“Body and soul and dust and words”: An interview with Allison Joseph on Corporal Muse
conducted by Rochelle Hurt
In Allison Joseph’s new chapbook Corporal Muse, language itself is a central theme. It becomes physical, sensual, visceral in many poems. In "New Book Talking," we hear from a personified book asking to be touched, caressed, cared for physically. In "Poet's Love Spell," personification happens again, but the mode here is inverted—rather than a text becoming human, a human becomes a text: "I want to be your favorite line, / that poem you hum at night, / slick words you faithfully recite." Later, the reading experience becomes even more physical: "smooth sounds that calm your troubled lungs, / and ease that sobbing in your brain, / a link from me to you, sleek chain." In the title poem, writing itself is depicted as a bodily endeavor. The muse puts you, the writer, through a grueling process, "as his heavy stinking breath taints your skin, / your ears, your fingers aching." It was perhaps this pattern that made me repeatedly misread "Corporal Muse" as "Corporeal Muse," or at least entertain that slippage while reading. In the interest of further exploring this delightful slippage and the theme of language in the book, I interviewed Allison Joseph. Our conversation is below.
RH: I'm curious to hear your thoughts on mind and body, or intellectual and corporeal experiences as they pertain to language and writing. People often think of mind and body as separate or distinct features of our existence—or people conceive of the body as simply a vessel for the mind and spirit, but they seem intertwined in more complicated ways in this book. How would describe their relationship here, and the role of language in this relationship?
“So body and soul and dust and words all grew together in my mind.”
AJ: I am never able to separate the two, for together they make up my concept of what we might refer to as "soul." In this book, I tried—through humor and sometimes through pathos—to speak to that intertwining. I think that my inability or reluctance to separate the two comes from my early experiences with writing and reading—as a child, I was surrounded by books from one of my father's failed businesses (he once had an Afrocentric book store in Toronto, of all places). The books from that store ended up in the living room of our house in the Bronx—which I was tasked with dusting/cleaning each Saturday. I'd sneak read instead of clean. So body and soul and dust and words all grew together in my mind.
RH: The sensual nature of language in Corporal Muse also suggests an interesting relationship between desire and knowledge. In the collection's opening poem, "Dictionary," a dictionary-as-speaker (or speaker-as-dictionary) teases the reader seductively: "Accept that you may never know / bounty like mine anywhere else . . . it will be another seven / lifetimes before you exhaust my contents, / my depths of denotation and connotation." The poem ends suggestively: "You open me, and worlds begin to shift, / zealously, you'll covet all I can define." A desire for knowledge merges with physical desire here, again challenging the mind/body binary. What is the dynamic between desire and knowledge, as you see it—in this book and beyond?
“I don't understand folks who don't ache with a desire to know things.”
AJ: Desire and knowledge are always chasing each other in my mind—knowledge is a flirty coquette, and desire's chasing after her. Or maybe it's the other way around. I don't understand folks who don't ache with a desire to know things, and I understand people who are into worlds of their own devising. I personally love doing what I call the "deep dive"—investing a lot of time in finding out about a subject area that I may have had some fluency in, but deciding now it's time to go ALL IN—discovering that I need to know all about 1960s soul jazz/hard bop is my latest "deep dive." Thank goodness for Spotify.
RH: Language also plays a role in the grieving process here. In "Mourning: An Art," a villanelle written after Bishop's "One Art," you grieve the loss of friends, along with, specifically, their words, their lines, and their voices. How does language function in the grieving process for you?
AJ: Oh yeah. I wrote a whole book about losing my father ("My Father's Kites" published by Steel Toe Books). I'm now at the age (51) that my mother was when she died from lung cancer. I've a strong interest in elegy, and I'm shifting my teaching away from the notion that elegies are laments for the dead and more that they are survival maps for the living.
RH: Many of the poems in "Corporal Muse" use formal structures and constraints like rhyme schemes and refrains. I'm especially interested in repetition, which plays such a big role in some of the poems already mentioned, like the villanelle above and "Poet's Love Spell." In the book's title poem, the corporal muse tells the writer to "Do IT Over," and I couldn't help but think about the effects and uses of repetition in so many acts that filter through writing, like grieving and casting spells. What do you think are the uses of repetition in the various acts of writing?
“All those forms most poets eschew because they are way too constricting. I love them.”
AJ: I'm in love with repetition and refrain. One of my running songs is "Over and Over" by Hot Chip. The lyrics say "the joy of repetition really is in you"—and it really is. One of my earlier deep dives concerned teaching myself all those repeating forms—not just the villanelle and sestina, but also the rondeau, the lai, ballade, etc. All those forms most poets eschew because they are way too constricting. I love them.
RH: One of the last poems in the book, "To Sylvia," expresses appreciation for Sylvia Plath, "mistress of the miserable." You compare her "sutured words" to "candy" and "teen magazines" "stashed" under the bed. This poem resonated with me on a personal level because Plath was one of the first poets I discovered while in college, feeling like a misery mistress myself. You write that "some sad girl" is "feeling / the rigor of your exquisite pain" right now, acknowledging how common this Plath experience is—and how significant. I remember that feeling of private indulgence in these taboo "sutured words" about suicide, anger, and depression, things I couldn't necessarily talk or hear about outside of my own Plath stash. Like the others mentioned here, this poem speaks to the power of individual words, the physical effect of them ("a line of yours thrills / as it slashes the thin skin // that keeps my sanity / intact"), and how personal our experiences of language can be. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the personal, private, intimate nature of language—something that, paradoxically, we share with strangers.
AJ: It's funny that I fell so hard for Plath as a black girl growing up in the Bronx—something in me reached out for her madness, despite those barriers of race, class, locale, etc. Now I teach her and I see how problematic she is in so many ways. But discovering her work as a teen, whoosh. That language, the loathing in her lines—for her self and for others—all her melodrama. I read her now with all the lenses on, and with the knowledge of Ted lurking in the background (foreground, really). And what really shook me was hearing the recordings of her from the BBC. She's trying so hard to shake her American-ness! For me, the daughter of immigrants who was always trying to fit in, that seems so arbitrary and weird. I'm glad I didn't her those when I was first reading her. Language is a fine connector—but sometimes the page trumps the stage (or the BBC recording, that is!)
Allison E. Joseph lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University. She serves as editor and poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review. She is the author of over fifteen books and chapbooks. Her most recent full-length collection, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman, was published by Red Hen Press in 2018.
Rochelle Hurt is founding editor at The Bind.