CASA Magazine, September 3, 2010
Q & A interview
(edited and expanded)

The Visitor, by Joneve McCormick

Why do you write poetry?

I write when I’m moved strongly and need to express my feelings and thoughts. There is a universal human need to hear truth and experience beauty; one can be poet or listener and be satisfied, but for a writing poet it is not enough to have words and lines and keep them, or simply speak them to a friend and let them go; they are more "real" the more widely shared and experienced.

I can write poetry anytime, but inspiration is strongest when I’m deeply moved, beyond myself and self-consciousness.

I didn't make a conscious choice to write poetry. I said my first line when I was three. I can't remember the exact words, but my father (a writing poet in his youth) did a "double-take" when he heard them and his attention marked the experience in my memory. I didn't begin to write lines down until I was in my 20's, a student at UC Berkeley.

What is the power of the written word or its place in contemporary culture?

Today poetry is considered a weak art having little influence. Joseph Sobran put it well, saying that contemporary poetry of repute doesn't "stick to the ribs". Some critics say we are less literate today and the traditional genres aren't as important as they used to be. But speech isn't dying and poetry is rooted in it, inseparable from its sounds and rhythms.

One reason poetry has become less effectual is that we are more connected but not more united; in the US and much of the western world we are consciously different individuals living in a collection of cultures -- bombarded by communications and feeling crowded. Opportunities to expand individual experience can be enriching and exciting -- but can also make it more difficult to find a place from which to genuinely, effectively communicate at large with others, reach 'universal marrow bones’ so to speak. Some write for a smaller audience, but in doing so admit their reach is limited and settle for that. Some merely try for catchy and fleeting impressions like the "interfacing" online where content is often shallow, by agreement, and social patterns like "political correctness" don’t permit honest communication.

W.B. Yeats points to the weakness of a familiar "center" in "The Second Coming": Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world....

I think William Faulkner pinpointed what is facing contemporary poets and writers in his Nobel Prize address (2nd item on page) composed 60 years ago. The poet must find within him or herself the certainty that quality of communication matters. Rainer Maria Rilke advised, in Letters to a Young Poet, to write as though we have eternity before us.

Civilizations present poetry in religious rites and living stories. It is the highest expression of a language and the power of a people. Cookbooks may be important, but the work of poets and artists carries us forward. A civilization has not developed without the written word.

I think the weakness of poetry in our time is a sign civilizations are undergoing profound transformation. Poets, along with other artists, present new experience while carrying forward what has survived. Everything created comes with a past if it has a future - words don't communicate and live on if they aren't grounded in what is familiar. It can take time to pull present and past experience together.

Whatever future civilizations look like, the written word will be part of them if they are to survive and thrive. This is why we have language wars.

in the meantime poets are challenged and poetry is being written. I would like for poetry to be read out loud, chanted and sung more, as it has been in the past. I don't know how one can understand how a poem means without hearing it. YouTube is criticized for publishing "anything", but W.B. Yeats is there, reading his work, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and many other greats, as well as a wealth of new talent.

What is your favorite poem in the Visitor?

Letting Go. One reason is that I was able to rewrite this poem and make it better after seeing it in print. It is also a favorite because writing poetry is a lot about not interfering with “truth” in the writing process and I was fairly successful twice with this poem -- not getting in the way. Truth communicated is never mundane, and that is one important difference between it and mere fact. Truth has "a ring" to it to the degree it is approached, which we recognize even while holding other or different viewpoints.

What inspired the book?

I did not envision the poems in book form. I invited the book's editor, Rati Saxena, to select a small collection from a file i sent her. She used all of the poems I sent. As a result I rewrote some and so the project has worked out well for the poems.

What was your biggest challenge?

To stay with the particular poem I was writing and not interfere -- self-consciousness ends the process. Maturing to the extent that "author intrusion" isn't a problem is the bigger challenge.

Where is the book available?

The Book Den, in Santa Barbara, or email

What prepared you to be a poet?

I believe poetry chooses poets before they are born, and then poets re-choose for themselves by being true to themselves, whatever strategies and paths they use to do that. We see and know by contrast and by extending ourselves with empathy; thus a poet is usually quite adventurous, crossing many personal and cultural barriers, however that may appear.

Growing up, I read a lot and unavoidably became aware that words express ideas, rhythms and images - create effects -- that words are, inherently, magic wands. How to develop artistic ability with them is an inside job. Basically, it's developing a habit of telling the truth. Historians have said that poets lie, but history is written by "winners" and by "losers" presenting as "winners". Reality is much bigger than that.

What is capturing your imagination now?

When I lived in Santa Barbara as a child, one of my favorite places was the Museum of Natural History. I held snakes, spiders, toads, mice, and discovered enchanting creatures. I have never been afraid of any of them. I also became intimate with plants there. Planting a radish seed in an egg's half-shell and seeing it turn into a green plant evoked my first epiphany regarding creation (no scientific explanation yet comes close). After moving back to the Santa Barbara area in early 2008, from Manhattan, I began photographing animals, plants, people and the ocean. There is truly a paradise here, and it’s suffering. I've put photographs and some poems online, along with poems by others. One of the sites is Joneve & Friends.

Since I've been back I've seen a decrease in wildlife and man-made noise has increased. These and other manifestations of environmental decline are occurring globally and dis-ease is on the rise. How to better, more fully, show what is at stake - within ourselves and without - as we crowd and destroy our natural worlds is what is capturing my imagination now.