Allison Joseph’s award-winning poetry looks
her own past—and America’s too—squarely in the eye.
Allison Joseph is all grown up—has been
for years. But she’s built a reputation for poetry that’s rooted in her
childhood and adolescence, both the good and the bad, the ugly and the
As a black girl coming of age in the Bronx,
Joseph had a complex, interesting, and often oppressive world to negotiate.
Her poems re-create that world, celebrating some things and indicting others,
and they’ve been winning plaudits nationally for this associate professor
of creative writing
Joseph's fourth book, Imitation of Life,
was published in April 2003 by Carnegie Mellon University Press. A new
manuscript of hers titled Worldly Pleasures has won the 2003 Word
Press Poetry Prize and will be published next year. A first-place prize
in the 2002 Wallace W. Winchell Poetry Competition, announced in February
2003, and other recent top poetry awards from Georgia State University
Review and Yawp Magazine (a literary journal whose name alludes
to a Whitman poem) have added icing to the cake.
Joseph’s poems, usually written in free-verse
stanzas, explore episodes from her youth and often skewer popular culture,
from music to Barbie dolls. Many of these flashbacks focus on racial identity
and on body image—especially the much-hated ritual of hair straightening,
which recurs many times in her work.
One of her most touching poems is dedicated
to the white friend in college who first cut her hair into a short natural.
She marvels, "How strange that it’s a white woman / who gives me back my
hair / as dormitory bathroom light / sifts down upon us both, / and I touch
the tender skin / where scalp meets nape / as if for the first time."
Joseph’s work has won praise for its honesty
and emotional insight. In "Bullies," for example, she recounts being physically
coerced by two classmates into beating up a weaker girl. Humiliated, she
turns her feeling of powerlessness against her victim. When the classmates
finally tell her to stop pummeling the girl, she recalls, she didn’t want
to. She writes, "I wanted / to feel Donya’s chest heave / just a few minutes
more, / hear her sobs and know that I / caused them, nobody but me."
Although Joseph also writes lyric poems,
such as love poems, she favors narrative poetry. "It feels very natural,"
she says. "I grew up in a house of storytellers, particularly my father.
Since a lot of what I write comes out of memory and is at least semi-autobiographical,
the storytelling impulse is strong."
She adds, "Of course, there are things
that you alter, and that’s the writer’s prerogative. You can rewrite your
history the way you prefer, which is why I say my poems range from semi-autobiographical
to fully autobiographical."
Three things connected with New York City
influenced Joseph to become a writer. The first was New York’s famed poets-in-the-schools
program, which got kids writing. "It was a sure way to get out of doing
math," she jokes. But the program hooked her.
Then there was her library card, which
allowed her to take out books from any branch library in the Bronx or Manhattan—a
literary feast for a girl who was "always crazy about language and words."
up, she read a lot of contemporary poetry, especially African-American
writers. It was Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) whose work taught her that
"you don’t have to write about Mount Olympus. You can write about your
neighborhood—what’s happening on the corner."
Finally, Joseph says she was fortunate
to attend the Bronx High School of Science, which drew students city-wide.
"It was great training for a poet," she says. "My friends were from all
racial and socioeconomic backgrounds."
By then she was writing regularly. "Something
about the turbulence of adolescence makes you want to do something creative,"
she says. "I thought as I got older I would stop writing about it, but
I find adolescence, and popular depictions of it, very interesting. I like
to see where my own life intersects or diverges from notions of what a
teenager is supposed to be, or what a black person is supposed to be, or
a woman." The clash between cultural expectations and reality is, she says,
"a fertile source for any writer."
Some of Joseph’s best work concerns her
parents, who were of Caribbean heritage and had lived in England (where
Joseph was born). Many of the poems in Imitation of Life feature her father,
a funny but very demanding man who measured the acceptability of situations,
she says, by how many black people were involved.
When Joseph chose to attend Kenyon College
(Ohio) for its creative writing program—despite there being only two other
black students in her freshman class—he did not approve. "It’s interesting
that he’s become such a thread in my writing, because he didn’t want me
to be a writer," she says. "My mother was much more accepting."
