Poetry Around Us with James Ballowe

An interview series with featured poets of Fifth Wednesday Journal

Duende: An Interview with Joanne Diaz


Joanne Diaz received her BA from Tufts University; her MFA from New York University, where she was a New York Times fellow; and her PhD in English literature from Northwestern University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, The American Poetry Review, At Length, DIAGRAM, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and Third Coast. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She is the author of My Favorite Tyrants (winner of the Brittingham Prize, University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) and The Lessons (winner of the Gerald Cable first book award, Silverfish Review Press, 2011).

Joanne is the interview editor for The Spoon River Poetry Review, where she has conducted interviews with Linda Gregerson, Jason Bredle, Rachel Webster, and Jacob Saenz. As a contributor to the Bedford/St. Martins LitBits Blog, she shares her insights on literature, writing, and pedagogy. She is an assistant professor in the English department at Illinois Wesleyan University.

James Ballowe: I met Joanne Diaz at the Morton Arboretum Library, located in the magnificent 1,700-acre wonderland of trees and woody plants from all around the world.   The Arboretum sits just west of Chicago, where Joanne lives part of the year with her husband and son.  But the family resides during the school year in Bloomington, Illinois, where she teaches at Illinois Wesleyan University and her husband teaches in the art department at Illinois State University. The Arboretum library and archives proved a perfect place to talk about her work, in which she often uses natural surroundings as metaphor.

Fifth Wednesday Journal: Joanne, it might be useful at the beginning of this interview for you to talk about places and people that appear in your books The Lessons (2011) and My Favorite Tyrants (2014). Your poems are set in many places around the world, including Europe, the Americas, and Asia. One has only to read your poetry to learn who you are and how the people and places you have encountered enter into your work.

JOANNE DIAZ: Whenever I travel or relocate to another place, it’s an incredibly stimulating experience. It can sometimes be stressful; it can be anxiety producing. But it is always transformative. When I relocate to any place, it often takes me awhile to pull my thoughts together. Some of the poems in My Favorite Tyrants were inspired by my first visit to the Philippines in 2005, but I didn’t write those poems until 2006 and 2007. I had written copious notes from my time there, but I didn’t know what the experience meant. It takes me a long time to finally arrive at that moment where I feel something click in a poem. But the places do that work for me.

For example, I just returned from my second trip to the Philippines. My husband had a Fulbright Scholarship for photography, so we stayed there for five months. It was an intense kind of immersion into the culture and history of the place. In general, most Americans do not have a full awareness of how inextricably the United States is tied to the Philippines; certainly, before I traveled there for the first time in 2005, I was almost completely ignorant of it. It’s not something we learn about in high school history classes, but we should. Anyone interested in America’s history as a colonial power will find Philippine history to be quite interesting, and certainly upsetting. I owe the Philippines a lot, because both times I have been there, I just can’t stop writing — about the aesthetics of the place, the way in which buildings are constructed, the congestion in the streets, the way people relate to each other and to their history.

To give you a sense of how layered and complex it is, let me describe just one example. During our five months in Manila, we lived in an area called Taguig, but the section where we lived is now known as Bonifacio Global City. In the index to the Lonely Planet that we bought on our first trip in 2005, there is no such place as Bonifacio Global City. It’s a brand new place full of condominiums and high-end retail shops, but the name obscures its historical significance. The land the BGC is built upon was once known as Fort McKinley, the place where Ferdinand Marcos sent his political prisoners. If you walk down the streets of Bonifacio Global City, you might mistake it for Santa Monica, California. It’s that ritzy. But underneath every new Starbucks and Old Navy store are the ghosts of people who were punished for speaking truth to power. Wherever I went in Manila, I tried to listen to those ghosts. They have a lot to say.

FWJ:  It’s obvious that your communion with the past provides a somewhat melancholic counterpoint to the beauty you often find in your travels. For instance, in “Crossing Tsing Ma Bridge,” you write of a friend telling you he liked your poems because they call attention to beauty. And you reply that it is obvious that he hasn’t read your work. If he had done so, he would not have missed the dramatic tension between the past and the present moment in your poetry. Your travels have given you a heightened sense of how the present is built upon what has gone before and has often been destroyed and what remains in spite of that destruction. Could you tell us more about that?

