Interview: The Mark of Real Life : An Interview with Allison Joseph

By Billy Jenkins, assistant editor, The Fourth River

Allison Joseph was born in London, England in 1967. She is the author of What Keeps us Here, which won the 1992 Women Poets Series Prize from Ampersand Press, a publisher of poetry and fiction based at Roger Williams College in Bristol, Rhode Island. The book, dedicated to Allison’s late mother, also won the John C. Zacharias First Book Prize from Emerson College and Ploughshares. She is the recipient of the 2009 Aquarius Press Legacy Award, the Literary Award from the Illinois Arts Council, the Associated Writing Programs Prize, the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Sewanee Writers’ Conference Fellowship, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship. A graduate of Kenyon University, Joseph is currently the editor and poetry editor of the Crab Orchard Review and Director of the Young Writers’ Workshop, as Director of the SIUS MFA Program in Creative Writing, Professor Joseph also maintains a blog about the graduate creative writing program.

At the time of this interview, her most recent books were My Father’s Kites (Steel Toe Books, 2010) and Trace Particles (Backbone Press, 2014).

BJ: When and why did you begin writing?

AJ: I was one of those kids who couldn’t shut up. That’s what I’d get on my report card. You know, “talks too much in class” so that’s part of it. Always much more interested in language than in numbers, which accounts for my poor math skills to this day(laughing). And as soon as I discovered poetry, I knew that it was going to be a part of my life. Probably around the same age a lot of people discover poetry. Probably early pre-teen kind of age.

BJ: Was there an author or piece of poetry that stood out to you at that time?

AJ: Since I grew up in New York, I had a library card, that card entitled me to go to any library in the New York Public Library System, so I kind of binged on poetry, books, whatever I could find. Also, my father who plays a big role in my own writing, had owned what we would call now an Afro-Centric bookstore, and a lot of those books somehow ended up in our house in the Bronx. My parents weren’t necessarily big readers themselves, we came from a Caribbean culture, my mom and father were both from different islands, and Caribbean people tell stories, they sit around, they play dominoes, and they tell stories. So all of that shaped me into being someone who wanted to use words, to convey something. I remember one of the seminal books I found was, and everybody had this, it was in junior high, was The Black Poets.

(Laughing). It’s still the anthology that is used in Afro-American Studies. And it takes you from the very beginnings with Phyllis Wheatley. Of course, it was Dudley Randall’s Anthology, so its not contemporary anymore, but when I discovered it, as a kid, I was like oh okay, yeah, there are black poets. Yay! (laughing).

BJ: Which leads me to…given that when you attended Kenyon College, you were one of thousands of young black poets…

AJ: Oh yeah, the place was full of us, (laughing).

BJ: Have you seen any change in the fact that our society teaches, say, essential poetry 101 and then essential Black poetry 101?

AJ: Yeah, I’m not going to front, February and March are my busiest months, February is Black History month, and March is Women’s History Month, I can sit by the phone in November like “Isn’t anybody going to call…” (Laughing).

BJ: (Laughing) Exactly, right.

AJ: So we do tend to make these categories, and we do tend to compartmentalize people, and I guess in some ways it’s good to be on the calendar for two months rather than zero months. But I think if you reach a certain level of notoriety as a writer, everybody is going to want to see you no matter your gender or skin tone. There definitely is a certain amount of celebrity that can occur, but then again we’re not all Toni Morrison(Laughing).

BJ: Ha, no we’re not! Can you speak about what you are working on right now?

AJ: I have a chapbook coming out and you have the title poem right there.

BJ: Extraction, is such an amazing poem.

AJ: Thank you, thank you. And I hope to work on a book, that talks about body image, because there are so many books out there that talk about women’s bodies, that are non-fiction, and even fiction, but there aren’t as many poetry books that do. I want to sort of reclaim that territory for poetry.

BJ: I read that your first book was also your thesis?

AJ: It was, it was my MFA thesis.

BJ: Do you think that you were waiting for the program to write the book, or did the book come from your work in the program?

AJ: The book came from the work that I did there, and I had wonderful teachers–Yusef Komunyakaa, David Wojahn, Maura Stanton– who were all very different in the things that they taught. Every MFA student ends up submitting a thesis, and for many people it becomes the basis for their first book, but for me it was my first book. It just worked out that way.

BJ: You lost your mother young. At that time, were you writing with that theme in mind, or was there a different theme that you wrote towards?

AJ: I’d say preservation–whether it’s trying to keep or hold onto people that you’ve lost, or just trying to remember a certain person or a certain piece of music. There’s just something to the feeling that everything is slipping through your fingers so quickly. So I think that’s a strand that I’ve worked with a lot. Trying to preserve things. These things, that may or may not amount to some huge importance in the stream of human history, but at that moment, writing that poem about that thing seemed very important, and very crucial to me.

BJ: From your vantage point now, do you still write with the same intent? Has your influence and success dictated a different area of focus? Do you think you’ve tied a bow around the idea of preservation?

