There are many houses on the pages of Julie Funderburk's debut book of poetry, The Door that Always Opens. You won't find them around Charlotte, though: the poet's childhood and family homes have been, one way or another, demolished to make way for new construction.
"It's kind of strange to live in a city where you've had a number of dwellings, and they're all destroyed," she says.
The basic facts of the houses in her debut book of poetry are true. One was a small dairy farm; in "Future Site of Fletcher Academy," Funderburk walks the bulldozed land where it once stood. There were some rental houses and an apartment she lived in, all gone now, but all presented poetically in The Door that Always Opens. Yet autobiography isn't Funderburk's goal — in fact, that's not even how she views these poems. The fact of these houses is more of a mechanism used to explore the things that separate people and that draw them together. On December 6, Funderburk reads from The Door that Always Opens at Queens College's Duke Energy Auditorium.
To her, poetry is a fictive art; some things she amplifies, others she simplifies, and all for narrative's sake. She may be writing about a house her family lived in while her dad was still working on it, say, but it's not really about her.
And she's still coming to terms with what it means to have shared some of these details in her work.
- Julie Funderburk
"I think a lot of writers have something about their lives that prompts them to want to write, something that happens that makes them see themselves in light of the rest of the world, so there's a little bit of a difference or a gap," Funderburk says. "It can be any number of things. For some people it's trauma, but it's not always that. I guess this unusual aspect of my personal history is one of the things that separated me from other people."
She never thought she would write poems about the houses she's lived in. That seems like the kind of thing that would go in a memoir, Funderburk says, and she's not all that interested in that kind of writing. She was surprised, then, when she started writing a series of poems about her family's homes. In "The Undertaking," she paints a picture of a father who spends his entire adult life building a house, while in "Singular Summer" she describes living in an unfinished house with her family. "We had no certificate of occupancy and kept clothes in bags. / Reason wasn't helping, so I shut up about it," she writes. They snaked an extension cord in, as the poem goes, and blocked the windows with plywood at night so no light would reveal their presence.
"It was a real house in Charlotte," she says, admitting it feels weird to switch gears and discuss the actual house rather than its poetic equivalent. All families, as she understands it, have things they don't share with other people. These aren't necessarily dark or sinister secrets, she explains, but can simply be eccentricities. This unwritten code fascinates her, even as she toes it in The Door that Always Opens. Funderburk's own work is underlain with elements of her own family: her late father, who died when she was in her early 20s; the string of now-demolished houses; her twin brother, who appears in the satisfying and concise "Trying to Light Charcoal in a Coastal Night Wind."
Having a twin, too, gave Funderburk early insight into the culture of the gender binary. Growing up, she saw how the world treated them differently: for one, he had all the good toys; to this day, Funderburk's not sure what's supposed to be fun about giving a doll a bottle. In school, she remembers boys and girls were forever being separated. In kindergarten, she was confused when she and her twin had to sit at different tables for their birthday party — she at the girls' table with pink cupcakes, and he at the boys' one with chocolate ones. They were best friends, and it didn't make sense to celebrate separately.
"To me, he was pretty much the same as me, and that's not how everybody else saw us," she says. These early lessons made her more confident in thinking about the idea of an extreme gender binary and the way it effects people. In the churning, staccato "Notes for Surviving Girlhood," she addresses some of these pressures. "No one can uproot your nerve," she writes.
Fiction writers are taught to borrow liberally from reality, Funderburk points out. She understands, too, that real life is stranger than fiction, so when she sits down to write poems she does much of the same thing. She takes license with some of the details, but the basic facts — the stuff you just can't make up, as they say — are true.
"The autobiography isn't the important part for me," Funderburk says. "The way the story can be shared with others and why it might ought to be is what interests me."