Interview with Joanna Penn Cooper
Author of What Is A Domicile
Interviewed by Kristina Marie Darling
Tell us about your book, What Is a Domicile, which was published this summer by Noctuary Press. What is the most important thing that readers should know about the collection?
This book represents the trajectory of a certain period of my life. It’s essentially about a search for comfort and belonging (in relationships, home, and in the larger world), and also about the speaker’s experience of pregnancy and the early stages of motherhood. So, the “I” is indeed me, to a large extent, but it’s also stylized, of course, refracted through a series of aesthetic lenses or experiments.
Also, as I look at the book now, I realize the degree to which it’s preoccupied with a series of questions about home. I named it What Is a Domicile because that phrase appears in one of the poems (as a dream seminar), but those questions really are in there. What is a “home” and who makes it? What about the persistence of a certain nagging nostalgic desire left over from childhood that the home be there for you as some kind of pre-existing primordial space? What happens when a woman’s body become the home to a fetus? These questions sound a bit more lofty than some of my work, which can have a humorous, playful tone, but I think these issues are in there.
The formal diversity of the book is impressive. Prose poems appear alongside lyric verse and micro essays. What do these unexpected juxtapositions of literary forms make possible within your writing?
The book is about the self’s search for place and belonging, but it’s also about the poet’s search for ways to represent the self and one’s movement through the world, and that search is a spiraling one which tries on different strategies. It’s just something that’s emerged for me over the past several years—this practice of writing in a variety of overlapping genres or subgenres. For a while it felt to me like a problem to be solved, but with this book, I feel that it came together in a productive way. All of these methods—lyric (whether more elliptical or more chatty), prose poem, micro-essay— contribute to the thinking through of certain themes, and all of them have traces of that common quality that I think of as my “voice” as a writer. I think the different forms here let some air in, and I also think the search for form reflects the themes of searching in the book. At the same time, there are enough echoes of theme, diction, and image among the various types of pieces in the book that there’s a certain cohesiveness. I think so, anyway. I like how it came together.
Many of the poems included in the book acknowledge and quote from other writers' work. Do you see the act of writing as a conversation with other literary artists? What role does community play in your creative process?
I can’t help but work that way. Often when I’ve felt stuck in my writing, I come to realize that it’s because I’ve been trying to work in an insular way, and I need to pick up a book or read a friend’s blog or write with friends (whether writing a collaborative poem over email or meeting with two writer friends whose work always inspires me). Community is also present in my writing process in the sense that I am always relearning that being a writer is (for me) connected to observing other human beings with a compassionate eye. So, sometimes I just need to get up and take a walk and remember that I’m a human among other humans. That’s a lifelong tendency for me, I guess—the habit of making up stories about other people I see out in the world. It’s two-sided, in a way. My love of observing and speculating about others’ lives can be an empathetic stance, but it can also prevent me from just talking to someone and finding out their actual story. Maybe my next project should be more documentary, more investigative than just observational and speculative (in the sense of speculating). But, yes. I feel that writing puts me in conversation with other literary artists and with the community at large. I love that about it.
I love that the poems use hybrid forms to discuss motherhood in the twenty-first century. Just as our definitions of "femininity" and "womanhood" are constantly shifting, so too literary tradition is revised, modified, and expanded. To what extent do social changes call for new forms of writing, and new modes of artistic expression?
I feel that women have been doing this for many years—expanding their own sense of form as they come into new roles, or stretching the language to get it to accommodate their realities. I think of poets like Adrienne Rich, whose work changed over the course of her lifetime, or Muriel Rukeyser, whose amazing work The Life of Poetry discusses the organic relationships among literary form and social and personal realities. One could get very theoretical about this. I’d love to put together a panel of women writers I admire who are working in hybrid forms (whether mothers or not), and just listen to them discuss how it has evolved for them. Poets like Lee Ann Roripaugh, Pattie McCarthy, and Kirsten Jorgenson come to mind. (In fact, I wanted to propose a panel like that for the AWP, but I missed the deadline because I was too busy writing “hybrid form” poems every day in April for my blog and taking care of my one-year-old. Oops.)
You have another book, The Itinerant Girl's Guide to Self-Hypnosis, that was published this year as well. How are the two collections similar? What makes your book from Noctuary Press unique?
In The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis, we collected all prose pieces (pieces that could be called prose poem or lyrical micro-fiction, depending who you ask). I originally had both poems and prose pieces in that manuscript, and I had been getting feedback from readers that the two types of pieces weren’t necessarily fitting together in that manuscript. When I submitted it to Brooklyn Arts Press, the editor there, Joe Pan, really pushed me to craft a book of lyrical prose, and we worked hard to figure out how to create a book that gives the sense of a speaker’s movement through the world, while jumping around in time and showing how the concerns of girlhood can linger into adulthood. So, that book is similar in the sense that it uses a “searching” form to aesthetically reflect a “search” for self and community. What Is a Domicile is different in the sense that I cracked the code of how the lined pieces and prose pieces can work together. And it also tells (parts of) the story of becoming a mother. There are similarities, for sure, but I like how the expectations of my editor at each press (Joe at BAP and, you, Kristina at Noctuary Press) allowed me to highlight different strengths and create books that both feel true to me as a writer, but also show different sides of my work.
What are you working on now? What can readers look forward to?
At this point, I’m just reading as much as I can (which has its limits with a toddler) and letting things germinate. I am thinking that my next work may be all prose again. I’ve long been drawn to unconventional work in memoir, poetry, and fiction that tells a story using a recursive, fragmentary form. I’m thinking about works like Bluets by Maggie Nelson, Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas, or Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. These are all very different works, but they point me toward the necessity of letting the narrative or subject matter find its own form.