For twenty-three years, HoCoPoLitSo has brought a writer into the Howard County high schools to read and talk with students for a few hours. The teenagers meet a live writer, not someone sifted into the dust of textbooks.
Authors of all stripes have worked with Howard County students: slam poets, memoir writers, Native American poets, Bulgarian poets, African-American poets, journalists, poets with National Book Awards, fiction writers, poets with a clutch of photocopied poems that were printed in literary journals. What all of these writers have in common is a love of words, and of the capability to spark and fan the flame of conversation about literature in English classes and poetry clubs.
Joseph Ross, a D.C. poet, teacher and activist, is the next in HoCoPoLitSo’s line of illustrious writers-in-residence, which have included Lucille Clifton, Jean Nordhaus, Michael Dirda, Roland Flint and Michael Glaser.
Ross, the author of Meeting Bone Man (2012) and Gospel of Dust (2013), won the 2012 Pratt Library and Little Patuxent Review poetry contest with his poem, “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God.”
That winning poem touches on a theme that runs through Ross’s poetry — personalizing injustice. Many of Ross’s poems give a name and face to outrages like Darfur genocide, Civil Rights outrages, Gettysburg body counts, political kidnappings in Brazil. Ross also writes about Tupac Shakur, Cool Disco Dan (the graffiti artist who sprinkled D.C.’s walls in audacious letters), his veteran father and even Buddha.
“What makes Ross stand out is his voice as much as his subject matter,” writes C. D. Bledsoe in his review of Gospel of Dust in the Coal Hill Review. “His voice is wise and caring; it’s humanistic and loving, even towards those who’ve done terrible wrongs.”
An English teacher at Gonzaga College High School, Ross founded the Writing Center at Carroll High School, taught at American University, and reads at bookstores, coffeehouses, colleges and poetry festivals at an astounding rate. He also has a masters’ degree in divinity and was an early member of D.C. Poets Against the War. He co-edited, with Rose Marie Berger, Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib.
Barrett Warner, in reviewing Meeting Bone Man in Rattle, writes that “Ross’s political engagement and his obsession with mortality reveal a man who has evolved from liberation theology towards liberation poetry.”
Ross says he believes that poetry can liberate the writer, at least, and perhaps the reader.
“For high school students, I’m convinced poetry can help them discover who they are,” Ross says, “It helps them know they’re not alone. Poetry has healing properties, it connects us to everyone else. I’m a deep believer that poetry disrupts the idea that we’re actually distinct and different from one another. By learning and telling the human story in poetry, we cross borders and boundaries of all sorts.”
Ross will be crossing into suburban territory with this assignment, visiting schools around Howard County for the next ten months, with the help of high school liaison Kathy Hurwitz, who will arrange his visits and prepare the teachers on his poetry.
Jenny O’Grady, HoCoPoLitSo’s poet-in-residence last year, discussed and displayed her three-dimensional art and poetry in the schools, and students came out inspired. O’Grady created a web site, hocopoetry.wordpress.com, that showcases poems students wrote prompted by her visits and her urging them to look at visual art for ideas.
Ross says he was inspired by the poetry of Lucille Clifton, and will be reading some of her work to launch discussions in the classrooms here. Ross’s poems appear in many anthologies and journals, including Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality, Tidal Basin Review, Drumvoices Revue, Poet Lore, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly.
Ross writes a blog at JosephRoss.net.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Ross’s visits are funded in part by the Alpha Foundation of Columbia, Md., and past supporters have included the Jim and Patty Rouse Charitable Foundation.