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Blog - Page 4 of 9 - Joan Cusack Handler

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“I Never Visit My Mother’s Grave” receives honorable mention in New Jersey Poet’s Prize

Part 3 of my poem “I Never Visit My Mother’s Grave” recently received an honorable mention from the New Jersey Poet’s Prize, sponsored by the Journal of New Jersey Poets.

To read the full poem, download here.

booktrib reviews “Confessions…”

Confessions of Joan the Tall the often simultaneously hilarious and poignant, offbeat memoir…
See more at booktrib

Words as Art Objects

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

At heart a visual person as well as a lover of words, in addition to a unique and identifiable voice, what most captivates me about a poem is the painterliness of it—the exquisite execution of detail, simple or baroque, Alaska landscape or Persian carpet—and the ways that words connote or carry voice. The right word insists I smell the garbage, the shit, the powder on the baby’s neck, the fire after it’s gone; it releases the vulnerable in me—the shame at the center of my chest, the child—joyful or afraid, the heat in my groin, the old woman carefully dying; and it goes for the forbidden in me—the wolf, the bear, the huge sex of it, the bare teeth. And it is the facile blending of words to make exquisite morsels and the freedom of the psyche to bring forth images that only the underworld understands—this is the gift of the painterly poet—in his or her hands, words are brush and paint: color/pain/rage/sex /joy/food/drool….

I’m drawn as well to the visual power of words—they weave whole tapestries with each. They amplify each other –rendering one another stronger or quieter by their physical proximity—beside, above or beneath.  It’s not surprising then that along the way, I found the physical side of my poems, or better said perhaps, I discovered that place where poetry and visual art merge and words exist as art objects and tools rather than simply as carriers of literal meaning. They are the sculptor’s clay and the arms and legs of the dancer.

Just as Molly helped me to find my poems, this discovery too was set in motion by a mentor. One day over coffee during one of our many conversations about poems, my good friend and poet Baron Wormser asked me what my relationship was to the left margin. I answered simply that that was the place poems started from and returned to. Baron indicated that he felt some poets were left margin poets and others were not—he was and he felt I was not. I recalled that I had used the page and the line differently when I first started to write- starting lines and stanzas in the middle of the page, alternating stanzas from left to right among other things, but I had abandoned those tendencies early on. In my attempt to write an acceptable poem, I corralled its physical as well as its emotional life. In my mind, invention and imagination were restricted to words, images and ideas; form was inherited, its creation completed by the masters who came before us. I simply followed the ‘rules’ already set down for big emotion and blank verse; though my lines were long, they obediently returned to the left margin before taking off again. Baron suggested I disguard convention and explore my own impulses. I felt exhilarated and inspired–like a commandment had been lifted. I could do what I thought I could not. A widely respected poet, a master himself, encouraged me to invent my own art.

As I write this, my relentless dependency on authority figures continues to embarrass me. I would like to have taken those liberties on my own, but I could not. And I am not alone in this. Try as we might to divest ourselves of (or at least firm up) our childhood frailties, they leap to the foreground when we are our most vulnerable, particularly when our lives and loves (people and poems) are threatened. Why didn’t I know that I could invent my own form? Where was it written that the book on form was already closed and complete? Here again, my defenses (in this case, denial) were working to protect me from some wildness I feared would erupt should I let go. At heart, I was still a bad girl hiding her evil or crazy nature. Desperate to be good and to please. Because I was already saying wildly unconventional things in my poems, I needed to house these in more acceptable traditional frames. To have invented on the page as well would have been to leave myself aesthetically out there on a limb completely alone. I did not have the confidence for that. I needed to belong and the more I wrote, the more I felt myself moving into a field of my own. But with Baron beside me, I felt less alone and very much affirmed. Remarkably this had been my experience with Molly—her encouragement the permission I needed to explore dark territory and make poems of subject matter and imagery that often seemed bizarre and even offensive. (I had similar permission in the discovery of my imagination. Reading Gerald Stern and then studying with him opened me up to the delight of play and imagination. This was another magical world that only opened when a mentor said it was safe to go inside—to not be frightened or repelled by my differentness—in fact to revel in it).

