On Sottonarrativa and the “Skittery Poem”: A Conversation with Janine Joseph

Janine Joseph and the cover of her new book, DRIVING WITHOUT A LICENSE.

With this month’s interview, we’re delighted to feature poet, librettist, and creative writing professor Janine Joseph. She currently teaches at Oklahoma State University and is the author of Driving without a License (Alice James Books), winner of the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. In this interview, Joseph reflects on the book-length poetic projects that influenced her first collection, Charles Wright’s notion of sottonarrativa, and the separate (yet related) “neighborhoods” of her brain where she composes libretti and poetry.

* * *

LANTERN REVIEW: First off, congratulations on your debut poetry collection! It’s such an accomplished work—so deeply engaged in the current political moment and your sense of personal and cultural history. Can you tell us a bit about your literary influences? Who have your models and mentors been, and what shadows do they cast across your work in Driving without a License?

JANINE JOSEPH: Thank you for the congratulations! The book is two months old now and it still feels so strange to know that it is out, living its own life in the world.

I’ve written before about how long it took me to write Driving without a License—how it began, fifteen years ago as a novel, and how the first poems that made it into the final version of the manuscript were written ten years ago. I start by saying this because I amassed a number of influences in those years.

Here is one model/mentor thread: At a summer poetry retreat in Idyllwild, CA, just before my junior year of college, I attended a panel with Natasha Trethewey and Cecilia Woloch, among others, and first learned about the poetic sequence and the long poem. Trethewey discussed her recently published (at the time) poetic sequence, Bellocq’s Ophelia. Sitting beside her on the panel was Woloch, who talked about her book-length poem, Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem. This may have been the year that I stopped thinking that the only way to tell my story was via the novel. That I could, as Stanley Plumly writes, wholly surrender myself “to the material, its memory and the time it takes to reiterate how impossible it is to approximate, let alone articulate, pain” through poetry (which I was already writing) was, if you’ll forgive the pun, a novel idea. I knew even then that what I was writing about refused completion. I was not, in other words, done with what I had to say about identity and undocumented immigration in one, two, or three poems. Each poem begged another’s precision, and before I knew it, I was revising everything I’d so far written, hoping one poem would “get it right.” It was much later that I learned that one poem may get one aspect right, but I needed a cohort of them, together, to get a much larger idea “right.”

What Trethewey and Woloch taught me is that there exists a form that, perhaps with more deliberate intention, allows poets to revisit a specific theme, image, idea, or event. Poems suddenly, to my younger self, had stamina and could endure an identity that, as Whitman would put it, contained multitudes. I grew ravenous for these sustained meditations. I built a list of “project books” that, many years later, shaped my third comprehensive exam when I was working on my Ph.D.

In addition to reading Natasha Trethewey and Cecilia Woloch, I studied Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, Martha Collins’ Blue Front, Nicole Cooley’s Breach, Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination, Louise Glück’s Wild Iris, Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates, Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution, Tyehimba Jess’ Leadbelly, A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, Laura Kasischke’s Space in Chains, Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau, Maurice Manning’s Bucolics, Thylias Moss’ Slave Moth, Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved, Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, and Derek Walcott’s Another Life, among many others. All of these books, without a doubt, have varying preoccupations—from the Vietnam War to Hurricane Katrina to the home sphere, etc.. However, much like their musical and prose counterparts—concept albums and composite novels, respectively—these books organize an experience or idea with the goal of enhancing our understanding of that experience or idea by asking us to consider the poems in the collection as a group, as a unified whole.

LR: We’re impressed by the way your poems evoke deep anxieties in the personal realm, but also take on large political issues, as in the lines “The spouse / battered by a U.S. citizen spouse Find the widow(er) / The one you will petition to marry The headless / bodies in the Arizona desert” from “Between Chou and the Butterfly.” How do you manage these shifts between the private and the political realm?

JJ: In an interview by the Paris Review, Charles Wright discusses how when he was writing China Trace, he experimented with something he calls a subnarrative, or undernarrative. The sottonarrativa, he explains, is, “The smaller current in a larger river. The story line that runs just under the surface. It’s broken, interrupted, circuitous, even invisible at times, but always there.” A sentence later, he explains, “It’s a continuous story line by someone who can’t tell a story.” When I move from the private to the political, and vice versa, it’s because both occupy the same space, exist at the same time, in me. My position in the world has been, and continues to be, one wherein the personal is political, and the political personal. I cried the first time I was able to vote, at the age of thirty. I am both the person in the newspaper and the person reading the newspaper. Sometimes, the personal is the smaller current; sometimes it is the larger river—and the other way around.

