The Fallibility of Memory

June 2023

A Conversation with Anthony Joseph

Anthony Joseph has been having quite a year. His most recent publication, Sonnets for Albert (2022), won both the T. S. Eliot Prize 2022 and the 2023 OCM Bocas Prize for Poetry and was shortlisted for the 2022 Forward Prize for Best Collection. Joseph is no stranger to critical acclaim and recognition from prestigious prize committees for his poetry, fiction, and music, but Sonnets for Albert has garnered a level of attention that renowned poets such as Nathaniel Mackey, Kamau Brathwaite, and Linton Kwesi Johnson have long predicted Anthony Joseph’s work deserves. In 2016, I sat down with Joseph to discuss Brathwaite’s influence on his work. In the introduction to that conversation, I described Joseph as a “radical wordsmith” whose work in any genre is “always, at its foundation, poetic.” With Sonnets for Albert, his first poetry collection in over a decade, Joseph explicitly returns to this foundation, tackling heavy subject matter with his signature innovativeness and meticulous attention to form. Our conversation here about mourning, memory, and masculinity in Sonnets for Albert took place via Zoom in January 2023.

Kelly Baker Josephs: You have previously experimented with the challenges and paradoxical freedom of rigid form—notably in The African Origins of UFOs and The Frequency of Magic. Can you speak a bit more about why you returned to this approach in this collection and how such experiments were the same/different in Sonnets for Albert?1

Anthony Joseph: With my father, because he wasn’t around when I was a kid very much, all that I had of him were these fragments, these small memories of him from my early childhood when he would come in and out of my life. And I’ve written about them in fragments here and there, and when he passed I wanted to collect them all. I wanted to put them in one place, which would kind of make up for all that I’d lost of him. Putting all these memories in one book felt like there was a consolidation, a wholeness of the memory of him.

So that was the idea. But what I thought of originally was just a series of poems. I didn’t start off doing a series of sonnets. The inspiration to do that came, actually, when I was doing a short residency in China, in the Hunan province, with a Tejano poet, Laurie Ann Guerrero. She had recently published a sonnet collection for her grandfather who’d died; a crown of sonnets.2 We spoke about it a lot, and my dad had just passed, and I thought this would be the thing to do. I thought this would be a good place to honor him. I thought it would be a challenge.

So I started off collecting these memories and shaping them into sonnets—strict-form sonnets—that were leading up to a crown of sonnets.

KBJ: But it didn’t end up being crown of sonnets?

AJ: It’s not a crown. There are remnants of the crown you can see, like in some last and first lines, but I abandoned the idea of doing it like that because what I was trying to do also was write with the sound of a Caribbean person. This is Brathwaite, man. The whole idea of the hurricane. It doesn’t roar in pentameter. The rhythm of Trinidadian speech doesn’t lend itself well to a ten-syllable line. It feels like you need an extra two beats, you know . . . , like [sounds out beats], you need an extra two. And I kept trying to find a way of breaking the line and then putting the extra two in the second line, and it just became . . . I was like, Why am I doing this? Why don’t I just write something that is more a Caribbean sonnet, a Trinidadian line. And I started experimenting with twelve beats per line. And then that worked for a bit, and then I had to abandon the idea of trying to let the form dictate the content and let the content dictate the form.

KBJ: Has that happened to you before in other texts? Where you started with a rigid form and had to abandon it?

AJ: No, this is the first time that I broke my own rules. I mean, with The Frequency of Magic I stuck steadfast to the one-thousand-word restriction, because I guess that was easier to do with prose. It’s easier to manipulate it and take things out or combine words. But with poetry, there’s a lot of different factors. It’s not just the syllable length you’re dealing with but also meaning and image and rhythm. And if you start messing with that too much you end up spending days working on one line. Which is OK, but I think it tends to become more about the form than what you’re trying to say, and at that point I was like, what I’m trying to say is more important than how many syllables are in a line.

KBJ: Have you had formal restrictions like this for yourself with poetry before or only with prose?

AJ: I have experimented with various constraints. For instance, the Oulipo group has some really weird constraints that they would give poets to use, like, every second word has to end in the letter E. I’ve experimented with that; I find that interesting. I find using form in that rigid way forces you to really think about what you want to say and what goes down on the page. So everything has to earn its place. If you only have five words per line, they’ve got to be good.

It’s like you’re editing and creating at the same time.

