Allison Joseph, 2012 Garrett Award Recipient

Allison Joseph is the author of six collections of poetry, including Imitation of Life and My Father’s Kites. She is also well known as an editor of the Crab Orchard Review, which she has edited with her husband Jon Tribble since 1995. Through the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, she and Tribble nurture to publication two outstanding volumes of poetry each year.

Joseph has directed the creative writing program of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where as an associate professor she continues to be a mentor to countless students. She is the founder and director of the Young Writers Workshop, an annual summer residential creative writing workshop for high school writers. Joseph has previously served on the AWP board of directors. In nominating her for the George Garrett Award, Joseph’s colleagues, Stacey Lynn Brown and Adrian Matejka wrote, “Her continued creative, inventive, and selfless dedication has made the literary world a more beautiful and friendly place, full of possibility and endless opportunity.” Announcing the award at the 2012 AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair, Executive Director David Fenza said, “Allison Joseph is the incarnation of the better angels that animate our organization."

The following remarks have been adapted from Joseph's acceptance speech on March 1, 2012.

Allison Joseph: To me, being a writer is some wicked and unfathomable combination of skill, luck, talent, drive and patience. Being an advocate for writers is much easier.  Being both has made my life one fortunate and amazing adventure. I want to thank AWP and the AWP Board of Directors for the honor of awarding me the George Garrett Award for 2012.

I grew up in the seventies and eighties in the New York City borough of the Bronx--a skinny, ashy-legged girl with no particular passions—I didn’t sing, or dance, or rap, or get by on my stunning good looks—except for the words that were beginning to scurry around inside my brain and demand to come out via my fingers. I hoarded pencils and pens like they were going out of style. I wrote my little poems in little notebooks that I hid under my bed. I didn’t want my Caribbean immigrant parents to know that their first-generation daughter wasn’t going to be the doctor or lawyer that they wanted. I was going to do something with these furtive scribblings—I didn’t know what yet, but I knew that those little notebooks, and the books of poems I kept borrowing from the library, had something to do with what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

In high school, I learned iambic pentameter from Mr. Feinberg, my English teacher, and how to edit a literary journal from Carol Aronowitz, my sister-in-poetry, the first of many I’d meet in life. Ironically, this happened at a high school dedicated to preparing students for careers in math and science, so I was able to keep up the ruse with my parents. I realize now how hard it is, particularly for a young writer, to announce to the world “I’m a writer” or even worse, “I’m a poet”—the snickers and guffaws that often follow such statements are hard to handle—so I kept the writing amongst my friends, and let my parents think that medical school was in my future.

It wasn’t until I started college at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio that I was able to fully embrace a writer’s identity. If you know anything about Kenyon, you know that’s it’s a safe haven for writers, even if you’re a skinny ashy-legged black girl from the Bronx. I learned more about editing there, more about poetry, and more about helping other writers. I managed to get over my city-girl culture shock and graduate, and went on to the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Indiana University, where my life would be changed profoundly by meeting a young white guy from Little Rock, Arkansas: Jon Tribble. Jon and I were both poets, and both editors, and he romanced me on that basis. We formed a team that has never stopped helping writers. I am proud and pleased to share this award with Jon, just as I have shared my life with him for the past twenty years. He’s just as much an advocate for writers as I am.

Jon and I started teaching and editing and publishing during our time at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where we have been for eighteen years. Crab Orchard Review, the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, the Young Writers Workshop, the Devil’s Kitchen Festival and Reading Awards, the Creative Writers Opportunities List—all started with the phrase “what if?” Starting projects on a university campus is rewarding, of course. But then people get this strange notion that you’re going to continue what you’ve started, even in the wake of budget cuts and declining support for the arts. What has kept us going is your love and enthusiasm for the things we’ve done— the journal, the books, the festivals—the knowledge that, however awkwardly you express it, you like us, you like what we’ve done, and you want us to keep doing it. That appreciation is what keeps us going on those days when one more piece of paperwork might just do us in.

In receiving this award, I would like to thank the following people, whom I treasure: Jon Tribble, Carolyn Alessio, Rodney Jones, Beth Lordan, Lucia Perillo, Judy Jordan, Pinckney Benedict, Richard Peterson, Pat Eckert, Stacey Lynn Brown, Adrian Matejka, Yusef Komunyakaa, David Wojahn, Maura Stanton, T.R. Hummer, Peter Rutkoff, and Tom C. Hunley, and Martha Christina. I also dedicate this award to memories of Roxana Rivera and Reetika Vazirani—two of my sisters-in-poetry gone too soon. I also want to thank all the students I have had the honor to work with as a teacher of poetry. I hope I have, in my small way, shown you something useful about writing or about getting published or about getting a job. Every writer needs a sustaining force, a mentor, that one person who believes in your potential before your potential even exists. Let us treasure the mentors we have in our own lives, those voices who say “yes” when everyone else has said “no.” Let us treasure them, and when we are strong and able, let us become them.

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Each year, AWP welcomes nominations for the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature. Consult our award guidelines for more information. Award recipients are selected by AWP's board of directors.