Can’t unnerstand how we fit in dis scene The day fall down like a man wit no bones Don’t look like dis the dream I tried ta dream
Not sure what make dem white eyes so mean Spent most’a my life tryin not ta cry alone Can’t hardly see how I fit in dis scene
Pockets so empty even springtime ain’t green Look like my best chance went off on its own ‘Cause dis ain’t the dream I been tryin’ ta dream
I bet dis the saddest place I ever seen Me and my heart prolly destined ta roam How’d I get caught up in dis scheme?
Guess some hammer done fell on my dream You know how it go when your good luck get gone Who want dis place ta be like it be?
You hear what I say but dat ain’t what I mean Been grindin so long my song scrape like a moan Gotta get myself outta dis scheme
They say when I die leas’ my soul be clean Maybe they think my hard head turnt ta stone ‘Cause dat ain’t the dream I been tryin’ ta dream
Dis country roll on like a floodwater stream Nothin much left’a my body but bone
Look like I’m fit’n’ta die in dis scene But sher ain’t the way it was s’posed ta be
Note: Zora Neale Hurston’s recently recovered book, Barracoon, features a series of interviews with Cudjo Lewis (born Kossola Oluale in West Africa) in which he describes his life before and after being captured and shipped to the American South to be made a slave.
Poem copyright 2022 by Tim Seibles. All rights reserved.
See more poems from Tim Seibles debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: “Movie,” and “Naive.”
and one day the sky opens and a voice says now and after decades of church on sunday bible study on wednesday grace and faith over every meal and heads bowed you look up and scream
and it is done the hand that hovers eternally points its long finger and touches the body and the armor wrapped with faith wrapped with prayer wrapped in the blood now soaked in loss and grieving goes quiet so quiet you could fool yourself into thinking it is all a dream
Poem copyright 2022 by Amanda Johnston. All rights reserved.
Over the recent holidays, I found myself struck by a poet-scholar’s query on what many of us — in a tone suffused with affection and/or disdainful disregard — dub “Poetry twitter.” While compiling a list of forms invented by Black poets, she found herself centering products of male writers, so she was seeking more invented by women. Enthusiastic replies poured in, citing (among others): Ruth Ellen Kocher’s “gigan,” Tara Betts’s “4-1-1,” Allison’s Joseph’s “sweetelle,” Nicole Sealey’s “obverse,” and Ashley Lumpkin’s “disciple.” Too, poets and scholars used this thread to engage generatively about how to define an invented form, suggesting Claudia Rankine’s “American lyric,” or Patricia Smith’s “triple sestina,” or works “undoing traditional forms” like Tiana Clark’s “broken sestinas,” could qualify. I wondered: what, and who, do those of us who research and teach Black poetics include and foreground when considering innovation?
This query was particularly on my mind since I was about to begin writing a piece on Amanda Johnston, so I was struck when Johnston herself chimed in on this very back-and-forth unobtrusively mentioning her “genesis”. She describes the form as “comprised of seven poems. Five individual poems create a sixth prose poem, and italicized words create the final seventh poem when read independently as a visible erasure.” Johnston’s tone, putting herself forth for consideration yet doing so quietly and briefly, encapsulates the simultaneous humility and well-warranted braggadocio with which Black women poets today innovatively “make poetic culture in their own images” (Leonard 27). I mean “braggadocio” not as a critique. Instead, I hope it and this piece will celebrate Johnston, even as I suggest that innovative precursors paved the way for her triumphs. Johnston recognizes this lineage; readers should also situate her work against this backdrop to fully understand her contributions to contemporary African American poetics.
One of Johnston’s most vital ancestors came up recurrently in that thread: Gwendolyn Brooks. One scholar posited that Brooks’s “sonnet-ballad” and “anniad” are invented forms; others highlighted that Terrance Hayes’s “golden shovel” could never have emerged without Brooks. In these meditations, I want to argue the same of Johnston: a boldly innovative versifier herself whose works come into sharper relief when seen as partially descended from Brooks.
Like Brooks, Johnston is equally adept on page and stage. She has won honors for slam and performance work in venues like the Nuyorican Poets Café and has published in journals like Callaloo and Poetry, along with two chapbooks (Guap and Lock and Key) and her full-length collection Another Way To Say Enter. Many “slammers” like Johnston engage in textual innovation encouraged in part by their training in MFA programs: Johnston earned her degree at the University of Southern Maine. Yet these innovations are equally indebted to Brooks’s model of poetic invention. In addition, she and Brooks share extraordinary accomplishments as poets and tireless advocates for their peers. Johnston devotes herself to opening doors for Black authors: she has served as Board President of Cave Canem, co-founded the reading series / social media campaign #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, and founded Torch Literary Arts to promote Black women’s writing. Through these labors, Johnston, like her foremother, links poetry to social change.
