Thursday, September 6, 2018

Joan McNerney responds

Joan McNerney: After my retirement from the advertising business in New York City, I continue to study, taking at least one course every semester.  Was Co-President of the Albany Chapter of the National Organization for Women and carried out many board activities for a number of years. Have also volunteered at the Museum of History and Art in Albany.  If we were at a cocktail party, you would notice I have trouble walking.  Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a lot of help for my situation. That is why I spend so much time on the computer, writing and sending out my poetry.  Other than that, I live in a small town outside Albany, New York. This has been a big adjustment from the busy streets of Brooklyn but it is very pretty here and also very quiet.

DV: How long have you been writing poetry? How did you get started?

JM: I started writing when I was a freshman in high school. Poetry had an immediate draw for me.  Luckily two of my high school poems were published in Young America Sings which gave me encouragement to continue writing.

DV: F. Scott Fitzgerald worked in advertising for awhile; his major success for Barron Collier in New York seems to have been the slogan "We keep you clean in Muscatine" for an Iowa dry cleaner. (Drolly, he claimed that his boss complained that "Your ideas are too fancy, too imaginative" and he soon left; more bitterly, he insisted that "Advertising is a racket, like the movies and the brokerage business. You cannot be honest without admitting that its constructive contribution to humanity is exactly minus zero.") In your experience, did you find an affinity between your ad work and your poetry?

JM:  You have to understand women were doing mostly secretarial work in any of the various businesses. Eventually I was fortunate enough to learn how to set type which led to both a more interesting day and better salary.  My fellow graphic artists were a lot more congenial than the corporate types. I worked strictly for money to  cover expenses.  We live in a capitalist society and unfortunately poetry and many other intellectual and artistic pursuits do not pay the bills. 

DV: And yet you persist! Why?

JM:  I don’t think anybody wakes up with a burning desire to write for a dry cleaner in Iowa.  There are some things which we need to be paid to do. On the other hand, writing about love and spring or doing experimental work has been exciting for me. I doubt any drug will give a high as great as a creative surge. We are not paid to grow rows of flowers, take care of pets, have children. In fact these pursuits can become very expensive and time consuming. We do these things for the joy of it. Why should creative work be any different?  Actually I feel very lucky to have my writing.  A great number of older people just watch television most of the day.  Because of poetry, my life is more interesting than that.

DV: And more interesting to the rest of us as well. The doing of art is a selfish pursuit but a consciousness of somebody else's reaction to it is a gift that keeps giving. Do you still have one of your "Young America Sings" poems? Do you see it as being in any way predictive of your later work? If possible, can you share one of those early poems, along with something more sophisticated that is somehow part of a continuum? Could you provide some commentary on their evolution?


Spring  (written when I was 14 years old)

Is it a feeling or
is it a word?

The whispers of trees
the chirp of a bird.

The sun so bright
sending its warm ray.

Inviting us all to be
happy and gay.

Why oh why do
our hearts sing?

But to tell of the joy
that comes with spring.

April Blue  (written when I was about 70 years old)

This is when we search for
color to transform cold grey.
Rainfall begins its magic
high lighting sky blue.

We see stacks of luminous clouds
as plants pop out and forsythia
bursts into sparkling yellow stalks.
Just today a breath of warmth
brought alive crepe myrtle buds.

Aromatic lilac bushes cluster in
soft bunches while birds and bugs
encircle them.  Ten pretty trees
all dressed up in lustrous greens
boogie through noontime breezes.

Get ready for this blast-off of spring!

The first thing you will notice is how active the second poem is as opposed to a more static statement of the first poem. Even the trees are dancing.There is also the use of more modern terms, such as blast-off, boogie and highlighting. The second poem shows a great deal of color such as blue, yellow, lilac and green. The second poem puts us in spring while the first poem simply states that spring is welcomed. The first poem contains rhymes which are forced. When I was younger I thought poems had to rhyme. Now free verse is much more popular and gives greater flexibility to the poet. 

DV: Yes, everything you say is true. Writing (like everything else) SHOULD become more accomplished with time and maturity. Nonetheless, tyros often display a directness and a freshness that elude more experienced practitioners. "The whispers of trees" is a very evocative line; I suppose a more sophisticated poet might try to reveal something about what they are whispering, but that doesn't detract from the impression of youth. In your view, was there a particular poem, perhaps even one that never completed itself, that acted as the bridge between poetic striving and successful poeticism? Was it a long, laborious process or a matter of epiphany?

JM: I cannot think of any particular poem to represent a bridge between poetic striving and successful poetry.  It has been an on-going journey.  I suppose you could say it has been a long process but not one of labor in the sense of drudgery.  Writing is something which is very enjoyable to me.  There is also an element of epiphany in terms of inspiration and the coming together of a poem.

DV: Have you had any special poems or poets that have served as your model or inspiration?

JM: I fell in love with William Blake, Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe at a very young age.  These poets are still favorites of mine because of the haunting simplicity of their work.  This poem by Edgar Allen Poe touches us with the sorrow of the impermanence of life.

A Dream Within A Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less 
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp? 

O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

DV: I find it interesting that all three of your favorites were masters of basic rhyming poetry, even though you have abandoned the practice. But it makes a fitting segue to ending our conversation. "In parting from you now," I hope that you enjoyed looking back on your life as a poet and wish you all the greatest success in your future endeavors in verse.

JM:  Yes, this was an enjoyable experience and I like your website very much.  Thank you for this opportunity.

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