With ‘The Sacramento of Desire,’ Julia Bloch completes a personal trilogy

The creative writing professor’s most recent book of poetry focuses on her desire for making a family as a member of the queer community.

Author Julia Bloch standing in a grove of trees.
Julia Bloch, director of Penn’s Creative Writing Program, has just published a new book of poetry, “The Sacramento of Desire,” completing a trilogy centered on her experiences in California. (Image: Pew Arts & Heritage Foundation) 

She’d been through this before, with her two other books of poetry: that moment when the box from the publisher arrives. This time, however, the reaction for Julia Bloch was surprising, when she pulled back the cardboard flaps and saw the new stack of “The Sacramento of Desire,” the third in what has become her personal trilogy. 

Cardboard box filled with books The Sacramento of Desire.
The photo of the first box of “The Sacramento of Desire,”posted on Twitter by author Julia Bloch. 

“Instead of being flooded with just pure, unadulterated joy,” says Bloch, “I’m being flooded with deep ambivalence and nervousness, which is ironic for a book that’s largely about trying to create a family. Almost a part postpartum feeling of like, ‘Oh, no. What now?’ 

“The poems are done; they’re on the page, and other people get to read them now. It’s a beautifully ambivalent sort of feeling. That wasn’t what I was expecting, but it makes so much sense to me.”

Bloch is the director of the Creative Writing Program in the English Department at Penn and teaches classes such as Writing Philadelphia, Writing Through Music, and The Art of Editing. “The Sacramento of Desire,” released in February by publisher Sidebrow, follows “Valley Fever” in 2015 and “Letters to Kelly Clarkson” in 2012, all influenced by her experiences in California, where she grew up, and in Philadelphia, where she came in 2005 to pursue her Ph.D. in English literature at Penn.  

Paul Saint-Amour, chair of Penn’s English Department, says The Sacramento of Desire” hits home for him as a Californian. “There’s a line early on in the book that I can’t get out of my head: ‘Total allergy: i.e., California.’ For me it conjures a whole landscape of runaway sensitivity in which humans react to toxic environments that are themselves reacting to human actions,” Saint-Amour says. “But there’s a good immune system in Julia’s book, too, which I take to be the array of found, gleaned, and quoted language it draws into and around itself, above all from her poetic communities.”

Five years in the making, the poetry in this new book centers around trying to conceive a child as a member of the queer community. The book was funded in part by a Pew Arts & Heritage Fellowship she was awarded in 2017. She also had a residency on the Mendocino Coast funded by the nonprofit Small Press Traffic

She will hold a reading at People’s Book &  Culture on May 4 and in the fall at Kelly Writers House, where she was previously associate director. Penn Today sat down to speak with Bloch in advance of her book tour. The conversation has been edited.

How do you describe the book? 

It’s about the desire for making a family in a world that can make that very difficult, especially for queer people who don’t fit neatly into the categories that are offered them. It’s about encountering the assisted reproductive industry and navigating Western and alternative medicine. It’s a tender book for me. But it’s also bigger than me. It’s about our desire for the future in the broadest sense of the word, like making this planet livable and habitable and hospitable.

I came to the book at an age when I was thinking about making a family, and then that conversation I was having around family just kind of grew into all of these associated topics. So, I landed on the notion of desire. I was reading a lot about how people theorize desire and how they understand desire psychologically, culturally, historically, sociologically, and even politically. How desire is really complicated and really joyful and wonderful and really painful and has a lot of conflicting associations and expectations. The book is largely about thwarted desire, a desire for a child who does not appear. And so that makes that desire a painful experience. But it’s also about what can be the wonderful experience of dwelling in that feeling in an ongoing way.

What is the origin of the cover art? 

It’s taken from Amanda Hughen’s ‘Biotransformation’ series, in which the artist is interested in biological transformation, and she uses imagery from cellular transformation, architecture, and industrial design to think about what’s happening deep, deep, deep inside our bodies and the way we look at them. I thought it was just a perfect choice.

Although centered in Sacramento, you also include Philadelphia in the book. 

A lot of the book was written when I was in Philadelphia. I grew up mostly in California, which has a lot more new construction, new sprawl. It’s also an old place, but not old in the way that Philadelphia is old. So I’m a transplant who’s endlessly fascinated with how old things are and how much history there is in buildings and infrastructure, but also how different the history is in other parts of the country. Place has come up in my other books, too. I'm really interested in the experience of riding public transit and driving on highways and how people both interact and don’t interact with each other on trolleys and buses and trains and crowded sidewalks, how connection does and doesn’t happen.

Who is the audience for the book? 

I definitely wrote it for the people who appear in the book. I wrote it for my community. I wrote it for my family, my friends, my poet cohorts. But I also wrote it for people who I don’t know yet. I feel like I’m writing into a tradition, specifically feminist poetry, that is interested in making connections between experience assumed to be ‘personal’ and more ‘political’ frameworks or lives or contexts. I’m also joining a tradition of poetry that that doesn’t believe that there’s only one voice in a poem; there are a lot of voices in the book. 

What do you hope the reader will experience? 

I didn’t realize until I got near the end of the book that one of the themes was story. It’s hard to tell a story about a difficult, difficult experience. It’s hard to tell a story with a beginning and middle and an end, one that concludes everything neatly. Even though I knew this idea, because it’s an idea that I teach a lot, I didn’t realize until the end of the book that I had been writing about that very idea. There are a lot of references in the book to how it’s hard to tell this story—I don’t know how to tell this story; I’m going to try and tell the story again; OK, now I’m starting to tell the story again; OK, now I’m going to try again—so I hope that at least some of the readers opening this book can find some permission not to try to tell their story in the ways that we’re often asked to tell a story. To tell it differently, with difficulty. There is a lot of pain in the book, and so the book is also trying to dwell in that space, and not trying to resolve it through the poem. I’m not looking to the poem as a resolution but as a space to hold it and let it be what it is. 

How does your writing intertwine with your teaching? 

All the time. Literally, I wrote some of the parts of this book in class with my students. Every time I give my students a writing exercise, I do that exercise alongside them, and I often lead us through a responsive writing exercise with a poem by Leslie Scalapino called ‘Vessels.’ [This is the passage Bloch reads in the accompanying audio recording.] We were all writing responses to the poem and responses to what we were hearing each other read. So that’s literally in the pages of this book. I use what I’ve learned as a writer when I work in the classroom, and I use what I’ve learned in the classroom when I’m writing. That’s what I love about our creative writing program. For everyone teaching here, our writing practice is so central to everything that we do.