In 2014, I met Janine Joseph at the Kundiman Poetry Retreat at Fordham University. A first-time fellow, I was struck by Joseph’s enthusiasm about poetry, her commitment to literary communities, and her recent honor of receiving the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. At the retreat, she read many poems that would be published in her debut collection Driving without A License (Alice James Books, 2016). They explore what it means to be an adolescent in America, from tending to one’s heart, to seeking adventures, to discovering one cannot get a driver’s license because of one’s previously unknown undocumented status.
Joseph was born in the Philippines. As she explains in an essay in Zocolo Public Square, “My father, who at the time worked for President Cory Aquino, strongly believed that we, his children, might never learn the value of hard work if we stayed and inherited our family’s social and economic status in the Philippines.” In 1991, Joseph and her family immigrated to California, a place she had visited several times. “What I did not know was that we entered the country on tourist visas and let them expire,” she writes.
LA Times critic Stephen Burt describes the poems in Driving without A License as, “fictions based on her story, not documents: They’re too careful, too ironic, too self-aware for that.” The poems contain text from newspaper articles about undocumented immigrants and from the US government’s Naturalization forms and are sprinkled with references to American popular culture. Throughout, Joseph experiments with forms, including the ghazal, villanelle, sestina (in couplets), and a crown of sonnets. Within the confines of each form, Joseph bends the rules and intervenes in strategic places. “I handled [the forms] basically the same way I handled my undocumented immigrant life,” she told me.
In addition to poems and essays, which have been published widely in places such as Kenyon Review online and Best American Experimental Writing, Joseph has written librettos commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco. The recipient of numerous awards, she now lives in Stillwater, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University.
When I first heard her poems two years ago, I knew how vital they were to the conversations about who can claim American identity. Since then, the scapegoating and outright vitriol directed toward immigrants has only grown, making her debut collection even more essential on anyone’s American poetry shelf.
Joseph and I met on a sunny afternoon in May in Manhattan, while she was in town to read at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Throughout the conversation, we spoke about writing poems as teenagers, how writers create fictions from their own and others’ experiences, and what it meant for Joseph to “come out” as an undocumented immigrant. We later followed up over email.
The Rumpus: Maybe we can start with the stunning book, if it’s alright to judge the book by its cover. Can you talk about how your book was born, and about its cover too?
Janine Joseph: Many, many thanks for the compliment, Swati! Driving without a License has a few origin stories, actually, but I’ll share here the moment when the life I would try to resume as normal would never again be the same—the day I got the phone call from Alice James Books (AJB) about my winning the Kundiman Poetry Prize.
Rewind: In May of 2014, I received a phone call from Joseph O. Legaspi, co-founder of Kundiman, and believed he was calling me to follow-up on an email I sent him the week before about something I no longer remember. “No,” was my response to the news.
After I got off the phone with Joseph and Carey Salerno, Executive Editor of AJB, I immediately walked out into the backyard and suggested to my partner that we go buy some new paint for the walls. I wanted something bright—in the family of yellow, a color that always reminds me of the Philippines. Then I told him the news about the prize. He tells me now that I should have started with the good news. “What if I didn’t feel like going to Lowe’s that day?” he laughed.
AJB involves all of their authors in the cover art selection process, for which I was grateful, so I spent the rest of my summer’s days scouring various art blogs and websites for 15-20 possible covers. In June, after moving backwards through blog-time on Booooooom, I happened upon a 2012 post about California-based artist Michelle Blade and her painting-a-day project, 366 Days of the Apocalypse, and was transfixed. I went straight to her website/blog. 310 apocalyptic days back, I landed on “Day 56,” the piece that became the cover of DWAL. When people ask about my cover, they’re always surprised to find that the piece wasn’t commissioned for the book.
Rumpus: When and how did you decide that “Driving without a License” would be title?