LR: One of the many interesting features of your book is the use of initials to refer to various friends and family members. Can you tell us more about the significance of this naming device?

JJ: To explain how/why I arrived at the decision to use initials requires some backtracking. Here goes:

Because I was thinking always about the bigger picture, or what my individual poems would coalesce into, I allowed each poem the space to deal with whatever needed dealing with without having to clear my throat at the beginning each time to announce that I was writing about an undocumented American experience. I do not, for example, explain why the speaker has no license in the poem “Driving without a License.” As expected, relying on my project’s backbone sometimes proved difficult when bringing a poem into a new workshop with peers. I remember clearly the day I brought in “Always Hiding,” a poem that begins in medias res, as if overheard, and how the conversation of the group was immediately derailed. One person argued that the speaker of my poem, “clearly an immigrant,” was therefore “a nonnative English speaker” and that what we were overhearing was not the voice of someone struggling to explain why she was constantly lying to protect herself, but, rather, the voice of someone who couldn’t string together a coherent sentence in English. The thesis posited, of course, became complicated by the fact that the poem begins, “which kept me in school and was, of course, / a lie.” This was “inconsistent,” she explained, being “too grammatically correct,” and needed to be revised. Luckily, being far enough along in my project, I knew when to shake off such suggestions.

Still, when reading Tony Hoagland’s essay, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” the following passage about the dissociative self stuck out to me:

…the aspect of self such poems most forcefully represent is its uncatchability, its flittering, quicksilver transience… It is a self that does not stand still, that implies a kind of spectral, anxious insubstantiality. The voice is plenty sharp in tone and sometimes observant in its detail, but it is skittery. Elusiveness is the speaker’s central characteristic. Speed, wit, and absurdity are its attractive qualities. The last thing such poems are going to do is risk their detachment, their distance, their freedom from accountability. The one thing they are not going to do is commit themselves to the sweaty enclosures of subject matter and the potential embarrassment of sincerity.

For a time, especially in the earliest stages of Driving without a License, I was a poet in hiding and, as a result, wrote poems with a voice always in hiding. While I wouldn’t say I was “skittery”—my poems ached and strove for a “center of gravity… body… [and] emotional value”—I was guilty of sometimes being purposefully evasive, relying on a charming voice that could lie its way out of any sticky situation. I was also guilty of writing poems that refused to reveal what on earth they were actually talking about.

Many of the failed, early attempts at the poems that would eventually make their way into the book read like I had blindfolded the reader and spun them around—as if playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey—and let them go. What this impulse was ultimately an indication of, of course, was a young project and an experience that was still too close to me. I had not yet learned how to be an effective storyteller who could remake new stories with fragments of others. I also had not yet developed a voice or a speaker that could carry the weight of the story. I was still the “I.” As a result, I was afraid of disclosure and of my imagined readership. When Hoagland says, “Much talent and skill are evident in its making, in its pacing and management of gaps, the hints and sound bites which keep the reader reaching forward for the lynchpin of coherence,” I thought about the dangers of withholding the very information I worried would give me, or others, away. I identified areas in my poems where I filled omissions with tangential storylines—I was free-associating, so to speak, as a method of diversion—and revised. To omit names, leaving behind only a single letter, was liberating. It allowed me, complete with my story, to “come out.” I invented a character of myself. Then, out came S., D., B. (who arrived, unexpectedly, in a poem I thought was about S.), and the house of J’s.

LR: We found ourselves swept up by the dreamlike, incantatory quality of poems like “Landscape with American Dream” and “Wreck,” and noted that in addition to being an accomplished poet, you’ve written a number of libretti for the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco. What’s the relationship between song and verse in your work?

JJ: All three libretti written for HGO/HGOco were commissioned pieces, so song and verse have so far occupied separate neighborhoods in my brain. My poetry education came first, though, and I know that being a noisy writer, one always attuned to (and muttering aloud) the music of my words and lines, helped me transition into the world of opera. Still, when working on commissioned pieces, I do have to be mindful of the constraints and scope of each project. For my third libretto, for example, I had to be sure that what I wrote would be accessible to junior high and high school students (we even had study guides), as well as the general public and Houston-area lawyers (the piece was designed to tour the city of Houston). I do not think of audience in the same way when writing a poem, and I certainly can compress much more into a line composed for the page—relying, for example, on what happens at the moment of enjambment—than I can in a line meant to be sung.

When writing a poem, too, I think about diction in terms of choosing the exact word; when writing a libretto, I think about diction in terms of how a word might be enunciated. Sometimes, I land on the same word, sometimes not—and then I make a revision.

