Janine Joseph Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
First, congratulations on winning the 2014 Kundiman Prize for your first book of poetry, Driving Without a License. For those unfamiliar with the honor, the annual Kundiman Poetry Prize is dedicated to the publishing of exceptional work by Asian American poets. The winner receives $1,000 and book publication with Alice James Books. Tell us a bit a bit how you’re feeling right now and what it means to you to have your work honored in this way, to have this particular stamp of approval affixed to it.
Thank you for your congratulations, John! After I got off the phone with Carey Salerno, Executive Editor of Alice James Books, I immediately walked out into the backyard and suggested to my partner that we go buy some new paint for the walls. He tells me now that I probably should have started with the good news. (“What if I didn’t feel like going to Lowe’s that day?” he wondered to me after). But, you see, for me, what it means to have won a book prize was captured in that very moment: the life I would try to resume as normal would never again be the same.
And also: I’m still very much reeling from the news. There’s still a part of me that hasn’t yet picked up the phone call—and another part that has answered and is responding, “No!” in disbelief. This wasn’t my first year on the book contest circuit, but I somehow never fully imagined the day a press would accept my manuscript. Kundiman and Alice James Books are supporting my work. Do you know what this means? Every day I want to fall to my knees because I am so overcome with joy, with relief. Later in this interview, you, too, will perhaps want to fall to your knees with me.
I note that your manuscript was a runner up last year, when the Kundiman Award winner was Lo Kwa Mei-en, whose work appeared here in the Congeries last July. What can you tell us about the experience of coming so close? What did you do, in between that point and the next submission period, to improve your manuscript? Did the editors at AJB offer any insight into potential revisions?
Ah, that was the year of being a finalist at so many places! When I take the cycling class at my local gym and we’re on the hill track, I feel that exhilarating despair all over again! I crank the gears, I shift my weight to use a different set of muscles, I pedal to the crescendo—and then I sit back down on the uncomfortable seat.
Then I do it all over again (interval training).
And that’s the truth. I tried not to take each loss personally and treated it the way I would a rejection from a literary journal. I also liked to believe in timing: the right manuscript in the right reader’s hands.
The manuscript I submitted that contest year wasn’t yet right, and it was the generous members of my dissertation committee who helped me to see it. They assured me that the poems were all there, but that what I had in my hands was still a dissertation, not a book. It was clear, too, in the way I ordered the manuscript, that I hadn’t thoughtfully considered the position of my reader. That summer, I began the long dismantling (literally) of the old manuscript. I pulled out poems. I brought it down from five sections to four. The entire manuscript was reshaped, reorganized. It spoke to the reader in a different way and no longer began from a defensive or argumentative stance. By the time I submitted it again to the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize, it was an entirely new entity with a new name.
The poems represented here seem to me to have in common a theme that might be called “fracture.” Obviously, with its subject matter and visual shape on the page, “Move-In” puts forward the theme, but the other poems, more subtly perhaps, also dwell in that thematic space, I think. Can you speak to this and if the theme plays its way through the rest of the collection?
In a discussion of Robert Pinsky’s poem in the essay “Narrative Values, Lyric Imperatives,” Stanley Plumly writes:
We think of narrative as a linear experience, as if it were, in some imagined realm, a straight line. It is, in fact, a corner turned, a pattern traced, a circumference circumscribed. The circular size of ‘Impossible to Tell,’ as it winds around and continues, as it extends without attenuating its intensity, as it acquires its various detail within a slow-circling vortex, the size of the poem works because, in spite of its linear length, it turns and returns around the common center of ‘a one-man renga,’ whose linked stories are impossible to tell straight—straight-faced, straight-on.
This quote, again, is from an examination of Pinsky’s poem specifically, but what Plumly describes is the kind of sustained meditation that was required in the writing and ordering of Driving Without a License. I find it quite thrilling that you’ve picked up on this theme of “fracture” and think that you accepting a batch of poems that can exist in a published space in conversation with each other made my strategy even more apparent. (So, thank you for giving the poems that space!)
I began my earliest work on the manuscript in 2001 as a novel that failed, in part, because I set out to write a “story”—that is, I started out in front of my computer writing a linear narrative with a beginning, middle, and end about an experience that contained and was anything but. What it means to be an undocumented immigrant—more specifically, an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines—could mean living in limbo for several years. The first time I met with an immigration lawyer, for instance, I was told that I had come from a country that had long reached its quota of immigrants here in the United States. And doesn’t the circuitous scrutiny Plumly describes now seem only inevitable when one’s position in life is at a standstill?