More should be said about Johnston’s labors on behalf of Black writers as well as about her performance work. But I will focus here on her written texts, particularly how they derive inspiration from Brooks in treating centrally the variegated subject of Black motherhood. Countless Black poets have penned riffs on their foremother generally and especially on her works on this topic (including Robin Coste Lewis’s “the mothers”). However, Johnston’s entire oeuvre centers motherhood in modes topically and formally inspired by Brooks’s “the mother” (1945), locating her as a modern poet of Black motherhood. Johnston’s body of work addresses how the experience of shepherding a young life into and through a world that subjects Black children to additional forms of precarity yields internal conflict and heightened raging at social (in)justices.
Her speaker(s) return(s) repeatedly to dwelling on her/their mother(s). The ars poetica “With Apologies to the Poem” from Lock & Key, for instance, apostrophizes her verse with sardonic audacity a lá Brooks (or her foremother domestic poet extraordinaire Lucille Clifton). It opens: “you complicated flutter of sound / broken and bent meaning / all the best,” then continues in ironically self-aggrandizing self-effacement: “I can’t // connect the sky or birds / to my mother // I tried // as you did” (8). These lines via paralipsis do connect “sky” and “birds” to the speaker’s “mother,” insinuating that the poet-speaker finds this character, and, I argue, this theme meaningfully unavoidable.
On top of this returning to one’s own mother, Johnston’s full-length Another Way to Say Enter reflects a pervasive preoccupation with the speaker(s) as mother. Numerous poems overtly address being a mother, from the haunting narrative in “When My Daughter Wasn’t Assaulted,” to “What We Dare Not Say” positing that “unconditional / motherhood / could be driving / your young into the sea” (27). Even in poems not specifically addressing motherhood, images like describing the domestic task of peeling potatoes through a simile equating the vegetables to “a newborn baby’s head” (23) raise the specter of this role.
I will unpack just two of these motherhood poems: “My Beloved Be Loved,” and “We Named You Mercy.” The former revises Lock & Key’s “My Beloveds” and appears in Enter with the epigraph “after Toni Morrison,” situating it as allusion to Morrison’s novel and embracing Morrison’s influence on her representions of Black motherhood. This poem stunningly lyricizes Sethe’s decision to perform matricide, inhabiting this mother’s consciousness and rendering her supposedly monstrous choice explicable in just six couplets. But its treatment of the so-called choices involved in Black motherhood also has roots in Brooks’s “the mother,” especially in how skillfully Johnston extracts maximal ironic effect and societal commentary from small-scale devices like punctuation and diction.
For instance, Johnston expands Brooks’s devotion to exploring exactly what the action of “love” — a verb she features prominently thrice in the anaphoric, haunting final stanza of “the mother” — means to Black mothers. To do so, she excludes the comma that should appear for clarity in her title between the vocative “My Beloved” and the imperative. This absence (like Brooks’s brilliant double-edged meanings of “in my deliberateness I was not deliberate”) provokes readers to recall that the former, often-saccharine endearment “Beloved,” is etymologically equivalent to the latter passive construction, “Be Loved” and that true maternal love involves action, not mere words. This immediate juxtaposition also highlights that white supremacy attempts to leave Black mothers powerless. But against such passivity, the piece centers verbs: “I grab,” “I know,” and “I will hand.” Thus, the poem emphasizes that Black motherhood always centers maternal care enacted in action — even if that mandates matricide or abortion, and even if others view these women warranting confinement in the poem’s “cage[s].”
Johnston’s “We Named You Mercy” extends this Brooks-inspired work of depicting mothering complexly via minute, deliberate formal details. “Mercy” is written “after Gwendolyn Brooks” and transports the “mother,” discussing abortion into our century. Despite the homage, a stark contrast differentiates Brooks’s piece from Johnston’s. Readers can infer that Brooks’s 1945 speaker likely obtained the abortion(s) before and without revealing her pregnancy/ies to others, to retain some modicum of control, perhaps thanks to physical or socioeconomic necessity that others might devalue. Johnston’s speaker instead induced abortion out of medical necessity; it remains unclear if only the child’s health or also the speaker’s was imperiled. In addition, this would-be mother inhabits different domestic circumstances and shares the experience with a partner: clearly, they both longed for and “love[d]” this unborn and so only chose abortion to express “cold mercy.” In light of these conditions, Johnston’s speaker’s emotions become even more double-edged than those of the speaker of Brooks’s poem. Both poets depict the children in ghostly terms, but Johnston tonally describes the child in beautiful natural imagery and alliteration, its “toes” “small petals,” its “closed eyes” “pulps of possibility” (5).
Juxtaposing her work with Brooks’s emphasizes that Black women may, regardless of circumstances, view abortion as hardly wholly their choice and as a result experience conflicting emotions. That Brooks’s speaker endures her loss in silence (except the outlet of this poem) becomes pronounced in her mournful final repetition of the singular first-person: “I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All.” While Johnston’s speaker has recourse to first-person plural, society nonetheless still veritably forbids speaking publicly about miscarriage, medically-induced abortion, and concomitant mourning; this remains somewhat true even if others beyond one’s domestic orbit knew of the pregnancy, as may be the case for Johnston’s speaker. Such taboos make it difficult for Black women to process guilt, shame, or self-doubt.
