I first heard Joseph read and discuss poetry almost twenty years ago at my first Central Piedmont Community College Literary Festival, organized by Irene Blair Honeycutt. I immediately felt a connection to his poetry because he writes about growing up Catholic in a working-class family in a steel town. I did too. I kept my ear out for him. Along with garnering numerous awards, he was named NC Poet Laureate for 2012-2014.
In 2013 I had the great fortune of studying with him at Table Rock Writers Workshop and it was there, along with the others in the class, I was able to call him mentor and friend.
In Joseph’s poems you feel the grit and smoke from the steel mills, laugh at his escapades as a young man and his love of baseball; you taste the cheeses, salamis and sauces that were always present in his childhood home; see the nuns in their black habits, ever ready with correction. Joseph also writes of the NC Correctional System where he worked as a Vista worker. Throughout his poetry and essays there is the thread named Joan, and you smile at the love Joseph has for his wife.
Joseph’s current work, however, is something very special. He’s the Charles George VA Medical Center’s Writer-in-Residence, helping Veterans and their families write their stories. Some of these stories have already been collected in a book and are sometimes presented in public as readings or as plays.
From Anson County, published by Press 53, posted with the poet’s permission.
The dogs have seen a ghost.
The dance around the demon,
barking with dread at the sexless coils,
the switchblade tongue.
The book insists it’s death’s look alike.
I’m tempted to let it go about its business,
but it does not fathom mercy.
Snug on its hump of clay and bloodberries,
it begins unraveling.
The puckered skull levitates.
No moon nor fury for this work,
I’ve merely an inkling of kill or be killed —
a sorry yet orthodox theology.
Like an exorcist, I lift the spade
and pray to the God of murder,
All night I dream
of the death-wiggle,
the ghastly heap flip-flopping,
the severed head
inching toward my boot.
From Concertina, published by Mercer University Press, posted with the poet’s permission.
The first shank
I was shown doubled
as a toothbrush,
to a pointed hush
by scraping it
on the concrete
Stick it in,
then pull it out
and scrub your teeth,
the owner confided.
Hygiene comes first in here.
From Full Metal, published by Press 53, posted with the poet’s permission.
The Strike Baby (for my Mother & Father & Marie)
Eleven dollars a week
and I wasn’t getting pregnant.
When I did
your father went on strike.
We were renting from
Nick and Ida Santilli.
They said forget about the rent
until the baby comes.
You were due.
Your father was on strike.
Then winter came;
and, my God, the snow.
The 1950 snow:
everybody called it
the big snow.
I baked bread.
We bought produce from the huckster.
Daddy painted Abe
and Lena Vento’s house.
They bought us a crib,
so we asked them
to be Godparents.
The days Daddy got paid
he brought home
a twenty sent pie.
It cost a hundred and ten
dollars to have a baby:
nine months care
calcium and vitamin pills.
Two days after
you were born,
the strike ended.
My Sister’s Childhood
There exists no accounts
of trouble in my sister’s childhood.
She was a virtuous, myopic girl;
gifted, mysterious, one to hesitate
with the secret word in the wee of night
when I tapped the wall that separated
our bedrooms and asked, “What is naked?”
And, though not quite happy about it,
she would know. When the nuns dragged me
to her classroom and beat me in front of her,
they forced her to stand
amidst her seated class. Akimbo
cross a chair I could make out
the pale blue veins
of the hand she placed on her desktop
to steady herself as she watched.
Even as the black board fell
I thought only of her rescue.
When I finally uncrooked myself,
I was required to turn and say,
“Thank you, Sister,” to the gleaming
face that was not my sister’s.
Then I looked at Marie,
her small hands petaled across her face —
nowhere else for my eyes.
Joseph’s answers to my questions ~
I wrote my first poem, I think, when I was in high school and it was prompted by falling in love and wanting to impress the girl.
I’d love to have tea with Sylvia Plath.