Love and Loss and Poetry: an interview with Joy Gaines-Friedler
by Heather Lowery
Joy Gaines-Friedler, Michigan-native, poet, teacher and volunteer, recently had her second collection, Dutiful Heart, published by Broadkill River Press. A book about relationships—good and bad, fleeting and stable, strong and weak, alive and dead—and all that is involved in them, Dutiful Heart draws attention to the one common foundational aspect of every relationship, and ultimately every action—love. Gaines-Friedler ‘s poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Pebble Lake Review, The Driftwood Review, RATTLE, HazMat Review, Lilliput, Margie, The New York Quarterly, among others.
Heather Lowery: What does your writing process look like?
Joy Gaines-Friedler: Many of my poems begin from journaling, as journal entries. I guess that means that I just start writing – I journal and in that process something, somewhere shapes itself into a line or image that starts me toward a poem. It may be why I enjoy The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath as much, if not more than her poems. She taught me to write vividly and honestly. Once I have found a line (or image) that inspires me, I grab it and start a poem. I’ll start with that image or “line” sometimes on the computer and sometimes on a clean page of my journal. I think my best work starts by hand- writing it and then later converting it to the computer where I do all my revising. I’m constantly giving myself an “assignment” not to write a poem but to let a poem write me (laughs). I tell myself to allow the poem to make “turns” and, perhaps most useful for me, I surround myself with other poets. I’m inspired by others. I read poetry every single day. I read it as I write it too. For me, the greatest satisfaction comes from the process of writing. Getting published is great, but the deepest sense of satisfaction is like being in love where I can’t wait to get back to the conversation I’m having with a poem. I put it away, then return to it the next morning. I see it new, see it fresh. I find its heart and then push toward that heart. I find its tensions and then build on those. I try to create tension in a poem. This is art, it’s the creation of what it means to be human, which is, of course, complicated.
HL: How do you begin a poem? Does it start with an idea, a theme, an emotion, a moment?
JGF: All those things come together as one I think. I’m fascinated by the way our minds work, particularly the way one thought so quickly leads to so many others. I’ve learned to pay attention to that. I’m a very visual person. My poems are mostly inspired by images. I remember gestures, the way a man lifts a child from a car seat for example, and I remember faces. I can remember a face of someone whom I haven’t seen in decades. I see my life in scenes rather than in names, and nouns, and, well, language. Even my poems that are inspired by dialogue (and many of them are) are usually translated spontaneously into an image. For example, the other day my friend said to me, about her sick husband “I don’t think he’ll ever laugh again.” I didn’t only experience that statement as profound but I actually saw it. I saw his face, his head thrown back, and it immediately reminded me of my friend Jim who died from AIDS in 1990, and the way he looked when he laughed, and I instantly missed him and thought the craziest thing (but that’s what I mean about the mind); I thought Jim died before cell phones and I imaged us (visual again) talking to one another via a cell phone. Then, this line of poetry came to me, “You died before the cell and Facebook, before even Bed Bath & Beyond.” Silly, I know. But, I’ve learned to pay attention to quicksilver, the mercurial quality of thought. There is much to be noticed there. Usually, for me, it’s noticed visually.
HL: There are many poets who take the orality of their poetry very seriously. How high do you rank oral performance?
JGF: Poetry is music. As Molly Peacock points out in her book How to Read a Poem…and Start a Poetry Circle, poetry is three arts. It is music, painting, and story. Music is part of the form of a poem and form informs meaning. Shakespeare is meant to be heard, not read. Music, including the sounds of words, rhythm and meter, is really important for a deeper sense of what is beneath the language itself. I pay really close attention to music in my poems. That being said, I love hearing a poet read their work and I love the “spoken word.” Just as I love hearing a friend tell a story or a good joke. Unfortunately not everyone is great at it. I’ve been disappointed by a great poem destroyed by its own author’s poor reading of it. I practice reading my work and I read aloud as I write. I also read others’ poems aloud (in private of course because I don’t want to seem too wacky.)
