Coming into her own
Poet Allison Joseph '88 publishes two books in one year
I n "Plenty," the poem that closes Allison Joseph's latest book of poetry, the narrator describes herself "lost" in the aisles of Fabric World,
the one-stop sewing supermarket
tucked in a strip mall on the
edge of town, a lonely string
of abandoned storefronts
where nothing thrives except
this lavish emporium dedicated
to needle and thread . . .
"Maybe," because using metaphor to describe a poet seems foolhardy and a little presumptuous, and the more so with a poet whose work is so autobiographical, and at times insistent on self-definition. And "maybe," because while Joseph's poems can be unflinchingly precise and intimate, she explains that distance, rather than nearness, is what allows her poems to develop.
"Poems are about the things you absorb over time. That's why it's hard for people who are really young to write good poems, because they haven't absorbed enough, they haven't lived long enough with the life."
Now an assistant professor of English at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where she is a founding editor of Crab Orchard Review, Joseph is the author of three volumes of poetry. Two of them, Soul Train and In Every Seam, were published in 1997, and she says the understanding that comes with the passage of time is what distinguishes their poems from those in her earlier book. She calls the first book, 1992's What Keeps Us Here, "disgustingly autobiographical."
"That first book is a downer because there are so many poems about my mother's death in it." Although they may be moving, she says, "poems have to live a little longer before they can be not just about someone dying, but something of literary value as well."
Joseph's modest assessment of her first book stands in contrast to what others said about it: What Keeps Us Here brought her considerable acclaim, including the Ampersand Press Women Poets Series Competition and the 1992 John C. Zacharis Prize fromEmerson College and the journal Ploughshares. Still, she says she no longer reads from it. "I just don't like it anymore. . . . I think I'm a better poet now." Her more recent poems, she says, are "still autobiographical, they're just more savvy about it, they're smarter. They have an ability to shape something autobiographical into something larger, more universal."
Universality is an idea that seems to underlie much of what Joseph says about both her own poems and poetry in general. "I don't like poetry being an exclusive province for certain things," she says. This applies to her view of the audience for poetry, whose size she says she believes is generally underestimated. "I don't restrict the word 'audience' to the people who buy poetry books. When someone asks me who my audience is, I don't want it to be just other poets."
Universality also applies to the sources and subjects of her poems, which she says come from "everywhere." They can begin with an observation of the things people say or do, or an "assignment" from her husband, Jon Tribble, also a writer and member of the English faculty at Carbondale. One of her most frequent sources of inspiration is mass culture.
"I'm a pop-culture diva," she says. "I'm both in love with popular culture and critical of it. It's a source both to embrace and make fun of." The ambivalence is apparent in "Five and Dime," a poem about McCrory's,
- the neighborhood discount variety store
filled with junky merchandise
that looked even shabbier
under the circling dust motes
and buzzing fluorescent lights.
The narrator sees the store for what it is, but also sees herself as a girl, lingering for hours, hypnotized by cosmetics and school supplies. Another poem, "Funny Pages," wonders if anyone actually read the "Archie" comics but acknowledges by its descriptions that everyone did. In the end, it doesn't so much reject the strip as wish it into something else.
"I'm so low culture," says Joseph. "I'm crass." And when asked if she's embarrassed by this, she responds, "Gosh, no. We're all rooted in it whether we want to be or not. We all grew up with bad sitcoms, bad music, bad comics."
It is unsurprising that matters of race figure into many of Joseph's poems, since it presents a rich set of opportunities for examining mass culture and its meanings, as well as surfaces and what lies beneath them. She frequently uses it as a source of irony, and of humor, which she terms "a device to get you to something serious." "Academic Instructions," for example, begins
about being black.
All that racial jive
is passe anyway . . . .
"My tongue's in my cheek in that poem," Joseph says, "but there's also a serious side to it--where people say 'Here's another black person writing about oppression. Here's another woman writing about those woman things." Indeed, the poem's more serious intent becomes clear by its conclusion:
Come back when you are ready
to learn how to write
like the rest of us,
when you're ready to admit
all the beauty in the world
around you, finally wise enough
to know nothing you say clearly
can ever matter.
