Allison Joseph, Poet
Allison Joseph is the author of six poetry books: What Keeps Us Here (Ampersand, 1992), Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1997), In Every Seam (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon, 2003), Worldly Pleasures (WordTech Communications, 2004), Voice: Poems (Mayapple Press, 2009), and My Father’s Kites: Poems (Steel Toe Books, 2010).
Joseph teaches at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, where she helped found Crab Orchard Review, a literary journal, and the Young Writers Workshop, a coed residential summer program for teen writers.
In 2012, she won the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.
Born in London, England to Caribbean Parents, Joseph grew up in Toronto, Canada and the Bronx, New York. Joseph is a graduate of Kenyon College, and earned her MFA from Indiana University. She resides in Carbondale, Illinois, with her husband Jon Tribble.
Kiandra Jimenez interviewed Joseph by email.
Kiandra Jimenez: As a black woman writer, I am deeply interested in the intersection of culture, history, personal narrative in writing that speaks of and to the black woman’s experience. In my own writing, I strive to incorporate a wide breath of experience that has space for myself, as well as the community I write from. In my own studies I’ve found the language to describe this process, this act—Karla Holloway describes it as “texts that are at once emblematic of the culture they describe as well as interpretive of this culture,” and Sonia Sanchez has stated, “I write to tell the truth about the black condition as I see it. Therefore, I write to offer a black woman’s view of the world.” The late Barbara Christian stated black women’s literary works are the “counterparts of their communities’ oral traditions.”
In your poetry, there is a strong narrative, cultural-historic experience that seems to be born from the tradition Holloway, Sanchez, and Christian spoke of, can you speak to your personal writing impulses, and also how your work engages with the black woman’s experience? Personally, I am deeply aware that I write as participant, observer, and recorder and I wonder if this is something you consider when you pen your poems?
Allison Joseph: Yes, I write to be recorder, observer, participant, and sometimes, even judge. I want to engage the world as I see it with my whole self—all of those different aspects of it. I need sometimes to hang back in the shadows with my pen and paper, and then other times, I need to take center stage in my own creations. The trick is to know when to hang back, and when to step forward. It’s a perpetual ongoing balance.
KJ: Your poems speak to my childhood, in fact, a number of them mirror my experiences growing up as a black girl in South Central Los Angeles, but what I find most intriguing and inspiring in your poetry is your ability to capture the human experience so that your work strikes a chord with readers regardless of race. As I’ve gone about penning poems, writing in general, I strive to include “universal themes,” and I wonder if this is something you consider when penning your poems.
AJ: Thanks so much. I consider that a great compliment. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of poetry. In terms of what I write about, I consider no subject too small. Often it’s the small moments, that through the amplification of poetry, reveal the larger, more profound truths that we all come to recognize and treasure.
KJ: In a previous interview with Blackbird Journal (2005), you stated that you were a “slow thinker” when it comes to responding immediately to historical events, you also spoke about layering history, personal, and cultural truths into your works. Can you share your process of negotiating these layers into your work? How deliberate are you when you work, or is this layering process natural? I imagine part of what you meant when stating you are a “slow thinker” is that part of your writing and thinking process is layering these truths. In light of the recent, national unrest we’ve witnessed in reaction to the many young, black male lives we’ve lost unnecessarily, I wonder has your process changed? Have you attempted to pen poems in reaction, and if so, has your process remained slow, methodical?
AJ: I think that layering process is natural, a part of poetry itself. Poetry is such an ancient art, and I consider myself young within that art. I find it hard to write poems in reaction to world/national events unless there’s a way in that’s so evident to me that I can’t deny the urge to write about such events. It takes me a while to gather the evidence, you know?
KJ: You’ve shared the impact studying under Yusef Komunyaaka had on you as a young poet, particularly with embracing and including your culture into your writing. Was this a struggle for you early on—and if is so, how did you overcome it? And to add, how do you advise young poets find their path in balancing culture, personal history, and universal themes?
AJ: It was more fear than anything else. Young poets worry that their experiences—whether urban or rural, immigrant or native, small town, suburb, or big city—aren’t worthy of the written word. But for me the urge toward poetry, that seductive feeling of being swept away by words, was enough for me to overcome that fear that my experiences weren’t worthy of poetry itself.
KJ: In My Father’s Kites, your poem “A Daughter’s Villanelle,” defiantly states, when referring to your father’s life, “I write about your life because I can,” and also states, “If you could read these words, I’m sure you’d damn / me write to hell for everything I said.” In the poem, “Absence Without Leave,” you write, “I lived a life I knew I had to hide / my father’s edicts resolutely grim,” can you speak to how you overcame your father’s edicts, and found the space within yourself to defiantly write about his life?
