Beth Joselow on What's True About DC's Literary Scene
|Nicholas E. Barron||Apr 24, 2019|
Beth Joselow would seemingly come up any time you played a game of Six Degrees of Washington, DC, Poets. (If such a game existed.)
She's over the years known, listened to, collaborated with, and been friends with many, many poets and writers in the DC area.
You might think, since I live in DC, that I met Beth through this city's literary scene. But, no, that's not it.
It's through my day job that I got to know Beth's daughter. And one day the daughter mentioned that her mother and stepfather were poets.
Soon, I discovered that they weren't merely people who wrote poems. They were legitimate, plugged-into-the-poetic-world poets.
Beth Joselow has published six books of poetry and many chapbooks. Her work has been included in several anthologies, The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and more.
Plus, she taught creative writing at a few schools and universities for many years.
So it's with honor and pleasure I present to you this interview with Beth Joselow. In it, she sets the record straight about DC's literary community, and she has some poignant advice for all of us writers.
Oh, and who is Beth Joselow's husband? Well, for that you'll have to check out the end of her interview.
Also at the end of the interview is one of Beth Joselow's poems. Enjoy!
And, remember, poets whose work appears on Bidwell Hollow give permission without direct compensation. Please consider purchasing these poets' books, or at least helping others discover them by sharing their work, or this interview, on social media. Thank you.
If you're a published poet or author, you too could be featured on Bidwell Hollow. Reach out to me via the Contact form on this website.
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Q&A with Beth Joselow
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Washington, DC, (a fairly rare distinction) and grew up in Baltimore, MD. I was 12 when integration came to segregated Baltimore and that had a profound, positive effect on me. Social issues were discussed a lot in my home and in my synagogue.
In relationship to that, a story too long to tell here, my family’s home was burned by arsonists shortly after the riots in Baltimore in 1968. As you can imagine, that had a big impact on all of us, but we survived.
I finished college in Washington, DC, took my first job with SANE (National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy), a group that was then part of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and spent much of my adult life in Washington. I married young and raised my children in the city.
Since 2004, I’ve lived near the ocean in Lewes, DE. Although I don’t actually love the sun or the beach, it’s quite beautiful here in many ways that omit sand and include lots of birds.
I am a sucker for a story, so I’m happiest when watching a film or a serial, or reading. I listen to lots of audiobooks. And I knit. A lot.
When did you start writing poetry?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. I was an early and voracious reader, which quickly led to writing.
My grandfather wrote “occasional” poems, for birthdays and the like, and sent many of them to me, fierce with meter and thick with rhymes.
That was my model – along with books of Longfellow, James Whitcomb Riley and Whitman sent to me by a great aunt, whom I adored. She was very encouraging, as were some of my teachers.
Beth Joselow on Teaching
You've also taught writing, correct? What and to whom did you teach?
I first taught composition as a T.A. in grad school and discovered that I liked teaching. Afterward, I returned to part-time work writing for associations, which allowed me to schedule life around having and raising three children.
I also taught composition or creative writing as an adjunct at American University, University of Maryland, a couple of community colleges and finally The Corcoran College of Art in DC, where I was hired full-time in 1987, remaining on the faculty until 2004.
It was a dream job. I taught first-year writing every semester, and most often had the freedom to fill out my three-course load with classes I devised. This allowed me to teach (and learn much from) books I loved, including Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, or All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, and to explore subjects like Secrets and Lies, Art and Commerce, or Gender, Race and Class.
When I arrived at the Corcoran, our small liberal arts department already included three very accomplished poets: Nan Fry, Bernard Welt, and Doug Lang, so I did not usually teach creative writing there.
First-year writing could be pretty creative. In my last few years there I based the course on watching anime and reading manga, which stimulated some very good work by the students.
At the same time, I taught classes in poetry and memoir for The Writers Center in Bethesda, MD, for 10 or more years, and also for 10 years was Poet-in-Residence for an elementary school in Montgomery County, MD.
All of these liaisons were crucial in fueling my own creative work, particularly being at the Corcoran where the students and faculty members ALL were engaged in creating art.
Was there any advice or guidance you found yourself frequently imparting to your students?
My signal bit of advice was begin anywhere and “write messy!”
I continue to believe that your first impulses should be set down as quickly as possible, giving you a messy, unorganized first draft. Like throwing a lump of clay or a block of marble on the table, you then have the material you need to begin to make something.
If you try to start at the beginning and perfect each line before writing the next, as a journalist friend of mine does (and he’s a superb writer), I think you may easily lose what is freshest and most important in creative work.
Get the material on the table before you shape it. Editing is where you can stand back and see what’s there, and carve and polish.
I also told students that if they weren’t interested in what they were writing, I wouldn’t be either, so don’t write what you think you should be writing, but what you really want to know more about. I was, I admit, a butt about grammar and spelling.
People may not think of Washington, DC, as having much of an artistic community. What do you say to that?
