Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Joanne Zarrillo Cherefko

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

A Consecration of the wind

Joanne Zarrillo Cherefko

A New Jersey native now living in Virginia, she honed her skill as a poet in college and created her most complex poetry following the death of her mother.  Her earlier poems are lyrical and expressionistic, while her more recent poetry is narrative in style.She is currently a visiting poet and poetry teacher at three high schools in her area. She loves music, photography, poetry, her Cavaliers, and the love of her life, her husband Bud.

The Interview

1. What inspired you  to write poetry?

Writing a poem or burying myself in a novel were methods of coping with the anxiety my parents’ dysfunctional marriage and arguing caused me.  I would escape the tension in the house by going outside to play or by going up to my room to externalize my emotions through writing.  With the exception of one short story I wrote at the age of 12, all of my creative written expression has taken the form of poetry.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My mother had a literature anthology in the house, and I read a few of the poems in the collection.  The only poem that remained in my memory long after I read it in that particular book was “Razors Pain You” by Dorothy Parker.  I am not sure if my preoccupation with death had its roots in that poem, in my sadness and anxiety about the emotional instability in our home, or in my mother’s sudden death when I was 24, but my poems tend to reflect the darker side of self-exploration and life’s journey.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I did not become aware of the dominating presence of older poets until a high school classmate of mine quoted Ezra Pound’s “In a Station at the Metro” in our literary magazine.  He had used the Imagist poem to illustrate a pen and ink drawing of his.  I don’t remember what his drawing looked like, but I was immediately fascinated by the poem, though I would not understand the meaning of “first intensity” until decades later when I incorporated the poem into my American Poetry seminar.

My full immersion in the works of older poets occurred when I majored in English Education in college.   I fell in love with the poetry of T.S. Eliot, the British Romanticists and the French Symbolists, and I studied other dominating poets of the Modernist movement, such as Stevens and Yeats.  I studied Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, but I was not fond of the style of the beat poets.  I cannot recall when I began to read the works of Sylvia Plath, but I was drawn to her from the start.  In my American Poetry seminar, I love comparing Plath’s “Rabbit Catcher” to her husband’s poem of the same name.  My favorite poem to teach, however, is Wallace Stevens’ “The Snowman,” the discussion of which caused some students to experience an existential crisis.  When a poem is capable of engendering such a powerful philosophical and metaphysical reaction among high school seniors, it is a poem that must be taught!

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I do not write poems on a daily basis, but I do edit poems and my second manuscript on a regular basis.  When I force the writing process on myself, I am not satisfied with the result.

5. What motivates you to write?

Loss, pain, sorrow, death, reflection of past and present experiences, and the mysteries of the mind and soul motivate me to write, but last winter, I was provided with a great motivator.  After reading my more lyrical poetry, GenZ requested that I provide them with some narrative poems, so after a lengthy creative drought, I began writing again.  Since that time,  I have written over 60 poems – both narrative and lyrical, though I am trying to avoid the obfuscation that is present in some of the poems in the Art of Darkness section of my collection A Consecration of the Wind.  Several of those poems wrote themselves in the middle of nights of sporadic sleep and anxiety in the early 80s, and many of them are the remnants of dreams.

6. What is your work ethic?

My work ethic has improved greatly since I first learned that my debut collection of poems would be published.  Since that time, I have worked very diligently to produce poems that I believe will blend the lyrical and narrative types smoothly in my second collection.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

T.S. Eliot is my favorite poet, and I believe my style of writing blends the Modernist style with the Post-Modernist style of Plath and Bishop.  Eliot’s works have become such an intrinsic part of my poetic consciousness that when any of my words or images remind me of his poems, I sift through his Complete Poems and Plays  to make sure I have not unconsciously plagiarized him.
My poetry is usually not straight-forward or easily interpreted by most people.  Though the Modernists purposefully wrote obscure poetry, my intent is not to confuse people, but it is to bury the core truth beneath layers of meaning.  Although I liken sharing my poetry with the world to unzipping my skin and letting people see inside, I nevertheless keep my most private realities hidden.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

