Joseph Ross recently published a magnificent debut poetry collection, Meeting Bone Man, from Main Street Rag Publishing. I've read with Ross a couple times, and I think he's one of the best around. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions for me:
Me: How did you come to writing poetry?
Joseph Ross: I started writing poetry in high school and boy, was it bad poetry. It was sentimental, predictable stuff. I continued in college but got more into songwriting. The lyrical work tried to be poetry but it really wasn’t. As I studied, read, and wrote more, I gave myself more and more to poetry. When I was in graduate school, in my mid-to-late 20s I began to take it more seriously.
Me: What was your inspiration for the image of the archetypal character of “Bone Man”?
Ross: The death of my mother was the genesis for Bone Man. Her death struck me very hard and I felt I was “seeing death” everywhere. So I went with that image. I wanted to explore what it would look like to see Bone Man, the personification of death, at a party, on the beach, driving in the car next to me? After all, I felt I was seeing him everywhere, so why not describe him in these places. It became a way to resist him, a way at least to say “I see you!”
Originally, the Bone Man poems were not part of the manuscript that became this book. But thankfully, my friend David Keplinger, director of the Creative Writing program at American University, suggested I use the Bone Man poems as the book’s organizing principle. I’m glad he suggested it. That suggestion helped the book fall into place.
Me: You often write poetry about other people when so many poets are much more focused on writing about themselves as windows to the world; was there an event that got you started in this direction, or have you always written the poetry of witness?
Ross: In some ways, writing poetry of witness can mask writing about myself. In writing about forgotten people in Darfur, I was, on another level, writing about abandoned parts of myself. Coming to know myself as a Gay man in America, I found myself writing about people or groups that were hated. I didn’t always write explicitly about Gay and Lesbian people but I saw my own experiences of exclusion present in the exclusions of others. So writing poetry of witness, on a deeper level, is sometimes about my own life.
I also think poetry of witness, poetry which some might call political, is very important in our time. We sometimes do terrible things to each other and poetry can be an effective voice to speak about those things. Perhaps we can make the world more beautiful and more kind with poetry about the ugly and cruel ways we sometimes treat one another.
Me: Tell me about Cool Disco Dan; what appeals to you about his work?
Ross: Cool Disco Dan is a graffiti artist in Washington, D.C. He’s been around, off and on, since the 1980s in the Red Line corridor of Washington, D.C.’s Metro system. My friend, Jefferson Pinder, first pointed out Cool Disco Dan’s work to me. Two elements of graffit art fascinate me. First, the announcement of self. Why would someone, especially a young person, feel the need to shout his or her name in huge, painted letters? Do these artists feel unseen or unheard? I think that’s a fascinating element of graffiti art. Also, I love graffiti art that seeks to memorialize someone who has died. Often, in D.C. at least, a local murder victim will be memorialized by a graffiti artist. The victim’s name might never be known to most people if the artist did not paint his name and birth and death dates. In this way, graffiti art is a modern elegy. It brings the dead back to life.
Me: Will you share the impetus for the Darfur poems from the collection? What inspired them?
Ross: One summer evening, a few years ago, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum held a slide show on one of the museum’s outside walls, titled “Faces of Darfur.” I went to this event and sat there on a hot August night, watching the faces of people suffering in Darfur flash over and over before me. I knew I wanted to write something about Darfur—poetry of witness again. So I read everything I could find about the crisis in Darfur and then began to write. I found myself writing persona poems, which I’d never written before. As a result, the Darfur poems are written in the voice of a worker in a refugee camp who washes and prepares the dead bodies. I hope these poems invite the readers to feel and see and hear what was happening in Darfur, because most of us will never go there.
Me: The thing that surprised me most about this collection was seeing that many of the poems either hadn’t been previously published. Have you encountered resistance in publishing your work, maybe because of the possibly graphic subject matter?
Ross: I always feel very fortunate that many of my poems have been published in various journals and anthologies. I don’t know that I’ve experienced resistance to my sometimes-graphic subject matter. I do choose carefully the journals where I send my work.
Me: Which writers inspire you and why?
Ross: There are so many poets and writers whose work inspires me. For years, I have loved William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, and Lucille Clifton. Among living poets today I have great respect for Naomi Shihab Nye, E. Ethelbert Miller, Martin Espada, Randall Horton, Aracelis Girmay, Niki Herd, Jericho Brown—to name a few!
Me: Who are you reading now?
Ross: Right now I’m reading lots of fiction by Junot Diaz. His work is magnificent.
Me: You’ve been doing a lot of readings to support the book. Any favorite venues or interesting stories you’d like to share?
Ross: I’m really grateful I’ve been able to do so many readings around the country. I thought it would be harder than it was. I had a terrific experience at a reading at DG Wills Bookstore in La Jolla, California. That bookstore has hosted lots of amazing poets and writers over the years so it was an honor to be there. I also had a wonderful experience in a reading at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana. Many friends were able to come so that was an especially terrific evening for me. The launch reading at Busboys & Poets in Washington, D.C. was also wonderful. The D.C. poetry community is a real family and it was great to launch the book here.
Me: You’re a teacher as well as poet; how do you balance the workload and still find time to write? Do you find that teaching adds to or takes away from your writing?
Ross: Thankfully, I’m not one of those writers who experiences long writing deserts. I find a way, both when I’m busy and when I’m not, to write at least a little everyday. The school calendar actually gives you a lot of time off—the summer! That’s a real gift to a writer.
I love teaching and I think it certainly adds to my writing. I get to spend my day working with young people on their own writing and discussing great literature with them. There’s a great dialogue in teaching. The teacher presents information-- or the text we’re all reading is presented-- and then we all respond. Teaching provides an opportunity to discuss some of life’s most important realities. What could be better for a writer?