Interview with Joseph Ross
by Monica Hand
MH: Now that same sex marriage is legal in the United States and some other countries, do you think this will have any impact on violence against LGBTQ people?
JR: I hope the long-term impact of same-sex marriage will be a reduction of violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people. But I think it’s entirely possible, that in the short term, we will see a violent response in some places, from some people. We, humans, often fall victim to our own fears and when we do, we create real pain for others. I think we’ve seen backlashes to progress like this before. I can’t say with certainty, but I can’t help but wonder if the recent surge in Southern Black church burnings has some connection to the murders in Charleston and the moves to remove the Confederate flag.
Over the longer course of years, I think as people get to know LGBTQ married couples, the true result will be less violence and reduced discrimination. Think of the times when county clerks from all over the South, see LGBTQ couples, and their families—their moms and dads, crazy uncles and wild aunts– gathering in their courts for marriages. They will realize these families look just like their own: flawed, beautiful, quirky, odd, struggling, and human. I might be overly optimistic, but I think in time, the discrimination will fade significantly.
MH: As a writer, how do you participate in activism?
JR: I believe writing itself is activism. Langston Hughes, in an essay in Good Morning, Revolution, describes himself as a social poet. He suggests that every time poets write, we make a choice. Do I write about situations of social injustice, places where people suffer? Or do I write about more abstract or esoteric subjects? Frank X. Walker, a poet and person I admire, did a Skype session with my poetry students a couple of years ago and he said very plainly that he “made a choice” to write about social justice, the ways and places people suffer. I was struck by his forthrightness and clarity.
In some ways, I make the same choice. I don’t write a lot of poems about flowers or nature. The ideas and situations in the world that compel me to write usually involve the suffering, hopes, and tensions around me. The terrific poetry organization, Split This Rock calls it “poetry of provocation and witness.” Most of what I write would fit into that category. In this way, I think writing itself can be activism.
Back in 2007, for D.C. Poets Against the War, Rose Marie Berger and I co-edited a chapbook of poems on torture. I was struck then by my own country’s perversion of our language. Government officials used terms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” when what they were discussing, had been termed torture for years. In some ways, writers, and poets especially, have a responsibility to safeguard the language, to speak up when the language is used to distort the truth. This, I think, is a distinct calling of the poet.
Consider the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer. There is no doubt that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. But according to our legal language, he is not guilty of that murder. Those words don’t work do they? Our language stretches to incoherence. Consider also the fact that the Department of Justice decided not to bring a civil rights case against his killer. This means we have to conclude that Trayvon Martin’s civil rights were not violated—or that our civil rights laws are entirely insufficient. I cannot live with the idea that his civil rights were not violated. And so, I wrote several poems about his murder, including the series here in WORDPEACE.
If my poetry never addressed the suffering of the world, I would wonder about my own consciousness and connection to the world around me. I am encouraged by Frank X. Walker who said it so plainly. I too make that deliberate choice– that my writing will be activism in itself.
MH: What do you think is our greatest opportunity for peace locally, nationally, internationally?
JR: That’s a big question. Our greatest opportunity for peace lies in our own human capacity for compassion and empathy. When we know each other, we are less likely to demonize and hate each other. As the poet June Jordan put it, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
I don’t think there’s some magic formula, no shining knight riding in on a horse to bring peace to the world. It’s up to us. And it’s up to us to get to know one another, to listen to each other, to assert ourselves less and to listen to others more. When we know another person’s story, we can feel for her. When we know another’s history, we can imagine ourselves in his shoes. This might be the magic formula. Listening, befriending, connecting to others—especially to those we imagine are different from ourselves.
MH: Talk about your Trayvon Martin series. It starts out with very specific detail and then transitions into more general language and references. I’m not going to ask you if this was intentional because I know every gesture, word, line break is intentional but I also know sometimes there is an intuitive hand, a subconscious guide in the making of a poem that as writers we are not always aware of.
JR: First, let me say how grateful I am that WORDPEACE published the entire series of poems. It’s difficult for a publication to do that and I think these poems are best when they stay together. Each poem tries to enter the sadness of this murder in different ways.
“When Words” serves as an introduction to some of the essential facts: words, fist, concrete, skin, blood, and boyhood. I want to get these images in the reader’s mind– that this murder was dirty, messy, and real. Also, perhaps most importantly, that one of the people involved was a boy. I am mindful of the history of the word “boy” when referring to African American males. Its use usually served to degrade a man—into a boy. But in this case, I hope the poem quietly asserts that Trayvon Martin was a boy. We often see Black children robbed of their childhoods. Yet, this was a boy on his way back from a convenience store, during halftime of a game he was watching on television. He deserved to be a boy. He deserved his childhood.
“In The Courtoom” takes up a detail that seemed outrageous to me. The lawyers used a foam dummy. I watched this on television over the course of a couple of days. They tried to show how Trayvon Martin might have been on top of George Zimmerman. They tried to show the jury how bodies move in conflict. It seemed absurd to me. The fact that the dummy (interesting word choice) was pale and faceless made the absurdity more clear.
In the poem “Litany” I try to put this murder into context. Trayvon Martin’s murder connects to the murders of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s important to see Trayvon Martin’s murder as part of the long line of Black men and women killed in America with impunity. There are hundreds of others, of course, but these are some many readers will know.
I also want to expand their deaths to include their mothers. The mother grieving her murdered son serves as an iconic image of sorrow. I go back to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, at the foot of the cross, an image I was raised with, an image that is powerful to me. It echoes my poem “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God.”
In its form, this poem uses the Christian prayer form of the litany—a repetitive call and response. Typically, the response in a litany is “Pray for us.” In this case, with this litany, the response has to be “No.” This is a prayer of resistance.
“Rain” continues to draw on religious images—especially the image of holy water, baptism, and blessing. Usually water blesses, cleanses, purifies. But on the rainy night during which Trayvon Martin is murdered, rain just falls. It does nothing holy.
I hope the final poem in the series, “Here,” captures with sadness, the boyhood lost. Trayvon Martin had been watching the NBA All-Star game when he walked to the store. His death puts to an end his capacity to play this game, to enjoy this game. Again, his boyhood is gone. As a young boy, I loved playing basketball. I was never very good but it was a passion and love nonetheless. I have no idea if Trayvon Martin was any good at basketball, but the fact of his murder makes his game irrelevant. He won’t play anymore. Even the basket is a “ghost basket.”
I think of these five poems as each standing in a circle, observing Trayvon Martin’s death from their different perspectives. I hope each poem offers its own way in—not to understand this loss, but to feel it.
MH: What is the poem that you want to write but haven’t been able to write?
JR: I think the poem (or poems) I have not yet been able to write is a love poem. I would like to write a poem that adequately captures my experience of love—for my partner, my parents, my family, my friends. I have not been able to do this very well. I make various efforts at this but I’ve not been satisfied with the results. I have much more to learn, to try, to risk.