Yet “We Named You Mercy” violates these taboos in content and via aesthetics used. Johnston’s tools for representing her speaker’s sense of self-blame and culpability mirror Brooks’s: both center compound neologisms and pose unanswerable rhetorical questions. Johnston’s neologisms like Brooks’s create an overall indeterminate mood. Her first-person speaker declares: “I saw your face once and, yes, I did / kiss your cheeks and cry for your sweet not- / quite nose, not-quite lips” (5). Brooks’s “sucking-thumb” and “gobbling mother-eye” condense memorably the haunting experience of envisioning the unlived lives of (a) child(ren) aborted; Johnston’s adjectival “would-be” and “not-quite” and nouns “almost-children” and “half-wing” operate in parallel to summon the children into pseudo-embodied form. Like those ghostly phantasms, these linguistic neologisms might seem mere fabrications to those around the speaker; this liminality parallels how others denying her anguish validity might increase its keen ache. Johnston’s speaker also blames herself in the same form as does Brooks—unanswered interrogatives. “the mother” poses two haunting questions: “Though why should I whine, / Whine that the crime was other than mine?” and “oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?” Johnston expands this to five. Her speaker queries early on: “Would I get / another chance to see you if I held the knife? Cold, the sterile / the taker’s tools” (5). Near poem’s end, these questions accumulate in an accelerating, frenetic compilation: “Did you see me? The one with / empty arms stretching to embrace a / a [sic] silhouette of you? … / Or / did I make that up to keep you with / me a little longer? Did you stay until the no / I set upon your body untangled itself from sprigs of hair / and released you from the softness that tethered you to the / love in our cold mercy?” (5). In these rapid-fire queries, the speaker questions her complicity and sanity.
She also blames herself when she imbues speech with the capability to enact the abortion, describing it as a performative utterance, the “no / I set upon your body.” Thus the “mercy” extended feels tepidly “cold” indeed, directed at the unborn fetus and thereby denied the mother herself. It is fitting that Johnston also implicitly evokes Morrison here: her final image of “almost milk that did not swell, but was light as air” (16) recalls Sethe’s last days at Sweet Home, when her “swollen” breasts tortuously subject her to abuse by white enslavers and serve as material reminder of the child sent ahead whom she is desperate to follow. Johnston’s poetic invocation of milk-laden breasts are an absent presence, “airy,” yet real — like that “ghost” of possibility provoked by holding the lifeless child.
Too, Morrison often ruminates on “mercy” ideologically. Her A Mercy (2008) describes a mother begging a white man whom she judges likely to treat her daughter humanely to “take” her into enslavement, an attempt to protect her from their present master’s rapacious sexual abuse. To her, his accepting “was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human” (195). Farah Jasmine Griffin glosses this passage:
For the mother, the white man offers a gift of mercy, but is the mercy an act granted to the slave child by the man Vaark, or one granted to the white man to whom she is given? Is the act of mercy his ability to see Florens as a child and not only a piece of property over whom he has power? Or is it God’s mercy that the enslaved mother sees Vaark as a human being who might do right by her child and not as a monster who would cause her great harm? All she knows of white men would lead her to see them, to believe them, to be monstrous and evil. Yet, she sees this one as a human being, capable of kindness (28).
We might similarly ask in Johnston’s poem: who requests mercy — child, mother, father, poet? — of whom — child, mother, father, poet, readers? If even trading in humans can seem merciful depending on the relative situation, then (Johnston suggests) the choice to prioritize an unborn child’s quality of life over the mother’s well-being qualifies, too, as an act of mercy. The unborn “Mercy” embodies such grace to her mother — Griffin also asks: “Who can be more deserving of mercy than a child” (29) — even as this speaker serves the God-like role of extending her offspring mercy. The body of the poem only incorporates its key word “mercy” once: in the phrase “our cold mercy” that thus carries tragically key dual meaning. In context sans capitalization, it primarily describes the parents’ tortured decision. But read in light of the title, this phrase also evokes corporeally encountering the corpse of the child.
As parallels between these two poems evince, tortuous cycles persist for twenty-first-century Black mothers denied equal access to resources and exposed disproportionately to environmental and institutional hazards that make them and their children precariously vulnerable to negative health outcomes. “We Named You Mercy” is not only a potent document of personal trauma. It is also a rallying cry to rectify such circumstances, or at least to grant Black women platforms to express losses and to advocate implicitly for reproductive justice.
For the ability to hold the child, to write this verse, and to lyrically name the child does proffer something to this despondent speaker. That the name is “Mercy,” however, ultimately encapsulates the tragedy of the loss and the parents’ feelings. Johnston’s speaker experiences the “cold” comfort of sharing her burden with a partner and writing in a somewhat more accepting era. Yet it is undeniable that Brooks’s formal and thematic innovations, as well as her meditations on this under-discussed facet of Black motherhood made a pathway for Johnston to follow in her own work.
