Thrilled to announce the publication of “Confessions”


Confessions of Joan the Tall

By Joan Cusack Handler


Channeling the indelible voice of her 11-and-three-quarters year-old self, poet and psychologist Joan Cusack Handler travels back to her Irish-Catholic Bronx childhood, circa 1954, in her candid, poignant, and witty new memoir, CONFESSIONS OF JOAN THE TALL (CavanKerry Press; November 2012; $21.00). Told in a series of diary entries-cum-devotions to God, this account of growing up amid the tandem comfort and anxiety of the Catholic faith explores young Joan’s adolescent growing pains, yearnings, and questions against a finely-wrought backdrop of family, religion, self-image, and blossoming sexuality.

            “A truly remarkable book,” says Roland Merullo, author of Breakfast with Buddha and The Talk-Funny Girl. “ It captures both the complex emotions of an adolescent in an ethnic, working-class neighborhood, and the unwritten social and spiritual rules of 1950s American Catholicism. Somehow, though told in the voice of a young girl, the story has about it a psychological and emotional subtlety and complexity that is fully mature. It’s impossible not to like Joan, impossible not to feel for her in the depths of her coming of age struggles, and impossible for anyone raised in a devout Catholic family to keep from smiling and nodding at the author’s insights into the Roman Catholic mindset.” “The narrator is beautifully alive to the endless hazards, complications, and indignities of growing up,” adds Baron Wormser, author of Impenitent Notes and The Poetry Life. “So much of the wisdom of childhood lies in the strange blend of endurance and enchantment.”

Young Joan lives with her Irish immigrant parents and her three siblings in a small house in the Edgewater section of the Bronx. Daily life is circumscribed by the strictures of Catholic school and the deep-seated sense of morality and faith that dictates every aspect of home life as well. Joan’s father, a plumber, is a thoughtful, devout man whom she adores. Her relationship with her volatile mother is more complex. Joan also looks up to her “glamorous” sixteen-year-old sister, Catherine, and forges a companionable alliance with younger brother, Jerry. It is brother Sonny, just eleven months older than she, with whom she has the greatest strife. A talented artist in his own right, Sonny nonetheless resents his bookish younger sister, and he retaliates with cruel torments, much of it targeted at Joan’s inordinate height—nearly six feet tall before she is twelve.

As young Joan navigates her singular—and yet universally familiar—passage through puberty, she struggles not only with her height, but with other issues that we would today call “body image,” but which had no name back then. She wrestles, too, with faith, relishing the enveloping embrace of the Church, yet worrying that God might ask the ultimate sacrifice and call her to the religious life. She wishes nothing more than to make God happy – and her pious earthly father, too – yet she craves the trappings of the material world: poodle skirts and Cadillacs and shopping trips to Manhattan. Slowly, she begins to come to terms with her sense of self, to face her nascent sexuality, and to understand the peculiarities of her beloved, if flawed family, as she recognizes that every journey to Heaven makes a stop in Purgatory.

CONFESSIONS OF JOAN THE TALL is a splendid book, and Joan the Tall is a splendid girl—brave, effervescent and vulnerable,” says Molly Peacock, author of The Paper Garden and The Second Blush. “She flubs the rules of the Catholic church, she flubs the rules of family life, and amidst the quandaries, sins, punishments, and totally divine greedy moment in this story of her Irish American family, she grows into what tallness can mean—the ability to see from a mountaintop.”

To purchase, click here

Judith Hannan at (le) poisson rouge

Judi is an excellent writer and reader–this should be a lovely event . I hope you’ll be able to join us.


Concert Artists Guild and LWC present: Words and Music

with author Judith Hannan and cellist Sebastian Bäverstam

Monday November 12th, 2012

(le) poisson rouge
158 bleecker st

Ticket Price: FREE ($10 suggested donation)
Doors Open: 6pm

Performance: 630p
Age Restrictions: 21+

Books and CDs will be available for sale.

Concert Artists Guild and LWC (Lisa Weinert Consulting) present a night of music and literature featuring award-winning cellist Sebastian Bäverstam performing the Kodály: Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8 between selected readings from Judith Hannan’s critically-acclaimed memoir Motherhood Exaggerated.

