Acclaimed poets Janine Joseph and Matthew Olzmann came together on Feb. 20 to host a free reading of their work and talk with Brookdale students during the launch of this year’s Visiting Writers Series, running through April 17 on the Lincroft campus.
Joseph, winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize and author of the acclaimed 2016 book Driving Without a License, is also a noted essayist, librettist and an assistant creative writing professor at Oklahoma State University. Olzmann, who won the Kundiman Prize for his 2013 poetry collection Mezzanines, has also written essays and stories for the New England Review, Necessary Fiction and the Southern Review, and teaches in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College.
Both authors were introduced to a capacity crowd of Brookdale students, literature fans and budding wordsmiths by Brookdale associate professor Michael Broek, who cohosts the Visiting Writers Series with associate professor Suzanne Parker.
“What does it mean to have an American voice? Who gets to be called an American?” said Broek in his introduction of Joseph, a former undocumented Filipino immigrant who has written extensively about her experiences adjusting to life in the U.S.
“It’s a question that finds its answer in deportation rates today. And yet everyone in this room can trace their ancestry back to some other country, even some other continent. Janine’s poems are thoroughly American in their inventiveness, their bravery, their humor, and their sense that the true errand into the wilderness…is an errand to be true to one’s self.”
Joseph read from her collected poems and a personal essay titled “Undocumented and Riding Shotgun,” speaking candidly about her struggle to build a life as a teenager without access to a driver’s license, college scholarships and other “normal” American privileges.
“Our family had survived a trans-Pacific crossing, a repossessed house, a bankruptcy, a divorce, and two additional interstate moves, and pulled ourselves up, as the saying goes, by our bootstraps,” said Joseph.
“It never registered that I, a seemingly an average teenager and employed now for two years, was an undocumented immigrant with a manilla folder of falsified documents. I felt like my future watched me get smaller and smaller from the sideview mirror.”
Olzmann gave a riveting reading from Mezzanines and his other works, displaying his characteristic penchant for sarcasm, humor, criticism and brilliant insight into the modern human experience.
“These messages must look like a language from the future, classified codes that will take years to decipher. They aren’t,” read Olzmann, in a commentary on Facebook communication from the poem “Notes Regarding Happiness.” “The only thing those signals say is that I’m bad at computers the way continents are bad at crossing oceans to touch the other continents, or the way planets are bad at breaking their orbits and setting off on their own. Even light has limitations as, eon after eon, it barrels forward, unstoppable.”
Both poets also took questions from the students in attendance and provided a wide range of insights into their creative process, their career trajectories and their views on the value of art in the 21st century.
“Poems and stories often allow us to experience the world from different perspectives,” said Olzmann. “I think at a time when we have such a deficit of empathy in society, in sometimes small and in sometimes large ways the arts cut down on that, by helping us humanize each other.”
While writing can have a hand in large-scale societal change, Joseph said it can also have a profound impact on the life of the writer.
“I grew up undocumented, and I grew up in a space and a time where people said you can’t do this and you can’t do that,” she said. “Writing was the only thing that allowed me any kind of entrance into America, into this world, and into my own life.”
For many of the students in attendance, the program was an eye-opening insight into the world of a working artist.
“It definitely inspires me, and I hope it inspires the whole writing community here at Brookdale,” said Austin DeMeglio, president of Brookdale’s Creative Writing Club. “It gets readers and writers really active and exposes them to different varieties of literature.”
Those sentiments were echoed by first-year music major and aspiring creative writer Stella Morowicki.
“Both poets had a really strong voice. The readings were moving, inspirational and even hilarious at times,” she said. “It’s a fantastic event. I think it’s a great way for writing students and creative writing fans to come together and kind of share their passion.”
While the program was free, attendees were encouraged to make a small voluntary contribution to help support the Brookdale Creative Writing Club. Learn more about the club here.
The 2017 Visiting Writers Series will continue on March 28 with a presentation by renowned Jamaican-born journalist, historian and essayist Garnette Cardogan, and will conclude on April 17 with presentations by Iranian-born poet and playwright Sholeg Wolpe and Bangladeshi-American screenwriter Sharbari Ahmed. All programs begin at 7 p.m. in the Student Life Center. Learn more about each writer here.
Check out more photos from the Joseph/Olzmann program here.