Interview: Poet Joanne Dominique Dwyer (Belle Laide)

Joanne Dominique Dwyer

Joanne Dominique Dwyer was born in Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. She has lived in New Mexico for most of her adult life. Dwyer has been published in various journals, such as The American Poetry Review, Conduit, The Florida Review, Gulf Coast, The Massachusetts Review, The New England Review, Poetry, TriQuarterly and others. She received a Rona Jaffe award and holds an MFA from Warren Wilson. Her first book of poems, Belle Laide, was published by Sarabande in 2013.

J. Dee Cochran: Belle Laide, your debut book of poems, celebrates wild associations and varying themes. And yet, the book feels very cohesive. Could you talk a bit about how the book came about and how the poems were ordered? Did you anticipate each poem coming together in one book as you were writing them?

Joanne Dominique Dwyer: I appreciate your saying that Belle Laide feels cohesive. I suppose it is because of the writing style and the repetitive obsessive themes. But the poems in Belle Laide were not penned collectively; they were not written with the thought of a book in mind. They were not construed consciously to become cohabitating members of a club or tribe, to live together communally sharing gardens and kitchen duty someday within the tenement walls of a book. They were written as urgent orphans eking out a living by foraging on roadside herbs in the Diaspora of both desiccated and jungle terrains, and in the overcrowded refugee camps of dream borderlands. Absolve me the playful overwriting and the melodrama – the key here is urgent – each poem was written in a moment or a day – and revised the next day and subsequent day and sometimes years. But at the moment of conception to write a poem, providing we are privileged, the impulse is always present on varying levels – to write or die. The writer feels this exigency to make poems or perish.

Writing that is truly worth reading – let’s say, more than once, is usually written by a writer for whom writing is a vocation, rather than an occupation. But what I wanted to comment on here is my use above of the word privileged. While great writing comes from the urgency of vocation (and not all of us writing from urgency are therefore great writers), I believe it is a privilege to have the time to write. So many of the world’s population are living in conditions in which there are no real opportunities to write; life is at a survival level of having the basic human needs met. So it feels a privilege to me that I have food, shelter, safety, and time in which to pacify the urgency and that my urgency is not one of quelling physical hunger, but creative and psychological hunger.

For me, writing poems is a way to make sense of what might simply be construed as nonsense. So often there is an overabundance of information and sensory stimulation circulating and pelleting down all around us, like the type of hail that cracks our windshields. I write to calm down the ecstasy-taking rave goers inside me. I write poems to convert the feelings coursing through the container of my body into something concrete.

It is difficult to make a statement and find any permanent or lasting truth in that statement. No sooner is something uttered, than the opposite arises, like a clown at a funeral to convince you life is not sad, but comedic – or the reverse. For example, I stated moments ago that I write to make random coursing feelings concrete. And immediately it occurs to ask, Can anything be concrete, especially a work of art such as a poem, which is created by an individual? And furthermore, is there any such entity as an individual? Meaning a poem is written by a certain someone and comes from within their field of feeling, their field of thought. But who among us has an original feeling or thought? We are so interwoven and interconnected; so full of incestuous relationships; so influenced by everything we have ever read and by the myriad molecules of ancestral and collective matter bombarding us relentlessly. So what makes any author seem/appear original? Does it just come down to the way we string the 26 letters of the alphabet together?

But I was speaking of the impossibility to make something concrete: actual, tangible, solid. The poem in its form on the page is a concrete thing. Its intangible quality comes through the limitless interpretations a poem elicits as read through the lens of the multifarious individual readers.

And to answer your question about ordering the poems in Belle Laide: sequencing was very difficult for me. Though I believe as we mature as writers, the more detached from our writing we become. That detachment allows us to cut loose the poems that are not up to snuff. At first the poems are all our precious beauties that we want to cling to, but we must fearlessly reject and send home the contestants that are not going to do well in all three categories: bathing suit, talent and evening gown. That detachment allows us to be better revisionists of our poems. It took me many, many tries to get Belle Laide in the shape that Sarabande Books received it.

J. Dee Cochran: This book is a crowded house of arresting personalities. Belle Laide offers cameos from Marvin Gaye, Freud, Carl Jung, St. Augustine, Nick Drake, Kahil Gibran’s Jesus, Don Quixote, Billie Holiday, St. Teresa, to name a few. The narrator also refers to lovers, a brother and son.

“No ideas but in things,” the now famous quote by William Carlos Williams, functions as a mantra for many contemporary poets. Could an alternative dictum, “No ideas but in people,” better suit the purposes of your poetry? In other words, would you be interested in writing poetry wherein no people appear? Does the idea of a person generate more meaning/analogy for you?

Joanne Dominique Dwyer: Yes, the book is crowded at times with people. I suppose they are some of the invited and uninvited rave dancers sharing my dance card or co-refugees sharing temporary tent space with me near the river. They make me excited to be part of the human race, and offer me a balm against the rash-inducing heat of the harsher aspects of our world. And those people in my poems make my imaginary life richer; make me feel like I do have a tribe I belong to. I am fascinated by people and their lives, especially the unusual life lived, either by choice or by circumstance, which brings them, and therefore all of us, into contact with the undercurrents of consciousness. Too much of our human existence is based on making money and getting errands done. It’s such a waste of the gift of life, not to celebrate and bring magic and mystery into the everyday. And it is through the imagined and literal lives of others that we learn empathic thought, and it is also how we come to know there are very little differences between any of us, despite all the othering we humans do, at the core, we are so similar.

