“The things that hold you back can often help you”: An Interview with Poet Allison Joseph, By Taylor Caron (2017)

From left to right: Parker Gregory Shpak, Sean Frederick Forbes, Allison Joseph, Breanna Patterson, Betty Noe, and Jameson Croteau. (Photo taken at UConn, February 2017, by Sydney Lauro)

It’s been said that expectations are best kept low when meeting a brilliant writer. This advice makes sense when one considers that a writer is presenting their best, most polished self on the page. The real thing should inevitably yield disappointing. I feel privileged in being able to verify that this is not the case with renowned poet Allison Joseph. The distinct idiosyncrasies and tonal qualities of her voice on the page are to be found in conversation. It became less mystifying to me how one poet could publish works as diverse as In Every Seam, Soul Train, Imitation of Life, My Father’s Kites, and the recent chapbook Multitudes after speaking with her. Her chameleon-like ability to speak in the most sublimely high register or slangy conversational tone is unique to her specific background and literary diet. She was born in London, England to parents of Gernadian and Jamaican heritage, and was raised in the Bronx, New York City. She lives in the Midwest where she is Associate Professor of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and is the editor in chief and poetry editor for the Crab Orchard Review. Her honors include the John C. Zacharis First Book Prize, fellowships from the Bread Load and Sewanee Writers Conferences, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry. While the subjects of her writing range from love poems, political poems on race, or the heavily imagistic, at least two commonalities remain: her abundant humor and generosity of spirit. She kindly agreed to be interviewed by me for the Long River Review journal during her visit to UConn in February, and I hope that readers can sense those qualities as she indulges my various questions.

Editor’s note: The text below is the unedited, full transcript of Allison Joseph’s interview.

TC: Yesterday when you were reading “Pedestrian Blues” and “To Wanderlust” you mentioned being a “handicap walker,” but as you were reading I could sense the movement of the poems. There’s a sense that when engaging in walking you are able to discover new things but also reflect on events past?

AJ: Yes, I run and I walk a lot. And I became a runner basically for health reasons, but walking is really meditative for me. It opens up my mind and as I’m passing through new places. In those moments I may have a line or reflection come into my head. I think I’m just taking advantage of that. More recently I’ve been thinking about my late father-in-law who had Parkinson’s. His ability to walk was taken for him and that was horrible, having to witness that of a loved one. So lots of time when I walk or run I think about him and how many of us abled body people take the capacity of motion for granted.

TC: Yeah, you seem to bring a consciousness and intentionality to the activity that I think eludes most able-bodied people. It reminded me of Thoreau’s essay which is just called “Walking”. For him, being able to move through nature was essential for writing. Do poems come to you during that time?

AJ: Not so much when running, usually because I’m on a treadmill or with music on, but definitely. I was just walking around here and [UConn] is a great walking campus. I saw a lot of lovely people running and walking about so when the weather isn’t punishing you this could be a great place for regular walks (laughs). And you mention Thoreau, that’s a very New England kind of idea which I feel quite comfortable with.

TC: This might be a somewhat related question: I was thinking of your poem “Sleepaway Camp” while you were reading “The Black Santa” last night. I was wondering how you view the role of memory in your poems. These are sometimes distant memories from your childhood and yet you’re able to conjure this vivid detail of the moment. Do you feel memories are partly constructed or even created when writing?

AJ: Yes. I am very cognizant when writing nonfiction, and I’ve published some nonfiction, that it has to be verifiable. I wrote an essay about my father and his relationship to 70’s television shows. One of his favorites was All in the Family, which was peculiar to me because Archie Bunker was a stone cold racist. Everything I wrote in that essay I felt I had to research. But when I’m writing a poem a sort of reverie takes over. In the moment of creation, I’m convinced that somebody’s sweater was blue. There’s no way for me to verify that, but for the purposes of that poem it’s going to be blue. That’s the distinction for me. Poetry is a kind of fiction, it’s a fictive activity. A world is created in the poem, but when I’m writing it I think to myself “This is the God honest truth.” But who knows? I always don’t. I feel that what I’m invoking is true even if it isn’t literal truth. I always tell my students: if in your poem you want it to be a rainy day but it was actually sunny, you can make it rainy.

TC: I’ve been thinking about this recently. How much does a poet identify as a memoirist or a fiction writer? I help edit LRR’s nonfiction panel and we’ve received some autobiographical poems which led to an interesting debate.

AJ: With “The Black Santa” poem I looked at the photo of him, and I think I made him look a little sickly looking. I went back and looked at him and thought: Hmm, Black Santa doesn’t look too bad! But I swear to this day that he either smoked too much or drank too much or both. But hey, it’s a department store Santa job, I probably would do the same (laughs).

TC: I was thinking last night during your reading, you know some poets can be captivating on the page but the reading can be a bit sort of droning…

AJ: Narcoleptic?

TC: Yes, exactly!

