Poetry and Conversation: Joanna Pearson

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By Kim Leith, Humanities Department

Joanna PearsonPoet Joanna Pearson brings to her writing exquisite craft mixed with often quirky subject matter, which she will be bringing to our September 24 Poetry & Conversation event at the Central Library. For example, you can meet a modern Daedalus in a pool parlor "seeing" his fallen son, a sword swallower’s wife complaining, or a young bride lost in a surrealistic dream.

Or, more simply (and more complexly) the human heart or a gunshot—wound patient becomes the focus of a poem’s persistent (but gentle) examination. Whether writing about emergency room or mythological crisis, each poem explores its subject with psychological ingenuity and caringly intricate poetic craft.

I interviewed Joanna for some advance insights into her poetry and inspiration.

Which poet's work has taught you most about writing, and why?
Oh, this is a really impossible question! There have been so many poets that have been important and influential to me over the years. The best answer I can give, though, is that it was actually a professor I had my freshman year of college, Dr. Robert Kirkpatrick, who really taught me how to read poetry. I’d never been able to hear iambic pentameter until I took his class, and that was like a revelation.

What makes a poem "good" or "effective"? When revising, how does a poet know when a poem is ready to breathe on its own?
I think a poem should be moving. It should express something that is quite difficult to express—that, to me, is the big game of poetry: you’re always going after the ineffable. Any poem should at least be striving toward this. And I think a poem should sound good. A good poem has to do all of these things simultaneously—and a great poem has to do all this plus have a little extra magic as well.

As to the question of revising, I don’t always have a great answer to this. In the best case scenario, something just clicks and you know you have it. Otherwise, I think you may just have to give the poem a little space and come back to it.

Why and how do you use mythology in some of your poems?
One answer is that I’ve always just loved mythology. I think it’s endlessly interesting terrain to revisit and rework. In those stories, you see a lot of the same fears, conflicts, and preoccupations that still haunt the edges of daily life. Another answer, though, is that maybe I find myths a useful means by which to approach the difficult stories that we all encounter every day, albeit indirectly. Myths have a way of universalizing an experience while retaining a certain specificity. In that way I think myths in a way can serve as a powerful proxy or mirror.

Joanna Pearson CoverWhy does poetry matter? What is important about poetry to the contemporary world in general? To you?
Another impossible question! It’s hard to argue that poetry matters in the same way as, say, flu shots, or a hot meal to someone who’s hungry. So I guess I’m less interested in making a case for poetry “mattering” in the contemporary world than in suggesting that the world might be less rich and less beautiful without it.

Why did you choose to write "Arsonists in Love" (such rule breakers!) as a sonnet? What do you find useful about the sonnet form, either for yourself or for contemporary poetry in general?
I think you’re hinting at exactly the thing I love about sonnets even in asking this question! I love how the sonnet is such a compact, pressurized little form. I think some of the best sonnets are the ones in which the form is somehow in tension with the content—it’s all there, wound up and ready to explode. I think that’s why I thought it was particularly appropriate for "The Arsonists in Love," which is, at least on some level, a poem preoccupied by structures/the destruction of them.

I love free verse, but I think this potential for tension and working with/against a sonnet is what makes me interested in form in general.
For more on the poem "Arsonists in Love," please see Our God Is a Consuming Fire: Fourteen Reflections on Joanna Pearson’s "The Arsonists in Love" on 32poems.com.

What recent (or old) poetry have you read lately that you’re excited about?
The book of poetry that I’ve read most recently and been struck by was Christian Wiman’s Every Riven Thing, which is both so moving and beautiful to the ear. Prior to that, I really liked Rachel Wetzsteon’s Silver Roses and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. I've also just started reading Anne-Marie Thompson's first book of poetry, Audiation, which is wonderful, so I highly recommend that! (And it’s kind of the book-sibling of my book since it was the 2013 Donald Justice pick!)

Joanna Pearson, whose first book of poetry, Oldest Mortal Myth (2012) won the Donald Justice Prize for Poetry in 2012, will be reading at the Pratt Library with Megan McShea on Tuesday, September 24 at 6:30 in the Central Library Poe Room. You can read more poems by Joanna Pearson on her website.

Follow @librarypoems to learn about other poetry events at the Pratt Library. Join the conversation at #PrattPoetry.

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