Joanne M. Clarkson is the author of two collections of poems: Pacing the Moon (Chantry Press) and Crossing Without Daughters (March Street Press). Her work has appeared recently in Paterson Literary Review, Valparaiso Review,Caesura and Hospital Drive. She holds a Master’s Degree in English and has taught, but currently works as a Registered Nurse specializing in Hospice and Community Nursing. Joanne lives in Olympia, Washington, with her husband, James.
Amoskeag: The 2012 issue has come to be known as the “Identity” issue; in what way does your work deal with “identity?”
Joanne: I had been thinking about this poem for several years. A friend of mine is a graphologist and does handwriting analysis for law enforcement as well as for private clients. I had never seen her in action until she read my husband’s writing (he was a police officer). What she said about him was astoundingly accurate. She has each client copy a standard paragraph that is written in first person, thus containing several capital I’s. She explained that this personal pronoun is the most telling letter of all. Since that afternoon I had wanted to do a poem about her talent. When I saw the notice about your theme, I unearthed drafts of this poem and got to work, because graphology is all about discovering a defining identity.
Amoskeag: In developing your main and supporting characters, how do you see them losing or finding themselves?
Joanne: In this poem, she studies the suspect in a criminal case. We don’t know what he is accused of. (They rarely tell her that). But like many people who commit crimes, we learn in this short piece that he has been marginalized, forced to conform, erased in his youth. And when the motherly woman appears to take an interest in him, he confesses everything. He wants so much to be understood, to have someone pay attention to him, that he doesn’t care if this contributes to his conviction. Everyone wants to have their “I” acknowledged.
The poem also reveals the character of the graphologist: she can see from his penmanship where he came from, where he is, where he is headed. Her nature is compassionate, not malicious. She helps him reclaim his identity.
I gave this poem to my friend and also read it during a workshop I presented in her home town. She liked it very much and agreed that it summed up what she tries to do – to ‘identify’ someone.
Amoskeag: What is the one line, the one sentence in your piece that for you sums up the meaning of “identity?”
Joanne: “Signature of soul” or “risking everything/to be legible again.”
Amoskeag: How do you identify yourself as a writer — how did you get here? Who/what made you so? Where have you come from? What have you gone through?
Joanne: Who/what made you so? Where have you come from? What have you gone through?
Another reason why I decided to write for and submit poems on this theme is because I believe that, at its core, writing poetry is a means to discovering one’s own identity.
I have written poems and stories since I was a small child. My mother was a teacher and we read constantly. My childhood was marked by illness and death: my sister died as an infant, my father passed when I was 10, my beloved grandfather was in a terrible automobile accident and was hospitalized for months and then institutionalized. After I graduated from high school, I went to college on a nursing scholarship. But once I got to the hospital floor, I completely fell apart. I ended up graduating in English and went on for my master’s degree. Through twists and turns of fate, I ended up spending most of my professional career as a librarian. I also faithfully wrote and published poetry including two books. I taught a lot of workshops on writing and presented library programs to help patrons understand and enjoy poetry. In the late 90’s I cared for my mother through a long and debilitating illness. After her death, I decided to return to nursing with the goal of working in Hospice. Through my nursing studies and my years in Hospice I wrote less than I ever have in my life. The experience was so intense that it took all of my emotional energy and creativity. But over the past 4 years I have been writing more intensely than ever before. My patients and their families are a continual source of inspiration whether I write l about them directly or not.
Almost all my poems are about people—individuals or the human condition. I am amazing by the impact of suffering every day. And by joy.
I have a second poem in the Identity Issue as well. It is a poem about my father and how his love of all things alive contrasted sharply with his profession. He grew up in extreme poverty, one of 10 children of a coal miner. He got drafted into WWII and, in the war, learned to be a butcher. He married my mother during that time after meeting her one night at a dance. When he got out of the Service, he got a job at Serve-U meats in downtown Seattle. All the facts about him in the poem are basically true. As a child, I didn’t realize what a sacrifice he made working at a profession contrary to his nature. Fortunately, 6 years before his death from cancer at age 44, he quit his job and began building houses, something he loved. I guess this poem is a tribute to all people who work at a job to feed their families that is not really the best fit for their soul. I always remember my father, though, as happy and very gentle.
To view an excerpt of Joanne’s poem “My Father, The Butcher,” click here.