Interview: Allison Joseph

CONDUCTED AND TRANSCRIBED BY MEL RUTH AND ED ROBSON

She’s published sixteen poetry collections (nine full-length and seven chapbooks), two of them this year. She’s the editor of Crab Orchard Review, which is now online. She organized and led a summer workshop for young writers for nineteen years. But Allison Joseph shows no sign of slowing down. Her latest endeavors include launching No Chair Press, which publishes poetry collections (mainly of formal verse) by female poets, starting a new writers’ conference, and curating the Creative Writers Opportunities List on Yahoo, which she describes as “an important, old-school listserve.”

Allison sat down with us that afternoon in the lobby of Thompson Hall at UCA before heading across the campus to the auditorium for her public reading to open the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference.

Arkana: Could you tell us a little about your new books?

AJ: My latest book, Corporal Muse, just came out about a month ago from Sibling Rivalry Press, just down the road from here, and I’m so glad it found a forever home! It had been set to be published by two other presses, but it was dropped both times. One of the presses shuttered, and the other publisher got sick. Finally, I posted on Facebook about how sad I was that Corporal Muse lost its second home, and SRP reached out, saying they’d like to take a look. They loved it, and even found this amazing cover for it! I had wanted a cover that had to do with Mercury, but all my searches had turned up was white men. SRP not only found a gorgeous representation of Mercury, they found it in the form of a black woman! I’m in love with it.

My full-length book, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman, came out earlier this year through Red Hen Press. Unlike Corporal Muse, which is based around the theme of creative generation, Confessions is a book that explores my truths and shows who I really am not only as a writer, but as a person. “Barefaced,” after all, equals bared to the world. It’s about being honest, being myself, not worrying about offending anyone or embarrassing myself, just having fun.

I got very lucky this year with my covers—the cover of Confessions is also perfect—and with these two presses doing so much for me, giving me opportunities to participate in different events. Red Hen and Sibling Rivalry are both run by writers. I can’t imagine feeling such a connection or finding such understanding with a more corporate publisher.

Arkana: Do you think there is a correlation between the things you write about from your past in Confessions, to the socio-political climate of today?

AJ: I believe that the content is always relevant, no matter when it’s published, even, or especially, with it being located in the past. I don’t necessarily consider myself a political poet, but some of the themes I touch on in my book (race, childhood experiences, date rape, and many others), are ever present. You can still see these issues dominate the climate of today through movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.

Arkana: The poetry you write, in contrast to a lot of what appears in many journals, is accessible to everyone who reads, appealing even to those who think they don’t like poetry. What do you think about experimental forms and styles that may be more academic in their appeal?

AJ: That’s my crusade. I always wanted to be in the tradition of Langston Hughes and others that people connect with, not so obscure that people can’t find their way into it. What’s odd, though, when I’m reading as an editor for COR, I gravitate toward the poems that are slightly less transparent, ones that make me think a little harder, maybe make me read them through again. But the ones I still can’t figure out, no. Righteousness is the greatest threat to good writing. No sermons—just the story, and in the story, the discovery, your honesty about what makes it hard. I believe in using the experimental forms to generate ideas. They’re fun to play with when you’re stuck.

Ask yourself, why do you come to the page? Who are you addressing? What is your gift for those readers? Do the work. Give the gift. Don’t wait for the right time. Give yourself a mission, an intention for the coming year.

Arkana: You have mentioned quite a few times about your love of prompts. What are some of your favorite right now?

AJ: Well, today I plan to talk about the cento at the UCA MFA masterclass. The cento is a form where you take lines that you like from another’s work and respond to each one. You can keep it as just borrowed lines, a conversation, or remove the original borrowed lines and keep just your lines. I decided to focus this prompt around C.D. Wright’s “69 Hidebound Opinions,” in honor of the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference that I am helping to kick off tonight as the Keynote speaker.

