May 30, 2010

One has to rely on memory so much when one is always leaving: A conversation with Janine Joseph | R. A. Villanueva

This morning I found myself walking towards a bodega that had just opened for the day. Outside its front door were two long-haired dachshunds leashed to a bike, yapping at the air.

A small boy ambled out onto the sidewalk holding a bagel with both hands and began yapping back at the dogs, matching their pitch and cadence. A crossing guard paused to ash her cigarette into a planter. The sky was the shade of gray fresh sparkplugs come in.

On the opposite side of the street, a man was torso-deep in the front cavity of a delivery truck. His partner was in the driver’s seat waiting for a signal to press on the gas.

Seeing that landscape in motion, I realized that it’s nearly impossible for me to walk through the city without remembering Janine Joseph’s poems—their synaptic grace, their suture and flash. What we routinely wander past is what so often becomes the particulate and catalytic matter of her work.


R: As I start to type, I realize that logging a chat is a fairly unconventional way to be profiling you and your work, but this form is pretty indicative of how you and I talk these days. And I can't recall an extended stretch of time where you and I weren't sending each other news articles or prompts for new poems or links to absurd things that we stumble upon.

I think you and I are actually pretty lucky to be able to chat and catch up online, especially since I exist as "invisible" from September to May. I like to think of it as my way of letting people know I haven't forgotten about them.

R: That's a major concern for you: memorial and recognition—loss and the verge of reclamation. I remember it vividly from when we were in workshop, too. The drafts you'd bring in were racing with those kinds of tensions.

Exactly, and for several reasons--the first being that I have been living a life that involves me moving from place to place.

R: Would easing into a more consistent terrain affect you? Comfort you?

I think I'm finding about that now, living in Houston. At the start of the PhD program, I knew that this was going to be a fairly long-term commitment. 4-5 years. I knew I would have to stay put in Texas (with the occasional flights back to CA to spend time with my family). I've spent the past two years here telling myself that living here means I'll be able to finally write about and make sense of my experiences in the Philippines, California, and New York. I liked to think it was a comfort to be away from the places that have such an impact on the manuscript I'm working on.

But "easing into a more consistent terrain" would mean that I was safe—and I'm very suspicious of thinking I'm ever safe.

R: You depend on distance, then? Being an émigré is a kind of necessity for you? Because I've always been struck by how "receptive" your poems are, how readily they make meaning from the ore of conversations and immediate encounters, even names...

I don't think it is so much that I depend on distance. Distance so far has been what has provided me with opportunities to write and make a living. School has been a shelter of sorts for me. Houston is tied up with the PhD—hopefully the last degree I will get—and so moving here also meant moving to a place where I could stay put for a while and work. I didn't need to go elsewhere to continue doing the work I wanted to do. That being said, I like to think that being an émigré isn’t a kind of necessity to me, but it's a climate I've gotten used to. About every two years I feel restless.

R: And what's the "work you want to do" now? Is the manuscript an evolution of the NYU thesis? Are you renovating that prior collection, Human Archipelago?

My memory used to be such a wonderful thing. I made meaning because I had so much stored in my head, so every new encounter, new name, and new conversation would trigger an old one. Like the actual "Memory" card game: I would turn over a new card, say a card with an apple, and my brain would automatically go find the other apple card. There was always a pair. (I found, too, that my poems tend to have pairs. Some will get written years later).

Yes, I am still working on Human Archipelago, though I'm reconsidering a possible name change. I've carried that title since my thesis as an undergraduate at UC Riverside...through my thesis at NYU.

R: You know, that's another reason I wanted to conduct our dialogue "here." You were involved in a major automobile collision last year and, after your accident, you and I ran some strange thought and memory experiments without really knowing it.

We did. I'm actually glad you brought up my car accident because I'm having trouble talking about the thing without mentioning it.

R: It was over GTalk that you told me about what had happened, assured me that you were recovering, and gave me updates on your state of mind. And then, when you forgot that you had already shared the news, you told me again.

All those lapses and inventions and backtrackings that went on, you saved them. But I never save these dialogue windows. I wonder: what you call the "thing”—has it held sway over your writing in any way?

Absolutely. It holds sway over all of my writing—first drafts, final drafts, revisions, and when I share the poems aloud at a reading.

It would also explain why I keep talking about my memory in the past tense and why I said earlier that I "liked to think" Houston would be my place to finally put together the Philippines, California, and New York.

It's like turning the apple card over and only recognizing that it is an apple.

R: Both conceptual and procedural, then? What I mean is: both in the sense that you are aware of the fragility of memory as theme in your work and in the sense that it's a challenge to compose, recall, formulate for you since the collision?

Does that make sense?

It does. I am also aware of the fragility of identity and personality as a theme in my work. Identity in my work is (was?) so tied up in memory (one has to rely on memory so much when one is always leaving) that much of my identity went with my memory after the accident. Much of my speaker's identity also went, too. By "speaker," I of course mean the speaker in my poems.

It's difficult to recall an identity when you can't recall memories.

I think I mentioned once to you that a few months after the accident I mistook a memory of a scene in Finding Nemo as one of my own personal memories. I remembered myself as the fish (Dory?—the one Ellen DeGeneres gives voice to) trying to find an exit.

Now, nearly two years after the accident, I can attempt to make some meaning out of remembering myself as a fish trying to find an "escape" (remember the scene? She keeps reading "es-cah-peh"), but the process is slower. I can't always trust what I'm remembering, especially at a time when I wasn't remembering anything. Before, in my pre-accident poems, those associations were happening faster. Everything was more urgent. And even the form of the lines seemed like they had to reflect that.