AJ: This is an area I’ve gotten more interested in. Bringing in videotape or audio tape. Sometimes it’s inspiring and really throws you. In my graduate class we heard some recordings of Sylvia Plath who as a poet I deeply admire, as a person I don’t think I would have liked her that much.

TC: Or be like her?

AJ: Right. But her voice was so off-putting. It sounds like a put-on to us. It’s this overarching New England, Boston accent that sounds like a parody of itself. It sounds contrived. And after she married Hughes, you know, and made recordings for the BBC. There, it sounds like she’s putting on an England on top of the already New England accent (laughs).

TC: I’ll have to find those tapes and give them a listen. I have to say though, when you read it sounds very authentic. It almost reminded me of a kind of slam poetry in the way you were engaging with the audience, making eye contact, or making a side comment. And it was very funny, there was a lot of laughing going on.

AJ: Well a lot of people are convinced poetry readings are supposed to be very somber. When I did a reading from my book My Father’s Kite which are a series of elegies for my late father. The first time I read from that book I read them all the way through and people were crying by the end and I thought, oh God.

TC: You didn’t feel good about that?

AJ: I did, in a way. It is kind of a rush to know you can manipulate people’s emotions like that (laughs). But the next couple of times I read from it I would intersperse more comments to give people’s emotions a break.

TC: Well last night was interesting in that regard because many of the poems were quite compelling. But I found, not just at the reading but when I was alone going through your work, I would laugh in the most beautiful kind of way – the kind of wholesome laugh that as you’re laughing something profound is activating.

AJ: There’s a poem I wrote called “Weeping at Someone’s Funeral” which is the kind of phenomena of people going to funerals as an athletic event where they’re crying more than the bereaved. I read it recently and people approached me saying they didn’t know whether to life or cry. And I thought, that’s it! That’s exactly what I’m trying to evoke.

TC: How do you find that tone? Does it have to do with wordplay?

AJ: Yep. I think of writing in general as playing with words. For some writers writing is definitely work. And I definitely feel that when I write prose. I think to myself: This writing in sentences business is really work. But poetry allows you to play with language not just from the figurative side, but sonically. If you spent a lot of time, and I know there are lots of elegant prose stylists, but if you spend so much time you’ll never get to the plot or characters. With poetry you have more latitude.

TC: Interesting, this might not be relevant but I heard Joyce Carol Oates once say that she couldn’t be a poet because when she thinks of an idea it’s a character or story.

AJ: Right, and she’s lying because she’s written a lot of poetry. Many prose writers have, like Margaret Atwood and Louise Erdrich. A lot of people who people think of as just prose writers have written poetry. Erdrich was a very fine poet until she committed more fully to prose.

TC: Does that have something to do with the Faulkner line that novelists are failed poets?

AJ: Perhaps. But there are writers who I have claimed as poets that are not literally poets. Like Tennessee Williams, who did write poetry but it was dreadful. However, there are passages in his plays that are so charged with beautiful language that you let him in the poetry club.

TC: I wanted to ask you about issues of formalism. I was reading your book of sonnets called The Purpose of Hands in which all poems follow the strict rules of meter and rhyme that a sonnet requires. But then there are other books in which a lot of the poems are more free verse. There seems to be a debate right now that poetry is becoming to formless and then there’s the new formalism trying to combat that notion.

AJ: Well I know poets who essentially are prose poets. They don’t even write in lines. I think you have to figure out what it is you’re willing to teach yourself. I did write a lot of free verse early in my career and then I started teaching a lot of poetics courses. The course I’m teaching right now is on forms of poetry. I’m the kind of person that in order to teach something I have to do it myself. What became obvious to me is that the more formal verse I wrote the more free verse I wrote. It wasn’t one or the other. I could formal verse to generate ideas that I could use in free verse and vice versa. For me it’s all poetry. I will say I don’t write much prose poetry because when I wrote prose I want to write a character or about an issue that might be too big for a single poem. The essay on my father and television made me realize it was not going to be one poem. I wanted to talk about the various aspects of him as a black man being attracted to these negative issues. It was more idea based.

TC: So when you do write more formal poetry, whether it’s a sonnet dedicated to your husband or an elegy dedicated to your father, do you set out to write a poem in those forms? Or does it slowly become apparent which form is the most appropriate?

AJ: With My Father’s Kite, after his death I found that I couldn’t write free verse. That the elegy was a kind of mechanism to control the emotions because it was a painful death. And I did a lot of work cleaning out the house, settling his affairs, so there was something about the mechanism of 14 lines giving me a kind of control I began to rely upon. And there were other forms and poems in that book, including some free verse.

TC: But the restrictions helped?

AJ: Yes. The things that hold you back can often help you.

TC: You mentioned that you would assign your students to write a poem about the most insignificant subject possible. I was wondering if you challenge yourself to do that because, for me, your kind of writing is almost superior to reality. Time becomes slowed down in your poems and you see objects in a clearer way, almost as if for the first time.

