Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Award Winning Poet Allison Elaine Joseph: The Poet That Connects

Christal Cooper   1,182 Words

The Poet That Connects
I think of myself as a black person first and foremost, because that connects me to Africans, African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans.”

This past January the entire nation celebrated Martin Luther King Junior Day.  Poet Allison Elaine Joseph considers that day to be sacred, but also considers the days of the “unknown” civil rights advocates to be sacred as well.

“In terms of Martin Luther King, of course he's very important. But what's really fascinating is the depth of the whole civil rights movement, how many "ordinary" people sacrificed so much.  The books "My Soul Is Rested" and "Eyes on the Prize" were texts I read in college that gave me a huge sense of how many people were involved in the movement. Martin Luther King inspired many, but let us not forget all the people that marched, protested, picketed and boycotted to assure civil rights.”

Joseph was not highly aware of Civil Rights or Martin Luther King Jr. growing up.  She was born to Caribbean parents in London, England in 1967.

         “My mom was from Jamaica and my dad from Grenada.  Our family moved from London to Toronto, Canada when I was about four months old.  There’s a large West Indian population in Toronto, and I still have extended family there.”

         The Joseph Family moved to the Bronx, New York, where her older sister Sharon and she were reared, and where Joseph considers her hometown.  By the age of 12, Joseph knew she wanted to become a poet.   In fact, one of her favorite poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, was someone she could model herself after.

“I do go back to Ms. Brooks as a sort of model to live my life by.  And wherever I go, and particularly when I go to Chicago, and I mention my love of her work, someone always has a Gwendolyn Brooks story about how they were helped by her…And that’s an incredibly admirable trait particularly among writers who can be mean to one another and not supportive.” She told reporter Jennifer Merrifield in 2005.

         Joseph attended the Bronx High School of Science in the Bronx, New York, where many members of the student body were second-generation immigrants who spoke a variety of languages.   Joseph thought of this as the norm, even though she just spoke English.

         After graduating from high school, Joseph went on to Ohio’s Kenyon College in the Fall of 1984 where she majored in History and English.  While at Kenyon, she experienced her first cultural shock, due to its lack of diversity and her being one of only three black students in her class.   It was the first time she thought of herself as being different from everyone else.

While at Kenyon, Joseph attended her first of many poet readings, intense workshops, and published her first group of poems in the Kenyon Review.   

She graduated with a degree in English and History and entered the Master of Fine Arts program at Indiana University, where she met her husband, fellow poet Jon Tribble, whom she describes as her best friend and best critic.

The couple married and moved to Arkansas where both taught at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  While at UALR, Joseph’s first book of poetry What Keeps Us Here was published by Ampersand Press. 

         The couple moved to Carbondale, Illinois where Joseph now directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

 Tribble is managing editor of the Crab Orchard Review (, a national journal of literary works, and series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry.

         Crab Orchard Review was created in 1995 and is published two times a year.  Richard Peterson, former chair of English Department at SIUC, hired the couple and their friend Carolyn Alessio, to fulfill his wishes that a literary journal be published by the SIUC English Department.

“And he said to Jon, you be managing editor, Allison, you be poetry editor, Carolyn, you be prose editor, I'll be editor-in-chief and let's get this started.” Joseph told Merrifield.

Crab Orchard Review celebrated its 10th year anniversary in 2005 and continues to be published two times a year, featuring cream-of-the-crop creative pieces from fiction, nonfiction, and poet writers.   Crab Orchard Review receives about 12,000 poems and 6,000 prose pieces in one year.  Out of those pieces only 150 poems and 50 prose pieces are selected for both issues.

         Joseph is also director of the SIUC Young Writers Workshop, a coed residential creative writing summer workshop for high-school aged writers and serves as moderator of the Creative Writing Opportunities List, an online list-serve that distributes calls for submissions and literary contest information to over 3000 writers free of charge.

She is the author of six books of poems: What Keeps Us Here (1992,;

Soul Train (1997, Carnegie Mellon University Press;

In Every Seam (1997, University of Pittsburgh Press;

Imitation of Life (2003, Carnegie Mellon UP;

Worldly Pleasures (2004, Word Tech Communications Press;

and My Father's Kites ( 2010, Steel Toe Books

She is also the author of a chapbook, Voice: Poems  (2009,  Mayapple Press

Her most recent poetry collection is the second chapbook Trace Particles, published by Backbone Press (

         Joseph describes herself as a poet who writes in longhand, is accessible, constantly moving, and never gets writer’s block.