Joseph: I like thinking that the title Driving without a License is as much an illuminated map of the book’s journey as it is both a title of defiance and admission. I thought for a long time, for example, that the book would be called Human Archipelago. When I submitted it to the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize, it was titled Overstay. Other titles in the running—some for years at a time—were Extended Stay, That Name, and A Thousand and One American Nights. These titles were all scared to approach the book’s center, which Carey (Salerno) immediately recognized. The day the manuscript became Driving without a License was the day I said “yes” to the truth of my own life and coming-of-age experience as an undocumented immigrant. As a book in the queue, I knew that the poems would finally be together in one space—in conversation and corroboration—and that I could no longer be in hiding.
Rumpus: When reading your essay “Undocumented, and Riding Shotgun” in Zócalo Public Square, I was struck by your realizations about your immigration status while you were encountering the DMV to get a license and the FAFSA forms to get financial aid for college. Also, in the poem “Big Spin,” you wrote: “Think of school. Think of shoes. Think of/ lunch pails. We crossed our fingers,/ matched each game piece slowly,/ swept winning diagonally./ We didn’t know the Lotto laws: must be/ eighteen or older, must be citizens.” Can you talk about that process of discovering what undocumented immigrants were and weren’t allowed to do?
Joseph: I love that you asked this question, as I wrote “Undocumented, and Riding Shotgun” in preparation for the release of Driving without a License. Not very many people know, but that essay was my coming out of hiding. I was wrecked the entire day before and day of its publication—hence why I needed the practice.
I learned about what was allowed and, in my case, what wasn’t, while navigating teenage/young adult milestones alongside my peers. When others were signing up for their first checking accounts, for example, I had to ask my dad to open a children’s savings account at the local credit union for me. I used that account to save up for college. More important than learning what was or wasn’t allowed was learning to read and understand the fine print, the exceptions, and then learning how to adapt and transform in response.
Rumpus: I wonder if we can steer back to writing. While this was happening you already had a regular poetry writing practice. Can you talk about the beginning of your poetry writing and how you came to commit to studying literature.
Joseph: I started keeping a journal when I was eight, but even before then I was a kid who loved making long lists of every thing I could see or remember. Coconut, tricycle, jeepney, air freshener, I would write, for example, and my lists would lengthen and become even more specific as I grew to know the world around me. I remember opening my binder full of lists on every bus ride home and challenging my friends to a list-making competition. Reading and writing always seemed a part of my life and identity, and the school I attended in the Philippines held annual declamation contests (I once won second place for memorizing and performing a poem about an elephant with a toothache).
The summer after eighth grade, I happened upon a poem in YM, Seventeen, or Lucky—one of those teen magazines—and was so appalled at seeing a poem that used a love/dove rhyme that I assigned myself a prompt: to write a rhyming poem about love without using either offending word. I spent the rest of the summer filling a spiral notebook with poems, sometimes saving space by fitting two lines of poetry between each blue rule. Every word I put down amazed me—I was now learning what to do with the words I’d amassed. There was no turning back, as they say. I began writing “seriously” and with tremendous high school energy from that point on. By the end of my senior year of high school, I had over 400 (unrevised) poems organized by theme in a black binder. Every poem was riddled with abstractions and oozed with words practiced from an SAT word list.
Rumpus: Can you talk about the performance and slam poets you encountered in college, and how that changed your relationship to your material? And the relationship to characterization and developing poem’s speaker(s)?
Joseph: Enrolled in my first college-level introduction to creative writing class at Riverside Community College (now Riverside City College), I became friends with a slam poet named Mark Gonzalez who described his own poetry as a platform for his political beliefs. At that moment, when I was nineteen, poetry was blown wide open. It was the first time I’d ever heard someone talk about poetry as being something active and participatory in the world. I became aware, as if overnight, of the audience or reader in the room. Of my position in relation to them. Shortly after, I read Langston Hughes’s “Dinner Guest: Me” and was finally roused to write the first poem that approached my own lived experience as an undocumented immigrant.
Rumpus: Can you talk about your MFA at NYU, and how your writing evolved?
