A READING BY ALLISON JOSEPH
This is called "For the Love of the Game."
["For the Love of the Game" by Allison Joseph.]
The lives of girls and women is a constant theme throughout my work, and this is my clumsy, heavy-handed attempt to do for young women what Gwendolyn Brooks does in her poem "Seven at the Golden Shovel," "We Real Cool." If you listen you might hear a little echo of that poem, but since I'm a far less worthy poet, mine is a lot longer. This is called "Adolescence."
["Adolescence" by Allison Joseph.]
I'm going to read some poems from Imitation of Life. My poems come from the merging of memory and narrative. Years later they come back, and they visit, and they say, "Hey, now's the time." And this next poem comes from a couple of things colliding. There's a picture of me in my family's album, and since I'm the last remaining member, other than my sister, I have all these artifacts and pieces of things, but in my family album of me as a young child sitting on the lap an African American Santa, which didn't seem odd to me. But then later on, many years later, when I was a gradute student at Indiana, there was a mall somewhere in the Indianapolis area that had hired, for that Christmas season, a black Santa. And the mall patrons were outraged. And years later, those two things collided, and this poem resulted: "The Black Santa."
["The Black Santa" by Allison Joseph, from Imitation of Life, published 2002 by Carnegie-Mellon University Press.]
This next poem is about my parents, who were immigrants from the Caribbean. And lots of times, I didn't understand what they were saying, which I figured out later wasn't necessarily a condition of them being Caribbean people. It's just you're someone's child, and often you don't understand what your parents are saying. For me it was just culturally flavored by the fact that they were from the Caribbean, but my father in particular . . . often I had to translate, or figure out what it was he was asking me to do, so he dominates this poem. It's called "Translating My Parents."
["Translating My Parents" by Allison Joseph, from Imitation of Life, published 2002 by Carnegie-Mellon University Press.]
For a long time I had no way to define where I was from in New York, because a lot of people hadn't heard, or had no association with, the Bronx, other than, perhaps, the New York Yankees. But now, especially, I can tell people that I am from the same area of the Bronx as JLo. Yes, she's Jennie from the block, I'm Allie from the block. I can keep the same husband.
But this next poem is a Bronx poem, "Supermercado," which translates to "supermarket."
["Supermercado" by Allison Joseph, from Imitation of Life, published 2002 by Carnegie-Mellon University Press.]
I wrote this poem, the next poem, probably about five years before the current Michael Jackson problems. So there are no references in this particular poem to children, but one of the issues surrounding Michael that gets joked about a lot but never seriously discussed is what's happened to his skin and his hair. And I think for me there was a real grieving as I saw how . . . well, he doesn't look like a white person, he doesn't look like a person anymore. But there's something that I want to remember, so I wrote this poem to commemorate what I wanted to remember: "Shake Your Body," for Michael Jackson.
["Shake Your Body" by Allison Joseph, from Imitation of Life, published 2002 by Carnegie-Mellon University Press.]
This next poem is born out of a writing exercise I like to give myself. I like to write a lot about music, and I was envisioning what for me would be the world's worst juke box. And you can translate this very easily into just about anything, you know, your own personal list. I wrote another poem called "The World's Worst White Supremacist," which I'm glad I never published because it's about this Matt Hale dude, who has stepped back into the news recently because of what's happened to the judge's family. But unfortunately, he is a graduate of the law school of my current university. We used to have our visiting writers readings over at the law school because they have a nice auditorium, and we'd show people, oh, here's this person, and here's our white supremacist graduate. And it was funny at the time, but now it's absolutely horrific. And the thing about him, the reason I tabbed him for this poem, is as a white supremacist he's awful. He's a pencil-necked geek. If you ever see this guy, you know, he's the kind of guy that you would fire. He got through our law school somehow and then promptly started suing everybody. He sued the Peoria Symphony because . . . I don't know why, I guess they just wanted to get rid of a violin-playing white supremacist. So I wrote a poem about him, that he was the world's worst white supremacist, in my view.
But this is a much more light-hearted poem, called "The World's Worst Jukebox." And it's one of those poems where the title sort of spills into the first line.
["The World's Worst Jukebox" by Allison Joseph, from Imitation of Life, published 2002 by Carnegie-Mellon University Press.]
That song title is a real song title. Phil Spector forced Ronnie to record it with her group. He told her, "I found you little black girls on the street, and I can find another bunch of black girls very easily, so you're going to record this sing." And interestingly enough, the person who's done a cover version of it recently is Courtney Love.
I am always being told that I don't speak like a black person, for whatever reasons. And I wanted to analyze that in a poem, like, what do you mean, that I don't speak like a black person? Does that mean I don't offend you? Or I do offend you? What does that mean? And I remembered my mother growing up in the islands, and in school, she would get struck on the palm of her hand for not speaking properly, they'd hit her on the palm of the hand. So the first line of this poem comes from her memory of being actually hit because she didn't speak the right way.
["On Being Told That I Don't Speak Like a Black Person" by Allison Joseph, from Imitation of Life, published 2002 by Carnegie-Mellon University Press.]
A friend of mine who teaches where I used to teach in Little Rock used this book on one of his courses, so my husband's originally from Little Rock, and we went back, and I went in the used book store, and I find a copy of my book. I'm like, "Oh!" And I turn to see if there are any margin markings, and it seems like this poem really offended this person, because they wrote, "Preachy!" Okay. All right.
I'm going to read just a few more poems. This particular book is my new book, and a lot of the poems here harken back to my interest in girls and women, and how we get from one to the other. And there's a series of portraits, character studies, in the back of this book, and I'll just read one of those. It's about that period, junior high through high school, where you walk around with a label on your back. You have a name, but you're ususally either the smart girl or the shy girl or the jealous girl or the dirty girl or the slutty girl, whatever you are. This is the dangerous girl.
["The Dangerous Girl" by Allison Joseph, from Worldly Pleasures, published 2004 by Word Press.]
I'm going to end with two poems. This next poem . . . I think every poet ends up writing one of these poems, sort of your "life credo" poem, and you're always told, "Don't write that poem where you say what poetry is supposed to be. Please don't write that poem." But I guess five books, and I thought I could get away with it. And I think part of this poem came out of the fact that for years I've been an editor as well as a writer, and reading so many sad-ass poems. And I mean both halves of that construction. Just so many poems mired in their own sort of smug sadness. And we all write those poems, and then we send them out and hope someone on the other end will love them. And I love some of them. But I don't love all of them. So this poem came to me, and I hope you take it in the spirit that it's intended.
["Against Pathos" by Allison Joseph, from Worldly Pleasures, published 2004 by Word Press.]
And I'm going to end with a spring poem, because I know it's not spring yet, but I really, really want it to be spring. And I just want to break out the spring clothes, and show my legs, and things like that, so this is a spring poem.
["Flirtation" by Allison Joseph, from Worldly Pleasures, published 2004 by Word Press.]
Thanks so much for coming.