A Conversation with Poet Joanne Durham

Just in time for National Poetry Month, poet Joanne Durham’s new book, To Drink from a Wider Bowl, is a generous, life-spanning collection of work that invites readers to drink in the world. Today, I’m offering readers an interview with Joanne that I hope will shed light on the poet behind the work. Questions from One Minnesota Crone are in bold print. 

Author’s bio:

Joanne Durham is the author of To Drink from a Wider Bowl, winner of the 2021 Sinclair Poetry Prize (Evening Street Press, April 1, 2022).  Joanne is a retired educator living on the North Carolina coast. She draws on the rich experiences of seven decades of life to write poems that have been published or are forthcoming in Poetry East, Calyx, One Art, Gyroscope Review, Kosmos Quarterly, Quartet, Rise-Up Review, Juniper, and many other journals. Learn more about her background, publications, and awards at https://www.joannedurham.com/

What do you want people coming to your poetry for the first time to know about you?

First of all, how happy it makes me that they have come to my poetry! Poetry has enriched my life so much, and I want it to do the same for others. I’ve had a number of friends tell me that they never liked poetry, so they were surprised that they liked my poems. I think school ruined it for them, so I try to make up for some of that. When I was a teacher, I would never assign my kids to put, say, two metaphors in a poem. I would tell them instead, try to write a poem where you can’t quite bring out the joy or anger or sadness you felt unless you compare it to something else. I want people to know that I try, through my poetry, to bring something we need to live our lives more fully and richly – something we can’t quite express just in passing conversation.   

A lot of us had poor experiences with the way poetry was taught to us. Your example of how you taught metaphor to kids is a lovely approach, clear and concrete. And offering poetry as a way to live more fully and richly feels like a spiritual approach, drawing from the very core of who you are. Which brings me to this: To Drink from a Wider Bowl strikes me as a Zen-like title. What philosophies feed your work? 

The title is from the last two lines of the prologue poem of the book, “Old Folks”: “We are thirsty still/but drink from a wider bowl.” It’s interesting, your blog epigraph says pretty much the same thing: “Older women don’t disappear; they branch out.” Either of us could have written a long explanation, but we’re poets, so we choose to leave the reader a place to enter into the thought, to make it their own, to ponder what wasn’t said as well as what was, and to gain a deep satisfaction through metaphor and language attentive to the moment. I guess you could call that kind of Zen. 

To Drink from a Wider Bowl is a kind of memoir in poetry, although I take a lot of poetic license with the facts. The poems flow from my ancestors through childhood, adolescence, loves and losses, work, progressive activism, and winding up full of the wonders of grandkids and more concerned than ever about the world I will leave to them. There’s a prose poem early in the book called “Carpool Politics, 1966” where, as a teenager, “I think for the first time that the world is a giant jigsaw puzzle and someone has hidden the picture on the cover of the box so nobody can agree on where to put the pieces…” My book is about a lifetime of trying to fit the pieces together. 

Are you saying, then, that the philosophy that feeds your work is to invite contemplation of the larger world? Is there a little more to it? 

If there is a theme that runs throughout my book, it’s “connections.” I believe we are all fundamentally connected to each other and to the natural world. The moments when I sense those connections most intensely are the seeds of most of my poems. We live in a society that values individualism and competition over community and collaboration. So our connections are constantly obscured, and poetry is one way to rediscover and nourish them.  Reaching deeply into ourselves, connecting deeply with others, and trying together to change the circumstances that keep us in a world of conflict instead of unity – those are all connected too. 

At what point did you realize that To Drink from a Wider Bowl would take the form of poetic memoir that encompassed your entire life? Was there a particular poem from the book that tipped you toward that scope versus a tighter focus?

I’ve been writing poetry all my life, but never tried to publish anything except a few poems that came out in teaching journals. But I kept all my folders and notebooks. When I retired, I decided I was going to give poetry its due. So long before I even thought about writing a book, when I was just testing the waters to see if my poetry would interest anyone besides me, I wound up writing about all these memories I had jotted down over the years. There are a couple of poems in my book that I actually wrote 30-40 years ago. There are other poems that I totally rewrote, but the original poem allowed me to keep some of the immediacy of the experience. In “Carpool Politics,” which I referred to earlier, the quote from the men in the carpool is verbatim what they said fifty years ago! After a lot of my poems got accepted in journals, I realized that I more or less had a book that traced my life over time. It was a very satisfying feeling, to think I could make this mosaic of my experiences and there was something universal in them as well. 

The poem that glued it all together was “Old Folks.” I had been thinking about writing a poem about getting older for a while. I felt a lot of gratitude for getting older and annoyance at how old people are viewed in our society, and I wanted to celebrate cronedom! Then in a workshop I was introduced to the technique of taking 10-15 random words out of a poetry anthology and using as many of them as possible in a poem. I did that and wrote “Old Folks.” I never would have come up with “time stretches/like an accordion” or “we are thirsty still/but drink from a wider bowl” if “accordion” and “thirst” and “bowl” weren’t in my word list! But once I had written that poem, I knew it would anchor the book. I could say right up front how I felt about being older, and then travel back and trace how I got there through the sections of the book, each section titled with a phrase from that first poem. Once I had that general approach, I played around with the sections and wrote some new poems to fill out parts that seemed thin. 