Praised by The Strad for his “…powerfully expressive style,” cellist Sebastian Bäverstam is a winner of the 2009 Concert Artists Guild International Competition. Mr. Bäverstam has toured as a soloist with orchestra in the US, China, Venezuela and Brazil and has appeared multiple times on the national syndicated radio showFrom the Top. For more on Sebastian visit:

Judith Hannan is a writer and educator. Motherhood Exaggerated is an emotionally uncompromising literary memoir that recounts the ordeal of her young daughter’s battle with cancer. “The dramatic language, both highly descriptive and emotional, rings with the unforgiving pain and fear of this terrifying disease.” – Carly Simon. For more on Motherhood Exaggerated, visit or contact Lisa Weinert at

Praise for “The Red Canoe”

In The Red Canoe: Love in Its Making Joan Handler brings both honesty and balance to the intricate world that is a marriage. Her means are consistently inventive as her lines enact feelings and thoughts. Her focus is unremitting as she makes the reader feel how much pain and glory can go into two people trying to accept one another. This book is unmistakably poetry but has the feel of a novel – one wants to know what will happen to these people.
Baron Wormser

When I began to read The Red Canoe, the poems’ spatiality perplexed me. I wondered about the bizarre shapes and halts of the words and even the letters on the page. Slowly, the meaning of the spaces visited me. These poems invite their reader into private, hidden, unutterable spaces—the cul-de-sac behind the cervix, the gaps between adjoining vertebral bodies, the marriage bed. What courage it must take to see with this dramatic, piercing gaze. In acts not of anatomy but of vivisection, the blade of sight cuts through skin, fat, fascia, down to bone. Handler finds the very most fundamental elements of that which is caught in her net—the cruelty of Catholics and Freudians in their superior and unforgiving sneers at their deepest selves, the remote but tender silence of the grey-eyed husband who can only steal looks at his wife, the possession so intense of the son that it can only be rendered in prose.

Love here exceeds its bounds. Spilling over into body, food, sex, childhood, appetites, ideas, and pain, the poems achieve a brilliant fusion of the particular and the universal, the seen and the undergone, the body and the self. We are lustier, brawnier, better-fed beings for the prospects of Handler’s gifts.
Rita Charon, M.D., Ph.D, Program in Narrative Medicine, Columbia University

The Red Canoe is a work of tremendous metaphoric complexity and richness, in  which a woman’s pain – braided into a troubled marriage, branded upon an injured body – ultimately find relief in the transformative power of language.  Joan Cusack Handler’s dual guises as therapist and poet merge as one in this healing book which, in the end, is an articulation of a keen intellect animated by heart and hope.
Raphael Campo, M.D.

Continuing Confessions?

Several people have asked me if I plan to write a sequel to Confessions—they want to know what happens to Joan and the rest of the Cusack clan—particularly Sonny, the bad boy of the book. The truth is that I’ve already written a Confessions II, but before you put ink to paper to try to advance order it, let me say that it won’t be available because it doesn’t work. Not that any sequel wouldn’t work, but this one doesn’t. The problem is the voice—or lack thereof. While Joan’s voice at 12 is engaging and distinctive, Joan’s voice as a mature woman proved to be flat and dare I say? Somewhat boring. Perhaps at some future point, I’ll tune in again and she’ll have added more color and developed some pizzazz.

Praise for “GlOrious”

GlOrious is honesty, whole and pure, peeking its way from the dark corners of a loneliness in the heart, one that aches against the falsehoods about love so that it can live.  This collection is the spirit speaking its own exegesis, a shimmering.  Handler goes inside the line as one mines the bones for their marrow to sing a crimson electric and bring back lives held in the mire of fear and doldrums.  Her poems are full with a painter’s wish and a composer’s consummate vision of what music can come to be, the knowing –…brave, beautiful, necessary.
Afaa Michael Weaver

Joan Cusack Handler…writes of the body’s unapologetic continuing…with a largesse that volleys between tender and roaring.  Her lines blow wide, her metaphors tree tall as she roots the whole oaken structure in her signature loamy sexuality…She renders the psychological spiritual and back again…Few writers…have dared this kind of generosity, and …have confronted Spirit with such fervent audacity and won.
Maureen Seaton, The Boston Review

Crowned by the protean, sensuous language that  whiplashes across its pages, GlOrious is glorious…With her sinewy humor, bravura honesty and fierce excess, Handler becomes a warrior goddess of the psycho-poetics she champions.  Her canny insights and uncanny intuition reinvigorate our world.
Molly Peacock

Strike Up the Band!

Three of Confessions unsung heroes are my editors: Mickey Appleman (aka Pearlman), Molly Peacock and Baron Wormser. Molly’s been with me for the duration—since NYU graduate school and my master’s thesis (which grew and matured into GlOrious, my first poetry collection)—and understands better than any one what my aesthetic project is and the unconscious detours I sometimes take to circumvent that. I credit Molly for helping me to discover and bring forth my poems—my poems rather than hers or the ones I wished I wrote.