After this conversation with Baron, I went back to my poems and blissfully took to the page as canvas on which I painted words—letting the voice and the poem decide their direction and how loud or soft their volume. It was exhilarating this opening up. I was in love with letters and words as physical beings that have shape, size, color and intensity—tallness, fatness, redness—tools that when manipulated could deepen emotion and resonate on multiple levels—conscious and unconscious. Each is its own sculpture that separately and in combination with others becomes the greater structure that is the poem. So too I saw how the length and shape that the lines take all deepen the art– the livingness of the thing. I agreed wholeheartedly with Baron that not all poems are adequately represented by departure from and return to the left margin. I came to understand that the poem has to be allowed to sprawl if it wants to or stand straight and correct in its assertions—its spine more or less prominent in keeping with its emotional and intellectual voyage. For that reason, though I admire them a great deal, formal poems, though rigorous and grand if well executed, seem in dissonance to the stretch of many feelings and experiences. Therein, however, lays the art for the formalist—ordering the chaos.

My aim on the other hand is to embody the feeling in its truest, perhaps roughest, primitive shape or limb, so that the physical reality of the poem reflects and promotes the meaning. For me, poems are dances: live beings standing or moving in broad empty spaces. Each has its own form and distinct identity on the page and as poets, it’s our challenge to discover that.. Whereas my self-protective impulse had initially denied and stifled the voice, then attempted to tame it and eventually to simply tone it down, I now use its physical characteristics to deepen and propel the voice –to slow or accelerate its movement or intensity –through the poem; where successful, it more clearly conveys the voice on the page as I hear it and as I want the reader to hear it.

Carried even further, even our sense of the page as canvas for words comes into question. Imagine ‘Leaves of Grass’ or ‘Howl’ written without the imposed boundary of paper size that fits in a book and must stand on a shelf. I like to daydream about long sheaves of parchment rolled and tied with leather string lounging on broad shelves or tables or hanging on walls–size and shape again determined by the stretch and reach of the poem and the voice calling from inside it.

Sabotaging Voice

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

Little wonder we poets have our own writing defenses— ways of subverting or otherwise muting the voice. The most obvious of course is the block. The voice refusing to speak. The soul refusing to speak. Blocks, like psychological defenses, offer places where the soul can heal or hide as it needs to, as all souls must. (Yet not all blocks stem from perceived danger, some stem from the soul’s involvement in other fields. Others may indicate that the soul has nothing to say; having emptied itself out, it needs time to collect its thoughts before refocusing.) Next is the poet’s careful selection of what may be said—what topics may be taken on in the poem and what can be said about them. Because so much of who we are is emotion, and so many feelings tend not to be trusted—we are tempted to avoid them and make art that is clever, artful, even painterly perhaps, but not honest. The paradox then is that we write because we have something to say, but our fear of exposure is so great that it stops us from writing. One solution is to disguise the truth as fantasy; less successful is writing lifeless things. The result may satisfy the poet’s internal censors, but because the poet takes no risks, the reader is not moved. The poem that results is less than the language and overwhelmed by technique. When the soul is missing from the poem, the voice is missing and when voice is missing, I believe we have no poem, just a clever collection of words.

Each of us has our own idiosyncratic ways of subverting voice which closely resemble the defenses we use in our everyday emotional lives. For the most part, these defenses are unconscious. They have been so incorporated into our personality that they function on their own, and only a very careful study of our own psyche brings them into focus. Examples are avoidance, denial and repression all of which involve ‘forgetting’ and dismissal of certain feelings and experiences; they simply do not exist. Intellectualization involves the use of reason to explain away emotions. Compartmentalization is the tendency to view parts of the psyche as isolated and without influence or interaction. Hysteria involves elaborate exploration of every nuance of a feeling or experience and the tendency to give all equal weight so that the distinction between what is important and what is not is lost.

