by Lou Mancinelli
When published poet and founder of the Montgomery Count Poet Laureate Program (MCPL) Joanne Leva started writing 24 years ago, she had no plans to make a career as a writer. She was in an unhappy marriage, and she just started to write and shared some of her feelings with a friend.
It’s poetry, the friend told her. You’ve written poetry.
So in 1991, at age 28, Leva, a graphic artist by training, began writing poetry and diving into the local literary scene. Most recently, on June 21 Leva read from her new manuscript, “Cryptic Orchard,” at Musehouse: A Center For The Literary Arts at 7924 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill.
“I never knew about poetry,” Leva said, during a recent interview, “What was poetry … I didn’t know.”
“Cryptic Orchard” is a reimagining of the story of Adam and Eve. With titles like “One Giant Step Past Blame,” Leva has endeavored to imagine how Adam and Eve’s relationship might have evolved after the fall. What if she placed the couple in the 21st century? Leva asked herself. As she read at Musehouse, two actors corresponded to the words, giving the Bible’s famous story a new look.
“Eve decides to renew herself/by purchasing a ringed binder/with divider sections,” writes Leva in “Eve Strives to Become an Opera Singer.”
If the subject of this collection seems ambitious, the poems were written with ambition in mind, that ambition being the desire to improve her craft. Leva took to writing the collection based on an assignment she received in a poetry workshop run by Bucks County poet Chris Bursk to rework a particular mythology. Leva attends the four-month workshop every year.
“I started to identify with Eve,” said Leva, about how she had begun to write about the subject. “The minute I started to identify with her, the poetry started to flow.”
In “Cryptic Orchard” Eve is a risk-taker who wants to learn as much as she can. Leva said when she herself began to explore poetry, it was a hungry search for knowledge, and it remains that way today.
“The fall wasn’t really a fall; it was a transformation,” Leva said. “When you fall, you’re really being transformed. It’s not the end; it’s the beginning.”
Leva, 52, a Lansdale resident, founded the MCPL in 1998, largely inspired by the neighboring Bucks County program established in 1977. Leva, who was raised in Upper Moreland and attended Upper Moreland High School (’80), had graduated from Arcadia University (then Beaver College) in 1984 with a degree in graphic design and married the same year.
She began her career making brochures and designing other booklets in the print shop at Saint Joseph’s University. Six months later she had a new job as the in-house artist at Channel 17.
“I expected fully to be a graphic artist,” Leva said about her early career. But when she went on maternity leave and had her daughter in November of 1987, she never returned to that field of work. The family moved to Souderton.
When she was pregnant, she kept a journal every day. A few years later she started to write poetry. Later that same year, she was divorced. “It made me feel like I was connected to something,” Leva said about writing. “I don’t want to sound sappy, but it did.”
That her friend enjoyed her poetry was enough to stir Leva to search for more. She began going to readings at bookstores and cafes “to search for more than just my own dining room and my own typewriter.”
As a single mom she had found a new career in the pharmaceutical industry where, though she was laid off last fall, she worked for several years. She started in 1991 at U.S. Healthcare. She earned a certificate in biomedical writing from the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. In the late 90s and early part of the 2000s she worked for Merck and then Bristol-Myers Squibb as a medical publications associate.
Soon after she had started writing and exploring the local literary scene in 1991, Leva founded a group called Poetryforus. It brought together four male and four female poets for readings. She held them at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, bookstores, Theatre of the Living Arts on South Street and The Ambler Theater.
She founded the MCPL as a way to promote local poets, and create an infrastructure of writers, editors, etc. Each year she appoints two local judges and one celebrity judge to select a winner.
Leva’s own work appeared first in American Poetry Review in 1994. In 2011 she was a recipient of a Philadelphia Writer’s Conference Community Service Award. As influences she cites names like Sharon Olds and Terrance Hayes.
“I don’t have the money or resources to go back to school and get an MFA to study with these folks,” she said. “I have a narrow window to learn.”
In 2000, when Robert Pinksy was the U.S. Poet Laureate, Leva managed to secure him as the MCPL celebrity judge. She also had a poem for him to read. She said he gave her an A.