Baron too has been with me forever—twenty years at least; we met at Frost Place where we were both teaching faculty at the annual poetry writing festival. We connected immediately as people, poets and friends. Baron has long been a champion of my poetry—it was he who encouraged me to write long poems and to consider abandoning the left margin in them—and Confessions’ most enthusiastic fan, not to mention the fact that the title was his genius not mine. Editor of all CavanKerry Press books, Baron supported me before, during, and since I founded the press. So too did and does Molly. There are no two people in the world that I depend/count on more in my writing and publishing lives than Molly and Baron. They are truly godparents of CavanKerry Press and me, the writer.

And along came Mickey. Mickey was my first prose editor. She was recommended to me by my poet friend Sondra Gash and her daughter Amy, an editor for Algonquin books. From the beginning, Mickey treated me as a consummate professional rather than as the beginner I was – such a great gift given how anxious I was exposing Confessions to a writer who spent her professional life reading, writing, and editing prose. Her book reviews were expert and incisive, and I was terrified of her. But I wanted to learn. And she was tough, used her red pen liberally – her Trust your reader! command still rings in my head each time I face the page–and thoroughly believed in Confessions and me.

Having reaped the benefits of working so closely with three such literary masters, I cannot thank them enough for their belief in me, for making me the writer that I am, and for helping me husband Confessions safely into the world. Nor can I imagine a committed writer ever not working with an editor. We need them. Our work needs them. At least one. I’m obsessive and self-indulgent, so I worked with three. Lucky me!


This is second 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 first part here.

I came to writing late in life, and, as a result, I live life with the wind at my back. After several professional detours, including teaching, counseling, and currently a clinical practice in psychology, I returned in my early forties to poetry, my first love at 14.

More specifically, however, I came to writing poetry from the depths of a serious clinical depression. I had come to that place in life where I had everything I had longed for. I was married to a wonderful man whom I deeply loved and trusted; we had given birth to an adored son; I had finished my doctorate and established a robust clinical practice. I even had two wonderful homes—a rambling apartment and a house in the woods. I was deeply blessed.

At the same time, my good friend, Janice, was equally successful in her own quest for her fullest life—just one year behind me in her doctoral studies with two beautiful daughters and a devoted husband. President of her local Board of Education and Director of

Guidance and Counseling at a prominent high school, she had just discovered a latent talent for tennis which she dove into with vigor and delight. She was literally at the top of her game. The third member of our triumvirate was Kathy, a brilliant and zesty life force who more than filled up a room with her laughter and intelligence. All our meetings were celebrations. No one was more proud of us than we were of each other. We were family and they, my sisters.

Then Janice was diagnosed with kidney cancer. She was dead in less than four months.

Kathy and I were devastated. I fell into a depression so deep that I could not get out of bed. I reveled in nothing and no one. I cared for nothing and no one. Worst of all, I felt nothing when I looked at my glorious two year old son. This terrified me. As a clinician, I knew how seriously sick I was. Nothing moved inside me, no life at all; I would have welcomed tangible grief—tears, rage perhaps… but no, only the endless tundra of days… into weeks…. The isolation was palpable.  I craved sleep. I thought only of death and how it waited for me around every corner. It would take me as it had taken Janice. In fact, it should.

I was already in therapy, so I increased my weekly sessions and sought antidepressants from a pharmacologist I referred patients to. What became clear to me and my therapist was that, in addition to Janice’s death, I may well have been arrested by my own psychological inability to accept my full life. I had all that I had dreamed of but never believed I’d have. One who lives so long with a commitment to suffer and a sense that she is unworthy does not go gracefully into a robust and happy life–no matter how hard she works for it consciously.  The commitment to leave childhood neuroses behind and to offer ourselves greater possibility for fulfillment and pleasure does not take into account the unconscious investment in remaining unfulfilled and unhappy. Sadly, sacrifice and suffering were the bedrock of my self-worth. I’d been battling these issues for years and though progress was evident, the road was long.

I tried, as much as my imprisonment would allow me, to talk to my husband, not only my closest friend but an analyst as well. Alan was gentle, but clear sighted and firm. He raised yet another unresolved issue. I had nothing in my life that was completely my own. All of my activities implied a relationship with another—wife, mother, teacher, therapist, daughter, sister, friend. All were mirrors for me to revel in or castigate myself. My worth was the sum total of what the world thought of me: how I pleased, displeased; how smart I was (was I smart?), how kind, how selfish, how base. Happiness arrived only when the world approved of me. I had no place in my life where I tended to myself alone.

