Interview with JoAnna Brooker, SAFTA Writer in Residence

Former SAFTA Staff Director and current farmhouse Writer-in-Residence, JoAnna Brooker, spoke with SAFTA intern, Kathryn Davis, about her writing, her residency, and the value in trusting the process.

Kathryn Davis: What keeps you, personally, committed to writing in times like these? Why does art matter for you right now?

JoAnna Brooker: I think my commitment to my writing ebbs & flows—some seasons I’m more concerned with living my life, gabbing to everyone around me, eating croissants, & exploring sights, tastes, & smells. Others, I’m predisposed to solitude—cancelling plans, reading sad poetry, sipping earl grey tea & looking forlornly out a window. I think I’m committed in knowing I can always come back to it—& so I’m using my time here to do just that. I keep coming back to it for the same reasons I always have; it’s one of the main ways I make meaning out of the random smorgasbord life likes to throw at me. I really enjoy contemporary art for this reason; it feels timely & raw in what is true to experience. I think in this period of great isolation, art is our way of checking in with each other, or putting into words what’s happening, like saying “Yes, I am also feeling this VERY MUCH right now,” or “here’s how I’m making meaning of what life is like right now.”  I think there’s a sense of urgency around right now, that I’ve felt since 2016, which gives me more of a commitment to my art, writing, & to the truth of what that means to me. I don’t know if any of us will still be here in 15 years—but I’d like to write to make sure that we are.

KD: Has the pandemic impacted your work as a writer? How?

JB: Absolutely. When the pandemic began last March, I stopped performing standup comedy completely—so my writing narrowed to frantic journaling, poetry, & long meandering essays. I spent many days unemployed, taking sun soaked naps, playing Zelda & Animal Crossing, & reading poetry about technology, female sexuality, & the American mythos. Because of this “independent study,” I discovered even more what work resonated & duplicated what I’d like to create, & I know my work is stronger for it. I think I generated more content, but at the same time, I was more unsure of this content— without my workshop & community, any work I edited or sent out felt like shooting in the dark. A double-edged sword, in that way.

Further, I think the pandemic made me realize how true it is that we are not alone. In any of this. We are all different parts of consciousness experiencing life together. There’s something really beautiful and heartbreaking about that. We can feel each other’s joy, but also each other’s pain. Right now, there’s a lot of pain in the world. 

When everything shut down & I was locked in my room, alone, I turned to poetry. Poetry can be sad, funny, resonant, or dumb as hell, but it puts your finite experience into certain words & that’s so damn rewarding to me.

KD: What advice would you give to other writers who are struggling to create right now (OR if you’re struggling yourself!) in order to help them push through and keep writing?

JB: Allow yourself to create garbage. Lol. I mean it though—I think there’s a lot of pressure put on, whether that be by the establishment, the man, the internet, or otherwise, to always be churning out something new, cutting edge, & good. In reality, most artists have the same themes they wrestle with for seasons, or even their entire lives. Their art is like a sandwich—their childhood trauma is like arugula tossed in Louisiana hot sauce, complicated feelings about religion are two crispy slices of bacon, codependency issues are melted gouda…. They might make twenty or thirty different sandwiches with these ingredients, yet, each sandwich is going to taste slightly different each time. Their goal is to make a satisfactory bite— that this flavor and texture combination is precisely what it felt like to be twenty-three, graduate college, and lose their first calico cat. And it’s okay to make terrible sandwiches. Mistakes & failure are the best teachers of what it means to succeed & know exactly what you want or feel. Trust the process. You’ll graduate to broccoli cheddar soup, or sourdough bread pizza when you’re ready.

KD: Your poems seem to do so much work in terms of grappling with the vivid, tangible bits of life—and the absolutely tumultuous interiority and inner dialogue/anxiety/ahhhh of it all. Is that balance something you work for, or does it just happen? Either way, it works so well, and it’s such a compelling blend of narrative and interior speaker. I’m really interested in how that comes about for you as a writer. 

JB: Lol, first of all, thank you.

The only balance I strive for is meaning in absurdity. I’ve always had a rich interior life, which, in my youth, was a place to escape to. But as I’ve grown older, I work to find meaning in the random events of my life, the joyous & terrifying. Right now, between capitalism, climate change, & Covid, I see my anxieties & fears reflecting back to me in the simulation. Which can go to a dark place, or a very funny place, depending on how you look at it. No feeling or emotion is off limits; & I think I carry this curiosity & desire to smash apart the simulacrum to my writing.

KD: Because your work and identity as a writer seems to live across and between several genres—journalism, comedy, poetry—I’m really interested in how the different forms in your writing life inform other areas of it. Does being a journalist make you a better poet? What is the tension like for you when it comes to composing in one genre versus another? 

JB: Mostly, it means I wish I could always write multigenre. Sometimes, I’m laughing about something that has shattered my heart to smithereens, & I don’t know if it’s because it’s a bit or it’s a poem. It probably just means that I use humor as a defense mechanism. Lol. I think I was a bad journalist, because I don’t think I’ve ever been truly objective in my life; truthfully, none of us can be. But I was very passionate about being an op-ed columnist, which makes comedy & poetry easier for me. I know I have a viewpoint somewhere. Somewhere between exactly how many times they texted me on Labor Day, and the way I felt when they smiled at me after eating a hot dog is how I figure out what that is. Sometimes I go back & forth between a feeling for years. 

KD: What do you love most about SAFTA?

JB: Erin Elizabeth Smith has mentored me, given me opportunities for growth, friendship, & community through this wonderful nonprofit, & made some incredible grub that has warmed my belly & my heart. To her, I am eternally grateful. Zoë & Inara, the farm sheepdogs, are a close second; I could feed them crispy salmon skins until sunrise. Getting to hike, soak up the sunshine, & meet incredible artists from around the country doesn’t hurt either. #haftasafta

JoAnna Brooker is a graduate from the University of Tennessee, where she studied Journalism & English. Her work has been featured in Figure 1, Jet Fuel Review, HASH Journal, Menacing Hedge, & on stage as a comic. In her spare time she enjoys petting cats & making cheese based meals for her loved ones. She can be found on all social media platforms @cupofjoanna.

Kathryn Davis is a writer and editorial intern with Sundress Academy for the Arts. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from Grand Valley State University, and served as editor-in-chief of the university’s literary journal, fishladder. She writes and produces films from the southwest corner of Michigan. 

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