An Interview with Allison Joseph

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Full disclosure, Part I: Allison Joseph was my professor about eight years ago.

Full disclosure, Part II: The reason why Allison Joseph is my former professor is because I’m one lucky bastard who had the pleasure of studying with one of the best poets and most tireless literary citizens this side of the Milky Way.

There, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me ask a question: is there anybody reading this who hasn’t benefited in some way from Allison’s expertise? I’m not just talking about her former students, her work with AWP, her annual workshop for Young Writers, and her editing at Crab Orchard Review. I’m also talking about CRWROPPS, a free listserv of publishing opportunities that is to many creative writers what electricity is to hospitals.

I’m talking about the readings she’s done all over the country—including one for me, in which she and husband Jon Tribble (another fine addition to our Featured Poets) volunteered to come down and visit my students for free. And even that’s just the beginning.

With everything Allison has done for the literary community, it’s easy to spend so many hours talking about her professional accomplishments and substantial volunteer work that we forget to pay just respect to her poetry—which blends lush, sometimes funny, often gritty narrative with crisp lyricism that cartwheels through the often suffocating halls of contemporary verse.

Allison Joseph is my hero. I hope she’s one of yours, too.


Michael Meyerhofer: Thanks for joining us! I love the approach you take in Ars Poetica With Lifetime Movie. What inspired you to write this one? Also, can you talk a little about why you started the poem the way you did?

Allison Joseph: This poem was inspired by the awful movie I detail in the poem. It wasn’t even a Lifetime Movie with formerly popular sitcom stars trying to do drama; the actors in it were totally unknown to me and the plot is just as ridiculous as I say it is in the poem. Jon (Tribble) and I have an aesthetic disagreement on poems about poetry–he’s not a fan, and I am. Something in me saw the utter ridiculousness of this movie in relation to poetry.

MM: We Never Had a Baby strikes me as the perfect illustration of how to end a poem, i.e. it ends on a visceral action that can be readily imagined and related to, but interpreted in a lot of different ways. How do you avoid the impulse to be overly abstract in poetry? Put another way, is there anything that kept you from ending on, say, a line like “Is our love less than, not holy, / selfish or selfless?”

AJ:  I like when a poem ends on its “receipts,” meaning it gives me something tactile or tangible to dwell on as I exit the reading experience. So I strive to end my own poems that way as well.

MM: Do you have a certain set aesthetic when it comes to form and line breaks? In other words, does the form for a poem just kind of come to you, or do you always (or usually) start a certain way, then tinker?

AJ: No set aesthetic other than I’ll try anything more than once–I write free verse, set forms, etc. Each poem seems to demand its own formal approach. In both drafting and revision, I’ll play around with line lengths and stanza formations, eventually letting the poem settle into what I think is its own best form.

MM: A lot of your poems contain powerful undertones of loss but Left Behind also got me thinking about depression and suicide, which obviously aren’t unique to the world of poetry, but often do seem to be a bit more visible in our world. Why is this, do you think?

AJ: I think it’s because when poets die, other poets take it personally, almost as an affront.  A lot of us “left behind” are thinking that poetry is the one thing keeping us alive and present, so what does it mean when one of our ranks chooses to end his or her life? There’s an anger beneath the grief, you know? That anger and grief, in turn, breeds other poems from those of us left behind.

MM: What’s one thing that frustrates you about writers and/or the publishing world in general?

AJ:  Social media is alluring, tempting, frustrating, etc. We mistake our interactions in social media as community, but is community possible when you don’t even know what someone looks like or what his or her voice sounds like? I’ve enjoyed connecting with a lot of poets through social media, but do I truly know them if I haven’t even met them yet?

MM: What’s your favorite thing about being a writer?

AJ: Bringing new writers into the fold through teaching and editing. It’s fun to see someone grow as a writer, moving from their first workshopped poems to publishing their earliest poems to having a book accepted for publication. It’s great to see poets with persistence succeed.

MM: Any new projects in the works?

AJ:  A new chapbook, Multitudes, will be forthcoming in 2016.

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About Author

Michael Meyerhofer’s third book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also won the James Wright Poetry Award, the Laureate Prize, the Annie Finch Prize for Poetry, the Marjorie J. Wilson Best Poem Contest, and five chapbook prizes. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Quick Fiction and other journals, and can be read online at his website.

1 Comment

  1. Great interview. I do take it personally when a poet dies. Each year I lose a writer or two (who I’ve published in one way or another), and it’s devastating–a parade of sadness. I’m so pleased the interview ended on such a positive note. Giving them wings and watching them fly…such great power and pleasure in that–it’s said writers strive for an immortality in words, but deeds also persist in the world.

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