HL: What turned you on to poetry?
JGF: The murder of my best friend. I was with her that day and that night her husband killed her. I woke up the next morning to the news of it. I was changed forever. After the initial shock that took two years to overcome in terms of just feeling some sense of the world as “normal” again I went to college. I had suffered the loss of my other best friend two years earlier. Jim died from AIDS. And, I went through a divorce before that. These losses may have moved me to feel my own mortality but also to become my own best friend. So I treated myself well and enrolled in college. As a child I had read Robert Lewis Stevenson’s book A Child’s Garden of Verses and particularly fell in love with the poem “The Swing.” Again, it is the imagery that captured me, the way the speaker in the poem swung up high enough that she could see over the fence into the vast fields where there were cows! And when I read Wendell Berry in that first English course something stirred in me. But when, in the next course I read Pablo Neruda and discovered the way he uses language, the way he uses metaphor, the way his heart flies off his sleeves to express the abstract through the concrete, I knew I had found the art that would heal me. It has become an almost two decade full throttle journey of exploration and discovery.
HL: Relationships and loss are two major themes in this collection. What drew you to those particular topics?
JGF: You know I teach for non-profits in the Detroit area. One of the groups I’ve had the honor of working with is parents of murdered children. I would never ask them to write about their “feelings.” Who of us really knows how to do that, or even what our feeling are? Feelings are abstractions. But when I ask them to write about a room in their house, to describe the objects there, or to look around the house they grew up in and describe what they see there, inevitably their obsessions – those things that are always with us – come through. I don’t think you can write away from what you are feeling unless you really attempt to. I’ve had a lot of trauma and loss in my life, as many of us have, beginning with a childhood in and out of the hospital children’s ward from age 5 to 12. My mother’s decline into dementia is another kind of loss. For me to write about spring and what spring implies will just naturally turn to metaphor for things going on in my life. Spring is both what my mother has become as she has ironically become literally incapable of worry and fret. This woman who lived on nerves and feelings, often deeply depressed is now in a constant state of bliss or “bloom.” And, spring is also the time of year that my best friend was murdered. I can’t separate spring from these things. So, I can only write my obsessions. However, I try, always to marry sorrow to joy, to attach loss to love, and I think I have accomplished that in this collection. I think honoring loss and even irreparable relationships (the most intensely felt loss is the love you never had) brings with it a certain grace. These poems, I think, own-up to the shitty parts of life and place a light on what makes them transformative – love. We wouldn’t suffer otherwise.
HL: Your collection so effectively and bravely displays the multiple facets of relationships--the connections, the love, the brokenness, and the mending of. Why did you decide to focus on that?
JGF: Because it’s so honest perhaps. So real. In this world of not knowing what is real and what isn’t I need poetry to be something real. I focus on brokenness as you call it and mending because I don’t want to fall into despair. I want loss to be transformative and I want to explore how. Because, to be human is to live deeply in absurdity and irony and inconsistency, I need poetry to help me tame all that, simply be pointing to it. I don’t believe it is just me who is a survivor, we are all surviving. My poems help me give order to what is messy and disorderly. Maybe they can do the same for others.
HL: How do they relate to your first collection?
JGF: Like Vapor is sort of an introduction to the characters that is a thematic deepening in this second collection, Dutiful Heart. I guess it goes back to the answer about obsessions. The most important relationships in our lives are with our family. When I think of my family and of my closet friends who have died, my friend Nancy, for example, whom Dutiful Heart is dedicated to, I come up with the word “absent.” I’m always curious how people survive in the world. I think I wonder how it was, and is, that I do too.
HL: Writing is a journey. How has the journey between collections been for you?
