Volume 18 • Issue 25 | November 4 - 10, 2005

Photo by Elisabeth Robert

Lawrence Joseph, an award-winning poet and law professor who lives blocks from Ground Zero, chronicles the traumatic events of 9/11 in his fourth book of poetry, “Into It.”

Pulling the words from the ruins

By Charles Graeber

Poetry, says Lawrence Joseph, is the highest form of expression. The 58-year-old poet, who doubles as a law professor at St. John’s University, also believes it is the best medium in which to chronicle our times. Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—Joseph has a particularly good vantage point to do this sort of work: he happens to live just blocks from Ground Zero, the site of the biggest, paradigm-shifting event of the 21st century (thus far). In his fourth book of poetry, “Into It,” published last month, he tries to make sense of that event, through words, grammar, signs, and symbols—the tools all writers use to represent the world. We asked another writer, Charles Graeber, to give a brief introduction to Joseph’s book and then to interview him about his poetry and its ability to give shape to an incredibly chaotic time. They decided to do it via email, which, while not exactly the highest form of expression, is perhaps the most representative of our age.

For a writer, history exerts a constant pressure. The facts of our time, the millions of details to collect, the entire universe that must be seen and remembered—all become the raw material of journalism and art alike. The writer’s job is to represent some form of this world through words and grammar, but in order to do this well, the writer must be present enough in the world to know its details, yet removed enough to see its larger patterns. Because ultimately, as years go by, all that remains of our time is what is written of it; writing, ultimately, becomes history. This is the pressure, and it can be intense.

And so imagine the pressure on Lawrence Joseph. At his writing desk, history was more than pressure. It was dust and smoke, global politics and family history, something both personal and universal that no newspaper or photograph could record. This something is the realm of the poet, and at first, Joseph wanted no part of it.

It’s hardly surprisingly that Lawrence Joseph didn’t want to write about 9/11, not at first, not in poetry. What sort of architecture should a writer give to chaos anyway? This September, Joseph published his answer in the form of 24 poems that are collected in his latest book, “Into It.”

I asked Joseph about his Arab-American origins, his years of law practice and professorship, his influences, the weight of history, and the poetry of post-9/11 Manhattan.

CHARLES GRAEBER: How did you get started writing poetry? What was it that you meant to convey that was not coming out through normal syntax, through unbroken prose?

LAWRENCE JOSEPH: I began writing poetry during my freshman year at Michigan. During my first semester—the fall of 1966—I was taking an “Introduction to Poetry” course, and we were assigned “The Emperor of Ice Cream” by Wallace Stevens. After reading and trying to figure out its meanings, and after listening to the professor’s explanation of it, I said to myself, “This is the highest form of expression,” and I wanted to emulate it.

CG: Looking at your early work, it seems that you were especially interested in laying down a sense of place. The work reminds me topically of Philip Levine’s Detroit poems—There’s a power in the place, the greasy hands, the narrow weedy lots, the factory men laboring around the clock to manufacture America’s idea of America. It feels like you are placing yourself there. Was this the drive?

LJ: If by “early work” you mean my first book, “Shouting at No One,” I wrote most of the poems in that book while I was living in Detroit during the 70s. I very consciously wanted to write a book set in the city, in the tradition of post-Baudelairian “city” poetry. Although many of the poems deal specifically with personal and family experiences, “Detroit” is, in the book, essentially metaphorical—an emblem, or code, for the first great modern industrial city, one of enormous historical and social importance, not only to America, but to the entire world. The “I” in the poems is Rimbaud’s modernnist “The I is another”; he is, in each poem, a character, in a setting, speaking.

CG: Your second and third books clearly have you in the thick of business, making a life, breadwinning. It’s the language of downtown interspersed with the world of dead gods. The city is given a kind of nobility even as its coughs and snorts and commerce are copied down.

LJ: The thick of business is explicit and implicit in the poems in “Shouting at No One.” In my second book, “Curriculum Vitae,” I proceed from the actual and metaphorical landscapes of the first book to expressions of the same, and the now different, New York City landscapes. “New York City,” like “Detroit,” is also metaphorical—essentially an emblem of finance capital and power. “Lebanon,” which is in several of the poems in “Shouting at No One”—again enters the book’s language, also as an emblem or code…My third book of poems, “Before Our Eyes,” which completes my new collection, “Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos,” proceeds from the actual and metaphorical landscapes of the first two books. I add to its language an overt sensuality of color, which I set against often harsh social realities. I announce in a poem like “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am” what my aesthetic is and always has been: the poet is a chronicler, one who best records what it’s like to be alive at this time, in America.

