After growing up in up in Calcutta, India, Zilka Joseph and her husband moved to Chicago in 1997 before settling in Michigan three years later. The couple currently lives in Auburn Hills, where Joseph tutors at Oakland Community College and teaches poetry workshops for Springfed Arts: Metro Detroit Writers.
Joseph’s first poetry chapbook, Lands I Live In, was released in March by Mayapple Press. The book focuses on themes of home, courage, and displacement. Its poems are divided into 2 sections. The first 9 poems, called “Across Worlds,” documents the move to Chicago, as well as the period of adjustment afterwards. Topics from the first section include phoning her parents long-distance (every Friday), standing in line to get a green card, her irritation at the phrase “God Bless You,” and feeling like an outsider during a book club meeting—of being “terrified of dropping crumbs/or spilling my wine.”
The last group of 7, titled “Old Countries,” captures memories from adulthood and childhood while in India. It deals with universal subjects like food, family, and puberty. “Footprints,” the most fascinating of these, tells of the inexplicable bond between Joseph and the neighborhood cobbler, who was “Skinny and sunburned as Gandhi.
On April 12th, Joseph read poems from Lands I Live In at Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea, in downtown Royal Oak, to a group of about 40 eager listeners (which included a few local poet-celebrities, such as Vievee Francis). Joseph’s outfit complimented her petite frame: black pants and black turtleneck, a brown and gold embroidered scarf, as well as long beaded earrings. Her soothing, musical voice conveyed in turn both seriousness and humor—often evoking gentle laughter from her listeners.
The night began with three poems from her book: “Green Card,” “Ten Takes on Snow,” and “Introduction to Circles.” In a segway to the next group of poems, Joseph admitted that “though food and wine poems are usually my favorite, I’m going to read some nature poems.” The fourth poem, “You Don’t Screw With Scorpions” was positively hilarious, and was then followed by two somber poems: one about insects and the other concerning snakes.
Joseph’s next poem, “Death by Snoring,” pokes fun at her husband’s snoring. The piece was made even more humorous by the fact that she introduced it—with a straight face—as “probably the only serious poem I’ve ever written.” The last poems, “Kaulee Haddi” and “Consider the Sari” contained the richest imagery of the evening, and were both sensual and sad.
The morning after the Sweetwaters reading, I had the chance to sit down with Joseph for a one-on-one…
McMacken: Did you enjoy sharing your poems last night?
Joseph: Yes, I think it went well. There was a bigger crowd than I expected!
M: Your poems have been described as “direct and conversational.” What other words would you use to describe your work?
J: Intense. I feel the moment very intensely, and so then my writing reflects that intensity.
M: Tell me about your publisher.
J: Mayapple is a small press with an independent and discerning woman at the helm (Judith Kerman), and whose support of emerging and established Michigan writers deserves applause.
M: Please describe the process of putting the book together.
J: I liked working closely with Judith. She gave me very useful insight, and allowed me to be very involved in creating the cover. The whole thing was a really great learning experience.
M: What was the most important personal lesson you gained from the writing of this book?
J: All of the poems of the book reflect a certain kind of push-pull thing that happens with a move. I think what I learned—and what I tried to show in the book—is that we carry worlds within us, wherever we go. When I moved to Chicago, I brought India with me. Then when I moved here, I brought India and Chicago with me.
M: What a wonderful lesson!
J: Life is a process, and it is all about learning. I keep on getting surprised. Just when I think: ah, I’ve gotten used to this—then another experience happens!
M: Which poets have you been most influenced by?
J: I have been strongly influenced by Shakespeare, Rabindranath Tagore, Pablo Neruda, Marge Piercy, and Grace Paley. Also, I love the work of William Olsen (he teaches at Western Michigan)…and then, of course, there is Bob Dylan. Many people don’t think of him as a poet, but he really is.
M: Any new poetic projects these days?
J: Recently I was accepted for the University of Michigan’s MFA program, which I’ll be attending this fall. Right now, I’m working on a full-length collection of poems. And soon I’ll be teaching another workshop…you can go to Springfed Arts: Metro Detroit Writers website (http://www.springfed.org/MDWfront.html) for details.
M: Who should register for your workshops?
J: All skill levels are welcome, and financial aid is available. Classes are great for anyone who wants to connect, share ideas, and grow. Poets benefit from the energy of other poets!
Lands I Live In: Poems
Lands I Live In can be ordered from Mayapplepress.com, Amazon.com, and from Barnes and Noble.
Heather A. McMacken was the detroiter.com's very first intern. A recently graduated English major from Oakland University, she adores poetry. She eats it for breakfast.
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