In my own case, my defense pattern is a combination of intellectualization and hysteria. My impulse is to overwrite or to write around a topic rather than hitting it head on. Though I concluded that I was/am inarticulate, I believe this ‘muddy’ writing is less a problem with language and more likely related to not knowing myself what I really mean. I need not to know. When I catch myself saying or thinking something ‘bad’ or questionable, my immediate self-protective response is to glaze over or get lost in lesser details thus extinguishing the original thought. The voice gets bogged down with vague approximations of the truth.

To complicate things, and now I am speaking of all of us, it’s the unspoken, the part that has been so inhibited, that has in its imprisonment, greatest energy. Silenced for so long, it has much to say. It is this drive toward speech that necessitates, even demands the poem and informs the voice. In fact, it is the voice.

This war between silence and speech will be waged to a greater or lesser extent in all of our poems. In my own case, saying more than the subject requires or using too much detail can make it difficult for the reader to locate the focus of the poem. Sometimes I think of it as the voice screaming. Finally let out, it rushes to say everything for fear of the next silence. The challenge for me then is to aspire towards that fine line where I let the voice pour out but not so much as to drown itself and the reader. On the other hand, since I often err on the side of saying more, in my impulse to be more acceptable—which for me means spare and stark as opposed to conversational– to correct for that seeming messiness, I often carve the life out of the voice.  I make my wished-for small stark poems, and, in so doing, ‘create’ flat dead poems.  The finest small poems are meant to enliven a particular detail, but mine amount to short-circuiting a process. The truth is that my natural voice, in keeping with my personality, is vociferous, and my aesthetic project is to follow the emotional and psychological patterns of experience and that involves many steps and a lot of detail. Since my goal is charting process, much as I long for it, summary is not enough.

My eventual solution to the battle between saying too much and saying too little goes back to my uncensored writing. I explore every tributary or image that comes to me, and then I leave the poem alone. I have no idea where that fine line is… what’s too little or too much until I let the emotion cool off and I come back to the poem and reenter it. At that point, with the advantage of distance, the more essential elements of the poem will usually call out to me.

Pursuing this discussion still further, it follows that if voice is the soul’s utterances, then literature resides in that place where language and form are in harmony with the voice. The voice chooses the language and the form. It knows what it has to say and how it wants to say it. So language and line, form and syntax all serve to advance the soul’s message. Because some voices are loud, celebrant, some histrionic, others pensive, reserved, each need different venues—paragraphs, lines, language, tone. Lines will loosen, tighten, language will become more muscular, more relaxed depending on the emotion expressed. Typically, the quieter, more reserved the voice, the tighter the language, the shorter the line. The more expansive, bountiful, angry… the more the line will have to stretch out and oftentimes the language will have to loosen to accommodate the feeling—huge as it is. So too with the choice of form—poetry or prose—narrative or lyric, formal or free verse. The art we strive for is a seamless one—where the frame or craft serves and enhances the art without drawing attention to itself as artifact. So too with prose. Just as the soul, the face and the finger-print are each unique so too is our way of relating a story and unfolding a character or series of characters.

Voice

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

As critical as voice is to our poems, few talk about it—what it is, how we ‘find’ it, what interferes with or enhances it–this elusive thing we can’t make art without.

It is my contention that voice is the soul of the artist speaking. Initially unconscious and as unique as the internal private terrain of each person, voice is an amalgam of all the verbal and preverbal experience—conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational –of the writer. In a sense, a door opens inside the writer revealing that place where the soul lives. That door opens and the soul slips out. Voice is the soul of all art.

(When I speak of voice, though, I am not suggesting that it is singular—that each of us has but one voice that chants for or from all parts of the soul; rather I’m referring to the whole orchestra of voices—generations of voices we’ve known, listened to, assimilated and or rejected).

But much of what the soul has to say is strange and forbidden, therefore threatening. What we fear most is censure. Our impulse is to hide –to protect ourselves in the poem in much the same way we do in our everyday lives.  But to the extent that we are successful in sabotaging the voice, we’ve sacrificed the poem or story. Problems of voice erupt when this need to conceal is greater than the need to speak.