CG: Your most recent book is very much a reaction to 9/11, sometimes literally, sometimes more by allusion. It’s clear that part of this seems to come from the fact that you lived blocks away, part from the more universal fact that it was profound, and you felt compelled to collect and respond. You also reference Wallace Stevens, in his observation that the emotional pressure of an experience, which eludes the historian, does not elude the poet. How difficult is it to poeticize something that has become the greatest single topic of our young century?

LJ: “9/11” is a part of several of the poems in “Into It”—how could it not be, considering the kind of poems I have always written? The fact of the significance of the event only increased the challenge of bringing it into poetry as much as I could. The poems in “Into It” go back in time to the poems in “Before Our Eyes” and, for that matter, to the prose in “Lawyerland.” The poems in “Into It” continue on with the codes, precepts, biases, and taboos of the earlier books, deepening them as history forces us to.

CG: Would you consider yourself a downtown poet? The 9/11 poet? Ground Zero’s poet?

LJ: I use the landscape of downtown Manhattan in many of my poems in the same way that I use “Detroit” in poems “set” in Detroit. My wife and I have lived at the tip of Manhattan since 1983; downtown Manhattan is a place of significant American and world importance. My book of prose, “Lawyerland,” is set entirely in downtown Manhattan, and consciously so. “9/11” and “Ground Zero” have certainly increased the world-significance of this part of Manhattan.

CG: Has your heritage informed your topic at all? Obviously it defines you to some degree. So on the one hand, one imagines you might have a greater feeling of connection to the specifics of the crime of terror, if only as someone whose identity is bound together with the very places from which this conflict flows. On the other hand, since you were Midwestern-born, raised Catholic, educated abroad, and are a long-time son of New York, are those ‘Arab-American’ labels more misleading than helpful in defining your perspective and experience?

LJ: My Lebanese and Syrian Catholic heritage comes from my grandparents, who were immigrants. My parents were born here and lived their whole lives in Detroit. My grandparents read and wrote and spoke Arabic, and considered themselves Arab-Americans. “Arab” too has become a metaphor, a code, and my poems track that side of America as well. By doing so, I also track other groups of Americans identified pejoratively by race, ethnicity, religion, or historical realities.

CG: Who are you writing to in your poems? Is it yourself? The ancient gods that inhabit your work? Personified history? Or some overarching sense of humanity perhaps?

LJ: I have in mind a reader in the future who reads the poems and feels what it was like to be alive at this time.

CG: Your poems have a definite political slant. Care to speak about that?

LJ: The poems have a definite moral slant, or bias, which, in some poems, takes the expression of a voice that speaks against power structures that are violent and create violence.

CG: What debt would you say you owe to other poets? It’s clear that you’ve been inspired by Wallace Stevens (who, in addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1955, was Vice President of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company). Is it his poetry that inspires, or the fact that his poetry was balanced with his life, a job in a non-poetic field? Do you find yourself specifically inspired and interested in poets who, like Stevens or William Carlos Williams, had careers outside of writing?

LJ: I write very much in the tradition of American poetry, which, for ninety years now, has also included poetry from other languages in translation. I like poets whose poetry does something with the American language that hasn’t been done before. My poems at times evoke certain poets, which, of course, sends a signal. Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams are both extremely important to me; the fact that each chose to make his living in a profession completely separate from the literary world is in no small part why each is important to me.

CG: Would you say that lawyering is, in some way, poetic? Is its economy of language related, or is legalese too literal?

LJ: I’d say the fact that I am a lawyer, and know the various languages of law, certainly adds to the range of my poetic language. I quote Wittgenstein in the poem “Why Not Say What Happens” in “Into It”: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” I obviously like as much of a range of language as possible because, obviously, I like to bring as much of the world that we live in into my poems as I can.

CG: I recall that the writer Barry Hannah, in teaching his first-year students creative writing, simply started teaching them calculus, so that they at least knew something. The idea being that poetry is not synthesized out of words and air—it is work and experience that creates material. Do you believe the same?

LJ: Poetry is language in is most concentrated, compressed, form. To create it requires not only a knowledge of language, but a knowledge of, or a feeling for, whatever emotions language can express. I, personally, have had to, and have to, work quite hard both at learning the language of poetry, and learning to express what I feel in the language of poetry.

CG: You’ll be reading on Nov. 10 to a New York audience. What are the dangers inherent in writing about a topic that most readers will approach with strong feelings already in place?

LJ: I like reading to New York City audiences. The poems, I’ve been told—especially those with New York settings—seem to express something the listener has felt. This, for me, is the highest of compliments.

Lawrence Joseph reads from his fourth book of poetry, “Into It,” at 7 PM, Thursday, November 10 at the Melville Gallery of the South Street Seaport Museum, 213 Water Street, between Fulton & Beekman. Admission is free ($5.00 suggested donation). For more information call 212-748-8735.


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