Next up in our Conversations with Contributors series is Issue 13 contributor Janine Joseph in conversation with Audrey Zhao. Read on to see what she has to say about citizenship, teaching, and poetry.
Audrey Zhao, Blog Correspondent: We asked our last contributor interviewed, sam sax, to come up with a question for you! So, to start: Do you have any bizarre writing habits? // What’s the strangest way a poem has come to you?
Janine Joseph: Sometime after I learned I was undocumented, I stopped keeping a journal and grew suspicious of any prose that might ‘out’ me. Not long after, I stopped jotting down ideas for poems, lest they be mistaken for ‘confessions’ if I ever lost my notepad. Being afraid of unfinished drafts, I suppose, changed the writing habits I developed when I was gifted my first journal in 1990.
I trained my ear, instead, to listen carefully for a line or for the rhythm of a line that might start a poem. For me, there is no evidence of the poem until I hear a line correctly. The line becomes an earworm. Once it’s there, I don’t stop writing until I get a complete first draft. Sometimes this takes four hours, sometimes eight. Sometimes more.
Once, while I was opening the passenger side door of a friend’s car, I thought I heard The Eagles’ “Hotel California” come on the radio. At the time, it was a song I loathed. Though this moment does not describe the strangest way a poem has come to me, it does describe how the speaker of the poems in Driving Without a License first came to me many, many years ago.
AZ: As a librettist, do you believe reading aloud a poem gives it a new dimension that cannot be found from just reading it on the page?
JJ: For me, absolutely, but I write with my ears. To say that I am a noisy writer would be an understatement. I read aloud every word I put on a line and will repeat what words I do have until I hear the next phrase.
If my computer were a piano, imagine me sitting for hours, fingering the same handful of keys, my head at a tilt.
I can say, though, that composing text this way has helped me to be aware of what words sound and feel like in a mouth. When writing a libretto, I have to know whether or not a word can be gracefully sung. Froyo, I learned, can.
AZ: What is your favorite thing about being an English professor?
JJ: Witnessing the exact moment when a student is deeply moved by a poem.
AZ: Recently, you published essays that address the reality of being an undocumented citizen in the United States. Your poem, You Lie, in our last issue (found here) also deals with the subject of immigration. What is your stance on writing, especially creative writing, being used as a form of activism?
JJ: While I don’t think creative writing should be used simply/only as a means to an end, and I certainly face the page with only the making of a poem in mind, this quote does speak to me—and often:
AZ: Can you tell us a bit about your forthcoming collection, Driving without a License (Alice James Books, 2016), which won the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize?
JJ: Driving without a License follows, over a twenty-year period, an immigrant speaker from the Philippines living in America without proper legal documentation.
Driving without a License, too, is about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Miss Piggy. It is about swearing into freezers and arm wrestling. It is about earthquakes and snakes. Skulls. Having dark hair. It is about paper lanterns, freight cars, and Unsolved Mysteries. It is about beagles and squid ink. It is about dynamite. About what to do with a bar of soap meant to bleach your skin. It is about California on fire and crossing the ocean with Amelia Earhart. It is about dunes that are haunted and friends who can’t keep secrets. It is about cousins and brothers. Childhood friends. About saving quarters for Scratchers and Astro Pops. It is about twenty years of waiting.
Driving without a License contains a sonnet crown, a ghazal, a sestina in couplets, and a villanelle.
It began as a novel(!).
AZ: You said Driving without a License started as a novel. How did it evolve into a collection of poems?
JJ: I found out that I was undocumented during my senior year of high school—the same year the first iteration of the DREAM Act failed to pass—so graduation was a devastating event. I was a college-bound valedictorian with dreams of double majoring in English and Business, but with no financial aid and, well, no documents. The summer that followed was one Bon voyage! after another as my friends moved away and I stayed behind. At the time, I was working at a local pizza place and patrons who knew me would ask, “Why are you still here?” I decided two things then: 1. I would enroll at the local community college, and 2. I would write a novel because, as they say, I had a story to tell. Never mind that I spent all of my high school years writing poetry.
Sitting down to write a novel because I had a story to tell was my first mistake. Seventy plus pages in, I realized that I couldn’t tell the story I wanted to tell. Worse, I started the only way I knew: by trying to write a linear narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end about an experience that contained anything but. The plot line, in never moving forward, flatlined, and I didn’t know what to do next because it was my first attempt at writing in an unfamiliar genre. And because few people knew about my legal status, I didn’t ask for feedback or help. I went back to writing poems that resisted and distrusted their readers.
The summer before I transferred from Riverside City College to UC Riverside, I saved up what money I could to attend the Idyllwild Arts Summer Writers Week. There, I listened to Cecilia Woloch and Natasha Trethewey talk about the long poem and linked poems. I returned to my assigned dorm room and read Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem and Bellocq’s Ophelia. There, I learned what a poem could do and what a group of poems could do together. I started over, and every new poem I wrote called for and on another. Many years later, that dialogue between poems began to shape itself into a story, a manuscript.
AZ: As you know, many of our readers are younger. Do you have any advice regarding submissions?
JJ: I come from a long line of teachers who advised me to keep my finished poems in a drawer for a year before sending them out for consideration. While I don’t know if I’ve ever deliberately held onto a poem for that long, I do know that there is wisdom in waiting. Be patient—with yourself, with the work, and with the evolution of the work. Remember that a piece can live a very long life on the internet. Submit only when the work is ready. When you are ready.
AZ: Give us a question to ask during our next Conversation with a Contributor.
JJ: What would you write as the first line/sentence of the poem/story titled, “The Fifth and Only Body”?
Janine Joseph is the author of Driving Without a License (Alice James Books, 2016), winner of the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Best American Experimental Writing 2015, The Kenyon Review Online, Hyphen, The Journal, Drunken Boat, Best New Poets 2009, Zócalo Public Square, and elsewhere. Her commissioned libretti for the Houston Grand Opera (HGOco) stage include From My Mother’s Water and On This Muddy Water. She holds an MFA from New York University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Houston. Janine is an Assistant Professor of English at Weber State University. Learn more at www.janinejoseph.com.