Joanna Cleary: National Poetry Month
Do you remember your first poem? What events or people inspired you to become a writer?
While I probably started writing before this, I wrote the first poem that I have conscious recollection of composing when I was eleven or twelve years old. I had just started subscribing to Cicada Magazine and they were calling for creative endeavours about stars. Ignoring the fact that they only accepted submissions from those who were at least fourteen years of age and how I had little practise at writing poetry, I wrote a horrendous poem about a worm who was “tunnelling to reach the stars.” Needless to say, Cicada did not publish my poem (I’m still hoping that it got lost in the mail and was never seen by anyone… or that it was just a bad dream).
I have always known that I wanted to become a writer. I grew to love reading from a very young age and saw books as ways of escaping into other worlds, dreaming about the day when I could create a world of my own. As I grew older, I began to study poetry in school, which inspired me to try writing some of the own. I found that it was a way for me to connect the world that I inhabited in my head to the world everybody else lived in. I also found several supportive writing communities, both online and in person, which encouraged me to continue expressing myself through verse.
Can you describe your writing process?
I do not actually have a set, reliable writing process. To me, poems are like dreams; no two are exactly the same and I often forget exactly how each one was created shortly after writing it. Nevertheless, there are some common elements to how I create poetry. I will usually be sleeping, doing homework, or doing something entirely unrelated to writing when a sentence fragment or phrase will pop into my head. I will almost always have no idea what it means, but will nevertheless feel compelled to write it down and then start writing whatever comes to mind next without thinking. I find that this process helps me discover what exactly I want to write about and how. This method helps turn my unconscious thoughts into conscious realizations, which are channelled in the form of poetry.
After writing a first draft of a poem – which is nearly always terrible – I start the editing process. While I let myself write the first draft freely and without thinking too much about meaning or intent, editing is completely the opposite. I force myself to think of exactly what I want to express and how, which involves going over every stanza break, metaphor, and word choice multiple times. Not only do I experiment with different styles, but I also ensure that I continually check in with myself to see if I intuitively feel that I am headed in the right direction. For me, the part of writing that requires the most courage is deciding that a poem needs to be completely rewritten or even abandoned. It can be extremely difficult to let go of something after putting a vast amount of effort into it. However, I have learned by now that my best poetry has been created after many, many drafts and edits. I have learned not to fear change, but to actively seek it out. In short, the editing process is exhausting and I usually start to question why I do this to myself by the end of it. However, I always remember why I love writing when I finally finish editing a poem that I am proud of and ready to show the world.
Which poets influence you the most?
I adore the work of e.e. cummings, Margaret Atwood, William Carlos Williams, and Sylvia Plath, among many others. While each of the aforementioned poets has a vastly different writing style from the others, they all make me feel compelled to explore my own emotions more deeply. Many of their poems have put into words feelings of mine that I could not find the proper words for and thus given me the patience I need to continue finding different styles of self-expression through poetry. They have given me faith that the right words or writing style for a specific experience, emotion, or idea exist even if they seem beyond reach; writing is simply a matter of patiently searching for and uncovering them.
I also find that a good cure for writer’s block consists of browsing the poetry of poets I have never heard of before. Whenever I find myself stuck while writing, I go to the library or online archives and start looking through poetry at will. Being exposed to diverse writing styles and new subject matter often helps me look back at my work with a deeper, more three-dimensional perspective. In addition, exposure to a plethora of writers who all have unique styles of self-expression reminds that there is never any right or wrong way to write poetry. Reading the work of others allows me to strip away my self-consciousness and self-doubt to enjoy the writing process and let it lead me to places where I cannot go to if I do not trust myself.
How do you hope your poetry can influence the lives of other people?
I believe that a good poem should do two things for its readers. Primarily, it should make its readers feel something. Regardless of whether that feeling is joy or sorrow, love or hate, clarity or confusion, a poem should make readers expand on their interpretations of different emotions. Secondly, a poem should make readers see the world differently, whether this be in the form of suddenly becoming aware of a certain social justice issue or simply realizing how many different colours there are in a sunset. I hope that my poetry influences the lives of other people in those two ways. I want my poems to help people understand and deepen how they understand their emotions, and also to see the word from a more reflective and layered viewpoint.
What bothers you most in your literature community?
I have been extremely lucky in the sense that all the literature communities I have encountered are supportive and accepting. I feel that I can write whatever I feel compelled to write and then receive honest feedback on it. However, one aspect of literature in school that always bothered me was the rigid approach to poetry. While I was never taught that poetry had to meet certain definitions in order to be considered poetry, I almost exclusively studied poems written in traditional styles (iambic pentameter and the like) by well-known Western poets. I would like to see students being taught that poetry comes in various forms – from erasure poems to conversations taken ad verbatim from real life – and from poets all over the words. Furthermore, I would also like to see people allowed to experience poetry as well as analyse it. One of my favourite poems is e.e. cummings’ “since feeling is first.” I believe that such an approach should be taken to poetry – what a poem makes a person feel should always be valued over what a poem is supposed to mean.
Do you have any interests outside of literature that enhance how you write poetry?
One of my main passions besides poetry and prose is theatre. I love acting, directing, playwriting, and above all, going to see plays. Theatre is similar to poetry in the sense that it creates a world from the written word, but it goes even further by giving that world a physical, tangible existence. This inspires me to write what I jokingly call “Frankenstein poetry” – poetry so dynamic that the right words organized in the right way could act as the strike of lighting needed to give the poems a life of their own. I strive to write poetry that leaves images so vivid and feelings so intense in readers that it seems as though my poems are living, breathing creatures we can empathize with and grow to understand.
What is your next poetry project?
One of the first poems of mine to be published was called “Dear Persephone” (published by Inklette Magazine) and retold the ancient Greek myth of Persephone and Hades. I have always been drawn to Greek mythology and greatly enjoy reading different retellings of the same story. Thus, I would love to continue retelling Greek myths in verse, perhaps modernizing them through the use of contemporary poetic styles. I would also like to continue to focus on the idea of telling the same story but from different perspectives and on how the characterization of a poem’s narrator can affect a poem’s tone, register, and emotional effect. While I have not yet made any final decisions as to what my next big poetry project will be, I want to – in the near or distant future – write multiple interconnected poems centred either around one specific ancient Greek myth or various related myths.
Joanna Cleary is currently attending the University of Waterloo (that’s in Canada, eh). Her poetry has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Cicada Magazine, Inklette Magazine, Glass Kite Anthology, Parallel Ink, Phosphene Literary Journal, and On the Rusk. She also recently became a Poetry Reader for Inklette Magazine. When she is not writing, she can be found reading, eating various forms of chocolate, and, of course, thinking about writing.