For the most part, I enjoy reading and teaching the poetry of the early twentieth century.  I have, however, more recently enjoyed the poetry of Olu Oguibe, a Nigerian artist/poet; Claudia Emerson, Pulitzer Prize Winner; Rich Follett, the poet laureate of Strasburg, VA; Billy Collins; and Dr. Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, former poet laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The reason that I admire the aforementioned modern poets has to do first and foremost with their facility and manipulation of the English language.  Individually, I enjoy and respect Collins’ juxtaposition of comedy and grief; Follett’s literary allusions; Oguibe’s passion and pain; Kriter-Foronda’s focus on art, and Emerson’s narrative style and vivid imagery.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I believe that I have a facility with language and that I have stories and metaphysical ideas to share with family, friends, and any poetry aficionados who are willing to invest some time and thought to understand poetry that is not simple or straightforward.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I would recommend that the aspiring writer attend a workshop or class and read as much literature as possible in the genre of choice.  I do believe, though, that the person should have an innate ability to express in writing his/her truths, whether they be full truths or partially hidden truths.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I am presently working on my second manuscript, which I intend to submit to GenZ this fall.  The title is Fragmented Roots, and, unlike my debut collection, this book contains over forty poems that I have written in recent years.  I wrote the majority of the poems in my first book during the 70s and 80s.  The title of my second book is taken from one of the poems in the new collection, just as A Consecration of the Wind is a phrase from one of my poems in that collection.  Each time I read the Fragmented Roots manuscript, I am intrigued by threads of imagery that appear throughout older and more recent poems.

 

That was then, this is now

Fragmented Roots

 

Available on Amazon

 

12. Why did you decide to call it “Fragmented Roots”?

The phrase originates in my poem, “The Uncoupling.” The poem mentions “bleeding letters/And fragmented roots,” but I did not think that the word bleeding in the title would entice most readers to purchase the book. Although that poem reflects the frustration every writer feels when trying to create beautiful images and words, the concept of fragmented roots is a theme that permeates the book. The first section is titled “Demons and Divided Selves,” and the poems reflect a fragmentation of my psyche. In “Noble Fractions,” I write “Of irrational mind-splits that/Dissolve into an infinite/Sequence toward one self.” In the “Faces Past and Present” section, I vilify my father and grieve for my mother. My personality has its roots in my fragmented, dysfunctional family. In that same section, I explore relationships outside my immediate family, and, as the poems reveal, some of those relationships were also fragmented or broken. All of these relational roots and fragments form who I am today, and this theme is magnificently reflected in the book cover photo I took at Botany Bay, South Carolina.

13. Why do you quote from T.S.Eliot’s “Preludes” at the start of the book?

T. S. Eliot is my favorite poet, and his poems inspire me and influence my writing. In both of my books, lines from his poems form the epigraphs. This particular quote is from his poem, “Preludes,” which I continue to teach in my American Poetry seminar. “The notion of some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing” is one of my favorite Eliot quotes because it is beautiful and it reflects my firm belief that life is more sorrow than joy. Because of my fragmented roots (growing up in an emotionally and financially unstable home), I became that infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing.” When considering the current pandemic, the political divide in the U.S., and global hostilities, I think the world as a whole is a fragile, “Infinitely suffering thing.”

14. In the first section, is there is growing unease in the poetry where outside objects appear increasingly threatening?

The first section, “Demons and Divided Selves” does reflect unease and darkness, but most of the threats come from dreams and my own thoughts. Although there are about 40 new poems in this book, this first section includes seven poems I wrote in the early 80s, a very dark period in my life when I was forlorn over my mother’s sudden death. I also was experiencing a great deal of anxiety because I was promoted to a supervisory position in the high school where I worked. I had vivid dreams that I recorded in the middle of the night, and I labeled three of those dream poems in this section. The phrase, “I am my own worst enemy” applies to my personality. Threats do not originate on the outside; they originate in my own thoughts. Any objects on the outside are merely metaphors for my own limitations, curiosity, fear, and sadness about life in general and, more specifically, frustration about living with chronic pain.

15. The marvelous poem “The Uncoupling,” if I may quote it in full, seems to me to be the crux of the book:

The Uncoupling

As I lie or lay recumbent
Having laid the word dying to rest,
I murmur apologies
To bleeding letters
And fragmented roots,
Having viewed the intimate
Coupling of words
Which I subsequently
Set asunder
With my pen.