Before closing, it seems worth thinking about the choice on the part of this poet of motherhood to dub her created form the “genesis.” This audaciously positions her as fertile and god-like, authoring creation and the text representing it. This mirrors Nikki Giovanni’s tone in “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)” when she declares: “I turned myself into myself and was jesus.” Both poets make Black women, so often societally abjected, godly. And rightly so, for Johnston’s invented genesis is itself a wildly creative hybrid form, demonstrating her formidable talents and demanding fresh reading strategies. She formats the five separate pieces, spread across multiple pages, as individual columns for independent reading. But they also together, read left-to-right and up-to-down across the columnar divisions, create a sixth longer poem. Finally, she invents a new sub-genre, the “visible erasure,” by asking readers to identify the seventh poem hidden in plain sight. Each columnar poem contains italicized phrases; assembling these left to right across the two-page spread comprises a seventh poem. But locating this invisible (yet hyper-visible) seventh poem asks readers to do the impossible: ignore the roman typeface text they have already read. Those words haunt this seventh piece interpretatively. Reading such work — let alone innovating such a form and writing effectively therein — certainly requires and displays capacious, generative poetic thinking.
Thus, Black women poets (Johnston among them) indubitably deserve treatment as creators of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American verse. That Twitter thread ultimately helped me continue dwelling on key broader matters in twenty-first-century African American poetics. Many assert that now that Patricia Smith won the Pulitzer and “slammers” (with other types of Black poets long held in abeyance by the academy and literary establishment) are being increasingly recognized, these poets now exercise full freedom. Although “gatekeepers” initially “pushed” slam and its “artists to the margins or jettisoned it” (Johnson and Blacksher 170), such institutions have begun to “recognize the literary merits of slam” and “bring slam and spoken word poets” into their legitimizing spaces (Johnson Killing 2). Keith Leonard recently asserted that twenty-first-century Black poets can wholly “create as they please” (29). Amanda Johnston’s career gives me (qualified) hope that he is correct, or soon could be. For she is to some degree recognized by the establishment on stage and page, and collectives like Cave Canem and the Affrilachian Poets help her reach broader audiences and craft her own platforms.
However, reading her as poet of Black motherhood and emphasizing her innovation remains in order. As Brooks’s brilliance is kept at the fore through the tireless labors propagated by the Furious Flower conferences and center, among other efforts, so I am delighted to have this opportunity to bring Johnston’s work before readers and position her as a modern daughter of Gwendolyn Brooks in these pages, where we with the writers tend and foster African American poetry.
Johnson, Javon. Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2017. Print.
— and Anthony Blacksher. “Give Me Poems and Give Me Death On the End of Slam (?).” The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry. Ed. Timothy Yu. New York: Cambridge UP, 2021. 169–79. Print.
Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature. New York: Norton, 2021. Print.
Leonard, Keith. “New Black Aesthetics: Post-Civil Rights African American Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry. Ed. Timothy Yu. New York: Cambridge UP, 2021. 17–30. Print.
@nadia870. “Hey poetry Twitter, what forms do you know of that were invented by Black women poets? As I begin forming a list of forms created by African American poets, I realize that none of the folks I’ve found so far are women. Please help!” Twitter, 29 Dec. 2021, 10:51 a.m., https://twitter.com/nadia870/status/1476234444625358851.
Laura Vrana is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Alabama and a proud alumna of Penn State, where she earned her Ph.D. in English. She researches 20th-century and contemporary Black poetics, and her publications have appeared or are forthcoming in outlets including MELUS, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, College Literature, and Obsidian and the edited collections Some Other Blues: New Perspectives on Amiri Baraka, Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, and two volumes of the Cambridge African American Literature in Transition series.
Amanda Johnston is the creator of the genesis — a poetic form comprised of seven poems. Five individual poems in adjoining columns create a sixth poem when read from left to right. Each individual poem also contains italicized words/lines which create the final seventh poem when read independently. The poem must move chronologically through time.
Johnston remixes extant poetic forms such as erasures and the contrapuntal to create the genesis. The challenge: Write a genesis OR mix two forms together to create a new form.
Amanda Johnston’s is a poetry full of invitation. To see. To love. To remember. To belong. To be naughty. To be flawed. To be vulnerable. To be open. To be real. “I offer this small space I hold in the world, Johnston writes, in her poem “Crossing In,” and indeed the world is compressed in Johnston’s work, which is layered with joy, witness to personal and public history, tributes to other poets, and a fierce love. In poem after poem, her debut collection, Another Way to Say Enter, exquisitely explores the multi-faceted complexity of our humanness, reaching as the best poems do for a larger truth. Again and again, that truth is accessed through personal experience crafted into portals that lead to understanding, empathy, and ultimately, grace. In “Making Amends,” for example, a father reaches out after 39 years, and the speaker/daughter instead of reaching back, reaches instead toward her children, listing the pileup of tasks that comprise her mothering — from “endless pages of homework,” to “scrubbing the sour day from [their] tongues.” The list both captures the speaker’s avoidance of the father’s gesture and her piercing awareness of the shape of his absence from her childhood, a poignant defiance of lack. The poem invites us to hold in active relationship the present and the past, the hurt and the healing, the father’s empty hands and their reaching, the daughter’s fully-occupied attention encircling the palpable lacuna between them. The poem lands with the speaker tucking in “her heart” — both her childhood self and her present children — and engaging the labor of healing; she is “busy, planting dreams in a tended garden with endless rows to till.”