Essentially, the freeing of voice is synonymous with the freeing of the person. For the poet to speak, she must have available to her all the rooms in which she lives. She must have access– not necessarily understanding. In fact, given the intricacies of the psyche, understanding will always be tentative and incomplete. But poems are about discovery. The greater the discovery, the stronger the poem. But the challenge to this discovery is, as discussed earlier, is the terror of what will be revealed Though not all writers come from the same restrictive terrain that I do, we all walk around with censors inside that dictate what is acceptable and what is not. Each time we write a poem, we risk discovering something bizarre and/or distasteful about ourselves, and the reality of that constitutes a significant threat. (That being said, the threat of the poem is far greater than the threat of personal discovery. In our own lives, we apprehend ourselves all the time and to the extent that we are psychologically aware of the workings of our unconscious, we decode its messages. All of this happens privately and for the most part remains so. Not so in a poem. Each time we write, we risk making public some strangeness that in our everyday lives we strive to deny even from ourselves. The challenge of the poem then may well be greater than that of even therapy. Or confession.  In these, we reveal to ourselves and one other what we do not want to know; in the poem, we open it up to the world.)

A Mentor

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

A friend told me about Molly Peacock whose work I greatly admired—she took private students and was very supportive without sacrificing the rigors of art. She could teach you to find your own poems without soliciting clones to mimic hers. You could grow as a writer without being decimated emotionally. She liked my work and valued my subject matter. She accepted me as a student and became my life raft.

Molly challenged me. Rather than protecting me from the poem—she urged me towards it. When I went for safety, she probed further and pushed me to fly wilder. When I said I couldn’t, she insisted I must. She laughingly accused me of always trying to cover my bra straps in public. She insisted I let them show. When I revised weirdnesses of thought or language out of a poem, she insisted I put them back in. My constant pull between acceptance and convention on the one hand and imagination and independence on the other were always at the center of our sessions. Molly gave me the courage to delve deeper and explore even darker terrains. I wrote poems filled with rage and celebration, poems about pain and illness, poems in which I railed against the Church, the nuns, of all things, God. I wrote poems that appalled me and poems that amazed me.  But this time I wasn’t alone with them. I had found a home and a parent/mentor: a godmother for my poems.

But still I struggled. I started to study my own process and that of other writers. Most of my friends knew that they were gifted but were frustrated by the lack of appreciation that came from the literary community. I, on the other hand, was aware that even with Molly’s belief in me, and that of my poet friends, along with considerable success in several competitions, I was still full of shame when I viewed my own work. I did not know what was good about it, and I was plagued by envy. I wanted to write more like my friends–smart, intelligent, dense small poems—so I continued to try to clean up the mess in each new one.

I continued to work with Molly, continued to discover, to write, to send work out, and to pray for approval. I suffered. I wanted to belong, but I knew that to belong I needed to value my own creation. Alan, again, at a crossroads, recognizing how deeply unhappy I was, encouraged me to find what it was about writing that made me happy. He was right once again; I had lost (or perhaps never really had) the sense of pleasure associated with writing, so I went back into therapy but this time twice a week.

I began to zero in more intensively on voice–what it is, what inhibits it, what heightens it, what mutes it. I proposed a definition, proposed it as the single most independent and original aspect of the gift of art. I explored my own –what I approved of, what I disapproved of. I used what I was learning to teach other writers to explore their own.

Envy

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

 

My sense of isolation intensified even further when my own envy erupted. Over the years in therapy, I confronted the enormous storm that envy has created in my life. In fact envy and its sibling greed have been the most forbidden emotions I’ve battled with throughout my life but that much more so since I entered graduate school. There, my demands for excellence and insecurities regarding my own gifts compared to those of my fellow students, intensified. In these lethal comparisons, I came up wanting—the talents of my peers always outdistancing mine. The result was that stab in my chest then the slow burn at the pit of my stomach when I heard a poem or a success that I wished was mine.  Envy certainly did not fit with my attempts to be a good and generous human being. It diminished me as a person and intense shame accompanied it. I hated the self-involvement and shallowness implied by it and realized that without discovering the feelings and experiences that give rise to it, envy would continue to darken my view and rob me of the pleasure that comes from making art.

