The memory of being a poet
Janine Joseph is the first Dean’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar.
Janine Joseph has a memory of being a poet.
As the 2022-23 Dean’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Virginia Tech serving in the Department of English and the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies, her remembrance of poetry, words, and stories may seem fitting for her career. You know the story: young woman loves libraries, books, and poetry and goes to college, becoming enamored with higher education. But although Joseph fits this demographic, hers is a very different coming-of-age story.
It starts with the idea of poetry. Maybe it goes back to the time when she was 8 years old and came to America from the Philippines. Maybe it began with an expired visa. Or maybe it commenced her senior year of high school.
During that time, Joseph became the class valedictorian and everything seemed possible. She had her pick of universities to attend. But maybe the poetry quietly insinuated itself the day she filled out her first Free Application for Federal Student Aid and discovered that she was an undocumented immigrant, which changed her world. Opportunities went away, and she needed something to help her move forward.
“The summer after I found out I wasn’t documented, I hunkered down and started work on a novel,” she said. “At that time, I thought the only way to tell a story was through fiction. I had to eventually connect the dots back to poetry, which I wrote all the time. I wrote because it was something I could do without anyone else’s permission.”
And not one to be deterred from the college experience, she went to Riverside City College in California, where she received an Associate of Arts. She took creative writing courses and workshops and soon found that her desire to write the novel changed.
“I wanted a goal that gave me agency, though I never finished the novel. It failed,” she said and then laughed. “The chapters got shorter and shorter and shorter. This tells you I’m a poet.”
Along with that idea and through the encouragement of faculty, she decided to go into the professional world of poetry and a creative writing degree track. She received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Riverside, and a Master of Fine Arts from New York University. The same tenacity that helped her become valedictorian also aided her in succeeding in these programs.
Even though she got her green card and became a legal resident of the United States in the middle of her M.F.A., some of the anxiety she experienced while she was undocumented manifested in social situations. Because getting good grades and scholarships had become imperative to her continuing as a student, she spent many nights alone with her writing.
“I remember avoiding any situation where I might be asked for identification,” she said. “In order to enter many of the bars where poetry readings would happen, you would get carded. Social situations like those continued to rattle me, even after I became a citizen of this country. It’s a core foundational experience for me. And it’s one that I refuse to forget because it gives me insight and connects me to others who might still have to negotiate similar circumstances.”
But then she received her M.F.A. and took a year off to become an academic advisor. She connected with students in ways that were unexpected. Through the lens of her personal experience, she discovered she was well equipped to understand hardships students face and help them navigate a successful path.
Her lifelong goal was always to get her Ph.D. At first, she assumed she would go into publishing, but the thought of becoming a professor seemed like an organic choice. She had a desire to help others achieve their goals and grow into better writers.
But, then again, Joseph has this other memory of being a poet.
She became a doctoral student at the University of Houston, where she later received her Ph.D. in literature and creative writing. She was in the throes of completing her first poetry manuscript and was planning to send it out for publication. Then in her first year within the program, she visited her family in California for winter break.
She and her father were in their vehicle, stopped at a red light when another car collided into them. Joseph said the police report revealed the other driver was going between 50 and 70 mph when he hit them. The crash caused the backseat of the car to completely dislodge. The trunk ended up in the car’s backseat, and it crushed the rear passenger door into the opposite side. Although she and her father survived, she suffered a severe concussion. For a short time, she lost her memories.
“I remember lying in bed with a neck brace on,” she said. “I was supposed to be resting. At some point — I had either woken up or suddenly regained consciousness — I remembered I was a poet. It was one of the first things I remembered about myself.”
Up to that moment, the poetry had disappeared.
“Remembering that I was a poet was not a daydream,” she said. “It was a part of my returning back to myself. It’s the time before that moment that was the daydream, you know? And that moment of suddenly having this word, 'poet,' was the moment when I was shaken back into the world.”
Joseph used this experience to fuel her second book, after publishing her first.
Now memory and her present have come together. Joseph is a poet and an educator. She is the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences’ first Dean’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Virginia Tech and an associate professor of creative writing at Oklahoma State University. Previously, she taught at Weber State University in Utah.
Joseph will be a visiting scholar at Virginia Tech for one year, teaching classes in creative writing and with the Center for Refugee, Migration, and Displacement Studies.
“Dr. Joseph’s compelling life story, artistic gifts, and professional background make her a superb choice for the inaugural Dean’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “Her story is an inspiration for our community.”
Joseph’s latest book, “Decade of the Brain: Poems,” will be available in January. She published her first book, “Driving Without a License,” in 2016. Her poems, essays, and critical writings appear in many publications.
She also is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship, a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, a Howard Nemerov Scholarship, an Inprint/ Barthelme Fellowship in Poetry, a Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center Fellowship for Collaboration Among the Arts, a PAWA Manuel G. Flores Prize, and an Academy of American Poets prize, and was most recently a writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook.
Her legacy also includes her advocacy for poets who are currently or who were previously undocumented, through Undocupoets, a nonprofit literary organization she helps organize. In 2021, the children’s book, “In the Spirit of a Dream: 13 Stories of American Immigrants of Color” featured it.
But with all that she brings with her to Virginia Tech, she looks forward to becoming a contributing member of the university community.
“No matter where I am,” she said, “I want whatever I leave behind to be bigger than just me. I can’t wait to work with everyone here; I look forward to being able to work with an established community of collaborators and interdisciplinary artists and scholars. It really is a dream opportunity.”