What does your creative process look like? 

I usually write whatever comes into my head and come back to it days or weeks later and see if there’s a nugget of something there to turn into a poem. I keep coming back to see what else it needs, until I’ve gotten as far as I can. Then I take the poem to one or more of my critique groups to find out how it sits with other readers. I sift through their perceptive comments and almost always revise some more. A few poems were “gifts” – they rolled around in my head and came out pretty much fully formed. But that’s rare.  

What is the greatest thing about being a poet at this stage of your life?  

Time! I have time to really study craft. For years I thought you’d lose the inspiration and emotion of a poem if you tried to revise it! It was a huge moment for me when I realized the difference between writing to release something you need for yourself, which of course is totally fine, and writing to connect with readers. Craft to me is how to make that connection happen, and I can’t get enough of absorbing it from poets I admire. Another great thing is that I have a lot more experiences to write about than I did at twenty. And I’ve been able to connect with wonderful poets all over the country – some in other parts of the world. I get to be immersed in poetry, something I’ve loved all my life, but always put on the back burner. Now it’s right up front! 

Which poets or artists have been the most influential in your writing life? Do you have a favorite? 

In high school I fell in love with Walt Whitman’s poetry. I still have my hardbound copy of Leaves of Grass even though my dog ate half the cover. As a young woman I discovered the poetry of Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, Judy Grahn, Denise Levertov, Audrey Lorde – women poets who spoke directly to me. As a teacher I found Naomi Shihab Nye, first through her poetry for kids and then for everyone, and I always go back to her when I need to reaffirm what I find essential in poetry – a light that shines with compassion into both our inner and outer worlds. There are many contemporary poets I’ve discovered over the past few years, famous and not famous at all, whose poems continually inspire me. 

I adore Naomi Shihab Nye. I took a workshop with her in Minneapolis several years ago and have heard her read a couple of times. And there are so many poets who offer work that resonates for all kinds of reasons, it’s hard to choose a favorite. And I find that poetry is a great springboard for other kinds of art. Do you create any other forms of art besides poetry? Are there forms you’d like to try? 

I liked to draw as a kid but never pursued it and don’t think I will. I write lots of books for my grandkids, but they often turn out as poetry. I think I’m stuck with poetry. 

Lucky grandkids! Do you have any other work forthcoming? 

Yes, I have a chapbook, On Shifting Shoals, being published by Kelsay Books, probably at the end of this year. It’s about the southern beach town where I’ve lived for the past ten years. It’s part eco-poetry, part observations about the people who live at or visit the beach, part astonishment at the daily beauty of the ocean I’m so lucky to have as my backyard. I’m always writing and sending poems off to the myriad of journals, online and in print, that allow me to connect with readers and other poets all the time. 

Where can people get a copy of To Drink from a Wider Bowl

They can order it from Evening Street Press, https://eveningstreetpress.com/book-author/joanne-durham/. It’s also available through Amazon, and if people want a signed copy (and live in the US) they can contact me through my website, https://www.joannedurham.com/. Feedback and connections are always welcome too! 

Thank you so very much for sharing a bit of yourself.



Two poems from To Drink from a Wider Bowl:

Old Folks

weather things. We hold our tongues
when young women bemoan their first
gray hairs. We doze off to dream
mid-afternoons on worn, cushioned couches, 
then lie with unclosed eyes through the deep holes
of night. There's a haze that hovers above
dates, faces, places -- when was the summer
of the beach house in Ocracoke? Which snow rose
over the sills? Memory no longer chirrs
like an eager bird easing into morning wings, sipping
on rain that drips from every rafter. Time stretches
like an accordion, stores lullabies, love songs 
and funeral chords between its folds. We are
thirsty still, but drink from a wider bowl.

Maps

Every home
needs a map of the world.
Hang it by the entrance.
Bless it as you might
a cross or a mezuzah
when you come and go.
Trace your finger across continents
not your own.
Say names of countries whose sounds
tickle your throat and move your lips
differently from your own language.
Be curious about who lives there,
sharing seas and stars.
Hope to meet them,
fellow earth-dwellers,
all calling this planet
home.

Published by Kathleen Cassen Mickelson

Kathleen Cassen Mickelson is a Minnesota-based writer who has published work in journals in the US, UK, and Canada.

4 thoughts on “A Conversation with Poet Joanne Durham

  1. Thank you, Joanne, for sharing your writing story and your poetry with us. Both poems here resonate with me. And thank you, Kathleen, for introducing us to Joanne. BTW, I love the photo illustrating this post. Yours, I assume? It’s beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

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