JD: Adam Zagajewski has said that tragedy and joy should collide in every line of a poem. The poem has to have a mix of the two in order for it to really vibrate.

In my poems, I’m trying to figure out how to be politically and historically aware as a privileged white American living in the twenty-first century. One way I do that is by tempering or qualifying what I have to say by situating it in a larger historical context.  I always look for ugliness in order to juxtapose it with something — well, if not beautiful, then something other-than-ugly. In fact, I don’t have to create the ugliness. It’s always there. I only have to document it, to transcribe it. I’m not trying to be sanctimonious or high-handed or didactic with the work, because I don’t find that to be useful. I just want to be witness to what I’m seeing and try to offer some personal reaction to it.

FWJ: Before this interview when we were corresponding, I mentioned to you that I thought these poems indicate that you are doing something a bit different from your previously published work. I don’t think the form of the poem is so different. But you do seem to have taken a different view of the world when you were in the Philippines.  (I should say that not all of these poems in FWJ are about that trip. But the ones that are show more duende, a beautiful word you use to describe the tension in your work). These poems, like a few that precede them in My Favorite Tyrants, document that tension.

JD:  “Document” is such an interesting word. I should tip my hat to the real documentary poets, as I tend to think of myself mostly as a narrative poet. The real documentary work being written today comes from poets like Mark Nowak, whose Coal Mountain Elementary includes the voices of coal miners; and Jill McDonough, whose Habeas Corpus transforms the found language of executed prisoners into an amazing sonnet sequence. They are just two of a whole group of excellent poets who are drawing from their documentary research to create exciting new poems.

Research for me is essential. I can’t write poems without conducting some kind of research, however basic it might be. Whether that means looking up etymologies in the Oxford English Dictionary or reading historical accounts from the archives, I learn about what I don’t know in order to arrive at a poem’s surprise.

In short, I’m am deeply interested in the world beyond the limits of my own body and mind. My own life really hasn’t been that interesting.  It’s been good, of course. I’m healthy, and I have family and friends that support me, and I have had great educational opportunities. But it has not been a difficult life.

FWJ:  Do you believe you live, as you say in one of your poems, a life of ease?

JD:  Yes, I do.

FWJ:  But isn’t that life of ease built on the sorrows of the past?

JD: I completely believe that. Certainly someone could say, “Oh, yes, but there is drama in every person’s life.” Of course there is. But I’m talking about the material circumstances of my life and how they’ve propped me up to be able to have the privileges I’m writing about.

FWJ: Could you talk a little more about the strategies you use to get to where you want to be in a poem?

JD: There are a few things I almost always do. I’ll start with something that surprises or interests me. That surprise might come from something someone has said. You might have noticed that in my poetry I frequently quote poets, historians, scientists, family, and friends. I love hearing other people’s voices in a poem. It reminds me that poets don’t work in complete isolation, contrary to popular belief.

Note taking, even when I’m not actually drafting a poem, is central to my process as a poet. When I’m preparing a lesson plan for my poetry workshops and literature classes, I stumble upon words and phrases all the time.  I may not know what to do with them, but I know that I want to save them, so I put them in my notebook. It can take me a long time before I know what to do with those things, which is why I often put placeholders at the top of my notebook pages.

For example, on this page that I just opened up to randomly, I see a note that I wrote in March of this year when I visited the Manila Zoo and saw an elephant named Mali. Mali has lived there for most of her forty years, and she’s a source of controversy among animal activists who want to see her put into retirement. As I approached Mali, I heard a boom box blasting “Lady in Red” — remember that ubiquitous song from the 80s? — at full volume. People were taking pictures of Mali as she was being hosed down by one of the zookeepers. And so this romantic song was being played, and the elephant was swaying to the beat like she was at a middle-school dance. It was such a strange moment.   I have no idea what to do with this, but I know I’ll return to it for a poem idea.