Psychologically, envy begins in childhood and, for the most part, stems from sibling rivalry—the belief that siblings threaten our place in our parents’ hearts. If my mother and father have other children to love, they will love me less.  The healthiest of us had parents who were sensitive to that vulnerability and reassured us that we were loved for ourselves, for our uniqueness. We did not have to duplicate our brother’s or sister’s talents to warrant love. But that is often not the case. For us Cusack kids, in addition to three siblings, a far more formidable threat was posed by the sinless perfect child held up to us as the ideal of what our parents and God wanted. We knew we could never measure up. That sense of inadequacy and threat naturally spread into other arenas of our lives—particularly ones that mattered most, like our art. And one plagued by envy is likely not to trust and value his or her own work.

So envy implies a hunger, an emptiness. And hunger requires feeding. As children we look to our parents to tend to our needs for food and shelter, love and self-worth. As adults, we transfer this reliance to ourselves. So too with the gifts of art. If we only rely on others to feed us and do not learn to feed ourselves, we will starve and our art will starve. The world can never feed us enough to make up for the lack of our own care. And the first step toward that self-feeding involves identifying our gift. What is it that distinguishes my work from another’s? What can I love about what I do? For me, it was my intensive study of voice (explored further on in this essay) and learning to embrace my own, that introduced me to my gift, and it was that discovery that finally muted envy for me. (Not totally—these feelings seldom disappear completely—but significantly enough for me to feel its absence) The relief was palpable, profound. But that didn’t happen until years after I finished graduate school. Until then, I burned with envy and the shame that accompanied it. It threatened to paralyze me. I became physically sick and depressed; I couldn’t write.

A Thank You…

Reading and discussing my work with audiences is such a pleasure. It completes the process that began in most cases years ago with inspiration and writing followed by relentless editing and finally, joyful sharing with readers. One never gets tired of meeting new readers.

But so much of reading in bookstores and libraries is a solitary affair. True—Alan accompanies me when I ask him, but he has his own life, and schedules sometimes conflict. So the best I can hope for those times is minimal traffic on the road and a cluster of readers/listeners at the other end interested in hearing me read/discuss Confessions of Joan the Tall. Last Thursday was a first and much appreciated addition to my reading at the Bernardsville Library. Ann Cade, Teresa Carson’s (close friend and associate publisher of CKP) sister whom I barely know (we met last at Teresa’s book party for Congress of Human Oddities and once last year at Teresa’s reading at Dodge) called to suggest that we have dinner or drinks before the reading—she, her husband, Peter (who had surgery that day!!!), and several of their friends would be joining us for the reading and dinner. Need I say that I was very touched by her kindness. To come herself was generous; to invite her husband and friends abundantly so. Of course I accepted.

The evening was splendid –food, yes, but conversation, more so. My reading and the animated discussion that followed were my dessert. Madelyn English, adult program director of the library, was a thoroughly gracious host and Wanda Praisner, CKP poet, surprised me by attending as well. Let’s hear it for the thrill of reading from Confessions to several new friends, the leader (Anne) already having read the book. Such an endorsement of Confessions! Such a gift to me! Thank you, Ann. Thank you, Peter. Thank you Sara, Caryl and Donna, Madelyn and Wanda!

The Beginnings of Speech

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

 

But after the relief of making a commitment to learn to write, that would not be easy. Because I was still so convinced that the writing gift was something that existed in its most mature form inside us and simply sprung to the artist when called, the concept of learning to write almost shamed me.  The fact that I had to learn to do it made the possibility that I had a gift at all seriously doubtful. Certainly if I did, it was considerably less than that of truly gifted writers who I was still convinced didn’t have to. I wanted more than anything to be able to write and I was terrified that I couldn’t. So, coming to grips with my own unresolved passion for writing was  very painful. I had held it captive all my life (I was then 42) and had focused on career and life choices that were predictable given my background growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s.