Joseph: Being able to write and finish Driving without a License required that I brave honesty in a few ways, the first being at the poem level. To do this meant that I, the poet, had to, for lack of a better phrase, “come out” to those who could help me become a better writer. At NYU, I met with my teachers and explained the background of my work—the life-details I would never openly discuss in the workshop space. At these initial meetings, I told them that I needed to know when it was necessary to divulge more information and when to do so was simply obvious scaffolding. It was after my meeting with Eamon Grennan, wherein he told me that before I could invent a new landscape for my readers I must first lay down the streets and signposts I wanted them to follow, that I wrote “History.”
Rumpus: Speaking about world-building, when did you start exploring metaphors, and all the cars, airplanes, and junkyards?
Joseph: When I was younger, I dated a car aficionado who was perpetually working on cars. He’d buy a junky car to work on and drove it until it broke down completely. We ran out of gas on our first date and ran the steel mass in a panic across the intersection. We searched, always, for car parts (hence the junkyarding…) and I spent so much time with him that even though I know nothing about cars, I know what it sounds like when one is in dire need of oil. I have (helped) replaced a serpentine belt and have, several times, rotated my own tires.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York—a walking city, a city with a subway system—that the specialized vocabulary surfaced in my poems. All of those poems with carburetors, engines, oil leaks, and rising gas prices—they were all written in subways or with the vibration from the rushing trains under my feet.
Rumpus: I wondered of we could talk about naming in your poems. In “The Name” the speaker refers to her almost names: Jennifer, Justine, Jasmin, or possibly “any name to break his family’s traditions of J’s.” I was also struck by the different J-’s in your poem “Narrative.” Can you talk about how voices can “blur” without distinctions of speakers and characters, and also remain anonymous.
Joseph: “Narrative,” was a poem I wrote with my family in mind. My grandfather started a tradition of naming every member of the Joseph family with a J-name (hence Jennifer, Justine, and Jasmin in “The Name,” too), so our family would always joke about how we’re able to make a reservation at a restaurant under the name “J. Joseph” and anyone could show up first to claim the table for the group.
I must’ve shared that anecdote with someone when I was working on my MFA because the poem also brings in (though the “facts” aren’t there) the anxieties from an article I’d read (years ago, when I was still in California) about people caught along the Mexico–United States border. The people who were detained played a bit of a prank on the border patrol agents; each gave one of two same names—Maria or José. I remember being amused at the time by their turn on the stereotype.
When I applied this strategy to my family’s shared initials, I thought about how our names prevented any single one of us from being “caught”—and how one person might also give everyone away. In this way, then, this poem moves away from storytelling, as the speaker is made aware that the telling of their stories puts everyone in the family in danger.
Rumpus: There is a sense to urgency I encountered as I read the poems. I was struck by the double meaning of the word “sentence” of the last lines of the poem “Junkyarding through the Great Moreno Valley”: “Sure, not much/ happened, but those things/ we’d holler one after the other/ across the junkyards, weekend after weekend,/ well, they became something/ like a language passed between us, our own/ long American sentence.” It seems as though the sentence is both a grammatical unit and also a term of punishment. Can you talk about urgency in your writing process, and the connection between language, discipline, and power in your poems?
Joseph: In my second year at NYU, I worked with Breyten Breytenbach and he talked about political prisoners who were permitted a piece of paper and a writing utensil only if a confession were about to be made. That semester, I woke up at 4 a.m. once a week—the only time I’d permit myself to write (that semester) at all. It was helpful to compartmentalize and allow myself only one day a week to be right back into the thick of my undocumented past. I should mention that, by this time, I had been a legal resident for less than a year so I was still in a period of transition.
More than compartmentalizing my various lives, that specific semester-long writing practice, I think, also helped to regulate the emotions I felt daily when I was undocumented. The speaker of my poems is often anxious, alarmed, or afraid, and the energy of the poems became manifestations of those emotional states.
Critic C. L. Barber writes that what made Shakespeare’s sonnets consistently and “astonishingly beautiful,” was that each achieved difference, “not by changing the framework of form, but by moving in fresh ways within it.” He compares Shakespeare’s movement within the form as being like a figure skater’s:
The figure skater starts each evolution by kicking off from an edge, and can move from one evolution to another either by staying on the same edge of the same blade, or changing from inside edge to outside edge, or from left foot inside to right foot inside, and so on—each of these technical moves focusing a whole living gesture on the balancing, moving body.