On that same page in my notebook, I’ve also highlighted “Jungle Land,” which was a popular exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair. They had this area called Monkey Mountain where hundreds of rhesus monkeys lived for months. They had been transported from Southeast Asia to Queens, New York, by boat. Many of them died on the way, and many more were sick and miserable while in New York. Some of them even tried to escape the World’s Fair and ended up in neighborhoods in Queens. I don’t know what to do with them, but the black-and-white photos of Monkey Mountain have seared my brain, and I will incorporate them somehow.

And then on the opposite page I’ve highlighted “Louise Glück.” I was reading her Faithful and Virtuous Night at the time that I went to the Manila Zoo. I remember thinking that her insights had some relationship to what I saw at the zoo. I am trying to weave together all of these disparate materials; I just haven’t found the through-line, which takes some time.

FWJ:  You have touched on your fascination with language, individual words, and how you pursue the word to its source.  What about the line you use? Often your poems are in couplets with a single sentence that runs across the couplets. When do you decide to break a line?

JD:  When I break my lines, I try to see what kind of dramatic effect a word can have across the break. I see line and stanza breaks as ways to create more tension, more surprise. Whenever I look at a poem, I don’t just look at how a line begins. I look at how it ends. So even before I read a poem for comprehension and narrative understanding, I look at the end of the lines for clues to the poet’s central concerns.

White space between stanzas can create connections as well as breaks. There can be many little aha! moments when what the reader thought you were going to do becomes something different, just by virtue of a stanza break. Words at the ends of lines and stanzas can provide double meanings, and I like to play with that. Lately, I have felt most at home in two or three-line stanzas, but I am also drawn to the single stanza poem, perhaps because I continue to be inspired by the work of my teacher, Philip Levine. In “Ode to Regret,” for example, I wanted the reader to have the compression of feeling about regret at that moment. It’s an aesthetic decision that has a relationship to the poem’s emotional content.

my-favorite-tyrantsFWJ:  That poem is quite distinct. It is an ode after all, a song to melancholy. That’s a bit of a challenge, but it shows how you approach that feeling.

You say that you take a lot of notes that you have not written poems from, at least not yet. You have a poem in this issue, entitled “Why I Have Not Written Any of My Poems.”  You spend a lot of time reading, studying art, photography, movies, music.  You often incorporate a lot of this into your poetry.

You also find things in popular culture. Nothing seems to escape you.  I was brought up short when I read in My Favorite Tyrants your poem titled “Thank You, Brian Williams” in which your irony turns to sarcasm. You are prescient in exposing the now-discredited anchorman. If I may, let me quote a bit from “Thank You, Brian Williams,” in which you write about his braggadocio sotto voce comment at the Italian Winter Olympics that took place in 2006. In the broadcast for the opening ceremonies, Williams observes

that Italy has the third largest number of troops on the ground

in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thank you, Brian Williams,
for this brief lesson in military might. I was so preoccupied
with my admiration of those smart berets worn by every athlete

regardless of nation or creed, so transfixed by Pavarotti’s
donut-like comportment under this billowing tent-of-a-cape,
so haunted by Venetian puppets that will linger in my dreams

that I had forgotten Italy’s willing collaboration.
Thank you, Italy! And dear citizens of Turin!
Such might deserves acknowledgment, even it it’s only

a bronze-level effort.

How do you control your use of irony?  It’s obviously a strategy that you use, as when you quote from Oscar Wilde talking about Boston as being “a paradise of prigs” in your poem “Epigram for the Boston Accent.”

The full interview with Joanne Diaz is available in the fall 2015 Issue 17 of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our store.
James Ballowe, an FWJ founding editor, is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University. Northern Illinois University Press published his biography of Joy Morton, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, in 2009. In 2010 the University of Illinois Press published his anthology, Christmas in Illinois. This is his twelfth interview of an Illinois poet for FWJ. Learn more about him:

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