R: I wanted to bring that up. One of the idiosyncratic features of your poetry is the serrated enjambment and the way initials—usually the first letter of a first name—become transfigured into speakers.

Are these conscious rituals for you? Organizing principles? Assignations of identity?

Those associations I was speaking about earlier? Those are what gave way to the "serrated enjambment" you're talking about. I wasn't making line breaks to keep short lines. I wasn't really dividing by units of sound. Some of my lines are broken by syllabics, yes, but for some, that enjambment picked up the pace, came back to punch you, surprise you, etc. As the writer, I knew how to set up because I was in on the surprise, on the connection. My more recent poems have to handle those enjambments differently now.

So, yes, they were conscious.

The initials that pop up in my poems, too, are conscious choices. Now that I'm further along in my manuscript, they're also a way to organize the collection.

R: But now they feel too conscious? Because, in reading your poems-in-progress, I can still recognize your signature (intellectual, architectural) all over the drafts.

I remember writing in the margins on one of your early, early poems in Sharon’s workshop that featured with multiple “J’s”. There was a certain kind of faith and audacity in that poem. What was the title of that piece?


R: "Narrative." I remembered wrong. I thought it was "Identity."
It had a different title during the drafting phase. "Giving away the tribe" was the first title. Maybe that's what you're remembering?

R: Perhaps it's due to my response to that poem—how I never felt at all lost or disoriented amidst all the various speakers. I could fix on each recognizable persona even though they all shared the same marker.

And thank you for saying that you still recognize my "signature" in my in-progress, squirrelly drafts.

R: It's unmistakable.

Ha! I actually was confused as to whether or not I had a poem titled "Identity" in my NYU thesis and just used the search function in that document. Apparently, that search item is nowhere to be found.

Ah the irony.

R: The concussion giveth and hath taken away.

I became more aware of my "signature" enjambments because for a while, when I was trying to write again after the accident, I was trying so hard to write as I did pre-accident. I ended up mimicking myself—and terribly. I had to evolve.

R: What does that evolution mean for you?

I wish I knew, to be honest. I'm still working on making meaning of all of these poems about travel, cars, identity, memory, family—you name it. Everything I wrote about was waiting at the stoplight with me. It was 52 Pick-Up. I'm learning now (and it's been quite the process) that I can't be committed to whatever voice or style I think I remember from the accident. As I mentioned before, copying myself led to disastrous poems.

Ha! Already I'm (in my head) making connections to travel. To migration.

R: Right now? You're composing a poem right now?

No, but I am thinking about how all of these poems work or can work together. Of course, when I'm actually looking at all of them I don't feel the same way. But I think you're on to something—re: I'm still architecturally sound.

R: Well, that has to put you at ease. You've calibrated yourself to the disaster—the potential "disaster" of the poems...
"The Art of Losing." I feel like I'm doing this. I'm saying this to myself. I'm saying "(Write it!)" the same way she is.

Again, all this could be said for what it feels like to leave everything behind and move to a new place. I actually re-remembered the poem (and found new meaning in it) when a friend moved out of the country. It became her go-to poem and, reading it through her lens, I realized it was my go-to poem also.

I still have trouble typing (or not typing) words I mean to. When I hit "send" and see the gap, I think to myself "Lose something every day. Accept the fluster..."

I'm sure I've skipped a few words during our conversation. I try to double-check.

R: Everything makes sense so far.

—oh, wow. The poem is called "One Art." I knew that. Ha! We know what I was thinking.

"Accept the fluster."

To tie together two things you mentioned earlier, I think evolving = reclamation.

R: Can you see some direction for that process? To where are you headed? What's the project or point of arrival?

I can see some direction in this, surely, and it's nothing close to the direction I thought I was heading in after I submitted my NYU thesis. When I submitted Human Archipelago, I could clearly see what poems were missing in order to complete the manuscript. I knew they were missing because I knew they'd be the hardest ones to write. Still, even then, I was thinking in terms of poems-to-complete-the-manuscript. I don't know if I'm explaining myself correctly. I just know that the story has gotten larger since my accident. It's more unwieldy. There are parallels. In my poems, my speaker moves in and out of non-self and self. She's an undocumented immigrant and a documented immigrant. She's an undocumented immigrant becoming a documented immigrant. She's a documented immigrant who has been an undocumented immigrant. She is a speaker who remembers something she was—something that she, quite literally, no longer is. Yet both things are a part of her. There are parallels.

Now if my brain would only cooperate!

Like I said, it's become unwieldy. I need to figure out what to trim. What epiphanies I might be having that aren't necessary to this manuscript.

I also need to learn when and where to leave the accident be and just finish the collection. Because losing that manuscript would feel like disaster.

Janine Joseph is a Ph.D. student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. Her poems have appeared in Third Coast, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Calabash, among other journals. A Kundiman fellow who has worked with Prageeta Sharma and Myung Mi Kim, she is a recent recipient of a Brazos Bookstore/Academy of American Poets prize and a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. She holds degrees from UC Riverside and the Creative Writing Program at NYU where she taught with the Starworks Foundation and Community-Word Project. She currently teaches with Writers in the Schools and serves as a poetry editor for Gulf Coast.

R.A. Villanueva’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Indiana Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, DIAGRAM, The Literary Review, and The Collagist. A Kundiman fellow, he has studied with Marilyn Chin, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Ishle Yi Park. He is currently a Language Lecturer at New York University.

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