Interview with Joan Mazza
Another written interview. This time with Joan Mazza, someone whose daily poems have reached my inbox: yes, daily. She’s been an inspiration.
Joan Mazza has worked as a medical microbiologist, psychotherapist, seminar leader, and has been a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee.
She is the author of six self-help psychology books, including Dreaming Your Real Self (Penguin/Putnam), and her poetry has appeared in Potomac Review, Rattle, Slipstream, The MacGuffin, Mezzo Cammin, and The Nation.
She ran away from the hurricanes of South Florida to be surprised by the earthquakes and tornadoes of rural central Virginia, where she writes poetry and does fabric and paper art.
“By reading and writing poetry, I come to terms with my obsessions.”
To date Joan Mazza has 309 poems published, or forthcoming. Visit her website.
- When and why did you start writing poetry?
Like most people, I wrote a few poems in my anguished teens. When I began writing seriously as an adult, I wrote short stories, then self-help books. The week my book Dreaming Your Real Self was released by Penguin/Putnam in 1998, I was on a photo safari in Tanzania. I came back from that trip a poet. I hadn’t been interested in poetry before, but poetry seemed the only way to express what happened to my thinking and feelings in a Third World Country. I continued to write self-help and articles, but I gradually moved to writing poetry almost exclusively, as well as reading it and taking classes
- There is the great myth of the tortured artist. How do you deal with the “romance” our culture has with the poet-in-pain, in terms of your identity as a poet and as a mother, father, partner, friend, role-model?
I don’t think you need to be tortured and damaged or an outcast to make any kind of art. I think you need to be passionate and recognize that you feel an urgency to express what you think and feel. Many of my poems are about regrets and wounds, and that’s part of being human, which is why others can relate to those poems. I write, too, about what brings me pleasure and joy and how much I want to share those parts of my life with others, such as food, the delights of silence and solitude, the surprises that come with living close to nature.
- Are you consciously trying to shape the story of your life?
I don’t think so. In some poems, I’ve revealed my view of family stories, while also writing persona poems with other points of view. I’ve tried to debunk any idea that I’ve had a charmed or easy life, but that I’ve also felt exploited and regret not having the courage or words to say no, to speak my truth, to demand to be heard by those who were dismissive. My poems are all over the map. Perhaps I’m too close to see whatever shaping I might be doing unconsciously. Ask people who read my daily poems, which seem filled with contradictions to me.
- As poets we are continually exploring our sensual experience of the world. How does your relationship with your body, with your body in the world (interacting socially, with nature, through pain/change) affect your writing.
Writing about ageing seems inevitable as I notice the things I can’t do anymore, or feel afraid to tackle. This is especially true since I slipped on ice three and a half years ago and crushed the top of my tibia. I have hardware and a bone graft and it’s left me slowed down, with some chronic pain, and feeling more vulnerable than I might have been without that accident. I live in the woods and spend a lot of time alone and close to nature. Deer and raccoons come to my pond right outside my office window. I see the cycles of seasons and the hardships of wood ducks, blue birds, and herons trying to survive. I wish I could translate crow conversations. Certainly, these images and metaphors show up in my poems.
- And vice versa?: In other words, does the practice of your writing, your poet’s attention to the word, affect how you physically feel, and interact with other people, with nature, through pain/changes in your body?
All my teachers have stressed good writing comes from attention, attention, attention, the ability to see closely, to zero in on emotion, memory, fantasies that rise because of what you’re facing and their particular details. How to capture that in words on a page, in interesting, fresh language, without photos or illustrations? It’s a life’s work. I’ll do this for the rest of my days and hope I can see my tiny improvements day by day. I write every day NO MATTER WHAT, a poem-a-day. I’m not saying it’s a good poem every day, but it’s a draft of a completed poem and some of them have pleased me enough to send them out for publication. I don’t believe in writer’s block because I write about whatever I’m obsessing about, whatever is in the way of what I think I want to write.
- What is a favorite poem?
“Shirt” by Robert Pinsky is one of my favorites. I love his details and the ground he covers from women making shirts in sweatshops to the history of plaids and the Triangle Fire.
Before the manufacture of American clothing was shipped to Third World countries, my mother did piecework in a shop in Brooklyn. She talked about that fire when I was growing up and made a huge impression on me, so Pinsky’s poem resonated on several levels.
- How has it (the poem, not the poet) influenced your writing, and your life in general?
Pinksky’s poem prompted my own, titled “Piecework,” which you published in Bable Fruit Journal*, Ren. It’s one of my favorites of my own work because I followed his lead with details and captured some of my admiration about my mother at a time when I was writing poems that were critical of her. Mixed feelings!
Thirty years bent to a sewing machine
in a row in a shop without air-conditioning,
my mother sat side by side with other Italian women,
daughters of immigrants, no high school diplomas.
They made pastel party dresses in taffeta, crepe,
chiffon for girls like me, for proms, for sweet sixteens.
The shopwomen ate spinach omelets, brought
coffee in a silvered thermos, shared the news of sales:
artichokes: five for a dollar, chicken: twenty-nine cents
a pound, sent their children to college. No lunches out.
My mother’s income, paid by the piece, was less
than the minimum wage I earned selling candy
at the movie theater and checking out groceries.
I read Robert Pinsky’s poem “Shirt,” his details
of the Triangle Factory fire about those women
whose only escape was jumping out the window.
How many times my mother told that sweatshop story.
“Those poor girls were burned beyond recognition!”
as if she’d been there in the flames,
although she wasn’t born yet.
If my mother were here now,
I’d read her that poem.
And this one.
– [Published in Babel Fruit Journal, fall 2009]
8. How has retirement affected your creative life?
Because I’m retired from paid work, I can do other creative activities in addition to reading and writing. I make cards with hand-painted fronts or a collage mix of die cuts and punched paper shapes, embossed and ribboned. I also do fabric art, mostly crazy-quilting, blocks that are heavily embellished blocks with embroidery, buttons, beads, lace. I can see a style emerging in that both the cards and fabric blocks are becoming more complex. You might guess they were done by the same person.
My poetry has also changed as I become more knowledgeable and experienced. I write in both free verse and fixed forms. For three months, I wrote only sonnets. One summer, I concentrated on sestinas. More recently, I’m experimenting with nonce forms. I start to write, see what I’m doing, and then exaggerate that.
9. This past week has been difficult for Americans. There was an article in the Atlantic about how poems were going viral last week. Was there a poem you turned to? And is writing helping you through this?
The outcome of this election has left me mostly stunned and in shock. I tend to be an anxious person and I have strategies for dealing with anxiety without drugs or alcohol. Writing has been a comfort since I was a teen and I’ve written many poems about this election before and since November 8. I use art and the making of art cards to turn off the worry-loop. Unfortunately, my escalating fear has made it difficult to read. But I do keep writing. And then there are cookies to get me through.
* Babel Fruit Journal was an online literary magazine that I edited as an independent initiative under the umbrella of ICORN from 2005-2009. It is no longer available.