So I don’t think I would be interested in writing poems without people in them. Though, even if a poem is devoid of human beings, the writer is always present in the poem.

Belle Laide coverJ. Dee Cochran: What inspires you to write?

Joanne Dominique Dwyer: Everything inspires me to write and language itself is a huge inspiration. For example, scanning your interview questions, I found these words: unfettered, indefinite, volatile and ruptured. I find them incredibly beautiful and provocative. They make me want to stop answering your questions and instead write a poem using those words.

I value storytelling more than I value prosody and craft, and narrative plays an important linking role in my associative poems, but it is rare that a story is the impetus for a poem. The story comes later; it unfolds and appears (and disappears), but the starting point is almost always a line, an image or a single word. I rarely have a set thematic, structural or even emotional idea of what I want to the poem to be at the start.

J. Dee Cochran: Do you have a motto?

Joanne Dominique Dwyer: I am not much of a motto person. Mottos are for politicians and those sure of themselves. I am rarely sure of myself. I am prone to mild-to-mid doses of the blues, and rather than walk under a ladder and brush up against it, causing a full bucket of Prussian Blue semi gloss paint to cascade down like a mudslide swathing the lizard that lives on the top of my head, and sauntering down the Neruda hills of my breasts and the wolf-sanctuary of my back, ribbed like a forest with a lost Gretel fleeing the witch, I am trying to alchemize depression with gratitude. Nobody is sick and nobody is dying – is something I am saying to myself lately and maybe that is a motto? I have been using it to counter any movement towards whining and self-pity. I have so much to be thankful for. And everywhere you look, if you really look, is rapturous splendor.

But if there were to appear a great god or goddess from the parting clouds, or a genie from an empty bottle of root beer to say to me, “You may have one and only one motto to use to empower you and get through the gophers eating the lettuce,” I would choose Do No Harm. It seems to me that I should repeat that like a mantra, especially when things get rough…

J. Dee Cochran: Several of the poems in Belle Laide are prefaced with quotes from notable writers or thinkers. The use of these epigraphs gives one the sense of how all thoughts/things are somehow connected, particularly in the cosmos of the written word. Before you entered a writing program, the structured community of writers and readers, how did your poetry writing develop? What first drew you to poetry?

Joanne Dominique Dwyer: What drew me first to poetry were emotions and song lyrics and books and renegade energy needing a path. I needed a vehicle to take my feelings for a ride in. I had the very common and essential human impulse to create and to turn thoughts and feelings and intuitions into art. That impulse is not always fostered and is often repressed. Also, most of us are devoid of a spiritual and ritualistic life that our ancestors had. For me, being in the wild both literally and metaphorically, through imagination, is a way of having ritual. It is a way of connecting spiritually to what it means to be a human being. Without some form of creativity and connection to our inner lives, we become zoo inhabitants in suits and gowns, having no awareness of the bars, but being terribly unhappy.

So I began writing in the manner of necessity for expression.

J. Dee Cochran: “…not all of us have been gifted with the erotica of answers.” That’s one of the amazing lines found in “Alchemy.” If privy to the world of answers, what question(s) would you ask? What keeps you in the space of unfettered wonder?

Joanne Dominique Dwyer: What more could one want than to be in a state of unfettered wonder! It echoes of ecstasy. I much prefer and admire the question-asking person over the know-it-all.

J. Dee Cochran: What is the best advice you have received in reference to writing?

Joanne Dominique Dwyer: I think the best advice I received was from my first writing teacher, Miriam Sagan, who said make peace with rejection.

J. Dee Cochran: Love and mercy are two prominent themes within the book. Interestingly, multiple poems start with love in the rhetorical mode, “If love is…” Mercy, on the other hand, is strongly declarative; there seems to be no “if” about it. I’m thinking of the lines, “Mercy is the combing of tangled hair/the sewing up of a split lip/ the staying of the execution.” Historically, poetry has treated love as a resident emotion, lasting forever, and mercy as a periodic installment of kindness. To consider the possibility of the reverse feels fresh.

In Belle Laide, love is indefinite, volatile, ruptured and radiant. Do you see your poems as love poems? Are you resistant to literature that suggests the narrator can easily define what love is?

Joanne Dominique Dwyer: You wrote “In Belle Laide, love is indefinite, volatile, ruptured and radiant.” That is so beautiful and I am honored by your take on the book and for your thoughtful, penetrating questions. Based on the “love poems” in the book, I think you nailed it – a very succinct (and succulent) way to describe how love is depicted in Belle Laide. This question about love versus mercy is the hardest for me. But, yes, absolutely, I see the poems as love poems – they were inspired by a relationship with a singular lover. And they contain all the infinite aspects of human love – meaning both the highs and the lows. Like the high of glue sniffing and the subsequent aftermath of being run over by a runaway shopping cart, because you are lying in the budding light of dawn in a PetSmart shopping lot after a night of sexy debauchery with an intoxicative inhalant. I do believe love is supreme, but maybe mercy is the superlative of supreme. Maybe it is harder to be merciful than it is to love. Maybe we love because it gratifies us, but the true test is can one be merciful – can one forgive, can one let go, can one give without receiving in return, can one let love be honored and respected and treated as of larger value than our individual egos, can one be kind, can one give up their seat on the bus of life for another, can one extricate oneself from consumerism and really share our wealth – have a little less so others can have a little more – can we just be a little more merciful all around?

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  • Sinibaldi

    A path
    in the pinewood.

    In the light

    of a beautiful

    morning the

    song of a fine

    bird remembers

    the youth and

    the smile of

    a feeling.

    Francesco
    Sinibaldi