I am reminded of the existential voice in crisis in the song by Talking Heads that asks, to no one in particular, “How did I get here?” An undocumented student in a similar position as I many years ago described it aptly in the Pacific Citizen article, “Undocumented Asian Students Speak Out.” When asked what it feels like to have watched her peers go to college, Stephanie explained, “I feel like I’m in a time warp… I feel like everyone is growing up so fast… everybody keeps graduating and everybody keeps moving on.” Later in the song, the voice repeats: “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”
Part of the work of Driving Without a License is to de-center the dominant narrative about illegal immigration and provide at least one other rhetorical site for articulating the histories and experiences of undocumented immigrants in America. Compelled to fracture the long-established (and frequently reductive) linear immigration narrative wherein a person immigrates, overcomes adversity, assimilates, and achieves the American Dream, I approached the undocumented immigrant condition by resisting any impulse toward an arc and intentionally “turn(ing) and return(ing)” to a center. From the beginning, the manuscript’s psyche is troubled and the poems trace a pattern of experience, treating the narrative as it is actually lived, as a non-linear, fractured, and circuitous experience. The poems take into account the speaker’s storehouse of memory; they reflect a person always in hiding, in flight.
I’m loath to describe a poet’s work as autobiographical without justification. So, are these autobiographical poems, partly autobiographical and partly fictional, or persona-driven poems? Discuss.
There exists somewhere an interview I did in 2009 after I received a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship where I was asked to talk about my work. When the interview aired, I was overcome with remorse—in it I said something to the effect of, “My poems always seem to be about the experience of undocumented immigrants.” Now, I know that that clumsily uttered sentence alone doesn’t seem like it should have thrown me into a weekend of self-reflection, but it did, and I’m glad you’ve asked a question that may finally allow me to exercise some bravery. To answer your question simply: Yes, the poems in Driving Without a License are drawn from my own lived experiences. For a long time, yes, I had been undocumented in America, and when I responded to that question about what my work “was about,” I had eschewed my own life story. Worse, as I recalled all the times I had used similar language, I realized that my silence propagated what people assumed about undocumented immigration, about undocumented immigrants: that it was a Latino/a issue and that the undocumented immigrant identity was someone else’s. (Note: this was before Jose Antonio Vargas’ piece in The New York Times. If you haven’t read it, please do now.)
To be fair, I don’t believe, despite my being a permanent resident by then and somewhat in the clear, that I was ready or prepared to talk about my work in a way that didn’t involve some hesitancy. More, I didn’t yet know how to articulate what it meant to be a legal immigrant, as it only made it more apparent that I was not one before. To be called by a different name now only reminded me that I had been name-called. Every poem I wrote explored these coexisting identities, and in this way my response, perhaps, was an acknowledgement of such a state of mind. I was also neck-deep in my study of poetic craft and it was important to me to focus on telling a truth about the escapade of immigrating to another country. Facts were what could be cut from a poem to strengthen a line, to fine tune the music. Facts were what I put on my I-485. When I scrapped the novel and channeled my creative energies into linked poems (in lieu, say, of a memoir), I—and I’m going to quote Plumly again here—surrendered myself “to the material, its memory and the time it (took) to reiterate how impossible it is to approximate, let alone articulate, pain.”
I think, though, that there is a danger in reading my work as if it is pure “autobiography.” I am well aware of the political implications of “confession.” To reach for the facts would be to cling to the wrong things. Without a doubt, because I myself immigrated at the age of eight (fact), what specifics I remember about the actual move are undoubtedly blurry or altogether incomplete. In my personal narrative, for example, the decision to uproot happened overnight though, in reality, the seeds to do so may have been planted several months or even years before the date was set. While I do remember being allowed to choose the airplane snack packed in my bag, I don’t remember packing. Immigration is rarely ever uncomplicated, and its retelling often requires several tries or exchanging of facts with others to better approach what feels true. On more than one occasion, I put two or three accounts in a room together and let their dialogue or interrogation of each other’s versions become the poem.
In “How to Tell a True War Story,” Tim O’Brien writes, “You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.” The truth is both relative and cumulative—a true war story is as much about sunlight and marching as it is about sisters and sorrow. It is when those stories are drawn out from their larger wholes that they begin to feel inexact, as if they’re missing or concealing something. This feeling is not because O’Brien is intentionally being evasive, but rather because the subject matter he is grappling with, we know, is complex.
You’re not only a poet, you also have produced recent work for the stage, a libretto and a script adaptation, both commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera. What brings you that that sort of work? How does that sort of creative engagement inform, if it does, what you do as a poet?
I began my work with the Houston Grand Opera’s community-focused initiative, HGOco, thanks to Rich Levy at Inprint—a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement and support of literature in Houston. As Inprint supports the students in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, Rich was familiar with who I was and recommended me to HGOco. You may know how the rest of the story goes: I interviewed to write the libretto for one of the chamber operas for their four-year “Song of Houston: East + West” series and was, by some stroke of luck, a match. I worked with the composer, Jeeyoung Kim, and wrote the libretto for the Korean opera, From My Mother’s Mother. Had I had experience writing librettos? Not at all, but I knew poetry and HGOco was interested in a poet handling text that would be set to music. More, I was compelled by the inspiration for the piece and wanted to try my hand at something that felt both familiar and new. I prepared by reading the previous season’s chamber operas, by reviewing the structures of the plays, operas, and musicals I loved as a child (I grew up in the theater and, for a chunk of my childhood, in front of the camera). When HGOco approached me, I had just finished taking my comprehensive exams and was not yet ready to walk back into the work of my manuscript. I needed a vacation! The work I did (and continue to do) with HGOco allowed me to be a creative body in an entirely new landscape. I’ve been astoundingly fortunate.