KBJ: But the subject matter hasn’t before required you to break that constraint that you were working within. Sonnets for Albert is the first time?

AJ: Yeah, it’s the first time. Everything else has been easier. Plus, I think the subject matter dictated a lot of it, you know, because it was heavy. The weight of the matter forced the breaking of the line; it insisted on it.

KBJ: You end the first section of the poem “Sam Boucaud, Santa Cruz” with “break the line.” And this comes after a scattering of words falling down the page. That doesn’t look like what I’ve been taught is a sonnet. After the line breaks, is the poem still a sonnet?

AJ: Is that a sonnet? That is a question like, Is that art? Is an unmade bed in a gallery art? Is a one-line poem a haiku? It’s the same sort of question. I would say, yes, it is a sonnet. Because the sonnet is a form that lends itself to movement within the confines of the form. There is this famous Elizabeth Bishop sonnet titled “Sonnet,” which was one of her last poems published. I always show my students that and ask, Is this a sonnet? It breaks all the rules. Each line is short. There is a volta, but it doesn’t come where you expect it. So poets have for years tried to stretch the form of the sonnet. There are even sonnets that are visual sonnets: photographs, paintings.

So “Sam Boucaud” is a sonnet. There are particular things that I think a sonnet has to have. It has to have an argumentative tone; a sonnet for me is an argument. It’s where the poet is saying, Here’s what I think and feel about this. And here’s another thing I think about this. And, as a result of these things, this is what I come to. It’s an argument.

And also, the volta is really important for me, the turn, the point in the poem which is sort of past the midway point, where the conversation, or the tone, or the idea, shifts slightly.

If that’s there, you don’t need fourteen lines, you don’t need to be in iambic pentameter. If you have this rhetorical, argumentative tone plus this volta, you can call it a sonnet and get away with it. A lot of times it’s what you can get away with, you know? [laughs]

So, yeah, if you look at that poem, in that poem the argument develops, or the scene develops, and then my father enters, and that’s the volta, where he enters. He comes in from work, and he then has a conversation with us and changes the whole mood of the space . . . the whole vibe of the poem, and it becomes about him.

I think that’s what makes it a sonnet.

KBJ: That vibe, or mood, that volta turns on your father insisting a certain kind of manliness into the poem. He enters “like coming back from a war,” and he brings a recognized “authority” into the home with his security uniform and his rum and his cigarettes. The entire collection turns on what actions or accoutrements signify manhood. I came to Sonnets for Albert expecting mourning and loss, but more striking was your exploration of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a father, what it means to be a son, what it means to be an “other son”—an outside son, an inside son, an unknown son. All those versions of masculinity. What were you working out in your representations of masculinity in the collection?

AJ: Well, I think that as I’ve gotten older, my view of that has changed, and I would like to think that it’s gotten more intelligent. Hopefully it’s become something that I could be proud of. But I grew up in Trinidad in the seventies and the eighties, where the view of what a man was was very different from where we are now. My father’s generation—my father grew up in the late fifties/sixties—had a very different definition of what a man had to be. So he had lots of kids, he had like ten or twelve children with different women. He was into dressing well, having nice cars, having money, doing his thing, you know. He never took care of any of his kids. And he was a man.

And that was what I looked to and thought, Oh, that’s what a man is.

So I try to represent that, but I try to be also critical of it. So my father, even though he did all of these things, hopefully there are parts in the book where he comes out looking a little bit foolish or a little bit out of sync with the contemporary world. And I question him as well in some of the poems: What are you doing? How can you do this?

But I also try to be honest to the subject and to capture that sense of, “I’m a man. I have women, I’ve done all these things. I’m the man.” I try to capture that, and I think we need space for that. I think we need space to say this is how a Caribbean man of the seventies and the eighties thought. This is who they were.

But I think if we show an awareness that this is something that we should be critiquing and questioning, then we’re okay. And I try to do that. So there’s different versions of my father in there as more vulnerable. As maybe someone that suffers from mental illness, or maybe someone that is not just the cocksman, not just the guy that’s got all the women, but also someone who is emotionally detached. I try to show these different aspects of his masculinity while staying true to a particular Calypso-esque idea of a Caribbean or Trinidadian man as the dude, because that’s what he was. That’s how he lived his life.

But for me, I think I’ve changed a lot. When I was living in Trinidad, I was much more in step with my dad’s way of thinking about life and gender, and that changed a lot when I moved to England in 1989.

