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All writers can benefit from studying poetry

Allison Joseph directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University. She is the author of many books and chapbooks of poetry, including Lexicon (Red Hen Press), Professional Happiness (Backbone Press), The Last Human Heart (Diode Editions), and Smart Pretender (Finishing Line Press). Her latest full-length book of poetry, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman, was published by Red Hen Press in 2018. It was chosen as the Gold/First Place Winner in the poetry category of the 2019 Feathered Quill Book Awards. She is the widow of the late poet and editor Jon Tribble, to whom Professional Happiness is dedicated.

Born in London, England to parents of Caribbean heritage, Allison Joseph grew up in Toronto, Canada, and the Bronx, New York. A graduate of Kenyon College and Indiana University, she serves as poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review, the publisher of No Chair Press, and the director of Writers In Common, a writing conference for writers of all ages and experience levels. In 2014, she was awarded a Doctor of Letters honorary degree from her undergraduate alma mater, Kenyon College.

MWW board member and publicity chair, Leah Lederman, has interviewed the faculty for MWW21. Today, meet post Allison Joseph who discusses her writing and what she will present at our virtual summer conference.

Allison’s MWW21 sessions:

  • “Beginnings and Endings: How Poets Can Sing At Both/Poetry as Meditative Practice”
  • Panel: “To Agent or Not to Agent” — Angela Jackson-Brown, Pam Mandel, Dirk Manning, Allison Joseph

MWW: What are your favorite literary journals?

AJCrab Orchard Review, of course—the magazine I helped to found with Jon Tribble, my beloved late husband. It’s been hard coming back from his death, but we are reading submissions again and looking forward to publishing new issues. Other than Crab Orchard, I have always been a fan of Ploughshares, the Southern Indiana Review, New Letters, and the Kenyon Review (Kenyon is my undergraduate alma mater).

MWW: What do you love most about poetry, and what do you find that it does a better job of doing than other modes of writing? Conversely, what things frustrate you about poetry?

AJ: I love that poetry can be handed down through the centuries—that it is supposed to survive the poet. I can pick up, as I did today, a book by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and find truths in his work that apply to my life now. What’s frustrating about poetry isn’t poetry itself but rather people’s attitudes toward it—indifference, or, sometimes, outright hatred. I can only guess that for some people poetry was something they dreaded in school. For me, it was something I adored whenever I had a chance to study it as a child.

MWW: In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg tells us “Forget yourself. Disappear into everything you look at—a street, a glass of water, a cornfield. Everything you feel, become totally that feeling, burn all of yourself with it.” Can you talk about a time you found yourself losing yourself in what you’re writing about? Is that a recommendable path, or do you prefer a certain sense of objectivity?

AJ: That has happened to me fairly recently, because I’ve been writing a lot of poems about loss and grief. The experience of turning grief into poetry, line by line and image by image, is an absorbing one. It’s a path that unfortunately happened to me. I’d much rather not be writing elegies. But elegies do take all your energy and do demand a lot of the poet, even as they provide catharsis.

MWW: What are your favorite takeaways from the sessions you’ll be teaching?

AJ: I’m of the mind that all writing has a bit of poetry in it. What can writers learn from poetry even if they don’t consider themselves poets?

The elements of poetry are the elements of good writing—rhythm, pacing, image, simile, metaphor, epiphanies. Good poetry does what all good writing does—just in a more condensed way. All writers can benefit from studying poetry—if not writing it as well.

MWW: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar?

AJ: My late husband’s nickname for me was ocelot, so let’s go with that.

Register for Virtual MWW21 and meet Allison!

Interview with poet Allison Joseph

Joseph, AllisonAllison 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). Her 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 and director of the Young Writers Workshop, an annual summer residential creative writing workshop for high school writers. She holds the Judge Williams Holmes Cook Endowed Professorship. She is Director of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Allison was interviewed by MWW committee member, Cathy Shouse.

MWWPlease let us know what types of poetry you write and give a short description of your career path, including how you got published and when, as well as your latest release.

AJI write all sorts of poems. I have published six books of poems and two chapbooks. My latest book is Trace Particles, a chapbook from Backbone Press.

MWW: How will your intensive session at MWW work? Will participants be doing any writing, for example?

AJ: Lots of reading and writing will take place. Lots of discussion about poetry.

MWW: What is the best tip you were ever given with regard to your writing career and why?

AJ: Read as much as possible.

MWW: Have writing conferences influenced your writing? If so, how?

AJ: Conferences provide community.

MWW: What are some ways all writers might benefit from your session, even if they don’t write poetry?

AJ: They will learn about lyricism, diction, rhythm and pacing–those skills are beneficial to all writers.

MWW: What are your thoughts on traditional publishing versus self publishing with regards to writing?

AJ: Poets have so many venues nowadays that self-publishing is not necessary. There are many ways to get published that involve cooperation and community. Self-publishing is actually an isolating move for a poet.

Allison will be teaching in Part I of the workshop on the topic, Reflections on the Contemporary OdeThis session will explore what an ode is, why contemporary poets have rediscovered this form, and why reading and writing odes should be a part of every writer’s practice. We’ll look at examples of this enchanting form, write new ones dedicated to our own personal inspirations, and get feedback on what makes an ode endure for both readers and writers.

During  Part II, Allison will be teaching on Revising Poems for Fun and Profit. This session will discuss how writing poems is fun. Revising poems is work. Learn how to revise poems so that they have a life beyond your own notebooks. Publication and performance to be discussed in this session.

Read some of Allison’s poems in Valparaiso Poetry Review.