Finally, what’s next for you? Have you begun work on a second volume of poetry? Is there something else up your sleeve?
I have and there is—but it’s still too early to tell what any of it is!
Tago Ng Tago (“TNT”)
—Meaning “always hiding,” a Tagalog term used to describe undocumented immigrants in the Filipino community.
He was petrified of them, though I can’t say,
because of what we did,
that he was gullible. Once, my cousins snaked
the hallway and waited for him
to power on the lights. He sprinted from their house
to ours, where we were as cold-blooded,
shrieking Watch out! from our open door.
Wall cavities, attics, and crawl spaces made him
wet his pants. Anywhere the grass moved
or seemed to move. Our poor cousin, we’d say
and Kawawa naman when he laid low
beneath the bottom bunk, waiting
to surprise his mother who we knew
was not his mother saving up in the States,
but a family friend with her hand out to him.
He stood quietly, his shirt ironed
and tucked, a good, good boy in line
with his stand-in mother at the passport office,
while we were vigilant about saying nothing
that might set him off. Be a good, good
girl, they said, and held me back
when I stepped out of the car. I clamped
my eyes shut. I could catch conjunctivitis
from making eye contact. They pointed
at my throat, bobbing, and said disclosing
too much would make it explode.
Widow-white, Aba dreamt he came back,
and we couldn’t stop laughing. Abu,
dead for three days, could never come back.
It was the dog, snuggled at your back,
we said. What is the matter with you?
Widow-white, Aba dreamt he came back
and lay close, raised goose bumps on her back.
The dog too, we laughed and said, Abu’s
been dead for days. He’ll never come back.
All the same, she slept curving her back
like a spoon for his breath. Said Abu’s
white hands held hers the time he came back.
So we flew the next morning. Her back
turned like ours, few pictures of Abu.
Dead for three days, the dead don’t come back.
We don’t laugh when we say his fall cracked
the tile. We dreamt of him each night, too.
Widowed white, Aba dreamt he came back
dead, for days. We had to bring her back.
Aba had never seen a crane but called the white bird branching
from the street-front pepper tree a crane
and though we knew her eyes were whiting with cataracts
we hipped our boxes and stood nodding on the walk
Without miracle its wings untucked and our beagles split
airstrips of hackles up their coats Fact and in full-color
there it was The tallest bird in North America!
J. whooped And so it was
Hey welcome the neighbors said and said
it’s earthquake season You all ought to strap down
the wall-to-wall-ware the china and mom’s
Madonna & Child carved into a wheel of holywood
The waves’ll start in the living room they said and shake out
like rattlesnakes from there the epicenter and head
to where the children’ll sleep Things could get bad? I asked Fast
Snakes in the Grass
Shortly after D. said I
—and by I she meant those
like me—should die, S. and I drove over
to Auto Zone for another air filter because,
he said, it’d give us better gas mileage
and back then I was always about
gas mileage. What can I say?
He loved me, but I was ticked,
of course—I was young and pinchedpennies and since, you know,
I was what was called an overstayer,
I didn’t have much of much
to spend, right? That happened
and then I was stung by a bee
—a bee of all things—on the way
home and I cried because it was
the first time and it hurt so much
I swear my arm’s getting the tingles now
—but it’s not like I thought I’d die.
It was a different sort of swell.
See, S. and I would arm wrestle
—do the mercy-thing—
and I’d win though he had, what,
ten inches of altitude on me
and could’ve fishtailed my ulna
and humerus day and night
from up there. Heck yeah I was tough.
And D.—she knew a bit
or two about healing, could whip
a poultice with baking soda
and water and snatch the sting right
out of me. So I forgave her—
she hadn’t even spoken the worst
of it. S. had gone and told
everyone what it was I was,
and after that, all hell—
all hell broke loose—
the kicker. Thank god I believed
D. and S. and in what wonders
a little nodding off could do
and snuck upstairs to sleep,
or do what my father called resting,
for a second, with my eyes closed.
The way my legs grew out from inside
my skirt like two whips,
the look of my arms in my old
fishnets. Everything slit
to my thigh and a body
you could sink your teeth
into. I had a crush on a boy
and a friend hung
up on his brother. Red
suspenders and red shoelaces,
they were white
power. Washing my face
with the thin brick
of my mother’s soap,
the red on my lips got redder.
Some called it Goth, I called it
lighter and was a steel-toed boot
over the empties.