"I live as a black woman every day," Joseph says, countering that not to write about that "would be strange for me. I think everybody's the sum total of their experiences, so why not write from all of those experiences? Robert Hayden once wrote that he was a poet who happened to be black. I flip that: I'm a black person who happens to be a poet."
Often, she says, her poems arise from what she calls a "gap in perception" between herself and the culture that reflects a version of herself back at her--and she notes that the tone of her response can vary. "Some of the things are maddening and some are intensely funny. And some of the poems I write are celebratory of those things that come out of 'The Black Experience.'" (She quickly notes that "there is no such thing.")
"It doesn't faze me to write about those things because they come from my own life--but I wouldn't want to be restricted to writing about such things."
Born in London to parents who had emigrated separately from different islands in the Caribbean, Joseph moved with her family first to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and then to New York City. She followed her sister to the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city's magnet schools for gifted students, and it was there that she began writing poetry in earnest. "I went to a nerdy high school," she says, "but we were all nerds in different ways--math, debate. . . ." Joseph and her friends, she says, were "the creative-writing nerds. All my friends were writers."
As a senior, Joseph remembers, she sought out Kenyon because of its differences from Bronx Science. One of these was the College's scale: "My high school, while wonderful, was enormous--there were seven hundred and fifty people in my graduating class--and I got sold on the idea of going someplace small and intimate." A second difference, location, appealed for more pragmatic reasons: "I wanted to get geographical advantage," she says, having been aware that an application from a student at her school would be unexceptional at colleges in the east but would make her more distinctive in midwestern applicant pools.
Reality, as it will, revealed the downsides of these differences when Joseph arrived in Gambier. "The culture shockwas enormous," she recalls. "I grew up in a black and Latino neighborhood; I went to high school with kids from everywhere in the city--white kids, black kids, Asian kids. . . ." At Kenyon, she found herself to be the single woman among three black students in her class. In short, she says, "I was "that black girl.'"
And so it may be that, despite being editor of Hika and one of the few undergraduates at the College (among them Robert Lowell '40) to have work published in the Kenyon Review, Joseph can say, "I never fixated on the poetry as the reason I stood out."
In the realm of appearances and what lies behind them, this is a big one. It informs a great many of Joseph's poems, including the one called "Higher Education":
- Some people here look at me
as if I'm not actually a person,
but a walking statistic instead,
one of those aliens admitted
to keep the quotas up,
The poem details the curious or insensitive, or occasionally just bizarre, questions that classmates would ask, from what her braids were called to "don't you think you'd be better off at a school where there are more people like you?"
At times, she says, the answer to the latter seemed to be yes; "I always said, 'I'm gonna leave, I'm gonna transfer.'" But despite taking a semester's leave following the death of her mother, she graduated right on schedule. She now says she has discovered that, whatever its singularities, her experience at Kenyon wasn't entirely unique. "I realized that a lot of people I thought were comfortable there weren't at all comfortable."
And she did find that in at least one way, the College lived up to her expectations of it. "I thought it would be a place where writing would be encouraged and people wouldn't look at you strangely if you wrote a poem," she says. "Since I edited Hika, I knew who was writing. Everybody in that damn school was writing, everybody was a closet poet."
Besides, she says, laughing, "I think part of the unhappiness--mine and others'--was that the eighties sucked. The seventies were large and crass; I was nine years old, and I thought it was wonderful."
After graduating from Kenyon, Joseph moved a step deeper into the Midwest and entered the creative-writing program at Indiana University. "It was a large, Big Ten, rah-rah state university," she says, "the exact opposite of Kenyon, a place where people did care about football--but it has a great writing program." Joseph earned a master of fine arts degree in 1992, the year What Keeps Us Here was published, and took a position that fall at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Two year later, she moved to her current position at Carbondale, in part for the opportunity to teach in, and build, a graduate writing program. As productive as the three years therehave obviously been, Joseph seems hardly content to rest on her accomplishments at this point. This summer, she taught in the Writers Workshop at Kenyon sponsored by the Kenyon Review, and she and her husband attended the Sewanee Writers' Conference at the University of the South. And she has been making her way around the reading circuit.
Joseph says she plans to take advantage of having two books published this summer in another way, by applying for tenure review a year early. "I figure I'm not going to have another year like this one anytime soon," she laughs.
Chris Hammett, a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group, lives in New York City.
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