JGF: The publishing of Like Vapor has opened many doors for me and for that I am eternally grateful. I’m always striving to be a better writer. There was a year, 2011 I think, when I had eleven poems published and yet I felt little satisfaction. I realized that the greatest, or perhaps the more sustainable satisfaction, for me, comes from the process of writing itself and though grateful for those acceptances, I still want more from my poems. The personal aspects of caring for my mom and her traumatic (for her) decline into dementia, the continued loss of loved ones, and frankly, politics, which for me deepens a sense of loss, particularly the loss of the idea of “society” – this mantra of “individuality” depresses the hell out of me. I literally had to make a conscious choice to write my way out of becoming depressed. In the poem “Black Ice,” I write about the way we recoil from one another, including politically. I write that “The night has become a car slipping silently/ Into a ditch after touching one another/ Then recoiling from such intimacy.” The poem claims that we can “Make it home.” We can, “Knuckle through.”
HL: Now that you’ve finished a second book, what can poets, or writers in general, do about getting their work out there?
JGF: Write because you love to write. Send out your individual poems. Go to workshops and conferences, go to small press conferences and make connections. I think that is one of the benefits of an MFA – the connections you make. But spending $25G or $40G on an MFA is not the only way. Be patient. Love your craft. Make a living some other way, but go to conferences, workshops, and readings. I often think about how some poets take years in between books, and others, like Jim Daniels write so prolifically that they, like he has, published more than one book in the same year! Yes, it’s competitive out there, poetry is alive and well in the world, and no, for most, one cannot make a living as a poet, that’s one reason why they teach. But there are thousands of small presses and literary journals. Write because you love it and remember that some of these journals receive a thousand submissions a month! If you’re rejected from them, is it really because your work is substandard? Hardly. Keep sending out. You’ll get published. I think of publication, anywhere, as a blessing because poems are live things – they are meant to communicate to someone – does it matter that they are speaking to Ms. X versus Mr. Y? Lower your standards and support literary magazines anywhere. You’ll get publication credit. This is art. I don’t think Picasso tried to paint like van Gogh. I will never write like Jorie Graham. Be yourself and strive to be the best you.
HL: Are there any Detroit influences or nuances in your work?
JGF: There is a poem in my collection called “Poem for Place.” It speaks about the way that the place we grow up in becomes a part of our DNA. I can never know Kansas the way folks there can never know Detroit. So Detroit, its culture, people and architectural, its history shows up not only literally in my work but spiritually in me. That’s one way the city, the region itself influences me. [The] Detroit area and all of Michigan is a hugely rich literary community. I would feel terrible to point out some and not others so I will say this, there are amazing writers in Michigan, wonderful presses, MFA programs, undergraduate programs in Literature, schools like Interlochen and Cranbrook. There are extraordinary MA programs. There are amazing writers on all coasts of Michigan. But, what really influences me in Detroit is the city itself. Its architecture and people. Detroit is one of the coolest places in the world. It’s Motown! It isn’t about music, it IS music. It’s food, it’s sports, it’s water, it’s art, it’s culture, it’s just plain toughness. And, we’ve got that silly Canada right across our river to remind us how cool we really are.
HL: What’s next for you?
JGF: I’m honored to have my work recently included in two amazing anthologies: The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Poetry, which includes work by Edward Hirsch, Jane Hirschfield, Joy Katz, and Philip Levine among others. And in Poetry in Michigan in Poetry, a stunning “coffee table” collection of artwork and poetry edited by the poets William Olson and Jack Ridl.
I’m teaching a lot, which I love. I teach for non-profits and get to work with people who want to learn to write. I believe that all good writing scales between poetry, memoir, and fiction. I want to do more readings and teach at seminars. I’m writing both poetry and memoir. And, as usual, I read poetry every day. Sometimes, I clean my house.
HL: Where can interested readers find your new book?
JGF: My books are available on Amazon and from my website: www.joygainesfriedler.com
Heather Lowery was a Division I rower for her alma mater, Robert Morris University, where she obtained a bachelor's degree in communication with a concentration in applied journalism. She has an MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University. One of her feature articles, “A scholar of the land, shepherd of the shore,” a personal profile on an Irish farmer, was recently published in Sneem Parish News, an international magazine. Though an award-winning journalist, she has decided to take a break from news to focus on writing a memoir about her relationship with her father.