My parents and all parents in Edgewater were immigrants and uneducated—mostly blue collar workers who were survivors of World Wars and the Depression for whom a home and food on the table were life goals and pleasures. Each craved a good education and professional jobs for their children. You didn’t aspire to be a writer in the 1950’s; all arts were frill and flimsy at best. Writing was a nice hobby to have but it certainly was never considered a serious life choice; those were reserved for vocations that would earn you a respectable salary and security. Knowing that you could work everyday for as long as you needed and preferably in the same place—were the values that we were guided by. As a girl you wanted to be a teacher or a secretary, perhaps a nurse. You chose work that would allow you to be home when your children came home from school.

So arts had no place in our world. In school we had no music or art courses, no creative writing. Walt Disney was the only imagination. There was certainly no such thing as adult imagination. Philosophically, we were a very authority conscious society. We had rules, laws, and commandments for every life situation—priests, police, and presidents to tell us what the truth was. And we believed. There was no ambiguity and no questions. We found solace in knowing how and what to think. It was a barren land indeed.

To complicate things further, I was already a Ph.D. in my professional life as a clinical psychologist, so the concept of being a beginner at anything seemed incongruous. Somehow having achieved success in one arena should have rendered me more knowledgeable in another. I felt very self conscious. Through a friend, I learned of a group called Bergen Poets. My initial challenge was to get myself to a meeting. I did and returned several times though I felt completely intimidated and couldn’t participate. I was amazed that people could read their poems aloud and listen as the group discussed them—their strengths and weaknesses. I couldn’t imagine such cinfidence. But I learned of a workshop that was starting for beginning poets. I was terrified but I signed up. There I started to write about Janice. After many weeks, I brought a poem to class and read it. Miraculously, no one laughed at me.

From there I found more challenging workshops and spent two summer weeks at the Frost Place Poetry Festival in Franconia, New Hampshire. I set new goals for myself —always upping the ante to include some new challenge. Despite my constant self doubt, I also had a very vigilant alter ego fighting for me– listening for, finding and repeating every word of encouragement that any teacher or peer uttered. Once again, no one laughed at me or told me I didn’t belong. In fact, everyone took me seriously. After about three years, I decided that my next step needed to be a master’s program since that was the only way I could study with the finest poets and also find a community of equally serious writers to share my work with. Not since my two brief weeks at Frost Place had I had that sense of shared trust with a group of writers and I was again feeling isolated, so, on the recommendation of poet, Louis Simpson, I applied for the masters program in creative writing at NYU.  I had met Louis at my first serious (university based) workshop and later studied with him at Aspen and he had always been very supportive of my work.

Though I had many positive learning experiences at NYU, it turned out to be the wrong place for me. As an older writer—I was now 45—I stood out among the score or so brilliant young writers (fresh out of college) that I studied with. They were all far more gifted and literarily sophisticated than I; twenty five plus years separated me from any formal study of literature and it had included very little poetry and virtually no writing technique or craft classes. To read a poem in workshop was torment, but I did it. I wanted to learn. I wanted to write good poems, and I had long since given up the fantasy that this should be effortless and graceful.

Though I was often criticized for my lack of craft and my prosy language, my subject matter, the emotional and psychological terrain of the individual and human relationships, was the most heavily criticized. Other students stood in judgment of what the voice in my poems had to say. I gave too much power to men, some told me; one workshop chastised me severely for having what they determined were incestuous feelings for my son when I spoke of the beauty of his little body. Once again I was being judged for what I said or felt, but God and the nuns were now replaced by fellow students (except for two friends who quietly reassured me that they knew what I was doing and valued it). I was very much an outsider. After a lifetime of self criticism and censorship and a longing to fit in and for approval, I was trying with every new poem to write my own poem–one that was honest and came from unchartered territory inside myself.

