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

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