There are periods where I’m not writing because of my responsibilities to others, but I don’t worry about writer’s block.  I write anytime I feel like writing.  I have to work it around all the other things I have to do.”

Joseph has been giving readings since 1991 and all of her readings are different and unscripted.

 “I’d never choose a poem to read at every reading.  To me that’s way too reductive.  Each time I do a reading I choose different poems.  Different audiences connect with different poems; so they all have merit, given the different types of readings I have done.”

         One of her most powerful poems is “Falling Out Of History” which can be found in her poetry collection What Keeps Us Here.

         “The poem was prompted by a racist cartoon I remember seeing.  It popped up on a collection of cartoons a friend of the family bought for her son.  The poem explores connections between different aspects of racism that added up to something larger for me.”

Joseph looks at the past year as a year of possibilities from being a poet, to identifying herself as a black American, to electing the first African American as president for the second time; but she hesitates to say that MLK’s dream has come true.

‘I certainly don't know what's in the hearts of people who hate President Obama because of his racial background.  Of course disagree with him politically if you do, but the fierceness of the hate worries me.  Martin Luther King Junior’s dream has yet to come true.  I think a lot of the backlash to Obama’s election demonstrates we still have a long way to go.”

Photo 1, Photo 27, Photo 28,  and Photo 32.
Allison Joseph.  Copyright by Allison Joseph.
Photo 2
Martin Luther King Jr. giving his I Have A Dream speech.
Photo 3
Jacket cover of My Soul Is Rested.
Photo 4
Allison Joseph, age 5, meeting Santa Clause at the A& S (Abraham and Straus) Department Store.  Copyright by Allison Joseph.
Photo 5

Gwendolyn Brooks.  Public Domain

Photo 6

Jacket cover of Gwendolyn Brooks: Poet From Chicago

Photo 7

Bronx High School of Science.  Public Domain

Photo 8

Allison Joseph and her mother at her 1984 high school graduation. 

Copyright by Allison Joseph.

Photo 9

Allison Joseph, age 17 at the freshman orientation of Kenyon

College in Gambier, Ohio.  Copyright by Allison Joseph.

Photo 10

Allison’s father, Allison Joseph, and sister Sharon at Allison’s

graduation from Kenyon College.  Copyright by Allison Joseph

Photo 11

Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble in their dating years.  Copyright by

Allison Joseph.

Photo 12

Jon Tribble and Allison Joseph on their wedding day on December

30, 1992.  Copyright by Allison Joseph.

Photo 13

Allison Joseph on the cover of the Southern Illinois University of

Carbondale catalogue.  Copyright by Allison Joseph.

Photo 14

Jon Tribble.  Copyright by Allison Joseph.

Photo 15

Jon Tribble and Allison Joseph at Southern Illinois University of

Carbondale.  Copyright by Allison Joseph.

Photo 16

Crab Orchard Review copies.

Photo 17

Allison Joseph at the Southern Illinois University of Carbondale

booth.  Copyright by Allison Joseph.

Photo 18

Allison Joseph now runs.  View her blog on her running

life at  Copyright by Allison Joseph.

Photo 19 and Photo 31

Jacket cover of What Keeps Us Here

Photo 20

Jacket cover of Soul Train

Photo 21

Jacket cover of In Every Seam

Photo 22

Jacket cover of Imitation of Life

Photo 23

Jacket cover of Worldly Pleasures

Photo 24

Jacket cover of my father’s kites

Photo 25

Jacket cover of Voice: Poems

Photo 26

Photo of:  Imitation of Life, Worldly Pleasures, Voice: Poems, and my fahter’s kites

Photo 29

Allison reading at the Jazz Café, Music Hall for the Performing

Arts, Detroit, July 18, 2008.  Copyright by Allison Joseph.