AJ: I think I write about it more. I think it is just a consequence of becoming older. There are more and more people that I am losing, more and more institutions, and places. The New York of my childhood does not exist anymore. The rent’s just too damn high (laughing). So I think so much of what we do as creative artists is going to be the only way that some of our treasured institutions survive, It’s so funny, when I get in front of my undergraduate students, and I get on a high horse, or a soapbox talking about, “…back in my day…experts wrote encyclopedias, and they were books…” you know yeah, those things were important.

BJ: I wonder what issues still plague you as a writer?

AJ: Well doubt, which should linger in any writer, and I try to use my doubt to my own advantage. Doubt can be a useful thing that helps you to be skeptical, and not drunk in love with everything you write. I tend to be over the moon over every piece I write, so doubt can be a good thing. It’s like “Okay, maybe I need to sit on this thing for awhile, maybe it doesn’t need to have its grand debut before the ink is dry” (laughing).

BJ: (Laughing) Do you have a piece that was the hardest to write?

AJ: My last book, which has a series of sonnets about my late father, that was hard. People are like “Why are they sonnets”, and I say, “Because they are 14 lines, I can control them…” I found that it was harder to write about my father, who I had a fractured relationship with, than my mother who died when I was a teenager. During my early stages of college, I was able to write pretty freely about, even though the loss was really painful. At first is stumped me, I thought to myself, I’ve written about losing a parent before, so why is this time so hard? But it was because his death was in many ways much more emblematic– it was about his life as a black man, the things he faced. His anger was a lot more emblematic. Even the very reason he died, diabetes, is something that affects far more disproportionately, the African American community.

BJ: Can you speak a little bit about your summer writing workshop?

AJ: Well I went to one when I was a kid, it wasn’t an overnight camp like ours, but I went to one that was sponsored by the New York City Writers Project, I believe it was called, and it gave me an inkling that there was something about writing that needed its own special place. So I thought, why don’t I recreate that because there has to be some kid, in some little town who wants to do this, but doesn’t have access. Particularly some students I meet who live outside major metropolitan areas just don’t have any access. Sports may be big but there might only be one teacher who does one unit on poetry. So we wanted to give these kids the opportunity to have that kind of intense experience as well. Also for my graduate students, who would get to teach individuals who would remind them of themselves when they were that age: people who think writing is the bees-knees.

BJ: What advice is most difficult for your young students to grasp?

AJ: That they can be self-sustaining. So many of my undergraduate students are writing to deadline. X amount of poems to be handed in by this date, etc. They need to learn that there will be a time when, even if they go on to pursue further graduate studies, there is nobody telling them write. Writers have to be self-starters, writers have to feed themselves whatever it is that will make them commit. I always say to my students, it’s not all that interesting what writers do, we sit down at a computer or we write long hand. Painters get their canvases, and sculptors have all sorts of mediums to work with, and singers and dancers, everybody wants to see those folks. But people aren’t coming over to watch a writer type. So we have to find a way to keep ourselves sustained. We have to follow our obsessions, even if it seems they are leading to strange places and dead-ends.

BJ: What was the last book that resonated with you?

AJ: My husband is the Series Editor for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, which is co-published with Southern Illinois University Press, and one of the books that is nominated this year for the National Book Critics Circle Award is a posthumous collection called Abide by Jake Adam York. Two days before he passed away, Jake had sent my husband Jon the manuscript for this new book, and it’s just a beautiful book. It’s crushing me because I can’t call him up and tell him his poems are amazing. He was only forty, but that’s a book that we were so thrilled to hear had received a nomination, because that means his work is outliving him, even though I would rather have him here in this plane.

BJ: Is expressing yourself through poetry enough?

AJ: Whenever I find myself writing non-fiction and fiction pieces, poetry always pulls me back saying “What do you think you are doing? Get back here”.

BJ: (Laughing) like Al Pacino in The Godfather…it pulls you back.

AJ: Yes! It pulls me back in, I do write other things but poetry is like hypnosis for me.

BJ: Would you say that poetry has the ability to slip between fiction and nonfiction?

AJ: Yes, when people ask me how much of any given poem is real, I tell them 89.25 % of it is real (laughing). You know you have fidelity to a truth that can be accepted by the reader, that a reader can tell a poem has the mark of real life. One of the exercises I use with my students, is to tell them to write about a tragic day in their lives, but change the weather on that day, and see how that frees them. How does the truth of the situation stay in those moments?

BJ: In the poem Little Epiphanies, you write, “I should keep the unmentionables

unmentioned.” What does that mean?

AJ: On a very basic level, this poem is about what a shitty housekeeper I am (laughing). But then on another level its about all the things that we hide and conceal and how they come spilling out of us, in those little moments of epiphany. Those moments between the façade you’ve been trying to keep up. The façade it turns out, is always cracking.

Billy Jenkins was born in Pittsburgh in 1974. He is a graduate student at Chatham University. He is a father, fiction writer, firefighter and U.S. Marine.