Allison Joseph is a “citizen of the world.”
She is also an American citizen, a duality that “never seemed to be separate things in my mind,” she said.
Joseph is the Week Six poet-in-residence for the Chautauqua Writers’ Center and will deliver a Brown Bag lecture, “Your Letter From the World: Poets Beyond Our Borders,” at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 31, on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.
Originally, Joseph designed her talk to share the work of poets she loves with listeners.
“How can we look to poets across the spectrum of time to nourish us,” she said, “just as we feel like sources of nourishment are diminishing?”
Now, she said, her Brown Bag is more “timely.”
With the news of the U.S. government separating immigrant children from their families at the border, Joseph said migration and identity take a more prominent place in many Americans’ minds.
“Now, it seems that it’s even more necessary to define what we mean by … ‘physical border,’ ” she said. “We’re hearing day in and day out about horrible separations, but what does it mean that we get very little translated literature in this country? It means that we’re walled off from experiences that might make us more empathetic, that might make us wiser.”
Joseph directs Southern Illinois University’s MFA program in creative writing and is the author of multiple poetry collections, including Confessions of a Barefaced Woman and Soul Train. She also is editor of Crab Orchard Review and publisher of No Chair Press.
Throughout Joseph’s life, and especially in recent years, she has “wondered about what our placement in the world is … in terms of the literature we give out into the world.”
“Part of my solution has been taking in more and more voices from across the world and across the spectrum of time,” she said.
This theme of “Americans looking outward” is an important and personal one to Joseph because she didn’t begin her life as an American, she said.
Joseph’s parents were from two different Caribbean islands. They immigrated separately to London in the 1950s, where Joseph was born a decade later, right before her family left for Toronto.
At the age of 4, Joseph moved with her family to the United States. Around the age of 10, she became an American citizen.
She grew up in the Bronx, New York, which she said is the epitome of the term “melting pot.”
She said her upbringing led her to question “what it meant to be a citizen of the world and an American citizen.”
“In other parts of the word, poetry is much more integrated into the lives of people who don’t write poetry,” she said. “For some reason, Americans seem to be resistant to it.”
However, younger people and those from the “performance world” seem to be breaking from this mold, according to Joseph.
“(They) have really made a difference in terms of people thinking about poetry, in terms of poetry as something they can tap into their own lives, even if they don’t write poetry,” she said. “One of the tasks for this particular talk is to make people feel comfortable — whether they’re writers or not, whether they’re poets or not — taking up poetry for its own brilliance, its own shine.”
Through broadening poetic horizons, Joseph said readers can discover new ways of looking at the world “that isn’t restricted to the here and now, … and that we can spend time figuring out where we’re going by looking at the past.”
Because of her upbringing, Joseph said she has always valued America for what it is — a collaboration, from different nations, that fosters culture.
“I think, because of my own background, that I value America, I value the United States,” she said. “But I always knew that there were other nations contributing to the … culture.”
Joseph hopes listeners of her lecture will “be encouraged to read outside of the box.”
“(Poetry is) the way we can carry in ourselves the most important things we value as a culture.”
-Allison Joseph, Poet-in-residence, Chautauqua Writers’ Center