Ten Questions for Joanne Diaz

Kira Archibald


Near the end, Ceausescu would only drink juice through a straw.
Twice, he was convinced that his hearing had improved: once
when he heard the sound of a distant train of his youth;
another time when his long-dead mother sang , , ,
from "The Purity Instinct," Winter 2017 (Vol. 58, Issue 4)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My first poem in college was inspired by Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait.” My poem about my father and his difficult childhood, and how his youth informed every other part of his life, including his relationship with me. In many ways, I’ve been writing versions of that poem for quite some time.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Philip Levine is still the beginning and end of all things. He was one of the first contemporary American poets I read as an undergraduate. Then, I had the chance to study with him at NYU. I still return to his poems when I am floundering for a way to structure my thoughts and feelings. The elegiac quality of his writing, his attention to history and place, and his ability to perceive the layers of complexity in the lives of ordinary people are always on my mind. I have other loves—Lorca, Whitman, C.K. Williams—but Philip Levine is the king of them all.

What did you want to be when you were young?
I was a pretty lucky kid: my parents trusted that if I worked hard in school and went to college I would end up doing something rewarding. That’s pretty remarkable, if you think about it. They hadn’t gone to college and didn’t know anyone who had, and yet they just trusted that it would all work out somehow. As a result, I didn’t feel much pressure to “become” anything in particular. That’s probably the greatest gift that they could have given me.

What inspired you to write this piece?
“The Purity Instinct” was inspired by a podcast I heard a couple of years ago. Victoria Clark and Melissa Scott had written a book about the favorite foods of tyrants called Dictators’ Dinners. When I listened to the authors talk about the book, I was immediately hooked.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Spain is the place that has influenced my writing the most. I had a chance to live there for my work for five months this past year, and it was utterly transformative, just as it is every time I visit. I have never felt more at home than when I am in Spain.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Yes. Recently I’ve been listening to Bill Evans and Miles Davis a lot. I also love a lot of trashy pop music that would probably make you cringe, but it works for me. And, like everyone else in the world, I listen to the soundtrack to Hamilton, especially in the morning when I need motivation for all the daily tasks that seem insurmountable. 

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Almost every day, I recite these lines from John Donne’s “The Good Morrow”:

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere. 

In this poem, the lovers realize that their connection is so profoundly transformative that it can make “one little room an everywhere.” Whenever I feel the itch of a poem beginning, I’ll remember this phrase and start writing, whether it be at a committee meeting or late at night in my kitchen. I imagine that my little room can be an everywhere, and then it is.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I would love to be a classical musician. In fact, I was a musician in my young life—I played clarinet and piano for most of my youth—and then all of that went to the side once I finished college and pursued other things. I appreciate the discipline that classical music gave me. I also really enjoyed playing with others, especially in chamber groups.

What are you working on currently?
I am writing and revising poems for my third manuscript. In all of my poems, I engage with politics, cultural memory, and landscape, and in the new poems I continue these explorations with a particular focus on the history of violence, technology, colonization, and ecological crises. Some poems take the form of a Fibonacci sequence, others derive their inspiration from ekphrasis, and others come from my research in the Edison archives in New Jersey. And then, of course, the headlines on any given day give me ample opportunities to create jeremiads of all sorts.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a lot of poems that explore the intersection between law and literature. In particular, I’m revisiting Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony and Solmaz Sharif’s Look.

JOANNE DIAZ received fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She is the author of My Favorite Tyrants and The Lessons, and with Ian Morris, she is the coeditor of The Little Magazine in Contemporary America. She is an associate professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University.