nonfiction; and translator of In the Belly of Night and Other Poems, by Irma Pineda (Pluralia, forthcoming March 2021). She teaches creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and lives in Seattle, on Duwamish land.