Here's an interview with the current Bucks County Poet Laureate, Mary Jo Lo Bello Jerome! Enjoy!
LF: Congratulations on becoming the current Bucks County Poet Laureate! What have you been up to?
MJ: I’ve had a number of wonderful experiences and interactions as Poet Laureate. I’m most excited right now about writing a poem to honor the Bucks County Woman of the Year. I won’t give away her name yet, as I don’t know if it’s been made public, but I have to say she’s a remarkable, inspiring, and talented woman. She’s a dedicated scientist, a community leader in social justice causes, an untiring volunteer and medical translator at the Doylestown health clinic. It will be challenging to write a poem that rises up to capture even just a small part of this unique being. Honestly, she deserves a book. I’m also looking forward to judging the high school poet competition along with last year’s laureate, Carly Volpe. In addition, the Bucks County Guild of Craftsmen is organizing a Show & Tell program in the fall for makers and artists to choose one of my poems and create a new work. I’m hoping to print some broadsides of my poems to display with the art. And I’m working on a collection of poems that I hope to be published this year.
LF: Do you remember writing your first poem?
MJ: I don’t remember the first poem exactly, but I do remember being turned on to the power and beauty of words in a high school English class. It was Ms. Stolfi, and she was teaching a unit on John Keats. I remember being blown away. I immediately joined the school literary magazine and started sharing my own small efforts. I also grew up in Rutherford, NJ, the hometown of the brilliant and famous imagist poet, William Carlos Williams. We lived up the block from his family home and medical office. So, I was turned on to poetry at a young age because of his standing in our town and in the world of poetry. In college I took as many poetry, writing and literature classes as I could. I also concentrated on journalism and publishing so I could make a living with words in the real world. I began writing short fiction when I went back to school for my MFA. I became a teacher later. I’ve been seriously concentrating on poetry again for the past five or six years. So, the first poems from high school exist probably in some box in the attic. But without the teacher who encouraged me, I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to follow poetry throughout my life.
LF: Who are some of your favorite poetic influences?
MJ: Well, of course, Williams, since I grew up in Rutherford. I didn’t know him, of course. He died when I was about 5 years old. It’s funny. I was such a fan that I had a mural painted on our garage doors at our last house in New Jersey after “The Red Wheelbarrow”. Visitors always wondered about those white chickens.
In later years, I fell in love with Whitman and Dickinson. I so enjoy the work of Sharon Olds, Mark Doty, Dorriane Laux, Jane Hirschfield, Linda Pastan. Right now I’m reading Barbara Crooker, Tony Hoagland, and Ada Limon. And I always have a copy of one of Christopher Bursk’s books on my nightstand. He’s a true inspiration to poets in the local community.
LF: Could you describe your creative process for writing poetry?
MJ: I remember saying to one class of college freshmen who were writing essays, “Try to think like a poet.” I was trying to get them to find connections and unique synergies among disparate ideas and to use words creatively to make interesting new points. I’ve always felt that I think and live in the world as a poet, appreciative and aware of moments and incongruities that cause me to slow down, notice, and make connections that aren’t always apparent, or at least, weren’t initially apparent to me. I make a lot of notes of images, phrases, interesting combinations of words, or facts I’ve read. I usually start with a phrase written in long hand and then free-write from there. It takes a lot of scribbling, cross-outs, and arrows on a page or pages before I even type it into a document. And from there, I print out and then begin scribbling more. When the poem is getting close, I start paying attention to form and structure and rhythm. Maybe it’s best as a sonnet, or in quatrains, or some freer forms. The last few run-throughs are down to the word level. If I’m working in syllabic forms, it becomes challenging to replace words. But it’s all so fun. I enjoy the revising process. I always have something to revise when the blank page is not cooperating.
LF: What are you working on now?
MJ: I’m trying to decide whether to put some of my poems out in competition as a chapbook or a full length book. I always have poems in submission at literary magazines.
LF: Why is poetry important in the world?
MJ: This is a great question. I like that you ask “why is poetry important?” and not just “is poetry important?”. Of course, writers and readers of poetry absolutely know that poetry is important in the world, in the same way that art in any form is necessary. I’ve said before, and often, that the creative spirit is fundamental to what it means to be human. Poetry gives us the means to slow down and think, at the very least to appreciate language, and at its most, to change us.
LF: What do you hope readers take away from your poems?
MJ: I hope I’m allowing readers or listeners the opportunity to slow down, to feel the power and beauty of words. That they have a little moment of connection with the expressions or the narratives, that we all can connect more.