Renaissance Woman

Parneshia Jones

BPR 42 | 2015


Renaissance Woman: An Interview with Allison Joseph

Excerpt (full interview available in Birmingham Poetry Review number 42)

Allison Joseph is a cultural worker. She is righteous. She is backbone. She is a believer, a scribbler, a hearty-laughing, marathon-legged cultural worker. If you don’t know her name, then you surely have come across her efforts, by some degree of separation, in the creative writing ether.

Born in London, to Jamaican parents, raised in Toronto and the Bronx, she relocated to Ohio to attend Kenyon College (which recently awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Letters), then earned an M.F.A. at Indiana University. For the past two decades, she has taught in the creative writing program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where she edits Crab Orchard Review.

Allison has seen the world and written about it. From her first full-length collection, What Keeps Us Here (Ampersand, 1992), to her most recent work, My Father’s Kites (Steel Toe Books, 2010), she offers personal and poetic reflections of the black woman’s life as the constant transplant. Her words have captured audiences and honors, including the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Associated Writing Programs Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Fellowship. She has also been a fellow at Bread Loaf and Sewanee.

Our conversation took place in a chicken shack on the North Side of Chicago. I asked the writer/workout guru/runner to meet me in a place of grease, of white bread and plastic forks. We ate fried chicken, complete with jalapeño peppers and Royal Crown Cola. We licked our fingers in between questions and answers. Allison’s husband, Jon Tribble, sat at the table with us, eating jerk ribs.

Jones

If you could use one word to describe your literary life, what would it be?

Joseph

“Varied.” I’m a poet, writer, teacher, information resource. It’s hard sometimes because people expect me to have the answers, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I’m fascinated watching people trying to live fascinating, creative lives. I try to create safe havens for individual voices seeking creative freedom and expression.

Jones

You are a woman of many worlds — born in London, the daughter of Jamaican parents, raised in Toronto and the Bronx. How have these places and communities affected your work?

Joseph

Mom grew up in Jamaica. Dad was raised in Grenada. They met in England. My first four months were in London, and then we moved to Toronto. When I was four, we set off for the Bronx. I went to college in Ohio. My freshman class had three African-American students. I was the only woman. I went to Kenyon because of the poetry legacy. I met Jon in Bloomington, and traveled from there to Little Rock, and finally to southern Illinois. I take poetry with me, so wherever I am, it emerges with me.

Jones

How do you balance the compartments of your varied literary life?

Joseph

(laughs) Not well! Some things have to give. Sometimes it’s my own work. The thing is, I’m always thinking up new ideas, and people start to have those expectations of you — you become the person with the big ideas. Time is always a factor. I don’t even keep plants in my house because they would never survive from lack of attention.

Jones

You maintain an important lifeline for writers with CRWROPPS, the Creative Writers Opportunities List. How long have you been doing this and why?

Joseph

I needed a way for my own graduate students to get information and opportunities. It expanded and has been going, in one form or another, for the last fifteen years.

Jones

In 1999, you founded the Young Writers Workshop at Southern Illinois. How has the work and hunger of young writers influenced your own work?

Joseph

I think of YWW as the baby Bread Loaf. The advantage is the participants are not old enough to drink, and it’s a great teaching experience for my graduate students. There is so much excitement about words. For a five-day span, writing becomes the cool thing — the only thing. This Harry Potter generation has such imagination. We help them tap their energy.