POETS & WRITERS IS MORE than a magazine. We are a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving creative writers. We pay fees to writers giving readings and leading workshops, provide information and advice to authors, and help them connect with one another and with audiences. We also sponsor a number of awards and prizes.
Late one warm evening during the 2014 Kundiman retreat at Fordham University, as the other fellows formed circles for intimate conversation, I sat with my friend and fellow poet Cathy Linh Che. The open windows, I remember, drew in air just humid enough that my shirt clung as I leaned in to confess that I was nervous about my book being out in the world. A month earlier my debut collection, Driving Without a License, had won the Kundiman Poetry Prize. ( The book was published by Alice James Books in 2016.) The news was still fresh, and while I was overcome with joy and disbelief (my book would be a book!), I was also terrified of the poems that would finally be together in one space—in sudden conversation and corroboration with one another and with me as the proverbial elephant in the room. I asked Cathy, who won the same prize in 2012 for her collection, Split, about how to prepare, what to expect, and what to do next. But what I really wanted to know was: How do I do it? How do I carry my story out of hiding?
In a Texas gymnasium in 2011, after living in the United States for nearly twenty years, I became a naturalized citizen. I had spent fifteen of those twenty years undocumented, and the poems in Driving Without a License were trembling with that personal experience.
As part of her response, Cathy asked me to imagine my book out in the world. I let my eyes blur to the sound of a guitar being played elsewhere in the room. What did I dream for my book? I focused my attention on this question I had never before thought possible to ask. I realized that I had long thought of the completion of the manuscript as a finish line and not as a horizon, as Tennyson would put it, “whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.” Later that night, as I fell asleep, I remembered what it felt like to walk out of that gymnasium in Texas without any concrete plans to commemorate or toast the occasion. I remembered how the woman with the voter registration clipboard asked, “Is it just you here today, dear?” I remembered what it was like to unlock my car and drive, in silence and awe, right back to work.
What might I dream, now, for my book?
In May 2017, Driving Without a License turned one and celebrated a year of unforeseen successes—including a second print run in its eleventh month. Of all the times in my life that I bowed before a sugary cake and blew out its candles full of seemingly improbable wishes, I must confess I never dreamed that one day Kundiman would partner with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, the Asian American Literary Review, and the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland and invite me to read at the Library of Congress. I could never have dreamed that a generous grant from Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program would make it possible for me to travel from Oklahoma to Washington, D.C., and stand with my book onstage. Never could I have dreamed that, after reading, I would sit with Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Jennifer Chang for a thoughtful discussion with the audience about the importance of community in our work and lives as writers.
Yet the photos from that day in October—the Library of Congress seal on the podium and the flag beside it—remind me it wasn’t a dream. There I am, reading my poems about what it was like to come of age as an undocumented immigrant in America.
Janine Joseph was born and raised in the Philippines and Southern California. She is the author of Driving Without a License, winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize, and finalist for the 2017 Oklahoma Book Award. Her poems and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Best New Poets, Best American Experimental Writing, Zócalo Public Square, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and elsewhere. Her commissioned libretti for the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco include What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, “On This Muddy Water”: Voices From the Houston Ship Channel, and From My Mother’s Mother. Joseph is an assistant professor of creative writing at Oklahoma State University.(Photo: Eric Howerton)