AJ: I’m going to risk sounding like a broken record. But part of the reason I don’t drive is the world offers you the best materials in bus stations, airports, on the train. You see people in transit emotionally. I also believe in eavesdropping. I hear phrases and steal pieces of dialogue. I believe that if we are aware to the world around us — you know some young writers believe you have to suffer this terrible life or hardship in order to be able to write. There have been writers that do things like go off in search of adventure to have something to write about. I never felt that way. I always trusted the universe would provide for me, poetically speaking. You can ascribe religious meaning to it but I’m convinced that if I keep my eyes open there will always be enough.

TC: So is paying attention the best advice you can offer a young poet? Do you think being glued to one’s phone impedes that kind of concentration and participation required?

AJ: It can. And it’s very seductive, we all do it. But sometimes people will say something online that will trigger something for me into a poetic idea.

TC: That’s interesting. Something unrelated I wanted to ask you about has to do with two things you’ve mentioned in your writing and yesterday: Odes and Pablo Neruda. Neruda seemed to write an ode about practically anything: numbers, bees, etc. Did he expand the possibility of the genre for you?

AJ: It stands in stark contrast to Keats who had a very set rhyme scheme with specific movements. I do teach “Ode to Autumn” just so my students know where this notion of praising comes from. But I do an exercise with Neruda’s collected odes, and I’ll assign them a certain number in the book and make my students write an ode about whatever he wrote about. So yeah, in addition to being deeply involved in politics and having his own literary spats with poets.

TC: My question is about your odes being directed at, not necessarily yourself, but a part of yourself. It’s sort of an expression of self-love. Did Neruda open that up for you?

AJ: Not necessarily, you know his sonatas really helped me in that way. It’s just trust that anything the world shows me is worthy of praise, I am going to go there.

TC: We were talking about wordplay earlier, and at times it can be very whimsical and fun but also quite serious. There’s a line from your poem “On Being Told I Don’t Speak like a Black Person”: “Now I realize there’s nothing more personal than speech.” I wonder exactly what you mean by personal.

AJ: It’s like an imprint the way that you speak. I speak in different accents a lot as a Caribbean immigrant and then living in New York, and now I’m married to a Southerner. I’m just interested in the human voice, period. And if we don’t maintain interest in the way we sound and try to mute everybody and smooth off all the difference, how boring will that be?

TC: That line about the importance of the individualized nature of speech, but some of your poems have more of a political or social bent. Many do not, but considering the actions of the current executive administration, I find it interesting to track the way language is being used.

AJ: Yes, it’s been driving me nuts. And it has been driving me to write. I wrote a poem that people have been spreading around, and it was the day that Kellyanne Conway invented the phrase “alternative facts.” It started as a kind of joke like, well, now cake is celery. Laughter can be a good way of getting through these things. Anyway, the poem ended up on Lit Hub, and then I was contacted my NPR and they asked me for a recording. That proved to me a couple things, there are people who are interested in language as it should be used, and they don’t to be deceived. It also let me know language is going to be crucial for our political survival. And I don’t consider myself an overtly political person, but it’s a matter of what pushes buttons and what I can do with humor. There were a lot of writer’s resistance events and I didn’t immediately join those because I was still stunned and waiting to see what was going to happen. It’s interesting though, growing up in New York everybody hated Donald Trump for one reason or another. He was ruining the New York skyline with these gaudy buildings and taking out ads against the Central Park Five.

TC: So he’s almost the part of the milieu of your childhood?

AJ: Yeah, I mean we all knew the Trump Tower was this gaudy eyesore. And you know the way that people defend things from him that they would not accept from other politicians is something that mystifies me.

TC: But that’s what interesting in relation to political language. Because as you know some poets are more explicitly political while others are less so. But does there comes a moment when a poet has an obligation to language in public discourse. You think of Auden’s poem after Poland was invaded for example. Do you feel that duty?

AJ: (Sighs) I think people are going to be asking themselves that much more than they are used to. I taught a class on poets as world figures and I asked the students whether they thought of themselves as political poets and nobody said they did. There was a kind of stigma that political poetry didn’t have literary value or was just propaganda. But toward the end one of my students wrote a chapbook all mocking Donald Trump. I don’t think he would have written those if we hadn’t read those poets who were killed and jailed for wiring poetry. We talked about Dennis Brutus who was in the same prison as Mandela. I said to my students, think about this: His punishment was to break big rocks into smaller rocks. I was lucky to have the opportunity to meet him when he was at the University of Pittsburgh years later. And there was no sense of bitterness. There was just a desire to want to continue to write. When he was in prison they didn’t want him writing at all, so he write letters to his sister Martha, in poetry. So in times like these, I think of someone like Dennis who under the worst possible circumstances still found that identity as a writer and a poet and found it absolutely intrinsic.

Interview by Taylor Caron