Wednesday, April 25, 2012

MIDLIFE: A Poem and Conversation with JP Reese


The summer disappeared too quickly
and yet the light still burns the hills
these late afternoons for far too long.
Our hands grow smaller. We’ve learned,
finally, not to reach beyond ourselves.
We resemble one another
but cannot reassemble the lovers
who have vanished. Each evening,
we speak with bright razors
stashed beneath our tongues, slash
towards each other’s jugular, cut
new wounds to expose the blood rush
that gratifies but can never replace desire.

Today marks Poem-In-Your-Pocket Day, the jewel in the crown of National Poetry Month. MIDLIFE, by JP Reese, is the poem folded in my pocket today, the one I will pass out when I do my errands, the one I will share with my friends and family. This poems speaks to me on so many levels: the passage of time (which I feel acutely this month and year); the changes that occur in relationship; the loss of youth, of innocence.

I had the pleasure and honor to ask JP three questions about this poem and writing poetry; her articulate and honest answers make me appreciate both this poem and her presence in the poetry

1) What specific incident or individual inspired you to write this poem? The poem is a general treatment of a situation I think many couples who manage to make it into midlife together experience, combined with a specific mix of my own memories. I did not make it out of my forties with the spouse I married in the 1980's, but our relationship and its outcome is only described toward the end of the poem. My current struggles with late middle age, fading beauty, lost possibilities, and the economic downturn that has beaten up so many people is another part of the poem's inspiration. It incorporates the observations of two people who are both me and not me--one present and one long in the past.

2) The tone of the poem changes from an image of peace and calm to one of almost anger: "Each evening/we speak with bright razors/stashed beneath our tongues...". I sense this imagery reflects regret about past youth. Can you describe this more? What do you foresee for the second half of this life? The images of anger and cutting words actually are less urgent to me in this poem than the quiet angst and malaise suggested by the previous lines in which a couple slowly schools themselves over time not to dream, not to reach beyond themselves, to try to be content in the small space in which they think they have managed to achieve some sort of balance. What you read as peace and calm is really a sort of giving in or giving up as time grows short; it's a slipping away of the passion that drives us to strive toward our goals and not give up until we've achieved them. I think calling it a requiem for lost youth would not be inappropriate.

The idea of possibilities shrinking and goals gone astray is much sadder to me than a nasty interchange because as we reach late middle age, many of us, myself included, can't persuade ourselves as easily as we once could that there's still time to change direction, still enough energy and passion to navigate through dangerous waters and emerge in a better place.  It's the idea of settling for something less than what you've hoped for in life that is saddest of all for me, and also the realization that there is no one else to blame but the individual who looks back from the mirror each morning.  Some people might call this settling for less realistic, but I think it's a surrender of sorts and find it troubling to contemplate.  Peggy Lee sang it best in her song "Is That All There Is?"

The transition in the poem to an angry tone is actually the end point to which my previous relationship evolved.  I found myself angry most of the time, and I was, unfortunately, very able to think up and blurt out extremely cutting observations that were hurtful, both to my (now) ex-husband and to myself.  He was usually swathed in layers of self-medication, so it bounced off him more often than not, which only served to increase my frustration and anger, which I often turned inward. Our relationship deteriorated from one of love to one that became almost a competition to out talk, out maneuver, out argue one another. Since I divorced, went to graduate school for my MFA, and remarried, I have never been that angry or felt the need to destroy someone with words the way I once did, so the conclusion of "Midlife" is actually the past, and the beginning is more an observation of the present. 

Don't get me wrong; I don't feel that all is lost. My creative life has never been better or more successful and for that I am grateful.  This poem isn't a direct confessional, but I do see friends and family who have learned not to imagine that there may be more than what they presently have as they age, and others who look back longingly to a time when they lived every minute with energy and optimism, and I fear and still try to avoid the same fate. 

I never want to be content, because a healthy discontent with the way things are keeps me fresh, interested, and moving through the world on my own terms. Also, enslaving oneself to the past, both its triumphs and tragedies, is another kind of death in life to me. I believe in a sort of continual evolution of being.  Every five years or so, I look back and realize I have once again become a different person than I was before, and this change works for me.  Stagnation is a killer of hope and dreams, and the poem implies that ideology.

3) Can you tell us a bit about the history of this poem--when it was written, how long it marinated, how many drafts, did the first version at all resemble this exquisite and tightly-woven version? This is the biggest problem that using a computer to write poems creates--there is no longer a trail of handwritten visions and revisions (to paraphrase Eliot) to follow from the genesis of a poem to its final version.  I'm sure this poem was probably twice as long when I first began to write it. I always fill poems with much more than I need to as my thoughts pour onto the page. If this recent poem progressed as most of my new poems do, (I have an entire thesis of older poems I revise regularly and submit only occasionally), I probably began it and worked on it for a number of days in sequence and then walked away for a month or so, then went back and diddled with the words and the imagery until some force inside me took over. When that happens, and it doesn't happen as often as I would like, my mind goes on automatic pilot, and the poem seems to write itself into its final incarnation.

That place a writer is sometimes able to conjure, a sort of writer's nirvana, is the state of being I try to create when a poem begins to work its magic in my head. I love that feeling of control. It's almost like a drug to the system and I come out the other side with a piece about which I am proud but I am also usually physically spent.

I rarely decide a piece is completely finished and I can put it to bed.  I guess my work is a mirror of the way I live my life.  I am always messing around with my work, even after it's been published, as "Midlife" was at Mad Hatter's Review Blog (thanks to Marc Vincenz), and in my chapbook Final Notes.  It will soon be a part of an anthology entitled, Argotist Otherstream Anthology, Vol. II as well. I guess three publications are good enough for "Midlife." After three trips into the world, I think I'm satisfied that the poem has done its job and is finally finished. Unlike me, it can rest now and remain as it is.


Three lives indeed—we can only hope as writers to get one life out of a work. JP, thank you for your insightful observations on poeming.

For more information on how to obtain a signed copy of FINAL NOTES, JP Reese's brilliant debut chapbook, contact her at Please include your e-mail address and home address, and you will receive a reply with ordering and payment information.

About JP Reese: JP Reese has poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, book reviews, and writer interviews published or forthcoming in many online and print journals such as Metazen, Blue Fifth Review, A Baker's Dozen: Thirteen Extraordinary Things, and The Pinch.  Reese is a poetry editor for THIS Literary Magazine,, and Associate Poetry Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact,  Reese's poetry chapbook Final Notes was published by Naked Mannekin Press in spring, 2012.  Reese's flash fiction has won the Patricia McFarland Memorial Prize.  Her published work can be read at Entropy: A Measure of Uncertainty,



  1. A powerful truth. Thank you for sharing both this incredible poem and some insights into its depths from the author herself.

  2. I can see why you chose this poem, Linda. It is quite powerful and full of emotion. And thanks for sharing JP's insights with us. I found it interesting, her comment on what is lost by writing on a computer. I've noticed that too.

  3. Joani Reese is at the top of my list of best contemporary poets working today. This poem destroys me with each new reading. The interview was incredibly candid and moved me to tears. What is most striking about Joani's work is her poem's emotional accessibility. She lets the reader partake in the most personal of ways.

  4. Thank you Joani for sharing yourself here! And thank you all for reading this interview with the talented JP!

    EC, I think you and I both resonate with this poem.

    Jon (!). What IS lost by writing on the computer--I think this often myself. One reason I hoard all my print-offs (and this itself is another problem).

    Susan, yes, Joani invites us into her world immediately--her poetry is accessible and meaningful. Thanks you for popping by!

    Poem on!