The Boog City Interview,
Joanna Penn Cooper
Interview by Todd Colby
Poet-artists Todd Colby and Joanna Penn Cooper have been friends and poetry collaborators since meeting at a Williamsburg reading Todd gave in the late 2000s. (https://wordpress.boogcity.com/2021/03/24/poetry-joanna-penn-cooper-and-todd-colby/). Todd checks in on Joanna about her art, poetry, and how motherhood shapes her life and art in rich and complicated ways
Boog City: You are a poet, artist, editor, professor, and mom. You manage to balance all of these various elements of your life so well (during a pandemic, no less). What does an average day look like for you?
Joanna Penn Cooper: Hi, Todd! Thanks for agreeing to interview me. I’m honored!
To your question, I’m barely holding it together. This isn’t a joke. Most of the mothers I know aren’t doing well right now. Motherhood in general has radicalized me like nothing else, and being a single mother (with shared custody) of a neurodivergent kid in a school district that’s been virtual all year during a pandemic that was horribly mismanaged (unmanaged) by the last administration—these circumstances are central to my thinking and inform any creative work that I am able to get done at this time.
I’ve been writing about motherhood since I became a mother, and even before that, given that my mother and grandmother were so central to the development of my curious sensibilities. But to be a mother and artist now is, for me, to reckon with the way we exist in a system that functions on the free labor of women and that also maintains itself through women’s guilt and silence around how hard we work with so little real social support. I feel it’s important to say this, both because it’s what I’m currently writing about and because I don’t want to contribute to the myth of maternal individualism that isolates women.
Wow. This question brought up a lot of thoughts and feelings. To respond to what you actually asked, there is no typical day. It all depends on where we are in the custody schedule, whether I was able to sleep the night before, and what work I have due. Today I have to post some materials in an online learning portal for my poetry students, greet E when his dad brings him back to me after lunch, take the two of us to get COVID tests because E had a stomach bug this weekend, come home and give him a snack, go back out to take him to informal soccer lessons that E’s best friend’s family arranged, meet with E’s therapist, make him dinner, get him to bed, and then try to respond to some student poems.
That sounds absolutely exhausting and incredibly challenging. What I’ve always found so inspiring about you is your brave persistence. You are in it for the long haul. Your ability to identify and express the humorous, uncanny, and often downright startling moments amid all these challenges you face daily is really quite remarkable. Do you have any advice for creative people facing overwhelming challenges during this age of Covid?
I guess my advice would be to hold on. Spring is coming. The vaccine is coming. Also to recognize that the grief and trauma many of us are coping with is real. It’s difficult to know how to teach poetry and write poetry when, for example, you know that at least one of your students has lost a family member to Covid, and most of the faces in the little Zoom boxes look worn out. People are spent. Right now it feels like all we can do is take turns bringing each other moments of care or humor or solace. Poetry is good for that. Whenever it feels like none of it means anything, I think about how many people turn to poems when they don’t know what else to do or say. Also, thank you for what you said. I feel like just living takes a lot of brave persistence, as well as community. I feel lucky to have a network of delightful, compassionate friends surrounding me—including you!
Speaking of compassion, please tell me a short history of Ethel, the fabulous zine you’re involved with.
Ethel Zine & Micro-Press (https://wordpress.boogcity.com/2021/03/24/small-press-the-ethos-of-ethel-everyone-welcome/) is a handmade literary journal and chapbook press that is the work of my friend Sara Lefsyk. I am co-founder and editor-at-large. Basically, I talk it up and offer moral support! The story is that Sara, who I met in our M.F.A. program, used to make these hand-sewn mini-anthologies out of the work of her friends and fellow poets.
After her first full-length book came out a few years ago (We Are Hopelessly Small and Modern Birds from Black Lawrence Press), Sara told me that she was in a writing lull but felt the need to have a creative outlet. I suggested that she make a zine—collections of poems and art by people we knew, mostly solicited at first—like the small anthologies she used to make. I told her she should call it Ethel because sometimes I call Sara Ethel.