Joseph acknowledges her estrangement from
her father most explicitly in the poem "Incommunicado," where she says
she’s lost her "daughter’s logic / the sense that lets me know / exactly
where my father is / at any given moment." She prefers to imagine him in
the kitchen, cooking something she’d never eat, like "a mess of yams and
pigeon peas / boiling over on the range top." She concludes:
If the food is filling, warm,
maybe he’ll eat another plate,
maybe he’ll think quietly
of me, daughter who turned her back,
left him behind for places on the map
no one else bothers with.
Maybe he’ll think of forgiveness,
how it starts small—with one meal,
one bowl, one satiating, salty mouthful.
Joseph’s current manuscript-in-progress
includes many elegies to her father, who died in 1997. These poems are
not free verse, but traditional forms: a sonnet sequence and some villanelles
(poems, usually rhymed, with a prescribed repetition of certain lines).
The sonnet sequence started with one line
that came to her after she and her sister picked up some of their father’s
effects at the Bronx County Courthouse. "The line was ‘His credit cards
were in a plastic case,’" Joseph recalls. "I realized that it scanned."
The line is iambic pentameter: every second syllable is stressed, with
five beats to the line.
"I thought ‘I only need 13 more lines for
a sonnet, and then I’m done,’" she says with a laugh. But she had a serious
reason for choosing the sonnet form for these extremely personal works.
"I had to have a mechanism to control the
language," she says. Using the compact sonnet form "gave me a way to make
the grief manageable. I think it’s similar to the way we process grief—in
bits and pieces."
Villanelles also were a natural choice.
"Forms where lines repeat are good for grief," she says. The repetition,
like an occasional drumbeat, lends a certain solemnity that suits the subject
Joseph’s poems aren’t difficult to read,
but readers in a hurry may miss the layers of deeper significance in these
In "Motives," for example, she writes of
watching the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana on the same day that
her father uncharacteristically tries to save a sick, lame kitten. It draws
his pity, perhaps, as an embodiment of his own failures and weaknesses.
But the scrawny kitten dies the same day, unceremoniously ending up in
the trashcan. Caught between this trauma and the fairytale on TV (in which,
she notes, neither bride nor groom looks very happy), Joseph shrinks from
both extremes, hoping that life has more to offer than such options.
Often Joseph puts a little verbal twist,
a little punch, at the end of a poem that might be overlooked on a first
reading. In the poem "Five and Dime," she tells of visiting the neighborhood
dimestore as a girl, dreaming and browsing and sniffing bubble bath. Convinced
she’s shoplifting, the white manager shakes her, checks her empty pockets,
then throws her out: "....Don’t you dare / come back in here
without your mother, he spat, / pushing me out onto the sidewalk in
front / of that friendly discount store, that place for values," the poem
Joseph’s first book, What Keeps Us Here,
was published by Ampersand Press in 1992, the same year she earned her
Master of Fine Arts from Indiana University. In 1997 she followed up with
a double-hitter: Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon University Press) and
Every Seam (University of Pittsburgh Press).
She taught at the University of Arkansas
in Little Rock for two years before coming to SIUC in 1994. Besides teaching
and writing, she edits Crab Orchard Review, SIUC’s international
literary journal. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies,
and her honors include the John Zacharis First Book Award, an Illinois
Arts Council poetry fellowship, an IAC literary award, and fellowships
from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers Conferences.
In 1999, she started the Young Writers
Workshop at SIUC, a four-day summer program for high school students that
has grown in popularity each year. She says she "wanted to recreate that
atmosphere of young people writing" that she remembered from her own high
school days. Many of SIUC’s creative writing faculty and graduate students
are involved with the workshop, whose participants come from several states.
What does Joseph tell her students?
Above all, she says, "If you want to be
a writer, write. It sounds so simple, but often people are more attracted
to the romance of writing than the work itself. You have to feel compelled
to write from somewhere beyond the need to make a living."
She adds, "I feel very blessed to be here,
because we have such an excellent creative writing program, both on the
graduate and undergraduate level. I have wonderful students who come from
all over to learn to be writers." And her colleagues, she says, have a
"relish for life that puts the lie to the notion that you have to be miserable
to be a writer.
"If I can live to be 80 [like Gwendolyn
Brooks] and write what I want to write, I’ll be a very happy woman."
For more information,
contact Allison Joseph, Dept.
of English, at (618) 453-6833 or firstname.lastname@example.org.