Joanna Penn Cooper: Poet, Essayist, Editor, Writing Teacher
Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity.
Joanna Penn Cooper-- poet, essayist, editor, writing teacher. Often working at the intersection of genres, Joanna is the author of two full-length collections of poetry and lyric prose, The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis from Brooklyn Arts Press and What Is a Domicile from Noctuary Press. Both books were well-received, garnering positive reviews from national sources. According to the Poetry Foundation blog, "If you seek innovative poetry that engages with motherhood, [What Is a Domicile] is a must-read," and American Microreviews and Interviews compared the speaker of Itinerant Girl to “a contemporary Scout Finch . . . self-aware and defiant.” After a sojourn in New York City, Joanna moved back to her family's home state of North Carolina three years ago. Joanna works as a freelance editor and as a teacher of creative writing. More information about Joanna is available at joannapenncooper.net. You can read a recent essay of Joanna's here.
What does living creatively mean to you?
I think that one of the advantages of being a poet is walking through the world with open eyes, noticing, on the lookout for things that pique my interest or odd connections that occur throughout your weeks and months.
For me being a creative person means giving yourself that permission to be interested in the things you’re interested in and to be delighted by the delightful things around you.
I got a lot out of my PhD in American literature and I developed myself as a teacher, but I feel like it kind of removed me from that creative way of viewing the world. My poetry became this secret thing on the side that I did separate from my academic work. And I ended up going back for an MFA after a PhD, which I felt kind of silly about at first, but I found that when I was in that MFA program and I was trying to get back into more of a creative mindset, it helped bring me out of this depressed state I was in to walk through the world noticing and giving [myself] that permission to be delighted and interested.
Throughout your creative journey did you ever have any beliefs as a young person that you then felt differently about when you got older?
I think a lot of writers struggle with two ideas of writing. One is the role of writer, which means “I want to be recognized and have the esteem that goes along with that.” And so that's one idea that you might carry into the impulse to write. But it’s kind of meaningless because you have to actually sit down and do the writing.
Something that I’ve been encountering a lot lately is the idea that [the process] has to make you happy. I started watching that Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee show. And I never know how to feel about Seinfeld, I sort of like him, and he sort of rubs me the wrong way. But he talked to Mel Brooks about this scene in Blazing Saddles where the cowboys are doing this dance number with these gay dancers, after riding horses into the ballroom. And Seinfeld said, “What ever made you think you could do that, what gave you permission to try that?” and Mel Brooks said, “I didn't know if it’d be funny, I just knew it amused me. And that's all you can really go from as an artist. You have to entertain yourself otherwise nobody else will be entertained.” If you’re doing something because you think you should or you think it’ll sell or be the trendy thing to do, it’s going to take you away from that creative impetus.
For me it’s still a struggle because you want to be recognized and have an audience. But if you get too focused on what’s going to appeal to them then you get away from an authentic expression of what’s really delighting you as an artist.
I think a lot of people can relate to that struggle.
There’s an appeal to the idea of being an artist but you can’t get too hung up on the performance of that. It’s a fine line. You want to be a part of the community. You want to advocate and communicate that art is a vital thing to do and an important role in society but you don't want to get too hung up on your self-importance.
What have been some of your biggest creative challenges and how have you moved through them?
A big creative challenge for me is trying to discern between repeating yourself and just going deep into what you’re good at. I have this fear of writing the same book over and over again. I seem to be writing these poems about motherhood in this form between a prose poem and flash memoir piece, and I feel like I’m kind of finding my voice with those in a new way, finding the form and making it my own. But then I sometimes worry, am I just going to keep writing the same thing? So I think you always just have to sort of keep discerning as a poet.
Fiction writers, a novelist, you come up with an idea and you have this hypothesis and refine it and you have a plan and go forward from there. Whereas with poetry you can be like, “Well, let’s see what emerges” and then start to make a manuscript from that. And not everybody does it that way. But sometimes I wonder the extent to which I should make myself have a project versus letting a project emerge. That's my challenge right now. And it’s been my challenge in the past. When do I push myself to do something different and is that even necessary? I suppose it’s just a choice I have.