AJ: Only after his death could I speak my own individual truths about him. In a sense, I had to turn him into a character, a figure I could control through language. That’s why so many of the poems in that book are formal—those forms gave me a way to control/confront the “character” of my father as presented in the book. Part of elegy is confrontation—not just with the idea of death, but with the person who has died. For me, I needed formal tools to achieve that confrontation.
KJ: One of the things I find most inspiring about My Father’s Kites, is your ability to accomplish a number of important things—first, you are wholly authentic on the page, which allows us an intimacy that provides a complex, loving portrayal of your father. In the collection you fully humanize him by showing his harsher sides, but also, you show us the gentle sides of your father. The result is a deeply intimate meditation on your complicated relationship with your father. How did you create space for the love and pain, and straddle the line between capturing what was tender, but also harsh of your father?
AJ: It took a while—the poems were born out of the impulse toward elegy I mentioned earlier. It was a project that began in grief. But in the course of writing individual poems, I realized there was a story I needed to put together, to shape like a fiction writer does. Then I put it away for a long time. I needed not to see it, and give it time for it to become less emotionally charged. It was only when I saw that Steel Toe Books was looking for manuscripts by writers of color did I engage with it again.
KJ: Your poetry has a wonderful narrative quality, with poems as well as entire book collections having a full story arc. In particular, I’m thinking about In Every Seam, and how you take readers from your childhood to your marriage. Is story arc something you aim for in every poem, collection?
AJ: Not always, but arcs are a way of helping the reader to manage the particular poetic territory you are working with. Some of my chapbooks don’t really have an arc per se, more of an overall mood in those shorter collections.
KJ: In your poetry book, In Every Seam, you speak directly to your experience at Kenyon College as an undergrad, in particular, the poems, “Higher Education,” and “Academic Instructions” confront the racism you encountered, and the position of “teaching, educating, explaining,” you found yourself in. I’m interested in how your feelings about your experience has evolved, or not, now that you teach. In what ways did your experience at Kenyon College shape the professor you are today, and the great work you’ve done in creating the Young Writers Workshop for High School students at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale?
AJ: My experience at Kenyon was a rough one—I was one of three black students in that year’s freshman class. I was acutely aware of being other, of being a black person in the midst of a place where the black experience was rarely part of the curriculum. I’m glad to say it’s much better there now.
KJ: Can you describe your writing process, practice.
AJ: I write when I can. I have no set writing practices, or times, or methods. I write when I’m not doing other things—in the odd times when I’m traveling, or in hotels, or when I get time to be alone with my thoughts.
KJ: What are you currently working on?
AJ: My next chapbook, Little Epiphanies, is due soon from Imaginary Friend Press. I’m working the last few edits on that one.
KJ: What poets, writers have greatly influenced your work, and how?
AJ: Gwendolyn Brooks, Dorothy Parker, my teachers from graduate school—especially Yusef and Maura Stanton, Robert Hayden, James Wright, Sylvia Plath.
KJ: What are you currently reading?
AJ: I’m educating myself more about world poetry. I know a lot about contemporary American poetry, so I felt I needed to learn more about figures like Borges, Akhmatova, Neruda, etc. I felt I needed a bigger lens to see poetry through. It really helps to see poetry as a world language, and not just something American.
KJ: I have a confession, your poem “On Sidewalks, On Street Corners, as Girls” felt lifted from my life. You sung the songs I sung with girlfriends, cousins, even with my mama, who loved “Mrs. Mary Mack,” but what stirs me deepest in this poem is the lines, “our chants heard in every / school yard, every parking lot / everywhere small dark girls / could gather to hear their voices swell.” Are your poems an effort to swell those voices, to present them again, preserve them?
AJ: Most definitely. If poets don’t preserve those moments, those voices, such moments in time are at risk of disappearing entirely. I never worry these days about whether an aspect of experience, whether it’s past or present, is too insignificant to write about. I figure if it engages my imagination, it needs—requires—preservation.
KJ: One final question, staying with “On Sidewalks…” the poem states, “We’d spend every afternoon after school / and every shred of summer daylight / riffing, scatting, improvising / unafraid to tell each other / shake it to the East / shake it to the West / shake it the one / you love the best,” do you feel your poems continues that riffing, scatting, telling those “small dark girls” to shake it, helping them to “hear their voices swell?”
AJ: I certainly hope so!