As part of Portland's literary scene for almost 40 years, Joanna Rose has done it all. She has taught at the Attic, worked as a teaching artist in high schools, and planned book events at Powell's all while publishing across multiple genres.
Last week, Joanna agreed to answer a Q&A about her life as a writer and literary citizen, and in return, she has gifted us with a meditation on the act of writing and community building that has been informed by her past and looks sharply at the beauty, pain, and potential of the present.
Want to learn more about Joanna? Check out her website to keep up to date.
Two years into Covid-time and I am fine, physically, except for the tendon in the tip of my pointer finger, which I snapped scraping ice from the bottom of the freezer with a plastic spatula. It didn’t hurt; I didn’t even feel it because my hand was so cold. That was early in quarantine, and I couldn’t get it looked at. It will stay bent at the tip.
No one I know personally has died of Covid. I’ve lost dear people in the past two years, my big brother to alcoholism, a beloved colleague to cancer, and I couldn’t be near them at the end, or afterwards, with the other people who suffered those same losses. Now the endings have slipped away too.
This long time without people has become its own weird thing, defined often not by solitude but separateness, showing me what I thought I already knew; I love people, their physical presences, the tapping fingers, the sudden quiet moments, eyes glancing away, and of course, my God, laughter. And hiccups! How much fun are hiccups?
For almost 25 years, people gathered at my dining room table twice a week to share writing and ideas about writing. For over 20 years, I spent time in high school classrooms as a teaching artist, and before that I was the events person at Powell’s, making readings and book talks happen there in the old Anne Hughes Room and then in the angled center aisle of the Purple Room. Classes at The Attic on Hawthorne meant crowding around that long narrow table by the kitchen, or on the green velvet couch in the front room where we all sank into each other. For almost 40 years, I have taken part in the big happy party that is the Portland literary scene.
We all ‘pivoted’ in March of 2020. The weekly groups, the small classes at The Attic, classes in high schools, readings and book talks at bookstores and the Schnitz and the Old Church, all went online. We were proud of ourselves and hopeful; we could do this. Even I, techno-feeb that I am, learned GoogleSlides (hard) and ShareScreen (not hard but sometimes embarrassing.)
I wonder at what cost? This is a deeply personal question, and perhaps no different from the question of how we have changed as a society.
Now there is life on the Zoom screen. Nothing like the lively stupid fun of Hollywood Squares. There seems to be the need to be speak carefully. You get one shot at saying something in a Zoom setting, and you say it without the subtle non-verbal communication of a person at your side, or across the table, or in the back of the room.
I have seen people change their style of communication over the time of quarantine; in the extreme, people who were great at thinking aloud and eliciting cross-talk have become pontificators; people who are hesitant or less articulate have become very quiet. Spontaneous conversation is rare. Reactions are limited to emojis that hover over a Zoom square for a couple of seconds, or are maybe written into the Chat window. Bursts of laughter are rare. People mute themselves unless they are speaking. There’s not even a sound of breath.
But even on Zoom I love being with writers, sharing time if not space. For almost two years, my dining room has been filled with the sound of people, even if it does all end instantly with a click rather than people pushing back folding chairs and gathering books and forgetting coats and leaving what’s left of the pretzels and cookies, everyone trickling one or two at a time out the door and onto the street.
We still get to talk about sentences.
Annie Dillard, in her essay collection The Writing Life, wrote these magical words:
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”
“Well,” said the writer, “I don’t know. Do you like sentences?”
The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he liked sentences, he could begin like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of paint."
I like the smell of sentences, and their textures and personalities. I want all the writers I work with to like sentences, to see them as peepholes into what is most important: how to say what we want to say. I’m a grammar and syntax nerd. I love how language works, or not, am fascinated to the point of being distracted (twitterpated!). The don’t-look-at-me effect of a leading dependent clause. The emotional weight of a sentence fragment. The invisible presence of the verb To Be and the buried metaphors in other verbs. The great decision of Saxon vs Latinate words. And the only way to see these many possibilities clearly is to look at how different writers write. Teaching gives me the chance to point out what a writer is doing with the language beyond the story.
And oh! The story! The constant conflict of being human is tucked away in the sentences. All those ways to say I love you, or I don’t love you. Or how confusing clouds are. Or how I miss my brother.
I can frame a class as being about plot or conflict or revision or even how to generate a story, and it still always comes down to how the sentences work to evoke a human experience on the page. I like to send out craft essays and bits of philosophy about language arts. We talk about them a little bit. But I ask writers in my classes to share pages, and the real work of the class starts there, with the concrete evidence of a storyteller, which I sneakily refer to as Voice.
All that said, I find I am adrift in the lee of quarantine. Stilled.
I have grown dreamy and undisciplined. I find myself writing for myself. And I find myself desperate to write. Free writes. Stories that wander and end up in my childhood or at the Safeway store or in an apartment somewhere in Denver. I revise and revise the poems in my chapbook project about the intimacy of death and loss. (It’s more fun than it sounds.)
I have read over 200 books since March 2020. I started reading murder mysteries to learn about plot, quickly finding that most American mystery writers are a bit graphically violent for me, and I turned to murder mysteries set in England, discovering to my utter delight how they rely on language. Characters use idiomatic identifiers of socio-economic class and place. (Someone may pick a fight with me about that socio-economic reference.) The geographic names alone spark my imagination no end. And of course, in a murder mystery logic and reason tend to prevail and the bad guys get what they deserve and the good guys carry on, usually to another book. Not always but often enough. This is a soothing storyline in the current political climate. And, because I am at heart also a bookseller, I offer this: my current favorites are PD James, Anne Cleeves, Deborah Crombie, who is actually Texan, and Elizabeth George, who lives on an island in Puget Sound and has a new Lord Thomas Lynley book on the way. (Hurray!)
And also this: my favorite book ever is Alice in Wonderland. My second favorite book is by any southern writer.
In the end, here may be what defines me as a writer in Covid time: I bought a small old cottage near the beach and when I am there watch the visible atmosphere out over the water, Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather in hand. Cumulous seems to pile up into nimbus or shred into cirrus or fall into low fog over Tillamook Head. I often have the whole wide beach to myself. I always feel the tug of the city.