As I mentioned in my response to your first query, I experience what every writer experiences: writer’s block, loss of confidence in my work, and continual worry about whether I have made the words sing and connect with the reader. This is one of my older poems, written in the late 70s when I thought I had found my voice, but I had not projected it beyond my spiral notebook. Beyond that simplistic explanation, there is a deeper meaning here. I was shaken by my parents “Coupling” that was “set asunder” when my father walked out on us in 1975, 17 months before my mother died suddenly of a massive heart attack. I wrote this poem when I was trying to uncouple myself from my darker side in order to stop obsessing about my mother’s death and death in general, thus the line “Having laid the word dying to rest.”

16. There are lots of images described as “curving, entwining, swirling” such as in

Thought in Flight

It smokes from the limbs,
Swirling around
The atmosphere of lungs
Into a space of high grasses
That bend before the idea

After reading this question, I did search my manuscript for words ending in “ing,” and I discovered that not only do three words in the epigraph from “Preludes” include the letters “ing,” but participles also appear frequently in the book. In this particular instance, I used the word swirling, an image I love. In my first book, the poem “Twilight” ends with the following lines:

Lint drifts from her
As light traces the pattern
In the air that swirls
Her in a raptureless cocoon.

I never read my poems aloud until I prepare for a poetry reading, but I do read them silently many times
before I am satisfied that they “sing.” In my mind, participles provide a softer landing for verbs and, more importantly, they signify movement, growth, and rebirth, as reflected in some of the words in the titles of my poems: “Becoming,” “Shifting,” “Unfolding,” “Blossoming,” “Fluttering,” “Fading,” “Awakening.”

17. Before the hope-filled ending, why you dwell on the failure of words?

I do think that sometimes creation, decreation, and destruction are intertwined. I read other poets whose styles I admire, and I think, “Why can’t I write like that?” The answer is that I have my own style, and, though it has changed slightly over the decades, I still write poems spontaneously, and the inspiration is merely a fragment of an idea. Afterwards, I question myself and wonder if I could have worded my poems differently, but I let the words flow first and then decide if they are worthy of publication or if I need to choose different words and phrases to better express my inner thoughts.

More to the point, however, there are two poems in the “Bleeding Letters and Fragmented Roots” section that describe the failure of words. I know that poets’ words do not have a significant impact in today’s world. “The Weight of Words” was influenced by my study of several historic literary periods: American Transcendentalism, British Romanticism, and the American Beat movement, all times when poetry was used as a tool in an attempt to transform individuals and influence or denigrate government. Romanticists like Wordsworth and Shelly were frustrated by the fact that their words failed to impact society in a meaningful way. In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelly invokes the wind to: “Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth/Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!”

The other poem in this section, “Words Fail” is very personal and has to do with my siblings, both of whom have made disastrous decisions throughout their lives. My words failed to have the influence I had hoped they would, and, thus, my sister continues to stay in an emotionally abusive marriage. My brother lived a dysfunctional life, rife with depression, sorrow, and solitude for decades until he decided he was tired of living like that. I am not sure if my words helped him to choose light rather than darkness, but I am glad he is in a good place now.

I am aware of the stark contrast between the expression of the failure of words/poetry and the elation I felt at my May 16, 2019, New Jersey book launch party, as conveyed in the last poem in this section. That moment in time was very special and very rare. Once my feet landed on solid ground, though, my cynicism and insecurities kicked in again and I wrote about the failure of words and poetry. The last three poems in that section are not presented in the order in which I wrote them because I wanted to conclude on a high note.

18. What would you like your readers to carry away with them?

I hope that my readers will be able to relate to the thoughts, emotions, and struggles that are reflected in my poems. I would like them to make a connection between their personal relationships (both successful and failed) and mine. Lastly, it is my hope that readers will sense that threads of emotional and physical pain and fragmented roots are woven throughout the book. I do believe that a collection of poetry should be read through in its entirety first, so that the reader may perceive a progression of the central themes, images, and emotions. Afterwards, readers may go back to a certain poem or entire section that particularly resonates with them.

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