Ethel has really grown! Sara-Ethel puts a lot of work into it. She is working in the tradition of women’s crafts and also the punk DIY aesthetic. Sara is an amazing artist and creator of art/writing community. We talk about Ethel a couple times a week usually, and I offer any support or help with decisions that I can and have helped host the readings. I’m proud to be an Ethel.
You’re also involved with a brilliant substack feed called “Melancholy Moms.” (melancholymoms.
Melancholy Moms started out as an Instagram feed that my friend Jessica Mesman and I started in 2017 together to entertain each other and keep each other alive with our bleak humor. We had to laugh at the absurdity of our lives to keep going. I’m not sure how we came up with the idea, exactly, but it was partly inspired by Jess’s love of the book Grapefruit by Yoko Ono. Our idea was that as mother-artists, we would offer tongue-in-cheek advice and tips on creativity and life, basically highlighting the impossibility of doing all the things, but also indicating that a big part of what keeps us going is claiming our off-the-wall sensibility and having people to share that with. Now we’ve transferred the idea to a Substack newsletter. I partly did that to give myself an audience and schedule for writing. I find that having some readers who expect something from me helps me notice and remember my observations and begin putting things together in my mind—like in the old blog days—which is good for writing.
You’ve collaborated on so many projects with so many interesting and talented people (even me!). What is it that draws you to collaborate, and does it have any effect on your solo work?
I sometimes joke that I feel compelled to make all my friendships into a “brand.” Ethel, Melancholy Moms, the Todd and Joanna Show (that’s our new name). I don’t know why. I think that when you and I started writing collaborative poems when I lived in New York, it helped push me toward a new understanding of my own voice in poetry (ironically) and what was possible. I found it very cheering.
And creative play has always been part of my friendship with Sara. When she visited me in New York, I would make up “fake rituals that really work” to call her soul back into her body. And we would walk around museums pointing at pictures and saying, “That’s you.” Finding those spaces of shared humor and sensibility really does keep me going.
I can relate it to what D.W. Winnicott called “the third area.” I wrote about this in some material I put together for an online class for the Creative Nonfiction Foundation on speculative nonfiction. For Winnicott, play, romance, intimate friendship, and all creative production exists in this “third area,” but it’s interesting how my collaborations feel like a “meta” version of all that. Here’s how he described this intermediate space or between the self and other in his 1971 book Playing and Reality:
I have tried to draw attention to the importance both in theory and in practice of a third area, that of play, which expands into creative living and into the whole cultural life of man… [this] intermediate area of experiencing is an area that exists as a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated… it can be looked upon as sacred to the individual in that it is here that the individual experiences creative living.
Yes, there is a deep tradition among poets and artists in New York all hanging out, collaborating, arguing, enhancing, and protecting one another. I like that idea of a community among creative people. Particularly in New York City where everyone has to hustle so much to pay the bills, so when you get an opportunity to really be with other like-minded, non-job related friendships, they really take a feeling of being saved by friends, like a life-raft or something. Do you feel this time during Covid has made you more acutely aware of the ties that bind us all together in spite of being separated from others due to quarantine?
Yes, the “feeling of being saved by friends” has been very real to me in the past few years, due to some life events I was going through even before Covid. I really feel very lucky to have somehow developed this web of friendships with arts and writers and all manner of interesting thinkers. In terms of how this works in quarantine, I feel that I swing between feeling very isolated and feeling very connected to others in a profoundly human way. Sometimes this even occurs at the same time. I’ll be chatting with friends about what it all means, and feeling the vital necessity of those conversations and connections, and at the same time I’ll be missing the people I’m talking to and wondering when it will be easier to move about in the world again.
What’s the single best tactic you’ve employed to get through this horrific year?
