JoAnna Novak’s debut memoir Contradiction Days will be published by Catapult in 2022. Her short story collection, Meaningful Work, won the 2020 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest and will be published by FC2 in 2021. Her third book of poetry, New Life, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press, as is the chapbook Knife with Oral Greed, with above/ground press. She is the author of the novel I Must Have You and two previous books of poetry: Noirmania and Abeyance, North America. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.
Her poems “Nothing to Lose” and A Kind Living Room” appear in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “Nothing to Lose” and A Kind Living Room.”
A: These poems are borne of: staying with one's in-laws and looking around at a lifetime of stuff; clinging to elementary French lessons in the early days of sheltering-in-place; and reminiscences of days in restaurant kitchens, heaving sheet trays and forming infinity signs of filo dough.
Q: How do these pieces compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: There’s more absurdity or surrealism in these poems. And I’m playing with the appearance of narrative, its false comforts.
Q: How did these shifts develop, and how do they display themselves in your work? And I’m curious about what you mean by the “false comforts” of narrative. What do you mean by that?
A: The shifts result from a restlessness towards myself. I get tired of my default modes of expression, and I try to do something different—in the case of these poems, work with characters, create a façade of narrative logic. I think of narrative as having false comforts, especially as of late, because of the ongoingness of the pandemic. (And these poems were very much a product of the early days of quarantine.) I bristle when I hear people say, “When COVID is over” or the like. This idea that there will be a resounding “The End” seems false in this context. This resonates with my own sense of the world, I suppose, tinged by neuroses or compulsions, where repetition upends the notion of causality. But also, in a vastly different context, my son—who is fifteen months old—doesn’t seem satisfied by “The End.” He points again at whatever we’re reading (Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?) as soon as I close the back cover.
Q: I know that Brown Bear book well (I think we’ve gone through a couple of copies over the past few years). With three published books-to-date, and three further forthcoming, how do you feel your work has progressed? What do you see yourself working toward?
A: I know how I work more. Two of the forthcoming books—a memoir, a book of poetry—were drafted in very deliberate, concentrated periods of time. (The third, a short story collection, is filled with stories that were also drafted in very deliberate, concentrated periods of time—albeit over more than a decade.) In the Afterword to his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, John Berger writes, reflecting on his career: “Work well. We have little else. Trust your imagination a little more.” I live by the first two sentences, and I am always working toward the third.
Q: Given you’ve worked in poetry, fiction and memoir, how easy has it been for you to shift between not only projects but structures? Does each project feed off the others as individual threads of a larger, all-encompassing consideration, or are they entirely separate?
A: They’re entirely separate, structurally, though thematically there’s crossover. Desire, appetite, ornamentation, fashion, food, submission and discipline—I return to these very general ideas again and again and again.
Q: How are your poems, and by extension, your poetry collections, constructed? Are you the author of poems that accumulate into something that develops into something book-length, or have you a sense of a larger structure in mind closer to the beginning?
A: I draft poems impulsively, quickly, unfussily. In revision I tear them apart and reassemble them, still trying to keep that more focused process unfussy. I write individual poems, but when I’m working on a project (often, it’s just the title for a book that I’m excited about) I use form and/or motif to string me from poem to poem. An example: With my forthcoming collection New Life, I titled everything I was drafting “New Life” and worked with a matrix of imagery—islands, infants, fertile things—throughout the writing process. When I’d amassed 60 or 70 pages of poetry, I began editing and structuring the book.
Q: Given the subject matter of New Life, then, has becoming a parent shifted your outlook on writing, or on the writing itself?
A: Writing is more integrated into all aspects of my life now—it has to be. The times when I can be at my desk, solely focused on work, do exist, but they’re precious. I try to make space to be writing, or reading and taking notes towards writing, even when I’m being a parent. The chapbook you’re publishing, actually, was composed while my son flipped through a book of Grimm fairy tales.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: The writings of Agnes Martin. Teresa of Ávila. M.F.K. Fisher. Audre Lorde. Anne Sexton. Sylvia Plath. Ted Berrigan. Junot Díaz. Gary Lutz.