Personality: Joanna Suzanne Lee

Spotlight on City of Richmond’s Poet Laureate 2024-26

5/2/2024, 6 p.m.
Joanna Suzanne Lee has been writing poetry since elementary school. Some of Ms. Lee’s schoolteachers encouraged her to write and …

Joanna Suzanne Lee has been writing poetry since elementary school. Some of Ms. Lee’s schoolteachers encouraged her to write and think creatively, but it all started with her mom.

“My mom was an English teacher and I just sort of grew up loving words and loving reading and loving writing.”

Along her natural talent in poetry, Ms. Lee also gravitated toward challenges that were often unrelated to language or writing.

During her second or third year of college, Ms. Lee thought of medical school as a career path. She wanted to “do some good in the world” that was challenging and medical school seemed like a straightforward way to do so. Then a personal loss created other challenges for her.

“I was halfway through my Ph.D. when my mom passed and it just made me step back from a lot of things and rethink as well as [made it] very hard to be in a challenging academic program at that exact moment,” she said.

Ms. Lee moved from Williamsburg back to Richmond following her mother’s passing.

She took to photography and writing while grieving, unaware that she was taking a “very long detour” from pursuing a career in medicine. (She would eventually earn her MD from the Medical College of Virginia in 2007.) She got involved with local nonprofits, and did more community engagement and writing. Along the way, she met her husband, John Cherenzia.

Ms. Lee’s husband was diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2021, went into remission but had a recurrence this past year. The poet says the past few years have been challenging, with “blow after blow” from health issues.

Becoming Poet Laureate for the city of Richmond makes Ms. Lee hopeful that this year may bring a change. Her first priority is to inform people that there is a Poet Laureate for the city. She also wants to figure out how to make poetry a part of anyone’s life, by engaging as many people as possible.

In Richmond, Ms. Lee finds that the “biggest connection for enrichment with writing and with inspiration” is in the “wildness,” the river and the richness of the city. She hopes to do work that focuses on these aspects of Richmond.

“That’s such a gift and how that can inspire creativity, even if you weren’t necessarily planning on finding inspiration or creating but maybe should,” Ms. Lee said.

Meet the City of Richmond’s Poet Laureate and this week’s Personality, Joanna Suzanne Lee:

Top honor: Poet Laureate of the city of Richmond, 2024-26.

Occupation: Café owner (Café Zata in Manchester).

Date and place of birth: May 31 in Winchester, Va.

Where I live now: Brookland Park.

Education: Undergraduate degree in chemistry from UVa; MD from VCU (MCV); master’s in applied science, William & Mary. No, I never studied English or creative writing in college.

Family: Husband, John Cherenzia. Dad, Stephen Lee in Winchester. Younger brother Andy lives in Chesterfield.

Being named the Poet Laureate of the City of Richmond means: Maybe my luck is finally turning around, and 2024 will be a better year than the previous several.

Process of applying to be considered Poet Laureate of the City of Richmond: This was a while ago (over a year), but I believe there was an online form where you submitted [a] resume, samples of work, and talked a little about why you wanted to be considered.

How I learned I was named Poet Laureate of the City of Richmond and my reaction: I got a call from the [Deputy Chief Administrative Officer] while I was at work, about a week before they announced it. It was kinda pure shock.

Length of my tenure: Two years 2024-2026.

First Poet Laureate of the City of Richmond and tenure: Roscoe Burnems, 2021-2023.

Why the City of Richmond established a Poet Laureate position: The position was established on the heels of the worst of the pandemic, during a time when it was easy to feel isolated and disconnected. The idea was to inspire community and foster creative expression.

Role of Poet Laureate of the City of Richmond: To showcase the creative talent Richmond has to offer and encourage people to create and to connect.

How Richmond shapes my poetry: In so many ways. Geographically, the juxtaposition of the wild natural landscape of the James River cutting through a vibrant urban center provides a grounding for a lot of my work. I draw inspiration from the neighborhoods and the people I interact with day to day. And the wealth of community I’ve found in groups like the James River Writers and my own River City Poets continuously makes me a better writer.

How poetry can help people during difficult times: In so many ways! When we hear or read a poem, it has the potential to unlock new ways of thinking or processing, allows us to consider a new perspective… or to realize that we are not alone in the ways we think or feel. Seeing the words on the page or hearing them across a crowded room can open up a space for grief, for healing, for connection. When we do the writing, the “work,” ourselves, it can make the same magic: sometimes putting the words/thoughts/feelings – whatever they are: past trauma, fears, anger – physically on the page can create a distance between us and whatever the “it” is, making it less consuming, less all-encompassing, less heavy.

Who I hope to inspire with my position: Anyone who doubts they have a voice worth sharing with the world.

Where Richmonders can engage with my poetry and me: Online – joannasuzannelee.com; Instagram: la_poetessa.

Or in person any River City Poets event! (listings on rivercitypoets.com); Also, if anyone just wants to come by and say hey or swap favorite poems, they can find me most afternoons behind the counter at Café Zata.

How I start the day: Full glass of water, vitamins, espresso. In that order. A few minutes with the cat (Karma), check in on plants, call my dad. If we can share a laugh before I get to work, it’s going to be a good day.

The three words that best describe me: Thoughtful, creative, empathetic.

Best late-night snack: Cheetos (crunchy, not puffy).

My music playlist: A little all over the place. Everything from early 2000’s Spanish rock to old-school country to Taylor Swift, with spates of classical thrown in.

I love to: Run! (eight full marathons since 2020; 10 half marathons, and my first ultramarathon last December.) I even started a small group for those of us who have the same crazy overlap in passions: Poets Who Run.

The best thing my parents ever taught me: My dad: Never expect to be handed anything – that you make your own way, your own successes… and your own failures. My mom: To trust in and focus on my talents (instead of always trying to make things harder for myself)

The person who influenced me the most: This is hard. There are many. Probably my maternal grandfather, who was a person always of quiet authority, reserved but affectionate and commanding respect. As a kid he grew up with very little, farming on the Eastern Shore, but he persevered in his education to become highly successful and a provider, physically and spiritually, for his family.

Favorite poet and why: Again, there are many! Some (randomly ordered in time and space) names: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Kim Addonizio, Rafael Campo, Ocean Vuong, Pablo Neruda, Jimmy Santiago Baca, William Carlos Williams.

Book that influenced me the most: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” My mom got it for me for Christmas when I was very young, and it inspired a love of reading that probably has a lot to do with the writer I am now.

Next goal: Writing: A full-length collection. I have a couple of book projects that I really would like to see come to life. Running: Ultimately, to qualify for [the] Boston [Marathon]! (I’ve got some work to do but am definitely making progress!) Life: be a better advocate for myself and, as necessary, for those around me who need it.