The only thing that had ever come close was my occasional flimsy attempts at writing. Periodically, during one of Alan’s late night tennis games, I’d light some candles and pour a glass of wine and sit down to write a poem.  I had always loved books and had a girlhood wish to write another Gone with the Wind, yet I was drawn to poetry. Given my repressed background, poetry’s pure unmitigated emotion was tantalizing—as were its rich romantic life themes and imagery. The economy of it—the demand for articulation—also lured me. Prose terrified me because of its endless possibilities; my mind was already a quagmire taking endless years to decode; I couldn’t risk the avalanche that a book of prose would bury me in. But a poem struck me as a finite thing. It started, led someplace and ended–all relatively quickly. It seemed to have rules. Formulas. You used words and lines in seemingly predictable ways. There were things you could do and things you couldn’t in a poem (or so I thought). It was like painting within the lines– very comforting and very much in keeping with my rigorous Catholic background.

But my late night trysts with poems were very disappointing. In the lucidity of early morning, I’d find that what I’d written was neither profound, nor particularly interesting—nor was the writing itself very good. Dilettante that I was, I’d collapse in a puddle of recrimination insisting that had I any talent, I’d have been able to produce something fine and lasting. Talent meant it was there inside me waiting for me, fully fleshed out. My frustration would keep me from trying again for several months; but then again, the same story.  In that conversation, Alan pointed out that though I spoke of wanting to write, I never invested anything of myself in it other than a ceremonial hour or two every few months. I seemed to be waiting to be served. I took in as much of this as I could, given my frozen state, but I knew he was right. He had broken through.

As I attempted to reenter my life, I resolved to see if I could learn to write poetry. I needed to give myself over to something whole and alive–that was mine alone. Thus began my life with the possibility of poems. Therein lay my recovery. Slowly the lights went back on inside me.

Thank you, Carlos Andrade

I come from a family of artists. Both of my brothers are—one a painter, the other a sculptor. My father could make anything in wood including frames for one son’s paintings and a roll top desk for the other. My mother’s fingers flew through multiple Aran sweaters for all of us and intricate crocheted tablecloths and bedspreads—all of her own design. My husband’s family is the same. His cousin is a gifted painter/sculptor and her son-in-law is a multi-media artist—Carlos Andrade– whose fine artwork is featured on the covers of two of my books—GlOrious and Confessions of Joan the Tall and variations appear on my website and blog. Of all the art that surrounds me, Carlos’ work moves me most.

An exceptional person—tender and wise, Carlos is prolific in several art forms—painting, installation, geometric design, and collage, my personal favorite. Remarkably, Carlos tells stories—whole histories—with his collages. His subject matter stretches beyond the physical to the internal terrain of human experience—to the unconscious worlds that shape and define us—each influence, each aspect of the self represented in his intricate, psychologically probing art. Steeped in religious—specifically Catholic imagery, side by side with more secular, childhood and natural world symbols, his remarkable work flows from a deep understanding of and acceptance of human nature. Other hallmarks of his art include:  super-imposed hand written language, rich and abundant color,  and the use of blank/white space and cut/torn out sections that add to the universality of the work by inviting the viewer to participate more deeply in the work. His is a generous art that emphasizes our shared humanity. When one encounters an Andrade work, he/she is moved emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually by this deeply moral man whose vitality, integrity and imagination seem boundless. It is my great honor to know this man and know his art—an art that speaks to/from the core of me.  Thank you, Carlos.

Henry Berry’s review of “The Red Canoe”

vulnerabilities as roadways to connections with others

February 12, 2009

By  Henry Berry  (Southport, CT)

In these poems, the poet is wounded, but does not, cannot heal. Handler is a psychologist as well, and also much involved in poetry organizations. The wounds are not definable or familiar psychological wounds. They have to do with more than the mind or even particular situation or experience; though they are exposed usually in the context of marriage and its ties and incidents.

The style of the poems is not confessional, nor complaining. The poet does not plumb for roots or causes. The wounds are an inherent part of being alive. Not attenuated however feebly by hope, recrimination, or reason, they bring the poet extraordinary power of observation, sometimes unerring and painful in itself; but sympathy too, for herself as well as others. Often keenly aware of herself and at times seeing her circumstances and feelings like a plight, sometimes momentarily angry from the irrationality of it all, Handler nevertheless sees her wounds as vulnerabilities and a type of openness which connect her to others in her life.

My latest essay on CavanKerry’s blog

The third installment of my blog series “The Birth of a Press” for the CKP blog is now up.

Read “Halleluiah” here.


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