The English Department had a special treat for the campus in the form of a poetry reading given by award winning author Janine Joseph on Tuesday, May 17 at 4 p.m. The poetry reading took place in the Karp Hall performance classroom (Karp 105) where Joseph read various poems from her newly published anthology, “Driving Without a License.”
Although Joseph’s poems are not completely autobiographical, many of Joseph’s poems were inspired by her bicultural upbringing as well as her time as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., having been raised both in the Philippines and Southern California.
The characters in “Driving Without a License,” although only referred to as “J” or similar singular letters, are partially based on Joseph’s own family, all of whom carry the J.J. initials. Family members, such as her cousins and siblings, appear as figures in her poems, which adds an organic and a touching feel to her poetry.
Joseph opened the reading with the first poem in “Driving Without a License,” “Tago Ng Tago (TNT).” The term is Filipino for “always hiding.” According to Joseph, the subject matter of illegal immigration was a fascinating topic and huge inspiration for the piece. The poem illustrates the story of a boy, referred to as “our poor cousin,” who appears to be anxiously waiting in the passport office. It is implied that he is an undocumented immigrant. The poem has an agitated edge, fittingly describing the anxieties of a person in hiding.
The reading continued with a poem entitled, “Landscape with American Dream.” The poem follows a woman grocery shopping in the “ethnic lane” while also contemplating her struggles assimilating with American culture and relating to her new home. “Landscape with American Dream” had an honest feel and its repetition of the the question, “Do you?” prompted the audience to think about the contrasting thoughts of a woman caught between two cultures.
Joseph also read poems that were written after she had suffered a severe concussion in a car crash while in the U.S. One that stood out was “Electromyography.” Joseph explained, “I was fascinated by the machine I had been hooked up to at the hospital after the crash. The machine tested the degrees of stress my muscles were undergoing by sticking needles all over my body, beeping when my muscles moved.
The sensation was weird but also very cool. The poem was composed of food-related metaphors to express the sensation of being hooked up to the electromyogram, including describing the pain throughout her body as “brown sugar spread over butter.” The poem graphically describes Joseph’s experience in a unique and strange way.
In other poems, Joseph recounted her experiences while concussed, including how her memory had regressed into a loop, where she would forget things and repeat the action over and over. One poem, entitled, “Circuitry,” recounts one of Joseph’s doctor’s appointments after the car wreck. The doctor explains how Joseph’s mind is trapped on a “rinse-and-repeat” like cycle. Words such as “spiral,” “locked” and “looped” illustrate both Joseph’s confusion and her mind’s locked state.
Some of Joseph’s poems were inspired by personal stories of her childhood, such as “More Milk More Milk Makes It Better.” Joseph explains, “As I young girl in the Philippines, my siblings and I worked as actors for commercials. I did Dunkin’ Donuts commercials and a couple of series commercials for Kraft and Lifebuoy Soap.
I played a character called ‘Jinkie’ for the Lifebuoy commercials and basically all I had to do was fall on the ground. For a while I was the face of the Kraft Cheddar Cheese brand. The jingle including the lyrics, ‘more milk more milk makes it better,’ which inspired my poem.” Other poems in “Driving Without a License” recount many other funny childhood stories, including her habit of swearing into the freezer, where Joseph believed God couldn’t hear her.
Other poems narrate Joseph’s efforts to become a naturalized citizen of the U.S. Her poem, “Everything Signed and Filed,” tells the tale of her filling out her paperwork in order to receive citizenship. The titular poem, “Driving Without a License” also touches upon Joseph’s acknowledgment of her undocumented status and what she refers to as “overstay” or “extended stay” in the U.S.
Joseph’s narration was clear and expressive. She emphasized certain words for certain affects. Although her poetry is adorably, quirky and tinged with humor, it is also meaningful and relatable.
In addition to publishing an anthology of poems on undocumented immigration and cultural identity, Joseph is also winter of the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. Her work has been featured in publications such as “Best New Poets” and “Kenyon Review Online.” Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University.