Joseph Earl Thomas expects to earn his doctorate in English from the University of Pennsylvania in 2024, but that road now leads through Cleveland, a town he will meet in August.
Thomas is the third Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards fellow in creative writing and publishing, named this week after an international search by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. The Philadelphia-centric writer, who grew up in the Frankford neighborhood, draws inspiration for his teaching from the essays of fellow Philadelphian Samuel R. Delany, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement prize in 2021.
Delany, 80, is a towering figure in science fiction and fantasy, as well as an important literary critic.
Typically, Thomas gives his students an exercise “in which they attempt to generate genre-less on one hand, and genre-maximalist sentences on the other, in order to better understand the relationship between the performance of craft and affective expectation as they exchange these sentences with each other,” he writes. “By giving students the confidence to improve upon the skills they already have, I would like to invite them to write, speak and think themselves and new communities into being.”
Grand Central will publish Thomas’ memoir “Sink” in February 2023. Thomas, who is 33, began writing this genre-bending exploration of a Black child’s interior life in his early 20s, although he gravely doubted that he could earn a living as a writer. Instead, he joined the U.S. Army, like many of his friends, for an income.
“I was broke, working a million different jobs and still struggling to make it,” Thomas said in a telephone interview. “Like many people, I turned to the military for training and stayed 13 years. I studied biology, my undergraduate degree.”
Thomas is currently at work on a novel that draws upon his experiences as a Baghdad-deployed medic and EMT. He won a Chautauqua Janus Prize for an excerpt of “Sink” and the Miami Book Fair Emerging Writers fellowship.
“I use the title ‘Sink’ because it calls to mind both the terrifying quality of sinking, despite everything, but also the physical thing, the sink where everything gets tossed out or clogged up in but is still pleasurable to watch when it’s working well,” Thomas said.
Hilary Plum, interim director of the CSU Poetry Center, reflected on the fellowship search she led that attracted more than 100 applicants: “Every two years, we’re honored to hear from wonderfully impressive and engaged emerging writers—who are also teachers, editors, scholars, critics, organizers—from around the country and world. To encounter this breadth and depth of literary work is a source of hope.”
“Prose writer Joseph Earl Thomas is stunningly innovative with his inimitable memoir of childhood, ‘Sink,’” Plum said. “He writes across genres, his work omnivorously informed — by the structures and insights of video games, Black Studies, fantasy and sci-fi, digital life, realities of race and economic inequality, the speculative building of possible worlds — and committed to creating new forms. We’re thrilled to welcome his writing, teaching, editing, and community work to Cleveland.”
Thomas receives a two-year appointment to teach one class per term, focus on his writing and hone his editing hand at the poetry center, which publishes several books per year. His first course for undergraduates will be on multi-genre creative writing.
His own work has appeared or is forthcoming in VQR, N+1, Gulf Coast, The Offing, and The Kenyon Review. He earned an MFA from The University of Notre Dame and has received fellowships from Fulbright, VONA, Tin House, and Bread Loaf.
For “Sink,” Thomas said, “I try to take as seriously as possible the subjectivity of Black kids, to depict the thoughts and feelings of childhood as important in and of itself, a mode of life we all shared. I try to make an argument that we should takes these subjective worlds of childhood as seriously as the philosophical feelings of adults.”
Thomas has a son, Joseph Jr., 11, who has read “Sink,” and a daughter, Leah, 9.
He follows the 2018 inaugural Anisfield-Wolf fellow Leila Chatti, author of “Deluge,” currently the Mendota lecturer in poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the 2020 fellow, Kamden Hilliard, whose first full poetry collection, “MissSettl,” arrives from Nightboat at the end of May 2022.