On Wednesday, August 7 poets Joseph Ross and Piotr Gwiazda will join us for Poetry & Conversation. To get our creative thinking moving in anticipation of this great event, I had the opportunity to interview Joseph Ross.
Ross is the author of two poetry collections: Meeting Bone Man (2012) and Gospel of Dust (2013). His poems appear in many anthologies and literary journals including Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Drumvoices Revue. He has received three Pushcart Prize nominations and is the winner of the 2012 Enoch Pratt Free Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Contest. He teaches English at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., and writes regularly at JosephRoss.net.
One of the things that shows through very strongly in your poetry is your social conscience. How did that develop?
Two loving and compassionate parents raised me. My dad had been a union organizer in California and my mom grew up in a large family, economically poor. They were both people of high integrity who instilled in me a vivid sense of justice, a sense that the world is not always fair. They raised me to see the world from the bottom up. Seeing society from that perspective—politically, economically, socially, formed my conscience to ask questions like "Why are people poor?"
While we never lacked the necessities of life, we didn't have a lot of luxuries. Their choice to live that way, to completely give themselves to my sister and me, provided me with an amazing example of generosity. If my poetry contains an element of conscience, I hope it honors my parents. I think it's very important, especially in today's world where we see such dramatic inequality, that poets especially, not shy away from matters of conscience.
How did you come to write poetry?
In school, reading and writing drew me in. I was a mad reader and loved to write too. I began to write poetry in college though it was not very good. I wrote more and more over time and in graduate school it became an essential part of my life. I had not published much until 2000 when I moved to Washington, D.C. and got involved with DC Poets Against the War. Here I found a magnificent community of poets who befriended me and helped my work improve. I began to take my poetry more seriously and to send a lot more of it out for publication.
In Meeting Bone Man, the language is unadorned but you are able to construct strong and penetrating images from this very simple building material. Can you say something about that?
Thank you. I hope that's true! I favor a skeletal, spare kind of poem. For me, the best poem removes what is not needed. It searches for the simplest, cleanest form. I don't always get there but that's usually my aim. I also think readers can best be reached by a singular, powerful image. I know that's what works for me when I'm reading.
A dense poem can be less clear. It's also true, I think, that a simple but clear image offers a reader more options. The reader can sometimes just take in an image—be immersed in it—and it might speak to the reader in ways that more words in the poem can't.
Meeting Bone Man is all about death and loss. Your mother's death, your father's old age, Darfur, Gettysburg, the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, etc. I haven't read your just-released book, Gospel of Dust—I'm looking forward to purchasing it at your Pratt Reading on August 7—but it sounds from the title that it may have similar themes. Are these your themes? Why?
I guess in some ways they are "my" themes. Mortality grabs me and I have a deep desire to understand it as best I'm able. Gospel of Dust does have some of that theme but it also focuses on people whose lives have been "good news." Gospel of Dust uses lots of religious and spiritual images, which mean a great deal to me. It's not a religious book, I don't think, but it dives into several religious images. It has four sections: "The Human Gospel" which explores people whose lives have been good for the world like Rosa Parks, Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, among others. "The Pieta Gospel" focuses on feminine images and mother and son images, which are powerful to me. "The Written Gospel" contains poems literally based on accounts from the written gospels. "The Ritual Gospel" dives into various new takes on ritual. It explores riots as ritual, graffiti art as ritual. It contains a series of poems titled "If Tupac Shakur Was a Priest." So I hope it offers some fresh approaches to ritual religious language.
You are a teacher. Do you view this as your day job that you do while you write or is this co-equal to your writing career?
My writing and teaching coincide very happily together. I do not think of teaching as separate from my writing at all. In teaching, I'm able to engage with young people over great works of literature. I experience this as a great privilege. It feeds my writing and, I hope, my writing makes me a better teacher too. I do not see them as separate at all. Teaching also allows me to read student writing and to help them write more clearly. Teaching it helps me do it better myself, no question about that.
Who are your favorite poets?
I love William Butler Yeats, Langston Hughes, T.S. Eliot, Lucille Clifton, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I read their work regularly and lots of their poems live in my mind all the time. Among living poets I'm always amazed by the work of Randall Horton, Jericho Brown, Naomi Shihab Nye, Chris Abani, Eavan Boland and E. Ethelbert Miller. There are many more I'm not thinking of now but I read a lot of poetry. There's great poetry being written today. I feel fortunate to be alive at a time when so much good work is being written. I totally reject the sometimes-popular view that poetry is dead. That's crazy. I'm sorry for anyone who thinks that; they clearly don't know the poetry world I know.
How did you feel the day I called and told you that you won the Enoch Pratt Free Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry contest? Has winning that contest opened any doors for you?
When you called I was momentarily in disbelief. Then I was thrilled. In fact, I'm still thrilled. I was so glad to receive that honor. I'm a poet who has been very fortunate in publications but who has not won many awards. So I was, and am, delighted to hold that award. It's wonderful to have one's work recognized by others. I was especially glad of this award because it furthered the reach of my poem "If Mamie Till Was The Mother of God." I am glad for anything that keeps telling Mamie Till's story. As you know, she was an ordinary woman who made a difficult decision—to reveal her son's murdered face to the world. It was a consequential decision that helped start the Civil Rights movement in America. I admire her and was thrilled the award would further her story.
I don't know for certain that the award opened any doors but I suspect it did implicitly. I've been connected to other projects related to "Little Patuxent Review." I've been connected to readings and events in Baltimore that I probably would not have connected to. On something as simple as my bio, which poets constantly update and revise, I hope it lets others know that some of my work has been recognized. I'm grateful for that. I also can't forget the magnificent cake you provided at the award reading! Now that was a true reward!
I'm grateful that the Pratt Library honors poetry by collaborating with Little Patuxent Review on this award. The Pratt Library has shown itself to be so much more than a place for books. It's really an advocate for literature and that's what America needs today. I'm grateful the Pratt Library sees itself as a champion for poets and poetry and the award helps to further this art form, which I love.
For more Poetry & Conversation, please join us in the Poe Room August 7 at 6:30. Follow @librarypoems to learn about other poetry events at the Pratt Library, & join the conversation at #PrattPoetry.