In October of 2019, Johnston came to James Madison University and read as part of the Furious Flower reading series. She joined me in the studio for a lively conversation about her non-traditional path to poetry and publication, her pedagogy and practice of vulnerability, and even which poem she would give to a political candidate. The interview has been transcribed below and lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me the first encounters with poetry that you remember. My very first encounters with poetry were The Golden Book of Nursery Rhymes. But what really piqued my interest in what poetry could do was reading Shel Silverstein. If you’ve ever read Shel Silverstein, you know he could be a little naughty. You’re like, wait a minute, this poem is saying she’s not gonna take the garbage out? Ooh! And it just stacking up higher and higher! Or, you know, dealing with more challenging subjects that take more risk, like “Mask” which talks about how we walk around looking for each other — I had blue skin, he had blue skin, but we passed each other, and didn’t see each other because of the masks that we wore. That really got me thinking about how I could take risks in poetry, and what else was there for me to discover.
So that sounds young? Super young? Young. Very young.
So you’ve always known? Well, poetry has always intrigued me. I didn’t start writing seriously — and I say seriously because through grade school in English class you write acrostics and different things when it gets to that poetry unit. You know, you write your poems and you go on to something else. But when I was in my twenties I started writing poetry, and was writing with a group in Kentucky while I lived there, working with The Heartland Review, and publishing. Then I met Frank X Walker and Nikki Finney and the Affrilachian poets and shortly thereafter became an Affrilachian [poet] and I was like okay now I’ve got to really apply some skill and thought to this work, and they guided me.
That’s amazing. Talk to me a little bit about the Affrilachian poets– tell us what that is, and what it means to you to write in that tradition. It’s the brainchild of Frank X Walker, that word. And the history of him creating that word was that while he was at the University of Kentucky, he was in a class and the word “Appalachia” came up. When he looked up the dictionary definition, it didn’t include Black people or people of color from that region, it specifically talked about white people. So he said, “well this isn’t correct” and so the power that happens when you take ownership and give yourself permission to change out those p’s with f’s, opened up a way for all of us in that region to be able to write. Now, I wasn’t born there. I was born in St. Louis, but my husband was in the military and we were stationed at Fort Knox for five years, so I was in Kentucky. And it was a welcoming home for me, for a place that wasn’t my home. It made a home. I wanted to write about the land, about the people, about that space, specifically, and be able to share it as part of the larger narrative and Black writing like poetry and literature in the world.
You have a day job. Many jobs. [Laughs.]
How does it [the day job] speak to and engage with your being a poet? I think we often think “I’m a poet” or, “I’m not a poet” or, “I have a day job and then I’m a poet by night.” How does that relationship work for you?
Well, I’ll tell you something. Shortly after becoming an Affrilachian poet, that was in 2004, Nikky Finney had just taught at Cave Canem. And she came back to Kentucky and told us all “you all have to apply to Cave Canem right now.” And if you’re smart you listen to Nikky Finney. She’s not gonna steer you wrong. So, I applied and I became a Cave Canem fellow the next year in 2005. It changed my life.
That’s where we met.
Yes, that’s where we met. Yes, of course. Good things come when you listen to Nikky Finney — you meet more amazing people. But also, when I say it changed my life, I mean it changed how I was going to live in the world. It came right at a moment of transition for me and my family. My husband had gotten out of the military and had finished college, and we were moving from Kentucky back to Texas. The retreat was in June and we were moving the Fourth of July weekend. That fast. In a matter of days, I came home after the retreat and I said, “Honey, we have to live in a place that has an office where I can do my writing. I will only apply to jobs that are in education or the nonprofit field, because even if it’s not dealing directly with poetry, those are the places that will support me or care that I’m a poet and understand the power of that in the world.” So, it literally changed where I lived, what I did. And so, I have been fortunate because of that change in my life. Having Affrilachian poets, having Cave Canem, that I knew this was a possibility for me and I actually didn’t have to separate them. So even in my day job — well, like I said, I have multiple jobs. I teach at the low residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine; that’s directly with poetry; I am poetry faculty. But then during the day I’m at a public school in Texas and I do administrative work, but I’m also able to lead poetry units, and invite poets to speak to the kids. So, it’s definitely in all aspects of my life. You come into my home, you walk straight into my library, and everything is predominantly poetry. [Laughs.]