I always found it uncomfortable, the idea of masculinity that my father portrayed, because I grew up with my grandmother and my mom and my aunt. And they wouldn’t stand for that. They were not going to allow me to grow up thinking that I was a boss, or the boss. No, no, no. I don’t want to use the cliche and say they were strong women, but they had a real impact on me and my idea of how gender works. They really showed me a lot about womanhood and womanness and the power and importance of that. So, I was lucky.

KBJ: I think part of it is also that you have other men in the collection. It’s focused on Albert, but it’s about other men around him—yourself, your brothers—and so you get different versions of masculinity through those other men around him as well.

AJ: Absolutely.

KBJ: One of the poems that stuck out most in terms of that for me was “Breakfast in DC.” Your father isn’t in the poem, only present maybe in his absence. The poem reminds us that the whole collection is being built in his absence.

AJ: That is true. Actually, that was a true story. I went to a conference at Howard [University] and a group of us, as it says in the poem, went out the next morning, and we were talking, and we realized that all our fathers had been absent when we were children. That was about ten years before my father died, but that was the point where I started thinking about the relationship between creativity, between poetry, between my work and the absence of my father. And whether or not that had something to do with a particular heightened awareness of language and making sense of the world through language.

But I think that poem also makes a wider comment about absent fathers. About Black fathers. Because at the center of the poem is Blackness, the idea of Blackness, and how as Black poets and scholars seated around that table in DC, our fathers were absent. It asks that question: Is there something going on here? Is there a Black absent father? Is that a thing?

KBJ: And is that a driving force for creativity?

AJ: Yeah, and what does that mean? I still don’t know the answer to those questions.

KBJ: What about in terms of your own work? There’s not going to be a one-to-one correspondence, but do you feel like the work that you’ve done is in response to that absence?

AJ: I think in my life what I realized is that absence does have an impact on who you are, on who you become. I mean, in my case both my parents were absent. I didn’t grow up with my mom. I grew up with my grandmother. So my mom was also an absent figure. I haven’t put her in a whole collection yet because that’s another thing. But they were both absent presences.

KBJ: Was that grandmother your mother’s mother or your father’s mother?

AJ: That was my father’s mom.

KBJ: So, then, he’s even more of an absent presence in the household. She raises him, and then she’s raising you.

AJ: Yeah. And she loved him. She loved him. So it’s interesting that I grew up loving him, even though he was not a great father and he was not around very often. And my brother, who grew up with my mom, grew up with contempt for him.

KBJ: Your grandmother would have spoken very differently about him than your mother would have, one imagines. It comes across in Sonnets for Albert—the wanting to present him as a figure you loved, even in his “flawedness.”

You said your father was a ghost. I read a poem recently that turns on how we have been using the language of ghosts incorrectly, or changing it.3 We use the word ghost when someone has disappeared. We say they have “ghosted” us, and the thing about ghosts is that they never want to leave you. The whole point of “ghosting” is that they are hanging around, they never want to abandon you. So using the word ghost for someone who no longer answers your phone calls is not quite right in terms of that language.

But in the collection, you put memory in front of ghost, which I think does something else to the word. Can you tell me what you’re thinking about when you use the term “memory ghost,” which you do at least twice in titles.

AJ: Actually, I used it three times, and my editor said, just use it twice. [laughs] But it’s this idea for me. I used to think of Trinidad as the floating island. It was an island that floated in my memory because I was here [in England], and Trinidad was this other place that I could only think about. It only existed as a memory, or as a photograph or whatever. Trinidad was an idea. The idea of where I was from didn’t really exist except in my head, because I wasn’t on the ground. I wasn’t there. And the same thing with my father. He’s become an idea, a memory, as a ghost that is sort of amorphous and shifting and formless within my head. Something that doesn’t have a form, in the same way a ghost doesn’t have a physical form, but it’s very real for a lot of people. In the same way, my father is very real to me, although he doesn’t exist in the physical world; he’s become a ghost.

And the term ghost is synonymous with haunting for me. You know you were talking about how a ghost wants to stick around, something that haunts you, that doesn’t let you go. You were absolutely right. It sticks there. It’s always there, and my father is that. He’s always in the back of my mind somewhere, haunting, sitting around looking.

My mom as well. They’ve become these ghosts of memory. Amorphous, shady, smoky, creatures of thought.

