Poetry as Life Process
by Anna M. Evans
There are some poets whose voice is so distinctive, so intrinsic to their craft, that if you came across a poem of theirs attached to no author, you would instinctively guess it was by them. Allison Joseph is such a poet for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve had the privilege of attending so many of her readings at the Poetry by the Sea Conference, and she is phenomenal in person, delivering her repertoire like a musician skilled in many instruments—sometimes she even sings! But I think it’s also because poetry is such a huge part of Allison’s life that it’s not only how she lives, but also how she works to make the world better.
Born in London, England, to a Jamaican mother and Grenadian father, Allison spent time in Canada before the family settled in New York: “We moved / before I knew what moving was about” she writes in “On Not Wanting to Write a Memoir,” a villanelle in My Father’s Kites that ironically reads like a memoir. She kept moving, attending Kenyon College, in Ohio, as an undergraduate, and then on to the MFA Program at Indiana University, where she famously met her husband, the poet and editor Jon Tribble, who died tragically young in 2019. Before that, “Jallison,” as they were fondly known, had become a force of nature at Southern Illinois University. Together, they founded the Crab Orchard Review and Crab Orchard Poetry Series, and of course taught and breathed poetry. Allison launched the Young Writers Workshop, a conference for teenage writers; curated the Creative Writers Opportunities List; and provided many other services to the writing community. All her experiences, from London to Carbondale, yielded ample material for her own work..
Let us take a minute to marvel at just how much of that work there is. It’s no coincidence that the workshop Allison is teaching at this year’s conference is titled “Staying Poetically Productive.” Allison is prolific, with nine full-length poetry collections published between 1992 and 2021 and too many chapbooks to list. (She is a big supporter of the chapbook format.) Such a glorious wealth of poetry arises, in part, because Allison’s writing process is her life process. To illustrate this, here is how she answers the question as to which is her favorite form:
I use the sonnet when I need answers, the villanelle when I have more questions than answers, and the pantoum when I’m feeling like everything going on in life is circling back in and of itself. When life is full of contradictions and fractures, I use the ghazal.
Poems, then, to Allison, are infinitely more than craft exercises, although her craft is exquisite. She is a mistress not just of the four forms she mentions, but also of triolets and rondeaus, sestinas and ballads, nonce forms, and even free verse. Regardless of form though, her poems are the tools through which she manages her life. And that life is unashamedly both literary and physical. As she writes in “Housekeeper”:
I’d rather write than dust,
read books instead of clean,
won’t clean unless I must.
“Amen!” say all her sister poets, in awe at her honesty. But then, poetry as life process requires honesty, and nowhere is that honesty more apparent than in the poems she has been writing since the death of her beloved Jon—poems that are sometimes sad, but always coming from a place of strength, often both earthy and funny.
Many of Allison’s poems have been sensuous before—“I wear your mouth upon my hips,” she opens in “Ballad of the Night Before” (from What Once You Loved, a chapbook published by my own Barefoot Muse Press). And they have operated in frank awareness, even celebration, of her own, very human body: In “Ode to My Mole” she describes that beauty spot like this:
sexy blotch I slowly lick
as if savoring a spot
of stray chocolate
Such poems have long seemed as refreshingly comfortable in their own form as she is. In “Self-Regard in the Digital Age,” for instance, she proclaims, “I don’t know how to diet / To starve until I faint.” In “A History of African-American Hair”: “glad as any woman can be / that I cut my hair, that the woman in the mirror // now has hair she can touch, / cropped close to scalp, to skin.” (“A History of African-American Hair” appears in Confessions of a Bare-Faced Woman (Red Hen Press, 2018), which garnered her a nomination for the NAACP Image Award—well-deserved, given its unflinching consideration of the life of an African-American woman.)
Her widowhood, however, has led her into unexplored territory—the perils of navigating middle age as an attractive single woman who isn’t content to give up on her physical needs. Hence, we have the tongue-in-cheek gem that is “Good Vibrations,” which begins with a litany of failed dates:
I hurt my hand while writing Mr. Right
I broke my shoe while chasing Mr. Wrong
With Mr. Someone Else I had a fight
Who knew that he’d be turned off by a thong?
Ultimately, the sonnet harks back wittily to its title: “But now I have a date that I adore:/ Self-gratified and happy to my core.”
Meanwhile, Allison has “two books in progress about grief and becoming a widow,” and says: “Widowhood as state of existence is TERRIBLE. It’s like a job I didn’t want that someone signed me up for. From a literary perspective though, it’s a very compelling subject. I feel that there’s a lot of terrible literature written about the subject, and if I can contribute to bettering the dialogue around the subject, I’ll keep writing about it.”
I had the privilege of knowing “Jallison” as a unit at Poetry by the Sea, where Jon Tribble will be forever missed, and clearly no number of books containing Allison’s brilliant poems about widowhood will ever make up for his absence. But Jon will be present in those poems, as he is present in the poem Allison cites when I ask her which one of her poems he liked the best. It’s “My Husband Plays Me Marley” and these are two of the last lines, intended here to refer to the legendary musical genius, but equally applicable to Jon Tribble, and also to Allison herself:
We are grateful this messenger once walked this earth,
telling us: “Every little thing is going to be all right.”