The speaker and characters in Driving without a License are often stuck or trapped, and since I couldn’t change the framework of the immigration-form, so to speak, I had to learn to “move” in “fresh ways” within the form.
Rumpus: In your poems “Wreck” and “Electromyography,” the speaker refers to accidents and hints to a brain injury, with the ghazal couplet structure of “Wreck” repeating the name “Janine” in every second line. In the LA Times profile, Stephen Burt referred to an accident you and your father were in 2008, where you were rear-ended at a spotlight, resulting in a concussion and memory loss that affected your for “months and years.” Can you talk about how your accident impacted what you wrote your poems about, how you actually wrote the poems, and how that affected putting the collection together?
Joseph: Several years ago, during my first semester of my PhD, I was involved in a rear-end collision at a stoplight by a sedan going around 50-70 mph on a semi-residential road. The impact was so great that the entire back seat of my father’s car was dislodged and his door was the only one that would open when the paramedics came to rush us to the hospital. I am currently wrestling with this event, my subsequent post-concussive memory loss, and how those years overlapped with my becoming a naturalized citizen.
The accident in 2008 changed everything. It altered me. I mean, one day, in the middle of working on Driving without a License, I woke up and remembered that I wrote poetry. I spent the days, weeks, months, and years following the accident remembering not only what I was writing about, but who I was. Imagine—all of the lives I’d lived and identities I’d adopted were now strewn.
Before the accident, I made poems by accessing my memory. I had so much of the Philippines and California stored in my head that every new encounter, new name, and new conversation would trigger an old one. Like the “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. After the accident, I was 52-Card Pickup.
Rumpus: In your VIDA essay “Language of the Border,” you write about reading poets of color. What does it mean to you, as a writer and professor, to read “both widely and deliberately?” What role do personal reading habits have in creating a more inclusive and even decolonized literary culture?
Joseph: At the start of my PhD, one of my professors pulled me aside and asked me why it was that I was so focused on studying and using Early American Literature as the frame of reference for my creative work. I was interested in several significant Early American texts, such as Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s La Relación of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, that worked to define and shape the American identity. Why not Postcolonial Literature, she inquired, and my literary lineage was blown wide open. For the first time in my student career, I was introduced to the field of literature that would become my third area of focus. My work and my self were repositioned once more.
My teachers all gifted me what they knew and made the best recommendations they could. Still, I was mortified to have never been matched to a field, to never have been pushed in the direction of my own work. Their reading blind spots became my own. It took someone who knew that literary conversation, the one that included writers like me, existed to show me the way.
How can I ever do the same for my students if I read comfortably, if I read within a singular, familiar or recognizable area? How can I help them identify/select their own literary inheritances if I only know mine? And how can I be a poet engaged with the world if I never leave my immediate literary surroundings?
Rumpus: How does it feel to put this book out now, given the current political conversation fueled by the rhetoric of presidential nominee Donald Trump (who follows many other politicians’ views) about immigration, especially undocumented immigrants? What about the immigration conversation has changed since you have been writing poetry and what has stayed the same?
Joseph: I am nervous about the upcoming election. Nervous. I watched the first iteration of the DREAM Act fail in 2001. Here we are, fifteen years later. All of those newspaper articles I clipped or printed and then later saved taught me one thing: immigration, particularly what to do about our “broken immigration system,” is a major topic any time someone wants to get elected—as if undocumented people aren’t having to live their realities every single day, not just during an election cycle. It was in 2015 that the New York Times editorial board ran a piece calling for the end of the term “Alien.” We are still asking media outlets to drop “illegal,” and people I know still use it around me. What has changed, though, is that undocumented people are now coming out of the shadows and sharing their stories. Things changed with the publication of Jose Antonio Vargas’s “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” in the summer of 2011.
A personal change: I joined the conversation.
Author photograph © Jaclyn Heward.