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Faculty profile: JoAnna Novak

An obsession with a word is the genesis of a book of poetry. Abeyance: A state of temporary disuse or suspension

August 26, 2020

Earlier this year, JoAnna Novak, MFA, an assistant professor of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction in the MFA in Creative Writing program, published her second book of poetry, “Abeyance, North America,” through After Hours Editions.

According to Novak, the book is a redacted atlas of longing, a transcontinental tour guided by eros, an exploration of submission and desire. Moving between real and imaginary spaces, the poems comprise a travelogue both geographical and emotional. Novak interrogates the ways in which place can amplify the erotic, and how fantasies can interrupt or alter landscapes.

“It is a book that explores what happens when we localize our fantasies, when we use place to escape from other aspects of our lives,” she says. 

JoAnna Novak
JoAnna Novak

The title word “abeyance” holds deep meaning for Novak. “When I wrote the first 25 pages of this manuscript, I was obsessed with the word ‘abeyance,’” she says. “A very unexpected person had introduced me to the word and I got hooked on it. He said an emotional state is one of abeyance. It seems to represent a state of suspension or paralysis, both legal and psychological. It was so helpful to me at a time in my life when I felt in between things. I knew I wanted to write something with that in the title one day.”

This is Novak’s second book of poetry. Her first, “Noirmania,” was published in 2018. She is also the author of the novel “I Must Have You” (2017). Her writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, and BOMB.

Novak’s own practice as a writer informs her teaching. “Writing in multiple genres is the best way for me to continue to grow as a writer,” she says. “I tell my students that reading and writing in one genre impacts what you might write in another. I think of myself as a fiction writer. But when I write a poem, that gives me access to ways of reading, thinking and drafting that helps with writing fiction. When I am writing an essay, it gives me rhetorical skills I can use in poems or fiction. Genres feed each other.”

For her next project, Novak is working on a book-length lyric essay exploring the work of the painter Agnes Martin, a project that was made possible by a grant she received from the Center for Academic Innovation and Creativity at the Mount.

“Last summer I was able to spend a few weeks in Taos, New Mexico, where Agnes Martin lived for most of her life,” she says. “I was looking at her work and writing about creativity, mental illness and living off the grid. I came away with 150 pages of mini essays and just finished rewriting the whole manuscript.”