Joanna Fuhrman is the author of six books of poetry, including To a New Era (Hanging Loose Press 2021). Recent poems and poetry videos have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Conduit, Fence, NAW, Moving Poems, Triquarterly, Posit, and Volt. She teaches creative writing and organizes alumni and faculty readings at Rutgers University.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book came out in 2000, so it feels like a different world from then. I remember how exciting it was to go into a bookstore and see my book on a shelf. Now, with how publishing has changed, that less likely to happen. I was also lucky that my first book allowed me to meet a lot of poets.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I remember writing a poem in middle school standing in front of a pizza place that would later burn down. It was a very bad, clichéd poem, but at the time it felt like a door was opening. After that I spent a lot of time at the school library and at the library near my parents’ office reading all the contemporary poetry books I could find. Rich’s book Leaflets was one of the first books that spoke to me. I remember finding it on the shelf of the school library in middle school. I also remember playing surrealist games at summer camp that same year, a few months later. That also really influenced me.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I guess every poem and book project is different. To a New Era took me a very long time because my sense of the tone of the project kept changing. I threw out a bunch of poems after Trump was elected because they didn’t feel true to me anymore.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A lot of my poems start with exercises I write with my students. I then take a few lines from what I wrote in class and develop them into something totally different. Other poems start in dreams or sometimes experiences.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes, I love giving readings. Otherwise I forget I’m supposed to be a funny poet. What stinks about Zoom readings is that you can’t hear anyone laughing. Though what’s nice is I get to look at my cat while I am reading. Or if I am reading a poem about wanting a cat, I can shake a bag of treats and show people that we finally got one.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think the thing about poetry is that the mind and the body are hopefully joined, so it’s not only theoretical. A lot of my work is about trying to create one’s own value system and sense of reality within the distorted framework of capitalism. I am also interested in the relationship between the realities of being a woman and our culture’s ideas about femininity.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think I am more interested in what it means to be a citizen than a writer. As a poet I feel pretty marginal, so it’s hard to see any special place for me. But that said, I would hope that we would all be more involved in the civic life of our country. Perhaps as outsiders, we are better to able to see other possibilities.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it depends who the editor is. Caroline Hagood, who is a new editor at Hanging Loose, was wonderful to work with, and had great ideas and suggestions. My old editor at Hanging Loose, Donna Brook, was also wonderful, though she would lovingly tease me about how many times the color fuchsia would appear in my work, and other things like that. She was good at noticing if I did things like use the word “googly” twice in one manuscript.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Find your poetry tribe. I suppose everyone says it, but it’s true.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s always hard for me to get started when I have to write something in a genre that isn’t my “main thing,” but then once I have gotten going I am surprised to enjoy it. I would like to write more critical prose on poetry, but I have some projects I want to finish first.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
It depends so much on my teaching schedule. I tend to prioritize my teaching, but I am also prone to dizzy spells. One advantage of dizzy spells is I am incapable of being coherent, so I am forced to work on poetry—where my scattered image-making mood is more appropriate.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Poets I return to include to be inspired include David Shapiro, Barbara Guest, John Yau, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Elaine Equi, Sharon Mesmer. I also have a ton of poetry anthologies in translation which I reread. When I feel like writing, I look to for poems to read that have a slipperiness to them.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I like to cook with lots of garlic, so I suppose that. Both my husband and I love to cook.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I love visual art and movies. In to a New Era, I have a sestina inspired by Mary Beth Edelson and a pantoum inspired by the Guy Maddin film The Forbidden Room, and the project I’m working on now, called Data Mind, includes lots of prose poems that update “dreamifies” (or rewrites) various films, including My Man Godfrey, Dinner at 8, Something Wild and The Matrix.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
All of the writers mentioned above. I am also grateful to have an amazing writing group that gives me terrific feedback.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d love to travel more. I have never been to Italy or Asia.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I love art-making, and do it as an amateur. I also think being a therapist would be interesting. I actually enjoy listening to people talk.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
As a kid I was always interested in all of the arts, I painted and acted and tried to learn music (though I was terrible at it). I fell in love with poetry because it feels like a combination of all of the arts.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ll give you two books by friends which blew me away, both of which I had been waiting for for a long time: Rick Snyder’s Here City and Sheila Maldonado’s That What You Get. For film, I re-watched The Lady Eve last night, which very well might be my favorite film ever.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a book of prose poems called Data Mind. It started out as a book about life on the internet as a non-digital native, but it’s sort of morphed into a book about pandemic life. I suppose they are related. I was also writing some flash fiction, but I have taken a break from that.