But here too I struggled. Because of my clinical training, I somehow always knew where the poem was going before it decided for itself. Surprise seemed outside the realm of one who had so studied her own and everyone else’s psyche as to render them sparse terrain. There would be no discoveries, I thought. But still I pushed further. I developed a technique of recording everything that came into my head during a writing session. I gave myself rules—turning internal censors into enforcers of my own dictates. No edits, no corrections. At this point, I had become adept at editing out all idiosyncrasies, rewording as I recorded, reframing and redirecting, conducting the poem as it attempted to be born, girdling and corralling it just as it started to move. Just be an instrument, I told myself. Record. Record. Record. Do not change a word. Do not arrange. Follow every wandering…record every thought or feeling in the language in which it arrives. In its exact syntax. In its quirky sometimes shocking, shameful dialect. Every nuance. Every detail. Do not ask what it means? DO NOT ERASE! I assured myself anonymity. No one had to read it. I could rip it up once I’d written it. I obeyed. I recorded. It worked.

I erupted with discovery; in fact, I got more than I came for. I was terrified of the poems that were emerging—their relentless wanderings into emotions and subjects I saw as objectionable. I was embarrassed and ashamed, often riddled with guilt, sometimes horrified. I wanted to have different feelings. I wanted to obsess about the same things and in the same way as my classmates. But that wasn’t happening. With each poem written and workshopped, I was moving further and further away. Despite the fact that I railed openly about the intrusiveness of some of the criticism and the inappropriateness of it—specifically that it criticized the voice not the poem, I felt increasingly more isolated; the community that I had longed for had formed itself but didn’t include me.

 

Sequels to Confessions

Though many readers have asked for a sequel to Confessions—they want to know what happens to Joan and her family—and I love that interest and idea, it’s a tough task. I actually wrote a second book several years ago which I consider a failure– for several reasons; the first is that I could not hear the voice of the adult Joan as I heard Joan the girl; that resulted in what I consider a somewhat flat retelling.  Given that voice is the most vital element in a successful piece of writing, that’s a problem. It’s voice that we become engaged with and care about—without it writing/characters never really come/s to life. Rather than levitating off the page and palpating, it’s dull and colorless as Joan says her name is –like a plate of cold mashed potatoes. That won’t do. The other reason I believe Joan 2 fails is that I edited out a lot of truth from the book in the interest of not violating privacies–somehow Joan 1 was compelled to talk and as such I could not interfere. I never planned to write Confessions. It just happened. A door opened and someone was talking (as my mother would say) a blue streak. The process wasn’t conscious nor was the choice of what she’d say. She just started talking one day and I started recording—what actually felt like channeling her. Suddenly I was writing in the voice of myself as a girl. But Joan 2 was not inspired and not compelled; she was simply recording

And censoring that record as she wrote—her impulse was admirable—there are times when decency has to take precedence over art. Revealing child secrets of the Cusacks was one thing; choosing to reveal adult Cusack history did not seem honorable.

That said, I’d jump at the chance to be taken over again by another part of me  compelled to speak. I’m here waiting.

On further thought, it occurs to me that my first two books (both poetry), GlOrious and The Red Canoe: Love in Its Making, are actually sequels to Confessions; GlOrious explores Joan’s rebellion and entry into womanhood, while Red Canoe unveils her marriage and motherhood and the complications of multiple spinal fusion surgeries (the result of scoleosis) on both. Not surprisingly, given the rather quirky flow of my books/histories, I’ve just finished the first draft of the fourth book in the ‘series’—also poetry—Orphaned: A Love Story—which explores my parents’ voices/histories (as Irish immigrants who arrived in the US just months before the Depression struck) and my adult rather complicated relationship with them.

While Orphaned percolates and cools down (I need distance to properly edit it), I’m focusing on the fascinating lives/stories of people I know/have known. Since they are not me, the challenge is to access and explore the emotional tension and power unique to them.

Thanks for listening….

joan

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