It’s almost as if my brain is a child moving between two amicably divorced parents living on opposite ends of town. I’m doing similar poetic work in both genres, of course, and in fact, with my second chamber opera, I worked with a composer who asked me to scan my lines so that he could see the stressed and unstressed positions/syllables of the words. Here, my worlds very much overlapped, and all of the rooms in both houses, as well as the streetlights in both parts of town, lit up—under a Supermoon, no less!

(I suspect I will have to write an essay about this one day.)

LR: While your book ranges across a variety of geographic spaces and times in the narrator’s life, there’s still a clear structure and chronology to the poems. Can you tell us about how you sequenced the collection? What advice would you give to emerging poets working on a first book?

JJ: It’s amazing to me that you are complimenting me on the sequencing of the collection, as I got it so very, very wrong for so many, many drafts. Once, the collection was in three sections. Once, it was in five sections. The four-section version—the version that is the book—was born when I was asked, “Why is this written in five sections?” and all I could muster was, “Symmetry.” Imagine, now, that I answered with an uptalk.

When assembling the collection, I thought quite a bit about the beginnings of Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution and Martha Collins’ Blue Front. Long before I knew how the individual sections would be structured, I knew how I wanted the book to begin, what kind of precedent I wanted to set. I remembered the advice that one of my teachers, Eamon Grennan, had given me—about how before I could invent a new landscape for my readers, I had to first pave the streets and erect the signposts I wanted them to follow. I thought a lot about world building. I thought about Charles Wright and how I might establish the sottonarrativa.

In earlier versions, figuring out the political situation of the speaker felt much like the way Rubén Martínez describes crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Crossing Over: “You have to hike in total darkness, through mountains that block out the beacon of city light…. You take a long walk in the dark.”

Some, perhaps, helpful-but-not-helpful advice: Read, a lot. Specifically, read books similar to the one you want to write or are writing. Study the choices made by those poets—learn both the how and why. Be open to shuffling and reshuffling, to knowing what doesn’t feel right as an opportunity to move toward what does. Listen to the advice of your most adept reader-friends. Stand clear of the closing doors.

LR: So much of the language in Driving without a License is breathtaking. We were particularly struck by these lines from “Soup Kitchen”: “the leaves on our trees / were a hundred jazz hands, the sun a cow, or a moon, / depending on the day, the time, the tendered / sashay of this earth.” Where did these images come from? In writing these lines, how did you access such luminous, lyrical language?

JJ: I am so in love with this question, and feel my years and worlds colliding! When Lantern Review asked me to contribute a “Process Profile” in 2010, I wrote about this very poem (though in 2010 it was called “Postcard”). More, the poem first appeared in Nimrod International Journal—a journal that comes out of Oklahoma.

[See Janine’s “Process Profile” here.]

LR: What are you reading right now? Any recommended summer reading?

JJ: Because I am in the throes of moving from one landlocked state to another, my summer reading list, this year, is short. I just finished Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Right now, I am in the middle of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which has stimulated my brain into a bioluminescent creature. I am also a quarter of a way through Patrick Rosal’s Brooklyn Antediluvian. Soon, I will have a copy of Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK in my hands. Soon, I will be reading folders of information about my new health insurance, what new retirement planning options I will have with my new job, etc.. All very important, necessary (and recommended) reading.

LR: So, what’s next for you? Any exciting projects?

This summer, my partner, beagle, and I are headed to Stillwater, OK, where I will be joining the creative writing faculty at Oklahoma State University. I am hoping, too, to have more time to do more serious work on poems about traumatic brain injuries, and what it was like to become a naturalized citizen.

*  *  *

Janine Joseph is the author of Driving without a License (Alice James Books), winner of the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. Her poems and essays about growing up undocumented in America have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Best New Poets, Best American Experimental Writing, Zócalo Public Square, Waxwing, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a- Day series, and elsewhere. Her commissioned libretti for the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco include What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, “On This Muddy Water”: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel, and From My Mother’s Mother. Janine is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University.

Digital Broadsides: Janine Joseph’s “Narrative,” Designed by Bethany Hana Fong

Download the "Narrative" Broadsides
"Narrative" (Click to visit the download page)

This week’s Digital Broadside, which features Janine Joseph’s “Narrative” from LR Issue 4, was designed by Bethany Hana Fong, an SF-Bay-Area-based artist and designer whose black and white portraits of her grandfather appeared in Issue 2. We love the way that the quirky, collage-like nature of Bethany’s design echoes the fractured whimsy of the narrative tellings in Janine’s poem. We also like the effect that designing each version (printable and wallpaper) in a different orientation had on the possibilities for reading the poem itself.  While the print version preserves the original (vertical) arrangement of stanzas, the wallpaper version floats them side-by-side into a matrix-like grid, so that the stanzas can be read in juxtaposition, as well as linearly. Both versions of Bethany’s beautiful design can be downloaded over at our “Digital Broadsides” page.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed our Digital Broadside series this April. And as National Poetry Month draws to a close, we hope you’ll consider telling us about what you did with the broadsides that you downloaded. Did you hang a copy somewhere unusual? Did your new wallpaper or cubicle decoration lead to any interesting conversations?  Did having a poem on your desktop or physical wall inspire you in your own writing life in some way? We’d love to hear your stories— leave us a comment, post a note on our Facebook Wall, or Tweet us to share!

