Dunes Review Interview Series: Joanna White

Joanna White, a music professor, studies poetry with Robert Fanning and Jeffrey Bean and fiction with Darrin Doyle.  She has works appearing in Examined Life Journal, Healing Muse, Measure, Sow's Ear Poetry Review, The MacGuffin, Ars Medica, The Cape Rock, Chariton Review, Hummingbird, Pulse, Temenos, KYSO Flash Anthology #2, Minerva Rising Literary Journal, and the Naugatuck River Review. She lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan with her husband and has a daughter and son in college.

Joanna's poems “Duet” and “To the Story Girl” appear in the 2017 winter/spring edition of Dunes Review.

What first inspired you to write poetry?

I wrote poetry as a child and even had a poem in Jack and Jill Magazine once. But a few years ago, I performed a Crescent Duo concert with my husband, upon which we played a piece by Valerie Coleman that we helped to commission. Based on poems of Hughes, it is called “Portraits of Langston”. We enlisted poet Robert Fanning to read the poems with our performance and I was so inspired by him that I started writing again. Then I started taking creative writing classes (one a semester) at Central Michigan University (where I am a music professor). After a few years I had taken all the graduate classes.

Where do you usually write?  What's the physical environment like?

When my daughter moved off to college, I asked her if I could use her room for writing. We lined one wall with bookshelves and filled it with poetry and art books.

And what does the actual writing process look like for you?  Do you write by hand?  On a computer?

I love fancy notebooks and colored pens and pencils but I admit that I do all my poetry writing on the computer because then I am not afraid to revise.

Whom do you let read your works in progress?  Or do you wait until a piece is finished to share it?

I often read drafts to my husband and he almost always says the same thing: “I like it.” If he says something different, I know to pay attention and consider his comments. Writing workshops have been invaluable.

What's it been like for you to share your work with readers?  Do you have particular pieces that seem to resonate?

I write a lot of poems about medical terror and have had particular response to those poems, which are in journals and which I have shared in readings.  I had frightening medical experiences as a child and that led to my feeling unable to deal with medical events as an adult, but writing poetry has helped me process that experience and communicate my feelings to others. Sometimes when I read those poems aloud, people share similar experiences with me.

The first time I had a poem accepted for a journal, it was a poem about being terrified of surgery as a child, and it was taken by Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine, The Arts, and Humanities. My two poetry mentors said the same thing to me (separately.) "Now you are part of the conversation.” I think art is partly about not feeling alone.  Particularly memorable was sharing some of that work on a full-session creative reading at the Examined Life Conference at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine last fall. One of the poems I read there is in this Dunes Review issue, “To the Story Girl.” It uses an epigram from a famous William Carlos Williams short story.

Can you tell us about a piece you are particularly proud of ?

Absolutely. I have struggled (and am doing well) with musician’s focal dystonia, a neurological condition one percent of musicians get, causing many to quit…yet there is a huge stigma, which makes it difficult to get information. My poem called “Musician’s Focal Dystonia” is forthcoming in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA has a "Poetry in Medicine" column), so my quiet self found a way to speak out about a devastating condition when few feel they can.  For people seeking more information, I wrote an article about musicians focal dystonia for the winter 2017 issue of Flutist Quarterly, the journal of the National Flute Association.

Whose writing inspires you?

At the top of my list: Robert Fanning and Jeffrey Bean, with whom I have been extraordinarily lucky to study poetry. They both write musical poetry that has a strong emotional impact and are astounding teachers. I love many contemporary poets like Todd Boss, Linda Pastan, Tarfia Faizullah, Jamaal May, Nin Andrews, Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Vievee Francis, but my inspiration list is bookshelves long.

Whose work are you currently reading?

I collect many contemporary poetry books so I have a huge stack I will read when the semester is over.

What is your favorite thing to do when you're not writing?

I just recorded a compact disc with Kennen White, clarinet and Tracy Watson, mezzo-soprano (I am a flutist) for Centaur Records called “Poet as Muse.” It features works for flute clarinet and voice based on poems. While there are works based on pieces of Chaucer and Shakespeare, there are also new works that use poems of Robert Fanning, Jeffrey Bean, and Terry Blackhawk. Actually, there is one work based on a poem of my own. In an aside, I should mention that “Duet,” one of my two poems in this issue of Dunes Review, is a contrapuntal (so can be read three ways) and is about my chamber music duo with my husband.

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