Photo 30

Information on a reading by Allison Joseph and her book my

father’s kites

Photo 33

President Barack Obama.  Public Domain

Monday, January 27, 2014

Martha's Place: Martha Hawkins and Her Lima Beans of Flavor and Faith

Christal Cooper    2,301 Words
Facebook @ Christal Ann Rice Cooper

Martha’s Lima Beans Of Flavor And Faith

“Why, a fella from up Mississippi ordered a bowl just the other day.  He was a big fella with a ruddy face and white suit, no stranger to eating I guessed and suspicious at first at the bowlful of beans I brought him, wrinkling his nose and wiping his brow like it was gonna take a lot of work to choke them down.  He forked up one, tasted it, then he got this particular smile on his face, “Martha,” he said, “these lima beans are downright luscious,” and he wolfed that bowl down and asked for another.  That’s the word he used:  luscious.  I’ve heard my lima beans described as a lot of good things before, but I ain’t never heard no one describe my lima beans as luscious.
Those lima beans are on my menu because I know how food can become more than just food.  It’s what a body uses for change.  Like crackers and grape juice passed around at church, food can become what centers things when everything has gone astray.  You take something as poor and lonely as a lima bean – on one hand it’s ugly and stupid and forlorn and forgotten.  Bu then you cook it just so, and a powerful change happens.  Lima beans become something luscious – the food of delight and flavor of faith.”

Excerpt from Finding Martha’s Place:  My Journey Through Sin, Salvation, and Lots of Soul Food by Martha Hawkins with Marcus Brotherton, and published by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. (

         Martha Ann Hawkins, proprietor of Martha’s Place located on 7798 Atlanta Highway in the Somerset Shopping Center in east Montgomery, Alabama was born on June 30, 1947 with her twin sister Mary Ann, to Sallie Bell and Willie Hawkins Senior, a devout Christian couple, who always seemed to be low on money but rich on love.
“I come from a good, wonderful, loving family.  I thank God for my mom and dad.”

The two girls were named after the famous sisters in the Bible – Mary and Martha – Mary sitting at Jesus’s feet relishing in every word He spoke; and Martha preparing the day’s meal, but unlike the biblical Martha, Martha Hawkins never complained.  Mary Ann died at the hospital, but has never been forgotten.  
“I’m both of them because now I got her spirit.  I’m a combination of Mary and Martha and I love to cook and I love my customers.” 

As a little girl her parents taught her and her ten siblings to love family, love their church home of St. James Baptist Church (“We had to go to church.  If you didn’t go to church you couldn’t go anywhere else.”), and to cook. 

“I always used to love watching my mom cook.  Back then they didn’t let you in their kitchen to mess with their stuff, but she   allowed me to help her make biscuits and put them into the pan.  One of my fondest memories was when my mom went on vacation to Wisconsin to see my brother and me and my other sister cooked.  I remember cutting up and cooking collard greens, making stuff for my dad and my family. 

Martha learned to cook from her mother, who was the matriarch of a household whose doors were open to anyone, where food was always available, conversation was never boring, and love was always in full supply. 

“There wouldn’t anybody who came to our house who couldn’t eat.  Everybody could eat.  They were a part of that community.  Our friends loved to be at our house.  We played games with each other.  It was a family environment.”
At the age of 16 she found herself pregnant and married, and within the next six years she had four boys, was working at a glass factory making $14 an hour, but something wasn’t right.

“I had this happy go lucky spirit but I was just a time bomb waiting to go off and nobody knew about it but me.  I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what it was because of the way I felt.  I think it’s something that at the time you don’t recognize it and you don’t realize it.  It’s the stuff you battle with and not know.  I was the type that I couldn’t tell them the problems and the situations and the circumstances I was in.”

She got so depressed that she couldn’t function, started hearing voices, seeing things that were not there, and there were times she couldn’t recognize her own sons.  She went to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed her a variety of pills.
“I had a bag of all these pills.  One doctor gave me one medicine and it was too strong so they gave me another medicine – and I had to take it before I took that pill.  How do you remember to take this pill before you take that pill?”

Her depression became even more severe when, in January 1975, while shopping in downtown Montgomery, she was kidnapped and brutally raped and beaten by a stranger.  After doctor visits and police visits, her psychiatrist recommended shock treatments.     

“They didn’t work.  You don’t forget.  The thoughts are still there.  I think the only thing it helped me with was to make me remember better.   It didn’t help me to forget the past.  I had to keep a wet towel to moisten my tongue because it was out and I couldn’t put it back in.”
Soon she developed physical illnesses:  burst appendix, blown kidney, hysterectomy, severe chronic migraines and other ailments.
“I really believe that me being mentally sick played a role in me being physically sick because I believe that if you have a sick mind you have a sick body.”

She fell into a deeper depression and, at the age of 31, tried to kill herself with tranquilizers.  Her father and uncle found her and she was committed to Greil Memorial Psychiatric Hospital, where she would stay for three months.  The first few weeks of her stay she was withdrawn from everyone.

That all began to change when she reached for a Kleenex and instead grasped the Gideons New Testament Bible and 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.   

