Saturday, July 16, 2011

Joanie Mclean: Questions for an American Poet

Poet Joanie McLean, Silk Hope, Chatham County, N.C.

Joanie McLean’s response to Questions for American Poets--see below for new book info: Place, July '11

1) When did you start writing and what motivated you?

I never had a conscious intention to write poems. In my 40’s I found myself in a pretty dysfunctional work environment but couldn’t see a way out. My desperation built to quite a pitch. I’d been encouraged to journal as a problem solving technique, to clarify my priorities. One day a poem came; it was about how tiny and inconspicuous are the keys to our "handcuffs." It was a powerful revelation, literally changed my life. I left my corporate job within a few months to work with my partner in her native plant nursery. And I’ve been receiving poems ever since.

2) Who are the writers who first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?

I’ve always been an insatiable reader, but for most of my life I had read poetry only occasionally and was not conscious of being "inspired to write." I believe I’ve read everything ever published by William Faulkner, some of it two and three times, and I’m working towards the same with Virginia Woolf. I find many novelists’ writing immensely poetic: Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Margaret Elphinstone, James Galvin, Haldor Laxness. Once I became interested in writing poems, I read any poetry I could get my hands on – a pretty eclectic mish mash. The poets I enjoyed immediately and kept going back to include Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Frost (for their rhythm and music), W. S. Merwin and Derek Walcott (for their images and clarity), Dickinson (for her wisdom), Mary Oliver and Gunilla Norris (for the familiarity/resonance of their subject matter).

3) How important is 'everyday life' to your work?

Essential. For me, being present and focused on the nuances of ‘every day life’ is what brings poems. In my experience, the sacredness in our existence is found in the garden or the kitchen or hanging out the laundry.

4) What is the role or place of subjectivity in your poetry?

Subjectivity provides the edge, the challenge to my writing. In my experience, poems come to me rather than from me, but they are still reflections of my (subjective) experience. So all of the so called craft –editing, rewriting, reworking—is to couch the poem in words and lines that will move it beyond the subjective, out into the world -- ideally to the universal.

5) Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?

Yes, I think my poems fit pretty easily into the lyric tradition. I’ve also read references to and analyses of Nature poets and Spiritualist poets and feel something of a kinship with them (e.g., Jane Hirshfield). Doreen Gildroy has a wonderful column in American Poetry Review called "Poetry and Mysticism" where she discusses the writer’s life, the contemplative life, and poetry as the voice of the mystic. I’m not claiming membership in such an exalted group! But I do see in my poems as an attempt to understand our "relationship with the eternal," as Tony Hoagland puts it.

6) What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?

The "publishing thing." I can get really caught up in needing that external validation. Many great poets have acknowledged and written about the danger of writing to get published, how this can be deadly. I find that to submit my work effectively can be extremely time consuming and can just suck up all my available focus and energy. So I keep little scraps of paper around reminding me that the poems are what matter, publishing is just a game of chance. Getting those rare acceptances is still pretty euphoric for me, though.

7) What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?

I read criticism because it helps me understand the thinking and perceptions of other people who love poetry. I have a book called Close calls With Nonsense in which the literary critic Stephen Burt helps us understand and appreciate inscrutable modern poetry. I want to know what anyone can possibly see in those poems that leave me out in the cold! And I’m reading Proust with Judy Hogan’s class. I feel like Proust has given me courage: he writes about the ineffable – with no apology!

8) What is ‘American poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘American’ poet?

Despite all the hoo haw about globalization, I think that American culture is still unique. And our culture is inescapable, indelibly imprinted on us. So I would say that any poet who has grown up or lived extensively in our culture necessarily reflects America – good, bad, or shameful as it might be. Yes, I am definitely an American poet.

9) What is the current state of American poetry, as you see it?

My formal education and work experience are in the sciences, and my education in American literature is woefully lacking. So I hesitate to offer an opinion, but I sense that the poetry that gets published and noticed in America today is deeply cynical and reflects the loss of a sense of wonder; there’s no dialog about solution or hope, no sense of the ideal. Being "meaningful" is corny. But—out here in the hinterlands among all of us poet nobodies, poems are still being written in hope of saving the world.

How do you think American poetry might best develop in the next ten years?

Poetry needs to take up responsibility for changing the course of human history. It’s well suited for this task, and there’s nothing else available that is. If we think political leaders or technology can save us – we are real suckers.

10) How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in the U.S. and/or at an international level?

(See previous answer) Great writers and artists throughout history have said that Art can change the world. And in fact, I see Art as the only force or leverage that humans have against moral and spiritual decay. Who knows what constitutes "rock bottom" for any particular society, but I often imagine that I’m walking in the footsteps of some Roman woman around the year 450. We might somehow keep our cars on the road, our thermostats set at 75, and our sushi restaurants in business for another few decades. But those are pretty low rent goals for a society. I believe poetry’s relevance is its potential to turn the tide and bring us back into sync with our world and our universe.

Here’s a quote I like from Lewis Thomas, physician, poet, etymologist, essayist, author of Lives of the Cells: "We have a wilderness of mystery to make our way through in the centuries to come, and we shall need not just science alone. For perceiving significance where significance is at hand, we shall need minds at work from all sorts of brains–mostly the brains of poets, of course. The poets, on whose shoulders the future rests, might, late nights, begin to see some meanings that elude the rest of us."


I met Joanie McLean several years ago. She’d begun writing poetry and wanted my feedback. I’ve been amazed at how good she has become in a fairly short time. I asked her to answer these questions for American poets, and I give her answers above. When she asked me to give her a comment on her second book, I wrote the following:

"Joanie McLean’s Place poems hover close to that inchoate mystery which is the natural world, both inside and outside of us. She so articulates the interconnections between herself and the wild animals, woods, and skies that she helps us see our own earthly experience freshly."

Here’s a little about her book and the events that follow its publication this month.

Joanie McLean lives in Silk Hope, a small farming community in the North Carolina Piedmont. Her poems have received several awards, including a McDill Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society, Poetry Council of North Carolina awards, and two first prizes in the Fields of Earth poetry competition. She has published two chapbooks, both with Finishing Line Press


PLACE (2011)
Available for @ $14.00 through the author:
 the publisher:  
Upcoming readings:

August 1, 2011 - Interview on WCOM Radio’s "Carolina Book Beat," 10:00 a.m.
August 28, 2011 - Reading at McIntyre’s Fine Books, Pittsboro, NC, 2:00 p.m. [click "listen on line"] December 15, 2011 - Reading at Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC, 7:00 p.m. ***

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