And that’s so amazing: you’ve built not just a practice but a life around poetry, which is a wonderful opportunity. So talk to me about what practicing poetry looks like for Amanda Johnston. When you say, “I’m going to that office,” how does the poem begin and what are the moves you make to get through and to the poem?
Well, for me, first it’s reading. Just making sure that I have the words and access to the poems in my daily life. So, I have books around me — and that’s another thing I love about poetry is I can grab any collection off the shelf. I use ‘em a lot like tarot cards and say, “just give me what I need, Universe!” and it never fails. It lands on the poem that I need in that moment. So just reading first, taking it in, going to readings, supporting the local community readings so that I’m in the atmosphere of poetry and literature — that sparks the personal work. That leads to the inspiration. You hear something, or you see something. The book came out in 2017, so it’s still fairly young, and I had to take a break from writing a lot, because you’re focused on getting the work that you’ve already done out there. But Furious Flower’s 25th anniversary event (I was watching and I was sad that I couldn’t attend. I had booked everything, I was supposed to be there, life happens and I couldn’t be there, but I was thankful that it was live streamed), I was watching it. And I have to tell you — in hearing the amazing work coming from that reading, I was immediately drawn to the page, so I had my paper next to me and I was drafting poems, listening to the words of other Black poets.
Oh, that’s so good to hear! You mentioned the MFA being faculty, and you did an MFA, so I’m interested in you talking about that experience in the context of your most positive, your most challenging, your most useful, and your most surprising experience. In any order.
I’ll say, first of all, what was most surprising about MFA is that I did it at all. Let’s be real. [Laughs.] My experience in higher education has been extremely non-traditional. I had started a family very young and so I’ve been taking care of them, and doing those things. So, I had been piecing together classes here and there. I worked in higher education — usually that’s the benefit of working there, you get to take some classes, etc. So, again, because of Cave Canem, I was talking about wanting to finish school and considering this and Patricia Smith, as she does, just came in and she was like “you’re gonna go to Stonecoast at the University of Maine. I said, “What?” and she said “Yes, you are.” And a year later, I was. I was in the program. So, I’m surprised that it happened for me at all, but I’m extremely grateful.
Challenging and most useful. I think were the same. At Stonecoast, Annie Finch was the director when I came in. Anyone who knows Annie Finch and her work knows that she’s one of our form goddesses. And all poetry students had to take a meter and form workshop; the first class that you took was with Annie. I almost dropped out of the program. I was like “What? Wow.” It terrified me. I had no idea. But because of the way she introduced it, through a very radical feminist lens, she was able to discuss how different meters had been oppressed and suppressed by the patriarchy and why we learned iambs instead … I was like “Preach! Yes!” It introduced the material to me in a way that made sense in the context of the world, so I didn’t feel on the outside of that world anymore. And I was able to access the information. So, that was challenging, but also the most rewarding. Yeah, I feel like I got the education that I was missing by going in there and receiving that. And not quitting! Not quitting. Doing the work. [Laughs.]
And positive. There’s so many positive things from it. One being that they asked me to come back and teach. That was also a surprise; I wasn’t expecting that. But it’s been a joy to come back and teach. But while I was in the program, they were very supportive with you exploring cross genre work. I was able to do independent study and see how I wanted to incorporate poetry and other genres, and see how I liked writing in different styles. One of the things I wanted to do was write screenplays. For my third semester project — and I was, you know, surprised — it was a positive experience to be able to work with Alex Payne, who did the book adaptation of Amistad, to be able to do the reverse and take some of my poems, and adapt them into a screenplay.
Do you write in other genres? Not as much as poetry. Poetry is my primary, but I do love short stories; I love hybrid work and as I’ve said the screenplays. Yeah, I’m not gonna talk too much about them and keep those tucked until they’re ready, but yeah, I’ve been working on a couple of those for a while.
Tell me about teaching. What are some of the things that you find critical? Annie, for example, clearly thinks you need to know form. What are the things that when you have a group of students that you feel are the most critical to get across to them. And what are just some of your favorite teaching tools or exercises or tricks?
I think one of the greatest gifts we can share with students is our own vulnerability. And that this is a process. First, I want you to be honest with your interests: What are you passionate about? What gets you excited? You might not have written it yet, but when you turn to the works that you want to read, and you’re excited, you can’t put that book down, what is it? What is it about that? And then if that inspires you, follow that, study it, be obsessed with it. And you’ll find that it enhances your work. So, follow your passions. Don’t listen to those voices that say, “Oh, but what are you going to do with this? What are you going to do? How are you going to pay bills with this?” Because when you are following that path, and you’re applying your whole self, it can’t help but to come. You make the way. The way opens up for you.
