Joseph Ross is the author of three books of poetry, Ache, Gospel of Dust, and Meeting Bone Man. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications including, The Los Angeles Times, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Sojourners. His work also appears in several anthologies including, Collective Brightness, Poetic Voices without Borders 1 and 2, Full Moon on K Street, and Come Together; Imagine Peace. He recently served as the 23rd Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, just outside Washington, D.C. He is a six-time Pushcart Prize nominee and his poem "If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize.
Joyce Brown: I read that you feel your newest book, Ache is your best work yet. What do the poems in this collection mean to you? Did you start writing with the theme in mind?
Joseph Ross: The poems in Ache came about over the course of three or four, maybe even five years. As I looked at everything I’d been writing, the unifying theme that came clear to me was this notion of deep yearning.
I wanted to find a word that would work in terms of a deep yearning about sadness, a deep yearning for justice, a deep yearning for love, and with the word ache, everything fell into place. All of the poems in this collection, in some way, talk about deep longings. Sometimes real heartbreak, too, like the Trayvon Martin poems especially.
I think in a lot of ways Ache responds to some of the very difficult things that have been happening in our country. Not just since last November, but before then. The immigration poems, for example, refer to the unaccompanied minors flooding across the southern border four or five years ago. Everybody was responding as if the earth was their own and they could say who gets to go some place and who doesn't. It just seemed crazy to me, so I wanted to give voice to some of that yearning, that hunger for something else. I hope these poems from various vantage points do that.
Joyce: Let's talk a little bit about the Trayvon Martin poems. What do they say about the choices we make?
Joseph: I was teaching at the Carroll High School here in D.C. at that time, which was 99% African American and the students were talking about the George Zimmerman trial a lot. We'd talk about it in class, too, and the idea became clear to me — same country, different planet. We're all here in the same space, but we inhabit it in such different ways. We all make choices, and that's what the "George Zimmerman's Options" poem is about. I thought it needed to be plainly expressed that things could have been different.
Joyce: Much of your poetry focuses on social and racial justice. What’s the story behind the activism in your poetry?
Joseph: My dad was a laborer and an organizer for the United Steel Workers in California. Probably at a certain point, it was his full-time job when I was pretty young. I was raised to look at society from the bottom up. What matters most are those people who are not getting the necessities of life. That's where your concern has to be drawn, that's where your eyes need to go. We weren't poor, we never lacked anything, but weren't wealthy either. My dad is probably from the last generation of people who, without a college education, could buy a house and have a comfortable life and retire. I don't know if anybody can do that today, but he was of that World War II generation where your politics and everything about you focused on the betterment of others.
I grew up outside of Los Angeles in a pretty diverse area. It doesn't feel very suburban today, but I think it was back then. Growing up it was clear to me that I had racist friends, and I had lots of friends who were black. The Hispanic community there, too, was very ghettoized and despised by some. But we were Catholic and I was raised in the spirit of the Catholic left labor movement, and that kind of ethic makes you look at people who are suffering first. It was just how I was raised.
Joyce: When did you realize you were a poet, and who encouraged you to write?
Joseph: Indirectly, I go back to my parents. They didn't encourage me necessarily to write or to write poetry, but they were both huge readers. Every week we’d go to the library, and there’d be a big stack of books for us, and we were in all the summer reading programs. If I didn't have parents who read, my life would have been really different. My folks weren't college educated, they weren't sophisticated in that way, but they loved to read, and they passed on that love to my sister and me. I think that's where it began, although they weren’t explicitly encouraging me to write.
I think reading a lot is one of the best things you can do if you want to write. I wrote terrible poetry as a high school kid and later in college it was a little less terrible, but I was always reading. When I was in graduate school, I got more serious about poetry and began to send things out for publication. Though, my publishing life came pretty late.
Regarding getting serious about the publishing world, Randall Horton really encouraged me. Randall and others who were in a poetry group here in D.C. were the people who told me to go for it. Until then, I didn't think I had that in me. I know I do now, but it's not what I thought 20 years ago. Somebody else whose poems have meant a lot to me over the years is Martín Espada. He's a poet and a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He’s an outstanding poet, and his work really inspired me. Not that he knew this at the time, but he knows it now. He was writing the kinds of poems I wanted to write, so that was an indirect encouragement, I suppose.
Joyce: How important is the accessibility of meaning? How hard should I have to work to figure out a poem?
Joseph: There's this whole school of thought that says for a poem to be good, the language has to be couched and hidden and nonsensical in a certain way, which I think is just ridiculous. There are poems that I’ve I read that I think have very beautiful language, but I've no idea what the poet is talking about.
I’ve taught my poetry students the phrase surprising language. A good poem uses the element of surprise; it describes something in a way that is still understandable but not in a way that the reader might expect. That matters most to me in a poem.
Some poems stay with you over the course of your life and your understanding of the poems change as you change. But I for one, don't believe we're going to be reading poems in a hundred years that people don't understand. You have to understand at least some aspect of it for it to matter to you; then it can move you in an emotional way which is one of the great strengths of poetry as an art form.
Joyce: What do you see as your role as a teacher in today’s society?
Joseph: When I first graduated college, I taught high school in California for a couple of years, and that's been the thread all the way through my life.
At Notre Dame I taught in their freshman writing program, and then coming to D.C., I went to Carroll High School and taught, and now I'm at Gonzaga, a Jesuit high school which is a great fit because the Jesuits have a tradition of working for social justice.
With my students, I focus on providing them with literature that will hopefully provoke them to ask questions, as well as challenge them to think about what our country is like, what the world is like, and what it could be like. If my classes and the reading spark them enough to take action or to write, then I know I’m doing my job, and I’m where I need to be.
Joyce: Do you have any other writing projects coming up?
Joseph: Right now, I’m focused on the launch of Ache and have a lot of readings lined up for that. I do have another project that I’ve been working on for a while, and I hope I'm turning the last corner since it's taking longer than I wished. It’s a manuscript of poems about Martin Luther King. The poems are built around three of Dr. King’s political autobiographies and the starting point for each of the poems are actual sentences from those books. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of his assassination, so my hope is that it could be published sometime in 2018.
To learn more about Joseph Ross and his work, visit josephross.net.