You have to go into your obsessions and your fixations. There are plenty of other artists who do just return to the same thing, think of Mark Rothko or Paul Auster, who has a few different memoirs. Sometimes he’ll return to the same story but they’ll show up in a different context or from a new angle. And I kind of like that, that you can be a memoirist and circle around the same stories but approach them slightly differently at different times.
My other challenge is how to find time to be an artist as a parent. If your co-parent is also an artist then each of you ends up having three roles, be a parent, be an artist, and contribute money. So then there’s this new pressure on your time.
As a part of the literary community there’s always plenty of free work to do. And you want to contribute, but you have to decide what feels very meaningful for you, what makes you happy as far as volunteering your time. How you’re going to pay your bills is always an important question. And also what’s the privilege involved in writing poetry in our society and how do different people find their pockets of time?
Have you ever felt like you’ve been blocked creatively and do you have any methods for getting out of that?
Sometimes you feel like oh maybe I’m just done and I have nothing left to say. And you kind of have to look back over the ebbs and flows of the past and realize there were periods before where you didn’t produce as much. You have to allow those ebbs and flows.
One thing I have done for the past few years is the NaPoWriMo in April which is writing a poem a day for National Poetry Month. Not every draft turns into a poem, but it gets me into the flow of writing and it’s nice having a jumpstart in the spring. And sometimes you need a reading phase. Sometimes you have to fill the well by doing something that's not reading or writing, whether it's a trip or getting out of the house, taking walks. When I feel stuck in general in life I’ll go outside and watch my kid playing in the yard and I’ll realize, Oh, the world. There are so many things to look at.
There’s a tricky balance between taking yourself seriously and not taking yourself too seriously.
What or who are some influences in your creative journey?
It changes so much from year to year. Eudora Welty has this book Thirteen Stories that I really started to love right around when she died. I started reading more of her stories and I realized that I love her voice. That's another example of a person that gave me permission to be interested in the colloquial language around me.
I feel like a lot of my poetry comes from the rhythms of language that I grew up with whether it’s my mom or my grandmother. The New York School [of poetry] reinvigorated my interest in poetry in a way. And I was living in New York at the time but I’m not from New York, my family is from North Carolina. So my poetry is this weird intersection between the New York School [of poets] and Eudora Welty. And myself.
I used to love the movie Wings of Desire. It’s set in Berlin and it’s kind of based on Rilke’s Duino Elegies. The idea is that these angels are living in Berlin and they’re very stylish, they have these trench coats and this slicked back hair and wings. And nobody can see them except sometimes kids. And they walk around just observing everything. The people vaguely sense the angels but don't quite know that they are there. And it’s an interesting idea of this intersection between the lived everyday experience and some kind of larger metaphysical experience.
It sounds very lofty but it always stuck in my head, the respect for the beauty of the everyday, the dignity of regular struggling humans. The idea of the artist not as a transcendent figure, but [the idea that] from the position of the everyday human, the artist can also become the person who asks us to look around and respect each other by giving each other the dignity of being observed.
I also love Joseph Cornell. A lot of poets love Joseph Cornell. Kiki Smith is another artist I like. She does a lot of work that's retelling of the traditional narratives about women, re-imaginings of fairy tales or re-imagining of women at different periods of their lives.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take advantage of his or her creative gifts?
Just chip away at it. Just begin and do something to jumpstart your process whether it’s taking a class or keeping a notebook or returning to something you’ve done in the past. If you can try to do a little bit every day it’s better than trying to do a large amount in one day. Take advantage of those pockets of time.
For me, finding community became really important. First that community was books. Then it became readings and finding out if I fit there. And then it was finding the one other person in my PhD program who was also a poet and reading each other’s work. I’ve learned so much not just from my formal education but from friends I’ve made along the way.
I don't like to fall into a sense of self-importance about my work. Taking yourself lightly but knowing that art and writing have an important place in the world and in our society is a balance I’m always trying to find.
This interview has been edited and condensed.