And then, teaching tools: Richard Blanco, in an interview for the LA Times some years ago, said something that stuck with me about the canon and teaching poets. He said “Don’t start with the old poets; you start with contemporary poets.” You start with what got them excited to come in here and that they can see themselves real in today. And then you use that to go back and say, “Okay, how does this relate to Black Arts Movement?” How does this relate to different traditions? How does this relate to these other poets? But if you start there, you’re going to lose people because they don’t see themselves.
The idea of tradition and lineage is sort of what I’m hearing there, right? What are some of your poetic lineages?
Like I said, I had a very non-traditional higher education and came to it later in life. So, the people who influenced me, most of them are closer to our time. I’ll hear a poem or something that will draw me to them, but then what brings me in deeper is their biography, their history. Who are you? So, Lucille Clifton definitely. So many of us turned to her — her incredible mind, her amazing talent, and ability, but for me, it’s also the husband, six kids. She was working as a secretary for the state, went to grad school, turned around, walked out because she had these other responsibilities. But the poetry never left her, and she was able to create this incredible body of work in her time. That is inspiring to me. That is more in line with my experience with the work. So poets like her.
Sharon Olds. When I feel like hiding behind something and not getting to the poem, I go and I read Sharon and then I come back to remember what vulnerability looks like. And honesty on the page. Afaa Weaver, especially his first book Talisman. You want to talk about vulnerability. If you’ve never read that, read it– it’s so brave and daring. The book is broken up into sections, named after women in his life, from his mother, his wives, his longtime partners. While you’re reading this, it’s like, “Oh my god, is this really who I think it is?” And you know, you’re not supposed to project or assume with the subject, etc. You turn to the back and there is a note on each of these women in his life. And it gave me great permission to not hide from my truth. Knowing that there will be other people in the world who might not exactly like that you’re writing about your truth, because it’s theirs as well. But you should never be silenced. And you should be free to write your story.
Speaking of writing one’s story, I want to talk about Black Poets Speak Out. Talk a little bit about how it came to be, what the journey of that has been like, where it is now, and where it might be going?
So Black Poets Speak Out started in 2014 after Darren Wilson was not indicted in the murder of Mike Brown. I was devastated as so many of us were to see that you could still, in 2014, kill an eighteen-year-old and leave him in the middle of the street in his own blood for four hours. I was born in East St. Louis, so [Ferguson’s] not far from where my people are, and my father, one time lived close to Ferguson, so it felt very personal to me. I wanted to do something. And I knew I wasn’t alone, though. Poetry gave me that, that I knew I wasn’t alone. So, I reached out to Cave Canem. We have a listserv, a group space where we communicate, and I said “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” And people responded. And so, from the fellowship, Mahogany Brown, Jericho Brown, Sherina Rodriguez-Sharpe, Jonterri Gadson and I pulled together to say I’m willing to commit sweat equity, I’m willing to put in work so that we can do something. Like not just say something, not just share a poem, but do something with a little more risk than that, to push back against this active threat. In a matter of a few days — it was actually right before Thanksgiving, so, Black Friday, that Friday after Thanksgiving — we posted videos. We started posting videos. And in the videos, it was the poet reading, if you were a Black poet reading an original poem that spoke to injustice, or if you were not then you were reading in solidarity with and reading a poem by a Black poet. So we would not silence voices of Black people, but amplify them. And each person making a video starts with the same mantra, which is: My name is Amanda Johnston, I’m a Black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders Black people. I have a right to be angry.
Together we pulled that phrasing together; it was important to state that we are human beings, which is what that’s saying. We are human beings, and we are watching you kill us, and we have a right to be upset about this. You know, the angry Black woman myth and all of these things —no. We are human beings and entitled to the full emotional range of our humanity. And right now, I feel anger. And then, though, it’s about channeling: how do you use that anger? So, very organically it grew to be phases. The first phase were videos, and in a matter of days there were hundreds of videos from all around the world of people doing this, which is very powerful because people were putting their personhood, the same way I stated my name, people were stating their names. Here’s my image. Here’s my face. I’m a part of this; I feel the same way. I’m also angry.
And then doing community readings. All across the country in different places in the world, folks were coming together and doing Black Poets Speak Out readings. And then after that we said, “Well, how can we tie this to civic engagement?” and we did a letter writing campaign. And so all of 2015, people wrote letters, sent postcards, but I committed myself to write a letter for every day of 2015 to the president, to the UN, to my state representatives, demanding that they take action — that something be done. I actually got a letter back from the White House; Barack Obama was the president at that time. I remind everyone, though, that during that time, while we were watching all of these deaths, Barack Obama was the President. So not one person to fix or change. We have to stay committed, we have to continue to talk about injustice, because there’s still a long road ahead.
So we did that, and then finally the last phase was lesson plans. If you go to Black Poets Speak Out online, if you just Google Black Poets Speak Out, you’ll find it. There’re resource links to different lesson plans — the books and the poems, so that people can continue to educate others. So that this whole moment in history doesn’t just go away.
I’m interested, too, in following up with that idea of both capturing the moment, being in the moment, responding to the moment,
and also engaging the long game, right? Speaking to the idea of poet-as-activist, talk to me about sustaining yourself and allowing the work to evolve, to back away from, or go deeper in over the course of a journey like that?
