Part 1: Nin Andrews Interviews Joan Cusack Handler

Joan Cusack Handler

Nin Andrews
I love the title, The Confessions of Joan the Tall, which made me laugh when I first read it. I thought, Joan the tall instead of Joan of Arc. I also loved the very ornate calligraphy, reminiscent of The Book of Kells. Was the title meant to be humorous?

Joan Cusack Handler
First of all, I too love the title, but I can’t take credit for it; it was the creation of my good friend, Baron Wormser. I’ve been known to obsess   forever over a title, but when Baron, also one of the editors of the book,  suggested it, I knew it was right—for several reasons. First, it’s reminiscent of the way that saints and other well -known figures were  defined in Catholicism. The person was described by the trait that most distinguished them—such as John the Apostle, Jude the Obscure. These existed outside the Church as well—i.e. Ivan the Terrible (just as they continue to exist in Mafia mythology –i.e. Johnny the Nose or Sammy the Bull). And yes, there is definitely some tongue in cheek humor in the title;  it mirrors Joan’s sense of humor –one of her saving graces.

But the title also reflects a very painful truth—that Joan felt she was her
height (Joan would capitalize Height). To the world, it was the most
important thing about her; the first thing noticed and the only thing talked
about. She could never get beyond it. The rest of her was obliterated by it
(I wanted to censor that word and go for something milder, but I think that obliterated was how she felt). She could have been mean and cruel or kind and loving, but those traits would not have been noticed; she would never be more than her height. Thankfully, she was wrong.

That reminds me of another point that I’ve noticed of late. Interestingly, I
speak of Joan as a separate identity—the character I portray as an actor
portrays a character. Some of that makes sense in that the details are accurate—they are taken from my life—the family is realistically portrayed
(though slanted by my experience) and the conflicts are real—no one
would manufacture a boil on one’s eye lid—but shaping the narrative arc
and the choice of character traits to focus on as one brings those characters to life was part of the making of a piece of art. So was at least some of Joan’s feistiness and quick wit. It’s not that these traits did not exist in me—they certainly define me now, but I can never be sure that the Joan I put on paper is the Joan I was. All things considered, she’s the Joan I want her to have been.  I really like this girl; in fact, I love her, and I feel deeply for her.

But the other truth about creating or recreating a character is that once
you have brought her to life with words on paper, she exists on her own.
She has her own identity separate from and independent of the writer/me.
Psychologically, this also works for me. To say that it is difficult to tell the
truth of one’s story is an understatement. In poetry we have form, line and   imagery to frame and contain the emotion; it seems that, at least for me,   memoir moves in so sharply on the target (me!) that I need to establish
distance as a means of protection. For all practical purposes, I need to get
dressed in order to appear in public, and I do this by referring to (and
actually experiencing!) the speaker of the story as separate from me—as
Joan. I can discuss her as Joan; as me, I feel shy and vulnerable.

Nin Andrews
At the top of each page, you have these letters, JMJ under a cross.  Is that for Jesus, Mary, Joseph?  Is that something that appears in Catholic books?

Joan Cusack Handler
Yes, every child who went to Catholic school learned to devote their every word to Christ on the Cross, Mary and Joseph—The Holy Family. The commitment was so engrained that we put it on everything we wrote –homework, class work, greeting cards, letters. That symbol identified us as devout Catholics committed to Christ and proud to stand up and be counted. The cross, JMJ also reflected our understanding that every aspect of our lives ‘belonged’ to The Lord.

Nin Andrews
Joan uses capitalization a lot. Can you choose a section of the book that exemplifies that and tell us why?

Joan Cusack Handler
Because Confessions is actually Joan’s conversations with herself and her notebook, she is not concerned with the traditional dictates of grammar and punctuation. She uses Caps to signify how important a word and what it represents; it’s one of Joan’s idiosyncratic ways of expressing her feelings and underscoring her ways of thinking about a topic, ie. Mortal sins are Terrible; venial sins aren’t so bad— clearly there’s a serious difference between the 2 types of sins and Joan gives a kind of visual of that—the caps more important or senior letters compared to the quieter more benign smaller letters.

