Joanne Leva ’84: ‘Poetry Is Like Breathing’

By Purnell T. Cropper | July 1, 2011

By Larry Atkins

While poetry is becoming hot in popular culture, Joanne Leva ’84 has been stoking the poetry fires for 20 years.

Leva, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Arts, is the founder and director of the Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program, a nonprofit organization that promotes the arts by offering programs for local residents.

Since 1991, Leva has written her own poems since, performing them at many venues, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Theater of Living Arts, WXPN’s World Café, Painted Bride Art Center, and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. She has been published in The American Poetry Review, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Mad Poet’s Review, and The Bucks County Writer, among others.

While there was no rhyme or reason as to how she got involved in poetry, Leva quickly developed a passion. “Poetry chose me and transformed my life. When I started writing poetry way back in the day, the summer of 1991, I didn’t even know what it was. It wasn’t until I read it to my friend and neighbor, who said, ‘This is poetry!’ It just flowed from me out of nowhere–pages and pages of poems. And I’ve never looked back.”

For 13 years, Leva ran the Poetry Forus, a poetry series that met monthly at Barnes & Noble and spotlighted a featured poet from the region as well as open readings from newer poets. She also established an annual Poetry Festival during National Poetry Month hosted by Barnes & Noble that features approximately 15 poets who deliver a workshop or reading, along with a Teen Poetry Slam. Leva also has encouraged poetry at local schools, establishing the PoetryWITS (Writing in the Schools) program in 2007 and visiting schools in the Souderton, Indian Valley, Perkiomen Valley, and Bensalem school districts.

Is poetry becoming more popular today? “I don’t know if I would use the word popular,” Leva says. “Maybe accepted? I would say cool. I think poetry is gaining popularity, especially with the younger crowd. By younger, I mean grade school and high school students. I’ve had the opportunity to speak in schools with students from elementary through high school, and what I’ve found is that students seem to be more willing to enter into a poem. That says a lot about the teachers. I applaud the teachers today for bringing published poets into their classrooms and introducing 21st century poetry to their classes.”

What is the best thing about being involved with the poetry community? “Poets are so full of life,” Leva says. “Even at their darkest or their lowest, poets are choosing to write and that is true creativity. There is power in the written and spoken word. Here we are as writers taking a simple idea and shaping it into an art form, which will in turn engage someone else and cause them to carry the idea even further. So you have this deep exchange I find so enchanting and mystical that continues out and connects us.”

“Plus, it’s fun! To me a poem is like a puzzle. I start out with all of these fragments and, gradually, I put them together in different ways always looking at how they fit together, sound together, play off each other…. It’s very exciting when another person relates to your work. When something you’ve said or a metaphor you’ve used stirs up something inside of someone else, and then they write a poem, and the magnificent process begins. It’s like a poetic circle. I love it.”

Leva’s poetry career highlights include being awarded the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference Community Service Award in June 2011 and spending time with notable local poets. She has worked with Arcadia’s Humanities and English programs to present many public events at Arcadia in coordination with the Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program. Her daughter Julie graduated from Arcadia in May 2010 with a Criminal Justice degree.

Leva credits her classes at Arcadia, including painting, sculpture, and graphic design, for cultivating her artistic creativity. “My experience at Arcadia prepared me to think expansively, to consider all possibilities, and to take risks. That is the key to my success. My education at Arcadia cultivated a level of artistic inquisitiveness and a sense of boundless creative enthusiasm that sustains me.”

Although Leva has held several pharmaceutical industry jobs, including Marketing Communications Assistant and Communications Manager, she considers herself a full-time poet. “I don’t separate myself from poetry. In fact, I consider myself and my poetry life one and the same. First and foremost I am a poet. It’s like breathing to me… I can’t imagine not doing it. This is my life. Poetry is my entire life.”

Larry Atkins teaches Journalism at Arcadia University.