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Whatever happened to City Pages reporter Josie Rawson? Poetry — and life

Journalists, both jettisoned and escaped, are scattering to the four winds: Some are going into PR, some are teaching, some are going back to school to retrain for the new world. And at least one, Joanna Rawson (City Pages readers will remember her as Josie) traded in her reporter’s notebook for a poet’s life.

That hardly sounds practical, but writers are made to write, and it’s working out rather well: her first book, “Unrest” (Graywolf Press) is out now. Rawson also works as a master gardener, and the two vocations have become intertwined.

The “Unrest” poems pin down the thoughts that run through Rawson’s mind as she works in the dirt: Observations about her current life as a caretaker of children and plants, and images from her old life, in which, as a reporter and city resident, she witnessed things she can’t forget. Garbage houses, children left to raise themselves, violence here and elsewhere — it makes for riveting, troubling poetry, as these familiar news stories are turned inside out and examined again. Instead of writing with the objective, detached eye of a journalist, she now speaks from the raw and open heart of a poet.

MinnPost: Readers will remember you as a City Pages reporter. Now you’re a poet living in Northfield. How did your life take this turn?

Joanna Rawson: I wouldn’t be living and writing here if I hadn’t gotten married to Stephen Mohring, who happened to be the son of the subject of a profile I once wrote for City Pages. Stephen is a sculptor and theater set-designer, and he started teaching at Carleton College. They liked him, and the reasons to pack and move got clear.

It’s a little bookends saga: I got swept up in a crack bust in the apartment I had on Portland Avenue in the mid-’90s, and telling it was the first cover story I wrote for City Pages (under the pen name M. Jones). It shook me up and stunned me and I wanted suddenly to live in a place where the cops couldn’t just beat down my door and put a gun to my head without warning, so I went out right away with the little cash and credentials I had — and I mean something like $500 and a pay stub — and bought a trash house nobody else wanted.

Years later, a little girl named Tyesha Edwards who lived around the corner got fatally shot through her family’s dining room wall while she was sitting at the table doing homework, and soon after there was a series of cop beatings of kids near us, and it just seemed like the wrong place to be with the baby. We were under the windowsill one too many nights. We came here for the art and the job and the more cheek-to-sweet-cheek contact time. It’s turned out right.

MP: New media are changing the way we experience the written word. Why is writing poetry important now?

JR: For all the reasons it’s ever been. It seems important to keep on using the language in flexible, expressive, surprising ways. It gives exercise to what we say — good poetry gives great shapeliness and elasticity and expanded boundaries to the language, and keeps it exciting when merchandising, marketing and selling try so hard to reduce and kill it. New media will be old media quickly. Who knows what’s next. Poetry’s never old-fashioned in this sense — poetry always finds ways to ride the waves, even and maybe especially the technological ones.

MP: How does gardening fit into your work?

JR: I design and build gardens, public and private, and I do education and publications that have to do with the parts of gardening that seem to me most urgent: things like capturing rain by building native environments. And making water-wise, chemical-free, low-mow green spaces that don’t suck up silly time and wetness — gardens that make sense of where we really live, and that don’t cost big money and don’t reflect elite values and power and that people can live near and eat and enjoy without getting sick.

In the Cities as a master gardener, I made gardens for families moving in to Habitat houses, so they could make their food right on site. And I did MG work raising cash for the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, putting together tours of gardens that made good associations with healing. Here in Northfield, we’re trying to take tree counts and plant better mixes of public trees so the whole green stock doesn’t get wiped out by ambushing borers or diseases.

MP: You remain in contact with the subjects of articles you wrote in years past, and some appear in these poems. Why revisit things you’ve already written about?

JR: Sometimes certain of these poems are a means to go back and write the stories again. The utterances are different, sometimes more careful and sometimes more reckless, more wild. I think a poet could write the same poem over and again for a whole lifetime, and the poem would evolve, alter, regress and explode in new ways with each composition. It’s because the poet, the writer, changes. Time happens to us, knowledge comes, we figure out novel ways of putting words together that end up meaning new meanings, because if we’re paying attention, we know more.

Reading Event: 7 p.m. today, Common Good Books, 165 N. Western Ave., St. Paul, 651-225-8989

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