Confessions is reflective of my poetry as well. My project for all of my work is to recreate voice –on the page– and as such I use words and letters as visuals–physical objects that have shape and size– to deepen or further carry that voice. My goal is always authenticity and I carry that through to the way the words appear on the page. Not all voices are best revealed in perfect diction and line. In my poetry I use the page as canvas and move away from the more traditional left margin as the starting off and returning  point. The poem tells me where it wants to start and where it wants to go as it reveals itself–as it speaks. If I followed my inclination to its fullest, and I hope I do someday, rather than broken into several pages of a traditional size book, my poems would be of one piece on huge stretches of paper and rolled or hung. I think we are stymied by book size-the limits of a book that fits on a bookcase—words want a  broad canvas  as does the mural or symphony. As far as Confessions is concerned, the page doesn’t impede, but perfect diction and grammar would have been a violation rather than a representation of the voice –at odds or out of sync with–and therefore an impediment to our hearing it—like putting on  Sunday clothes when you’re going out to play—they just don’t fit.

Excerpt from Confessions of Joan the Tall

Washing Your Soul
I try to be really really careful with My Soul. I’m not even
sure what it is, not like my body that I’m pretty clear
about. But the Soul’s different, you can’t see it and it’s
more Important than anything. I figure it has to be some-
where inside the body. For a while I thought maybe it filled
in the spaces between my heart and my belly, another time
I decided it was in my left arm up close to the top where we
get our vaccination. And the Soul’s round too I think, like
a cupcake, the bottom part where the paper is. That sounds
kind of weird but it seems like a pretty good answer to the
Not Being Able to Picture It and Where on Earth Is It Soul
Problems I’m always thinking about. And the color changes,
before Confession it’s all dark grey and smudgy but after Con-
fession and Penance it’s all white and pure. I like thinking of
the grey disappearing and my soul being all clean and white
again. More than anything I want a Clean and Pure Soul.

Nin Andrews
Confessions is written in the voice of a Catholic girl coming of age.  Did you keep journals from your childhood?  Do you still hear the voice of the girl you once were?

Joan Cusack Handler
Actually, I didn’t keep journals as a girl. I still don’t, but I try to carry a notebook with me in the hope that something will spur me to write. (Because my intention is often much purer than reality, I usually have to count on the envelope from a doctor’s bill or credit card payment to sit in for one of the 6 or so notebooks I have strewn in different places around the house, ready for me to make use of them.)

It’s strange how clearly I heard Joan’s voice as I wrote; I felt very much like a vessel carrying this girl inside me. It’s the closest I’ve come to giving birth that I’ve experienced since actually giving birth to my son 32 years ago.  Several people have described it as channeling, and that’s what it felt like. Though I’m not still writing in that 12 year old voice, she’s still very much there, and I can access her voice pretty much at will. Because I kept so much in as a child and well into adulthood, I felt like I was meeting this girl for the first time and finally opening up to what she refused to feel and know when she was living those experiences. A part of me that I’d been deprived of came to life for me in full color, and I felt as though my life rearranged itself and clicked into place. I met this girl I had been for the first time; though I knew the details of her biography, I was finally privy to her internal world.

Nin Andrews
Being tall was the curse of your childhood.  You really suffered from being an almost six foot tall girl.   Did your faith help or hurt you to cope with this your negative self image?

Joan Cusack Handler
I did suffer a great deal from the incessant teasing and from feeling so different and weird. I prayed all the time as a girl, and my faith in Jesus and the Blessed Mother was a kind of spiritual muscle that I fully trusted. In the end, I always knew that God was there with me, and I could count on Him to help me through whatever pain I experienced. After all, look at what He suffered for me. Like Rose Kennedy, I tried to hold on to the fact that He wouldn’t ask me to bear what I couldn’t. As an adult who’s been estranged from the Church for 40 years, I miss that faith and conviction that, as the Irish Blessing says, God holds me in the palm of His hand.

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