         While in the activity room at Greil she found the full Bible with the Old and the New Testaments, and the pages fell to
Isaiah 61:1:  The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek, he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prisons to them that are bound.

She would open up another Bible and always turn to the same reference of Isaiah 61:1. Soon she was devouring the Bible, and in the process ended up falling in love with Jesus and accepting Him into her life as Savior and Personal Lord.

         “I got saved when I was in Greil Hospital, and that’s when my life changed and it hadn’t been the same since.  That’s when I really found Martha.  That’s when I really found God in Greil Hospital.  I started to write love letters to God, to Jesus.  I started to write how I feel, and that way I get out my emotions, my fears, and my doubts.  I got so many letters.”

         Martha no longer kept to herself, and ventured out, making friends with her fellow patients, combing their hair, talking with them, and doing little tasks to help them.  She also opened up more with her doctors, and, after three months, the doctors gave her a clean bill of mental health and she was set to go home.  The only problem was she didn’t want to go home.

         “I felt so good and comfortable there.  I felt safe and secure.  I didn’t have to worry about nothing.  I didn’t have to do nothing.”
         But she did return home to the Cedar Park Housing Project, to be greeted by her neighbor who had asked her where she had been.  Martha responded she had been at the mental hospital.  The neighbor advised her to not tell anybody. 

         “I told her, “No, I’m not ashamed of where I’ve been.  I needed help and thank God they had a place for me to get help.”  And that was the first time I was confronted with it.  I was able to talk about it and I wasn’t ashamed.”
         When she walked into her home, she picked up the family Bible and it fell to the floor, opened to Isaiah 61:1.  God revealed more verses to her, including Psalm 34:8:  Oh Taste and See that the Lord is good.  She started taking her Bible with her everywhere she went, and reading it every chance she got.

         “I’ve torn up so many Bibles.  I ruined them out.   I couldn’t just put it down.  I’d read it two, to three, to four hours at a time.  I feel like I’m there in that particular time, in that particular period.  It was so overwhelming just to read it.”
         Through God’s word, and her passion for cooking, and her childhood dream of one day owning her own restaurant, Martha knew God had a plan and purpose for her, with Isaiah 61:1 becoming her life’s verse.

         “It was God telling me that He had put His spirit upon me and that I needed to realize how much He was gong to use my life and use me in the process.  I knew God had given me the gift to cook.  It revolutionized my life and that is when I started looking for a place to have a restaurant.”     
         By this time Martha had experienced burnout from her job at Brockway Glass Company, and was now on welfare with her four sons, living in the Cedar Park Housing Projects.  At the same time, she earned a G.E. D. from Alabama State University, and would continue visiting her friends in Greil, combing their hair.

She supplemented her welfare income by cleaning houses and selling cakes.  One of her customers was Montgomery Attorney Calvin Pryor, whom she confided in that she would eventually want to own her own restaurant in an old house.  In October of 1986, while delivering pound cakes to his office, he told her he had the right place for her but it was still being occupied and he would call her when it was available.  Martha immediately drove to the house and knew this was the house for her.   

         Two years later, in October 1987, Martha received a call from Calvin Pryor.  The house was now available and he would give it to her for three months free rent but that she had to be the one to fix it up.   Martha moved out of the Cedar Park House Projects and into what would become Martha’s Place. 

For one full year she slept on the downstairs floor, and during the winter months, would turn the oven on and the oven door open to keep warm. When not sleeping, she painted, cleaned, went to yard sales to buy plates, cups, silverware, and cookware. 
         “I had my nieces and they helped me make some draperies and some tablecloths.  People came in and bought me trays and what nots.  It was a labor of love.” 
         Martha’s Place opened his doors for the first time on October 17, 1988, located on 458 Sayre Street, in historical downtown Montgomery, Alabama.

         In February 29, 2012 she felt God leading her to move to a different location on 7798 Atlanta Highway.

         Martha’s Place serves 10,000 people a month; about 3000 people a week.    It is now a restaurant known all over the world, not only for its southern cuisine, but also for Martha Hawkins’ story of lost and being found.

         “Since I left Greil Hospital, I never had to have any more shock treatments.  I never had to take another pill, even for headaches. I‘m proud of myself and God.”

Famous customers come to Montgomery to taste her
Southern Cooking and to meet the Martha of Martha’s Place:  Angela Bassett; Nell Carter; Macaulay Culkin; Clifton Davis; Phil Donahue; Kirk Franklin; Whoopi Goldberg; Evander Holyfield; Freddie Jackson; T.D. Jakes; Ted Koppel (the host of Nightline did a show at her restaurant); Walter Mathhau; Rosa Parks; Ty Pennington; Sissy Spacek; and Mary Steenburgen.  