If government and politics did not dominate the media in DC as much as they do I think people would see that there long has been a thriving art scene in the city. It’s more apparent in visual art, with The Washington Color School and artists like Anne Truitt, Martin Puryear, Renée Stout, Tom Green and many others having work shown widely outside of DC.
A wealth of writers have lived and worked in Washington too, including Walt Whitman, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes to start with.
Zora Neale Hurston, who was a student at Howard University in Washington, DC, in the 1920s.
I discovered an eclectic community of poets known as Mass Transit in 1971, generally led by poets Michael Lally and Terence Winch. Many of the people who came to its weekly open readings above a long-gone bookstore in Dupont Circle continue to write and publish today.
Folio bookstore, also in Dupont Circle, was the setting for a reading series hosted by Doug Lang that paired visiting poets with Washington poets, as Rod Smith has done for many years at Bridge Street Books, and Buck Downs has at the District of Columbia Arts Center.
In addition to the universities, poetry readings have been held regularly at the Folger Shakespeare Library, numerous other bookstores, at The Writers Center and at the Joaquin Miller Cabin in Rock Creek Park. What you might call mainstream and avant-garde poetry communities have thrived in the city.
George Washington University houses and continually adds to its collection of the literary archives of area writers. Many Washington writers, with E. Ethelbert Miller and the Ascension series, Grace Cavalieri with her small press and interviews with writers on The Poet and the Poem, Roland Flint and his series at Georgetown University, as stellar examples, have done much to nurture the careers of others.
I could count at least a dozen writer friends whom I’ve known for 30 years or more who published their first books with Washington Writers Publishing House, or Some Of Us Press, Merrill Leffler’s Dryad, Rod Smith’s Edge Books, or Hugh Walthall’s S.O.S. Books.
Oh, I’m just getting started here, and I’ve left out many, many worthy examples of poets and poetry sponsors.
Joselow on what's next
What are you working on these days?
Moving to Delaware meant that I had to find new situations to stimulate writing for me. I went back to school and became a psychotherapist before we moved here, and that work is much more inward-turning and solitary than teaching was.
As a writer, I’ve usually turned more toward human issues and experiences than to nature, and used to find much that inspired me to write by sitting on the Metro or at a café in a museum and observing everything around me. I’ve found spots in Delaware where I can do that.
It’s much quieter here, and doesn’t have the electric atmosphere of what some have called “the most important city in the world,” so I look for noise and grit when I’m traveling. I’ve been working on a very long poem for a few years and can’t seem to get out of the briar patch with it yet.
In that piece and others, I’m drawn to looking at what we’ve been doing to ourselves and to the world and trying to say something useful about that. I do admire writing that rings an alarm (Denise Levertov, anyone?) and hope I raise some consciousness for making more life-affirming protective decisions as we go about our daily lives.
I keep a pocket notebook with me all the time to record phrases and images, some of which lead to making poems. The words are flowing and the pages are filling.
I almost never submit work for publication these days and probably ought to think about that. It has partly to do, I know, with not having plugged into zines or online publishing.
Joselow on who she's read and reading
Who are some poets that you admire? And has your preferences changed over time?
Some I’ve liked for a long time: Laura Jensen, Jean Valentine, Carolyn Kizer, John Ashbery, Auden, Tomas Transtromer, Alice Notley, translations of Chinese poets by David Hinton, Lorca, Pierre Reverdy, Tsvetayeva, Agha Shahid Ali, Amy Gerstler, Beverly Dahlen, Kamau Brathwaite. I am not reading enough work by younger people writing now, and need to make more of an effort there.
As a teenager I found, with delight, E.E. Cummings and Kenneth Patchen at my local library, and a Baltimore poet named Sam Cornish who published the first little magazine I’d ever seen. It was called Mimeo and grew from a context I knew well, which was very exciting. After that, it was all Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton for a while, with a spoonful of Donald Justice and a dash of Robert Lowell.
Have you read any good books lately?
I’m a big fan of the Charles Lenox mysteries by Charles Finch. Michael Lally’s collected works, Another Way to Play: Poems 1960-1917. The Known Universe by local poet and fiction writer Terence Winch. Transcription by the never-disappointing Kate Atkinson.
Lastly, anything else you'd like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about you or your work?
Writing is a pretty lonely pursuit. Having a community of friends who “get it” is needed to keep it alive, at least for me.
I am most comfortable in my life when I am closely in touch with other writers and with artists. I have been fortunate to make and keep many beloved friendships with people in the U.S., and in other countries because of our common interests and purposes.
Luckiest of all, I’m married to the poet Tom Mandel.
Thank you to Beth Joselow for this interview. You, too, could be featured on this blog. Use this website's contact form to reach out.
IT IS COMPLETE
After the hat a rabbit
is a rabbit
is in itself
and will be as before
in the ache and chafe
of daily living
tucked away in a paper cabinet
no matter sprawled
across the margins
the Dust Bowl part
yet to appear
– “IT IS COMPLETE,” by Beth Baruch Joselow, from The Traveler's Vade Mecum (affiliate link). Copyright 2016, edited by Helen Klein Ross. Published by Red Hen Press. Used with permission of the author and publisher.