I think maybe it is “improvise!” This summer, when my son and I couldn’t go to the pool, my mom ordered a rectangular blow-up pool to be delivered to my house, and I asked the grad student who lived upstairs from me if she wanted to start a garden with me. I remember at one point lounging in the yard in this like 5” x 7” pool drinking a cocktail out of a mug and looking at the garden and the gardenia bush by the porch of my duplex and at my kid, who was having a blast just spraying the hose, and thinking, “Whelp. I guess this is my life now.”
It was really hard not being able to do all the other things I’d planned, like meet Sara-Ethel in New York again, but it was also beautiful. And, again, it was about finding new ways to support each other.
A friend in Ohio who sells vegetables at a farmer’s market every year even sent me the seeds for the garden when she was doing her yearly ordering! In the early fall, I spoke to an older woman who lives across the street from me, and she said, “You haven’t been out in the pool lately. That was good to see.” It was so odd to realize I’d been this neighborhood spectacle, but also nice to realize that we exist in a larger web of humanity, even when we don’t realize it.
I like the idea of you sitting in a 5″ x 7″ pool drinking a cocktail and ruminating about life. Speaking of which: If you had to deliver a brief, elevator pitch explanation of what happens when we die, how would you explain it?
I think that after we die, we move through a series of bardos before we’re reincarnated. In one, we might be in a 5” x 7” pool drinking a cocktail out of a mug, trapped in wonder and anxiety; in another, we’re riding up and down for a long time in an elevator, delivering a series of pitches; another one might look like sitting on a bench on a sunny but chilly day making lists while children play a game about being held prisoner in the background. Some of our dreams prepare us for some of the possible bardos. There’s the one where we’re wandering through a mostly-deserted city, trying to get a friend on the phone. And the one that’s a room with a jumble of attic-like stuff in there, some valuable antiquities and some rubbish. Finally, our karma starts to cohere and our new cohort gathers, and we’re reborn. It could be something like that.
What other art forms do you enjoy? Are there any paintings, novels, songs, movies, or plays that have sustained you over the past year?
Once after dropping my son at his dad’s, I missed the exit for Target and just kept driving in the wrong direction for a long time singing along to the song “Look at Miss Ohio” by Gillian Welch on repeat. Art forms a big part of what sustains me, and given the odd, scattered quality of single mom life under quarantine, I take it where I can find it. Elias and I have been listening to the Ramona Quimby audiobooks over and over, on and off for the past five years. It’s narrated by Stockard Channing, and we both find her voice soothing. So, that’s the kind of day-to-day sustenance I take from art.
In terms of art that feeds my inner world in other ways, I find that I’m often drawn to artists who work in more than one medium and who have a general sense of wonder and exploration in their creative production. This summer I got in bed and re-read Just Kids, which was satisfying. One of the most beautiful experiences I had when I lived in New York was going to The Poetry Project and hearing Patti Smith sing and speak about Jim Carroll at his memorial. I also tend to enjoy the writing of women who make their own genres or who straddle more than one genre. I really love women’s portraits of their inner monologues, as well as the work of female visual artists who create portraits. There’s an Alice Neel exhibit up in New York right now that I wish I could go to.
How do you know when it is time to write a poem?
I have a phrase enter my head that has a certain quality to it that makes me want to repeat it over and over to myself until I write it down. Or an intersection of memory and observation piques my interest in a way I’m interested in recording. Or sometimes a family member (my kid or brother or mom) will say something that starts a chain of associations. Things like that.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
I had some pancakes and coffee around 11am. My son told me a “pro tip”—he doesn’t like his pancakes too dark. Eight-year-olds and their pro tips …
I’ve asked your son this question, but I thought I’d ask you here also: Can space exist without time and/or time without space? Please show your work.
When I was reading this question, an astrologer I was listening to online said the word “space.” I think there’s a certain psychic space that occurs outside the confines of linear time. It’s related to the bardo idea and to the suspended in-between states of meditation and liminality and the third area. It might relate to Mircea Eliade’s idea of sacred time, but it isn’t time, anyway. It’s a state outside time. That’s all I know about that