Janine Joseph, Pt. 1: Can you smell the burning mustard plants, the foxtail and foxglove weeds on my skin?

For each day of National Poetry Month one of our fellows will explore the breadth of poetry in three ways: through a question from another fellow, through a poem and through a writing prompt, #writetoday.


Eddie Kim asks, From speaking with friends and my own personal struggles, it seems that those of us who have gone the MA/MFA/PhD route experience difficulty transitioning into life after school. There seems to be an existential ennui or existential panic that accompanies graduation. What were your experiences like post MFA? Post PhD? What helped you through that transition? If you feel you haven’t transitioned out of it yet, with what aspects do you specifically struggle?

Janine Joseph answers, Here’s the truth: when working on my MFA and, later, my PhD, I kept one foot out the door. It was a preparedness I had developed when putting myself through college. I wrote the poems that got me into NYU after closing. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a job or had a job in place. What I struggled most with was prioritizing school—prioritizing poetry—over the very experiences that fed my writing life. The “real world” was where I felt indebted, where I never needed to be reintegrated. Even when I was working on my MFA I’d sit at the computer and, while messing around with the lines on the screen, be preoccupied with the progress of the DREAM Act.

I suspect now that it was the self-sentence of five years that helped me fully transition into a life, not just of school, but also of poetry. Committing to the PhD helped me to acknowledge the world around me—its possibilities and uncertainties—and then refocus. It’s not so much that I had to compartmentalize all of the distractions and obligations, but that I looked, too, and with greater intensity, at what needed the most of my attention. At the field where I could best do meaningful work.


Leaving the Non-Profit Immigration Lawyer’s Office


When the car drifted from the Santa Ana winds, I switched off the radio
                                    and pointed at the street poles swaying over the two-way stretch like palms.

                                                                       All night the wind brushed dry the hills with fire, and I kept driving,
                                   his hands steady out the window, taking snapshots of the red, whipping rings.

I power-rolled the windows down and let the smoked-grass scent seep
                                   into the upholstery, circulate coyote and birdsong through the air vents.

                                                Can you smell the burning mustard plants, the foxtail and foxglove weeds on my skin?
                                                                       I asked, hands open, the wheel orbiting under my palms.

Watch when I let go, I demonstrated, finger knuckles loosening around the leather,
                                   the car coasting left with pollen and butterfly debris.

                                                                                                 We’d be pitched into the brushglare, I warned, if I let go
                                                                  completely. We’d grate the chain link fence and itch the ashen shrubs

                                   Eye shuttered slow at tumbleweeds storming the under-
                                                                            carriages storming the road, B. said: Right, like you’d let go.

Previously published on Kenyon Review online.



Janine Joseph has new work forthcoming in The Journal, Hyphen MagazineEleven Eleven, and The California Journal of Poetics.