Poetry Book Blog Tour: Interview with Joanne Merriam

Yes, it’s part 5 of the Poetry Book Blog Tour! Today I interview Joanne Merriam:

Joanne Merriam is a supremely talented writer with books, prizes, and numerous publication credits to her name. She was nominated for the 2009 Dwarf Stars Award, winner of Asimov’s Science Fiction‘s Readers’ Awards for Best Poem of 2008, for “Deaths on Other Planets,” and First and Third place winner (respectively) of the Strange Horizons 2005 and 2004 Reader’s Choice Awards for Fiction.

Belinda Cooke explains Joanne’s poetry book, “The Glaze from Breaking,” thus: “She reminded me a lot of the early work of Boris Pasternak where the poet does not so much observe the natural world as fuse with it breaking down the boundaries between speaker and landscape… She also does clever things with sound… [and] has the odd image that manages to be both unusual and just right.”

On to the interview:
(CKL): Nearly twenty years ago, I visited the Morgan Library in Manhattan and saw Sylvia Plath’s crayon printed first attempts at poetry. Since then, I’ve always enjoyed reading the very early poems of poets. Have you saved any of your first attempts? 
(JM): I no longer have any of my very early work – I started writing when I
was eight and the earliest poems I have are from my very late teens.
Here’s one of them, written when I was 19 (also my earliest published
poem–after some stuff that appeared in a tiny local magazine which I
lost in one of my many moves–it was in the Spring 1996 issue of Feux
To be with you in the early hours of the evening is enough.
To watch your back and shoulders move under your shirt, to smilingly
feel your eyes on me is enough.
Yes, I want to feel your hands tangled in my hair, yes, I want to run
my fingers along the smooth soft skin of your wrists and arms, and
yes, I want to rake my calves over your calves.
But more than that I need only to observe you move across the room I’m in.
You don’t have to do anything.
It is enough to hear your low voice talk or laugh, or say my name,
and, not touching, while talking and laughing, to feel near me your
long lean warmth.
Here’s a very recent poem (published here
and written in April 2010):
Ah Inflorescence
         (after Walt Whitman’s ‘Ah Poverties, Wincings and Sulky Retreats’)
You’re an umbel–
your shoots; your loosenesses; your legs like pedicels;
eyes dark flat seeds screwed nearly shut against the light;
woodbine nerves; you seacoast angelica
(for what are your heteroflexible hands on my skin
but a flower moving, seeds drifting on a breeze?)–
when you finally touch me (my hands the dumbest of any)
(fingernails red petals on white sheets) I pluck you
(a cluster of flowers comes undone;
grinds into the ground)

(CKL): What changed in your work from the beginning to where you are now?
(JM): Well, obviously in the interim I lost my virginity.
I learned a lot about the craft of writing in my twenties, and am much
more comfortable now using metaphor and internal rhymes. I also
figured out somewhere along the way that line breaks are useful. I’m
more comfortable with interrupting my syntax and generally less
But more than that, my whole approach has changed. As much as my life
inescapably informs my work, I’m not drawing from autobiography in
quite the same way (and sometimes hardly at all, especially in my
science fiction poetry). “Enough” was a deeply personal poem for me
when I was 19, but while “Ah Inflorescence” is about a real person, I
didn’t write it to express emotions I couldn’t figure out how to
express outside my writing, or for therapy. When I was a teenager,
writing a poem was almost always a stand-in for having a real
conversation with a real person–it was safer and less messy, because
I didn’t have to deal with the other person at all. Now, although I
frequently write about my life, it’s not a replacement for
communicating with my loved ones.

(CKL): Why did you start writing?
(JM): Despite what I’ve just said, not for therapy. I started writing when I
was eight because I was (and am) a people-pleaser, and my grade three
teacher praised a poem I had written for class. It was a rhyming poem
called “Dryad Lake” and was very derivative of the Anne of Green
Gables books. I wish I still had a copy. My parents liked it too. I
liked pleasing all these adults, so I wrote some more. At some point I
fell in love with the actual process of writing and now I can’t stop.
I get really crotchedy if I go awhile without writing anything.

(CKL): Do you still like to write or is it a chore?
(JM): Both. It’s a chore which I enjoy. I like the mental stimulation, the
necessary extended focus, and the sense of accomplishment when I
complete something. I like being part of a conversation that’s bigger
than me.

(CKL): Do you write anything other than poetry?
(JM): Yes, I also write fiction, both literary and speculative (science
fiction, fantasy, horror). I’ve finished the first draft of a novel,
which needs catastrophic edits before it’ll be any good, and have
written a bunch of short stories, which have been published in places
like The Fiddlehead, Stirring and Strange Horizons. I’m also working
on a web comic with my roommate, who is an artist, but we haven’t
gotten to the point where anything is ready to post online.

(CKL): Was getting a book published what you expected?
(JM): Ha. Not even remotely. I had some kind of an idea that having a book
published would open doors for me, involve some small sort of
celebrity, make me into a real writer. It’s nice to be able to say I
had a book out when I tell people I’m a writer, but it really hasn’t
changed anything at all.
And the whole process was quite a bit of a struggle, as I had to do a
lot more marketing than I’d expected. Not that I didn’t expect to have
to market my work, because by 2005 when the book came out I knew
enough to know that publishers, especially poetry publishers, have
very little money. But I made the mistake of choosing a UK publisher
who had no North American distribution. Stride Books was otherwise
absolutely fantastic in every possible way; I just lived on the wrong
It also came out just after I immigrated to the US from Canada, and I
was in that dead period many immigrants face when you’re not allowed
to work in the country (lest you be deported), and you’re not allowed
to leave the country (or you’ll have to start the whole process over
again). So I had no money. My husband was working at a used car
dealership (you can read about his experience here:
and making just barely enough to keep us afloat. I didn’t have the
money for gas to drive to readings, let alone organize any sort of
promotional tour. What I had was time, and an internet connection, so
I did most of my marketing online, which was a great learning

See the rest of the week:
27 July: Jeannine hosts Christine (that’s me!)
28 July: Wendy hosts Mary
29 July: Mary hosts Jeannine
30 July: Christine hosts Joanne

2 thoughts on “Poetry Book Blog Tour: Interview with Joanne Merriam

  1. Christine, thanks for a great chat! I enjoyed the interview a great deal. I hope your readers will check out the other four interviews too – some great stuff.

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