KBJ: Reading the collection, I can see you trying to order memory in some of the poems. For example, in “Sea Echo,” with the penultimate line, “this was just before he left for Tobago,” followed immediately by, “—no—it was the year he briefly came back.” How was it working with the fallibility of memory in this collection? And what did you do to work around that or to mitigate the fallibility of memory?

AJ: That’s a great question. Many years ago, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And I noticed the closer you got to the paintings, you saw the sketch marks where the artists had sketched the painting out before painting it. That fascinated me.

And I thought, I want to also include that in my poems. I want to include the sketch marks or the points in composition of the poem where you change your mind or you correct yourself. I want to find a way of representing that organic process within the poem. So I do that a couple of times in the book. In a poem called “Jogie Road,” I do that as well. At the end, I say, “My father held me over his shoulder that night. / No, I was looking up from the road.” And in the writing, I’m going along with this narrative, and I’m like, yeah, I remember that my father was holding me on his shoulder. Actually, he wasn’t. The view, it had to be me looking up from the road. And I just included that in the poem, because it points to the fallibility of memory absolutely, but it also shows the thinking process within the poem.

Memory is a curious thing. James Salter said that anything not written down is a dream, and the only things that have any chance of being real are the things that we write down; everything else is a dream. So I think I’m working with that principle as well, that in the writing down, in the correction, it makes these things a little bit realer.

But, yeah, the fallibility of memory is interesting, with Google and with various ways now of verifying information. I began thinking of the poem as happening on a place called Jogie Road, but actually, during research I was able to find out it didn’t happen on Jogie Road. It happened on Silver Mill. I could go on Google Maps and find exactly where this thing happened in my life. Really interesting. So that’s the fallibility of memory as well, that now we have access to information that can change what we thought we knew, which changes memory.

KBJ: In “Dreadlocks of Mystery” you ask for specific memories of your father that you “could poem.” What surprised you about somebody else’s memory as you were “poeming” your father for this book?

AJ: One of the things that fascinated me, and I guess surprised me and moved me, was my brother Dennis. Dennis grew up with this kind of contempt for my father because my dad was definitely not in his life at all. He never saw him. He was living with my mom. And whenever we would speak about him, [Dennis] would be, like, “That man, I don’t want to hear about that man. He abandoned us.” So he grew up with this.

But then, in talking to him, after my dad died, I found out that he tried many times to reach out to our father, and our father rejected him. And I didn’t know that. He tried to become a son. And my father just couldn’t be bothered.

And that surprised me. It surprised me that even though my brother grew up with his contempt, he still loved him. I mean, how did he—how do we—manage to do this? How do we love these people that are not great to us? I could understand why I loved him, because I grew up with my grandmother, and she loved him and passed that on. But my brother still loved him, even though he wasn’t in his life at all.

So that was quite an interesting surprise.

KBJ: Yes, you trouble that memory across poems in the collection by imagining that from both your brother’s and your father’s perspectives. Which is another dimension of the fallibility of memory. 

We have to close here, but what are you working on now?

AJ: At the moment? I’m producing a “new and selected works” collection for Bloomsbury. I’m trying to get them to do two volumes because there’s quite a lot of new poems, but I think it’s going to be a new and selected collection. That’s going to be out next year. Hopefully.

I’m also working on a collection of essays, which I’ve been working on for years. I don’t know when that’s going to be out. Maybe a couple of years.

And I’m working on a new album with the band.

And I think that’s it. I mean, there’s a lot.

Kelly Baker Josephs is professor of English at the University of Miami. She is the author of Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Insanity in Anglophone Caribbean Lit­erature (University of Virginia Press, 2013) and coeditor, with Roopika Risam, of The Digital Black Atlantic (University of Minnesota Press, 2021). She is currently director of the Caribbean Digital Scholarship summer institute, co-organizer of The Caribbean Digital annual conference, and coprincipal investigator of the Caribbean Digital Scholarship Collective, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation.

[1] Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs (Cromer, UK: Salt, 2006); The Frequency of Magic (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2020); Sonnets for Albert (London: Bloomsbury, 2022). See

[2] Laurie Ann Guerrero, A Crown for Gumecindo (San Antonio, TX: Aztlan Libre, 2015). A traditional “crown of sonnets” concerns a single theme and is linked via the last line of each sonnet repeating as the first line of the following sonnet. The last line of the final sonnet is also the first line of the opening sonnet, closing the circle.

[3] See Andrea Cohen, “Ghosting” (5 September 2021), Atlantic, October 2021;

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