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.

A Conversation with Oliver de la Paz

Oliver de la Paz is the author of three books of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, and Requiem for the Orchard. He is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry with Stacey Lynn Brown, and co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. A recipient of grants from NYFA and the Artists’ Trust, his recent work has appeared in the New England Review, Sentence, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and literature at Western Washington University.

* * *

LR: Who were your earliest influences as a young poet? Was there a momentous decision to pursue this career?

OP: I’ve got a lot of early influences so I’ll name a number of firsts. My very first poetry book was The Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. When my parents first arrived in the U.S. they became subscribers to Readers’ Digest and part of the subscription deal was to receive three gift books with their subscription. One of the gift books was Robert Penn Warren’s book. So apart from my mother’s medical texts, I was pouring over Robert Penn Warren’s poems, not really understanding what was happening in them, but having a profound curiosity over the work.

The first poetry books that I ever purchased for myself were for a poetry class in college. I bought Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares and Adrienne Rich’s Atlas of a Difficult World. The poetry collection that really opened my eyes to the sonic qualities a poem could have was Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. I still have the first two tercets memorized: “The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat./ The fat/ Sacrifices its opacity . . . ”

The first poetic influence that affirmed I could be a poet was Li-Young Lee’s first book, Rose. I was deciding between continuing a career in the sciences, or pursuing poetry. At the time, I was a care provider in a supported living home for the developmentally disabled and an EMT. I had a lot of time to read because the main client I worked with slept a lot due to the meds. So I read long into my shift. I imagine that was when I decided to pursue the life of letters. I wasn’t really excited about the lab work or the medical work I was doing, and I was feeling quite invigorated by all the poetry I was reading.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Oliver de la Paz”

Weekly Prompt: Responding to Rankine’s Open Letter

Claudia Rankine | Photo courtesy of John Lucas

Today’s prompt is a bit unconventional in the sense that it won’t ask you to dig into a particular element of craft or technique, but rather to engage in a larger conversation that’s developed in the past few weeks about creative writing, race, and the difficulty of navigating the relationship between the two — especially here, in America, in the 21st century.

If you aren’t familiar already with some of the questions and accusations that have risen from the fairly controversial discussion between Claudia Rankine and Tony Hoagland… well, you should be.  Rankine’s personal website gives a thorough account of the back-and-forth between herself and Hoagland in the period leading up to AWP (just click on the link to “AWP” listed under “Criticism”), and the Poetry Foundation blog offers a succinct account of the conversation as well.

Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the conversation, then read the text of Rankine’s open letter:

Continue reading “Weekly Prompt: Responding to Rankine’s Open Letter”