Process Profile: Janine Joseph Discusses “Postcard”

Janine Joseph

Janine Joseph is a Ph.D. student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. Her poems have appeared in Third Coast, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Calabash, among other journals. A Kundiman fellow, she is a recent recipient of a Brazos Bookstore/Academy of American Poets prize and a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. She holds degrees from UC Riverside and the Creative Writing Program at NYU where she taught with the Starworks Foundation and Community~Word Project. She currently teaches with Writers in the Schools and serves as a poetry editor for Gulf Coast. Born in the Philippines, she was once a child actress.

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication.  Here, Janine discusses her poem “Postcard,” which originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008 themed issue (“Making Tracks: Escape or Journey”) of Nimrod International Journal.

* * *

I first started thinking about “Postcard” when an old friend came to visit for a weekend in May of 2006. While waiting for our chicken kabob sandwiches at Mr. Falafel, I told Lucy, who had studied poetry with me in college, that I couldn’t get the image of a “soup kitchen—but not a soup kitchen” out of my head. I was fresh out of my first year in the MFA program at NYU and, with a stainless steel cup in my hand, I talked about Tupperware and a childhood memory. Lucy, being Lucy, listened and then told me what I had was a poem. What kind of a poem, I didn’t know. After lunch, we took the subway into the city and walked.

After an evening of writing in September, I brought “Soup Kitchen” into workshop. On the page, the poem was a perfectly square thing that could be cut, glued, and made to fit on a postcard. It included mysterious and humiliating phrases like “jalousie of life” in the last line. (Also, it used the color mauve.) What on earth did I mean by writing “jalousie of life”? I’m not even going to pretend I knew. What was clear by the end of my fifteen minutes of sitting silently during discussion was that the poem, according to my notes, was one part “lovely” and one part “this could go.” In class, I drew a line dividing one movement from the other.

Continue reading “Process Profile: Janine Joseph Discusses “Postcard””

Event Coverage: Reflections on AWP 2010, Part 1

Morning in Denver from our hotel window

Waking up to bright sun and brisk, springy weather every morning was just one of the many small points of brilliance that characterized AWP for Mia and me this year.  Having just come off winter (we both live in places that are not known for their sunshine during the first few months of the year), it was a treat to look outside our hotel room in the morning and see sun, blue skies, and mountains in the distance.  Denver was beautiful.  Even the snow that had been forecast for Wednesday held off for us.  But not even the gorgeous weather or the lure of spring fever proved powerful enough to distract us from the activity going on inside the harshly-lit interior of the Convention Center this weekend.  When I say that it was a wonderful AWP, I really mean it.  After last year’s conference in Chicago (I met Nick Flynn!  I heard Sun Yung Shin read! Lan Samantha Chang complimented my sweater! Poetry played in the elevators all day!) I was prepared for this year to be pretty darn awesome.  But my experience this year totally blew me away.  Part of it was the fantastic panels and readings that I attended.  Part of it was the excitement of walking around the bookfair and getting to talk about LR and hand out our bookmarks and mini-books. Part of it was the great hotel, great food, and Mia’s great company (I’ll admit that we took at least one night off towards the end of the conference just to spend some catching up and discussing each other’s poems over styrofoam cups of Ramen).  But a large part of what made the experience so great was the amazing generosity of the people that we met there, and the passion with which we heard them speak of their work and their involvement with communities of other writers.

Over the course of the four days, Mia and I went to panels and readings galore and spent lots of time in the bookfair.  In this two-part series, we’ll be reflecting on just a few of our favorite events.  For my post, I’ll be focusing on one off-site reading and three panels/readings that I particularly enjoyed.  For more about our experience, look through our Flickr gallery of photos from the weekend, and check back here at the blog for Mia’s followup later this week.

Follow the jump below to read my reflections on the Kundiman/Cave Canem Joint Reading on Wednesday, Thursday’s Kundiman Panel, Friday’s From the Fishouse reading, and Saturday’s Split This Rock’s panel.

Continue reading “Event Coverage: Reflections on AWP 2010, Part 1”