Interview: Joanna Penn Cooper

Joanna Penn CooperJoanna’s books are The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis and What Is a Domicile.  Joanna Penn Cooper’s creative work has appeared in a number of journals, including South Dakota Review, Poetry International, Opium, Supermachine, Ping Pong, and Boog City. Her chapbooks are Mesmer and CrownJoanna holds a Ph.D. in American literature from Temple University and an MFA in Poetry from New England College.

Interview conducted by Erika Rothberg for TCJWW.

TCJWW: How did you go about organizing What Is a Domicile? While the sections come together to form a cohesive collection, they are each very distinct. How did you craft these sections?

Cooper: This collection came about partly as a result of seeing which poems I had left after organizing my collection of prose pieces for Brooklyn Arts Press, The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis.  I had originally sent a manuscript of  both lined and prose pieces to BAP, but the editor there, Joe Pan, wanted to help me craft a book made up completely of short prose piece. (There was some discussion about whether they are “micro-fiction” or prose poetry. I think the pieces in that book overlap with both genres.) I was pleased with Itinerant Girl, but at the end of that process, I was left with many poems that needed a new home, as well as others I had written during the process of seeing the BAP book into existence.  I found that some of what I had left formed an implicit narrative/theme of searching for home, as well as movement through the city, and a relationship which ultimately resulted in a child. So, while the sections in What Is a Domicile each have their own tone or feeling, those thematic threads and narrative arcs carried through the collection, for me.

TCJWW: Did you write these poems after having become a mother? Or were they from different periods of your life?

Cooper: The poems are from different periods, but they were written during my time living in New York City. I moved to New York in 2008 for a temporary teaching position at Fordham University as a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow. My son was born in 2013, and I wrote some of the book in the first six months after his birth. So I’d say the pieces were all written somewhere between 2009 and 2013. This was the Fordham and post-Fordham period, the moving around New York and living in three different apartments period, the pre-baby and just post-birth period. It’s the same period of my life, and it’s different periods of my life. Both!

TCJWW: I find it fascinating that Noctuary Press, who published your collection, specifically publishes cross-genre work by female writers. How did you find this press? What was it like working with them?

Cooper: I love the mission of Noctuary Press and the vision of its editor, Kristina Darling, and it’s an honor to be included with the other writers she has published. I met Kristina at Vermont Studio Center in May 2012. (Funny detail: I found out I was pregnant during my residency at VSC.) Kristina contacted me the following spring to ask me to consider submitting a manuscript to Noctuary. At that point, I had the poems I had written when I was pregnant and when my son was an infant, as well as those that weren’t included in the Brooklyn Arts Press book. I began to wonder if I had enough for a book, and once I started crafting the manuscript draft, I became excited about the trajectory I was seeing in the poems and was able to submit something to Kristina by that summer. Working with Kristina was a dream. She is an editor who trusts the writer to shape her own manuscript, and for this book, that was just what I needed. She was also very patient with me as I worked with a couple artist friends on the cover, batting around ideas. I finally ended up with a piece of cover art that my friend Sara Lefsyk made expressly for my book. I couldn’t be more happy with the image.

TCJWW: The style of this collection is largely free-form and stream-of-consciousness; do you tend to write in this style or did you want to explore a new way of writing in this collection?

Cooper: I’d say that the style in this book is a good reflection of a few methods or modes that I have tried or am trying. Some of the poems are what I call (in my mind) my more “jaunty,” conversational mode. This style is influenced by observing my own voice (both spoken and internal), as well as by reading the work of writers I admire, such as Lydia Davis, Eudora Welty, and New York School poets such as James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara, as well as contemporary inheritors of that school like Bernadette Mayer and my friend Todd Colby. So, in some pieces, I’m drawing on my influences and my own sensibilities to use humor and colloquial language in the service of exploring what feels like the real, living questions. There’s also a more lyrical mode that is connected to my dream-life, and perhaps to an earlier interest in poets such as Jean Valentine and W.S. Merwin. Finally, many of the prose pieces in the last section are a form I think of as something like poetic micro-essay. It’s just something I arrived at somehow. I became interested in list-like poems and collage-like poems.  Tranströmer’s Baltics and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets are two works I was reading at Vermont Studio Center when I found out I was pregnant. That searching form is something I love. I also love the memoirs such as Winter Journal by Paul Auster and Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas. Your question led me to think of influences, but I like thinking about others’ explorations as I think about my own.

TCJWW: Since this is a collection about the home, I am curious: as a mother, how do you find time to write poetry? What advice would you give other women—mothers or non-mothers—about writing poetry?

Cooper: I feel that I should be honest about this, in the spirit of supporting other parents who are going through the same thing. I really haven’t been writing very much for the past year. I have written poems here and there, and one way I find time to write is to work on collaborative poems—Todd Colby and I are working toward a book of collaborations. I’ve largely been a stay-at-home parent for this first part of my son’s life, and I did find that I was able to get some writing done during his first year. They nap more during the day as infants, and aren’t, you know, that mobile. But as he’s become an enthusiastic, mobile toddler, it’s become more challenging, especially these last six months. My son is two. He’s an active guy, and I’m usually exhausted by the time he goes to bed at night. That said, I feel that I’m ready to pick up the writing thread again. I can feel a sort of gathering of energies. A summoning? Yes, I’m a witch. (Just kidding. Kind of.) My advice to other women is to carve out time for yourself and the cultivation of that which makes you feel alive. But also, to remember that if you are doing something like going to school, watching a toddler, working an intense job, don’t despair if life concerns take over for a while. Return to it when you can. Again and again.

TCJWW: You include “borrowed” titles taken from Iain M. Banks. How did his work influence you? What drove you to incorporate his words into your own work?

Cooper: The borrowed titles were actually a prompt from Maureen Thorson, who started the National Poetry Writing Month initiative. She’s the original NaPoWriMo-er! I’ve written a poem a day during April for the last  several years. I think five years? I post them on my blog. Every year I think I might stop doing it, but then I do it. I find that it’s a good way to jumpstart my writing practice. And I like the scariness of it. And the community of it. I haven’t read Banks, but his language activated that part of my brain that appreciates the absurd. Some of my work borders on the surreal, but it’s the surreal that’s found by just walking around with your eyes open in the world we live in.

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