         She gets to Martha’s Place by 6 a.m. when she cooks, prays with her staff, and finally at 11 a.m. opens the doors.   She talks with her customers whom she refers to as her friends, moving from one table to the next, seeing how their day is going, asking them if they need anything, and always giving hugs.

“I love to get up early and I get up here and cook and I get out here and mingle and talk to the customers.  And love on them and talk to them.”  
         When not at Martha’s Place, Martha attends her local church, spends time with family: (she now has six grandchildren ages 7 to 22), does charity work, and daily thanks God for all that He has done in her life, but especially for what God has done for her sons:  Shawn is an FBI agent; Quint is a Montgomery lobbyist; Reginald is a loan officer; and Nyrone is an ordained minister.  The most important thing of all is that all of her sons are Christians.

“What God has done for my sons means more to me than anythng in the world.” 


Photo 1
Martha Hawkins.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 2
Jacket cover of Finding Martha’s Place:  My Journey Through Sin, Salvation, and Lots of Soul Food.

Photo 3
Martha Hawkins in 2010.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins

Photo 4
Willie and Sallie Bell Hawkins 50th Wedding Anniversary in 1976.  Sitting from left to right:  Georgia Jackson, Alice Peterson, Alberta Woodson, Sallie Bell Hawkins, Martha Hawkins, Willela Dawson, Rosalee Williams.
Standing left to right:  Uncle Henry Harvest, Henry Hawkins, Willie Jr, Willie Hawkins Senior, Tommy Hawkins, Howard Hawkins, Scott Hawkins, and Uncle Willie C Hawkins.   Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 5
Johannes Vermeer’s largest painting:  oil on canvas of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha.  Painting made between 1654 to 1656.  Public Domain.

Photo 6
Market of St James Baptist Church.  Public Domain

Photo 7
Southern Food at Martha’s Place.  Copyright by Christal Cooper. 

Photo 8
Sallie Bell Hawkins, Martha Hawkins, and Willie Hawkins Senior.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 9
Martha, Shawn, and Quinton.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 10
Martha’s four sons:  Sean, Quinton, Reginald, and Nyrone.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins

Photo 11
Pills for depression.  Copyright by Christal Cooper.

Photo 12
NaNa and Martha.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 13.
Martha Hawkins with Quint, Reginald, and Nyrone in 1983.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 14
Willie Hawkins Senior.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 15
Green cover of Gideons New Testament and Psalms.  Public Domain.

Photo 16
Gideon Bible of the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Public Domain.

Photo 17
Jesus Christ according to the traditional iconography of the 17 to the 18th Ethiopian Church.  Public Domain.

Photo 18
Phillis Wheatley, as illustrated by Scipio Moorhead in the frontispiece to her book Poems on Various Subjects.  Public Domain.

Photo 19
Martha Hawkins and son Sean in 1987.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 20
Isaiah 61:1 highlighted in yellow.  Copyright by Christal Cooper.

Photo 21
Inscription of Psalm 34:8 at Martha’s Place at 7798 Atlanta Highway.  Copyright by Christal Cooper.

Photo 22.
Martha Hawkins.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 23
16th century oil on canvas of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha by Jacopo Tintoretto. Public Domain.

Photo 24
Martha’s Place on 458 Sayre Street.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 25
Sign for Martha’s Place on 458 Sayre Street.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 26
Martha Hawkins in front of Martha’s Place on 458 Sayre Street.  June 1997.  Copyright by Christal Cooper

Photo 27
Martha’s Place located at 7798 Atlanta Highway in Montgomery.  Copyright by Christal Cooper.

Photo 28
Decorative Bible from Martha’s Place on 7798 Atlanta Highway.  Copyright by Christal Cooper.

Photo 29
Martha Hawkins.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 30
Martha Hawkins with Clifton Davis and Nell Carter.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 31
Martha Hawkins with Ted Koppel and Ty Pennington.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 32.
Martha and her customers.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 33
Early Martha Hawkins family photo of her four sons, their wives, and children.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins

Photo 34.
Martha and her four sons:  Sean, Quint, Reginald, and Nyrone.  Copyright by Martha Hawkins.

Photo 35.
Sean, Quint, Reginald, and Nyrone.   Copyright by Martha Hawkins.