The Miracle of Mercury—An interview with Joan Hanna

Millicent Bórges Accardi

Peter Campion, author of Other People and The Lions has said poet Joan Hanna possesses a unique “ability to portray, in high resolution and with evocative power, the people and places that make up a passionate and compassionate life.”

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Hanna now lives in New Jersey with her husband, Craig. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry and Creative Nonfiction from Ashland University and works as an Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at Rowan University. She is Assistant Managing Editor for River Teeth, A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal. Her chapbook, The Miracle of Mercury will be published by Finishing Line Press this summer.
Millicent Borges Accardi: As an element, Mercury is both hot and cold. And the phrase Mercury in retrograde causes all kind of disharmony. Can you tell me how you selected The Miracle of Mercury as the title of your chapbook?
Joan Hanna: The opening poem in the collection is called “Mercury,” which recalls a very distinct childhood memory I had of playing with mercury after breaking a thermometer. The interesting thing to me was this idea that out of chaos comes a sort of beauty, if we are willing to see it. The fact that mercury is a metal, and a liquid and something that looks very harmless within the thermometer but releases its beauty and poison when the very thing that encases it is destroyed became a way to view the violence I saw as a young child. We respond to violence around us in many ways but the wonder and fascination of a child, even in the most serious circumstances, will always come through as miraculous.
MBA: You refer to ghosts real and imagined, “To all of the ghosts lingering on these pages. You touched my soul, wounded my heart, and nurtured my eternal sorrow. You are my chronicle, my melancholy, and my sheltered layers of truth in all of its imperfection” in your dedication: Do you believe in ghosts?
JH: [It] refers to the idea that once people have touched us they become a sort of ghost within us. The lingering effects of memory, especially when responding to childhood trauma can sometimes feel as though one is being haunted. So, as far as my belief in ghosts, for this particular dedication, it was much more of a symbolic type of ghosting, the idea that we hold onto these energies and resonating voices long after they are necessary.

MBA: Can you explain your process for putting together The Miracle of Mercury? Did you print out poems and rearrange them on the floor or revise on your Kindle for example?

JH: I work strictly on a computer or an iPad. Once I am sure that I have a first draft that has some kind of direction, I will print and edit on hard copy, arrange them into some sort of order but then I am right back on the computer. Once the themes I want to explore begin to gel, I actually write into the structure of the collection rather than moving poems into an order after the collection is complete.
MBA: How is a chapbook different than full-length?
JH: With the chapbook I was able to pull together very similar shades of the same idea without worrying about how to transition from varying broader themes. All of the poems in The Miracle of Mercury approach the topic of violence and destruction, internal as well as self-imposed. One of the themes I wanted to explore is the idea that once we are exposed to violence, we have a tendency to become self-destructive because it is what we have been taught.
MBA: Were the poems written as part of a controlling image?
JH: The idea for the themes in this chapbook actually began with the poem, “Bobby,” part of a triptych called “Junkies” which then became a fascination with people that have come through my life with addictive, violent, and/or self-destructive personalities. About how as an idealistic young girl, I navigated this hard-core view of life. I began to explore how it might have influenced my view of not only myself but the world around me.
One of my favorite passages comes near the end of the collection, “Glass,” where the point-of-view is turned inward, and I see myself as I might have appeared to others:
…Then it was all me. It was shooting imbedded
shards of glass out of my fingertips and spitting chunks
of undigested blood-soaked mercury and ash out of my
mouth like some banshee vomiting over-indulged
denial. It was a cleansing. A spew of deep, empowering
consummation. It expended all of my rage…”
MBA: Why do you write?
JH: Well that’s always the real question isn’t it? I began as a way to understand what was going on inside of me, trying to navigate. . . So, when I was younger, it was a way to reach a personal catharsis. But, I think now it is just what I do. I’m a storyteller, whether I am writing in poetry or prose. Someone told me that every family has an historian who records that family’s history. And, although I don’t see myself as a historian, these poems are those stories in all of their imperfections.
MBA: Can you share what you are working on?

JH: I am working on a sci-fi novel tentatively named, Are You Still My Girl? I know it seems like a big stretch to go from this type of very personally themed autobiographical poetry to sci-fi. I have spent that past seven or eight years completely immersed in poetry and am finding fiction to be gratifying at this juncture. It feels good to get outside myself and work with fictional characters, but I assure you, many of these same themes will always pop up in all of my work.

I am also doing research for a full-length poetry collection of persona poems that focus on some of the women in the bible, who I believe may be either misrepresented or, in the very least, misunderstood. I researching woman such as Mary Magdalene and Lilith. I am finding interpretations within various sects about who these women might really have been. The research has been fascinating, but I’m just beginning to decide on the shape this will take.
MBA: Jessica Piazza has a blog called Poetry Has Value. How do you think we can inspire and support journals and presses to create a sustainable business model that compensates writers?
JH: It’s such a tough subject. I have not been paid more often than I have, for publications, articles, reviews and essays and although this is very hard to explain to people not in this business, I do understand this as a type of proving ground. People see you grow and see you begin to understand this idea of support and networking. I have had some amazing things happen because I did a review of something and have found some very enriching and endearing friends along the way, which have supported me in the same way. I think this again goes back to the idea of literary citizenship. Supporting our community is not about how much I can make on something but more about how we can continue to support the community. Don’t get me wrong, it would be very nice to see a financial reward for this work, but I have found so many people who I can count on for support and advice, which to me, is a commodity we cannot put a price on.
MBA: What is most important for writers to do?
JH: The most important thing for writers to do is to just keep writing. The only thing we can do is to strive to continually hone our craft through reading and writing. You must read to continue to write. We can’t do any of this in a vacuum.
And then again, we need to have that strong literary citizenship community that we can depend on for encouragement and support so that when we crawl into those dark places where we find our poetry our community is there for support.

Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, and Only More So (forthcoming, Salmon). She is a recipient of poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and Barbara Deming. She organizes the Portuguese-American writers’ reading series Kale Soup for the Soul. Follow her @TopangaHippie.