I love prompts. I like to give myself challenges and exercises to generate work. That’s how I ended up with Corporal Muse. Even form can be its own kind of prompt, as the rules challenge you to think and write differently than you otherwise would. I’ll even give my husband, Jon Tribble, prompts. It’s how he ended up writing the poem about Prime Tyme Amateur Night. I also feel lines taken from conversation can be a genesis of poetry.

Arkana: Looking at the timeline of your publications, we were struck by 2016, when you put out four collections with four different presses. What’s the story there?

AJ: No real story, actually. I’m very prolific, and I’m my own worst critic, so a lot of what I write gets filed away. But then I’ll pull it out maybe six months later or a year and be like, hey, that’s pretty good. So I’m always putting work out, and I’ve got multiple collections just waiting to find the right home. Also, you have to keep in mind that getting accepted is just the first step for a book. A whole lot of work remains before you get to hold the finished copy in your hands.

Arkana: After sixteen collections, that thrill must start to fade.

AJ:  Not for me. I’m still just as excited every time. And I’m old-fashioned—I want to feel the book and open it and turn the pages. The one collection that was published online is the one that doesn’t feel quite real to me. I almost forget it’s there.

Arkana: You write a lot of formal verse, which kind of goes against the modern trend. Would you say form is coming back?

AJ: Among certain poets, yes. Among certain poets, it never left.  The new formalists ended up becoming teachers. I’ve noticed lately, form is being married to other media, like film.

Arkana: Earlier this year you had the chance to run a writing workshop at the Chautauqua Institute. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?

AJ: Well, the most amazing part of that experience wasn’t just teaching the workshop, though that was amazing, too. While I was there, a composer in residence named George Lam emailed me about the possibility of setting my poems against music for a performance that was already planned. I’ve had some of my poems set to music before, but I’d never had the chance to see them live. For some reason I had expected him to pick an alto to perform my piece, but he decided to go with a baritone. And not just any baritone, but a really deep one. I was floored! It added a layer to my poem (I’d chosen one about how saying goodbye in Spanish, Adios, means “Go with God”). I hadn’t expected. It just blew my mind!

Arkana: You started a new conference this year. Tell us about that.

AJ: Writers in Common is like a more inclusive replacement to the Young Writers Workshop I used to do. The Young Writers Workshop ran for nineteen years and acted as one of the only spaces in a rural town where kids who liked poetry instead of football could gather and explore themselves as writers. It lasted four days, and while it was a very rewarding experience, it became a challenge to continue to balance my crazy workload around it. I decided to change gears and create a one-day conference that was open to all ages, with an emphasis on emerging writers. We had panels on everything—editing, pedagogy, youth slam poetry, etc. It still serves the region, but it’s more cost effective and less time consuming.

Arkana: You’ve experienced hard times—the loss of both your parents, loneliness, emotional neglect, discrimination, and of course the world events that terrify us even now. Yet your poetry is stubbornly optimistic. You write grief and sometimes anger, but never despair.

AJ: My Father’s Kites was the most depressing book I’ve written, a series of sonnets following my father’s death. That was a hard time. I needed the structure of the sonnets to write to, to contain the feelings. You will often make your best work when life has you on your knees. Those times when you don’t dare to look too far ahead, when you have to give all you’ve got just to make it to the other end of the pool. But language has redemptive power, and I can’t forget the humor, can’t lose sight of that. If I didn’t believe in poetry, well, I’d do something else, that’s all.


Allison Joseph is the author of What Keeps Us Here (Ampersand, 1992), Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon, 1997), In Every Seam (Pittsburgh, 1997), Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon, 2003) and Worldly Pleasures (Word Press, 2004). Red Hen Press has just published her new full-length book of poetry, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman (June 2018). Joseph’s honors include the John C. Zacharis First Book Prize, fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers Conferences, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry. She is editor and poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review. She holds the Judge Williams Holmes Cook Endowed Professorship at Southern Illinois University and is Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing.

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