Yeah. So, self-care is real, you know? It’s not the bumper sticker version or the Good Housekeeping version — you know, take a bubble bath and that’s enough, right? You have to be mindful of yourself, your mental health, where you’re at. That’s real. I’m someone who truly believes in that and knows the importance of that — I’ve had to step in, step back, etc. and take care of myself. As far as the journey of this work, you can see now from that time in 2014, other organizations that have embraced this work and have a very direct and prominent way of addressing police violence, police brutality, social injustice. Groups like the Poetry Coalition, which Cave Canem, the Academy of American Poets, Kundiman, Canto Mundo are all members of address protest and violence. But there’re so many issues that are taking place, it can really overwhelming at times, you know? The environment, gender & LGBT rights, all of that, so having partners be able to lift part of that weight is good, too. When you start to see other people doing stuff, you don’t feel like it’s all your burden — it’s not just your burden to bear. So, take care of yourself, welcome accomplices to come and carry some of this work.
And then as far as the future of it, we’re a point in a long history. This isn’t new with us! A Black Arts Movement? We’ve been doing that. Renaissance? Been doing that. You know, Tyehimba Jess did a great interview — well, it was a panel — with the 1619 Project and one of the things he was imagining was what did the first Black poetry workshop look like in context with Phyllis Wheatley? When we know you could have been killed for reading, for writing, for gathering – we’re part of that.
That will continue past us in ways we can’t imagine, but I have faith in our people that have come this far. We didn’t come this far to stop.
You are on the Cave Canem executive board, you are Executive Director at Torch Literary Arts, you’re the co-founder of Black Poets Speak Out. So you clearly have an arts administrator hat that you whip out every once in a while. What are some of the things that you engage differently as an art administrator as opposed to an arts practitioner? What are some of the tensions there? What are there some fruitful and productive intersections?
Well, I don’t think you can really be an artist and not understand service. To be an artist in any genre, in any area, you are wanting to communicate and work with the larger community, larger society. So when I’m working in board service, or running Torch, or organizing the work behind Black Poets Speak Out, it’s all in service to others, and I feel that’s part of my duty, to get to be here and live this life, right? It’s challenging for all the ways that one can understand. When you’re out working with the people, you workin’ with the people. And I love the people. And the people all have different ideas and views on what should be done and how it should be done. And I appreciate that because what that brings out surprising and new ways of thinking, new ways of tackling problems and issues– fresh ideas. So I love being able to be in conversation with community about any of the work that I do. And, you know, it’s the future of it, because when that next generation comes, other people who have now been activated to become part of the work that you’re doing, that’s what’s going to guarantee that it keeps going. You never want to find yourself talking to yourself in a room. Because then it’s done. [Laughs.] Then it’s just done. It’s over.
Is it nurturing to your work?
Most definitely. Knowing that I’m helping to make a space for the work, and others, is definitely making sure that it’s there for me too. We’re here together, you know? So that, kind of how I said earlier, if it’s not me writing, it’s me reading. So making sure that there is a space for other people, especially people of color — and especially women of color — to have a place to share their voice, that is essential. It’s vital to the world. And it’s something that I have to have to be able to live in this world.
So I want to talk about Another Way to Say Enter, which I know from other interviews took about ten years to come together. I’m curious about the process of getting to the book, but I’m also interested in when it got done and as you carried it on the road, what’s been the experience? Has this book been teaching you? Have you been learning from those poems?
It did take ten years, because I didn’t set out to write a book — I was writing poems. And then you get to a point though where you’ve been writing and publishing in journals and magazines, and so forth, that people start to ask you: “When are you gonna have a book? Where is your book?” and I’m like “That’s a good question.” And just in the grind of life, you know, having family and all the many responsibilities we were just talking about, years just kept passing. And finally, I came to a point in my life where… it was a very tangible moment… where my children were no longer children, and they were young women, and not needing me in the same way. So I started to think “what is my life going to look like now?” Of course, still a poet, but what other opportunities are there for me with this freedom that I didn’t have before? Willingly, gleefully, this is what I chose, but now, just in time and space, things started to open up. I felt like I had to pull these poems together in a way that opened — literally opened — a way for me into the second phase of life. The title, Another Way to Say Enter, comes from one of the poems in the book, because that was me imagining entering in through this space of daring to imagine what’s next.
So yeah, I pulled the poems together and with the wonderful press, Argus House Press, Teneice Durrant was editor. I needed her special kind of kindness, and I needed her to see me. I didn’t submit to contests. I didn’t do that whole thing, I didn’t, you know, do open calls, send to publishers, otherwise I don’t think this book would have been published. Teneice and her beautiful press, we were talking to AWP one year and she was asking me about my book, so I asked “Would you publish my book?” She said yes, and then asked me to send her the poems. Three months went by and I didn’t. And she followed up “Where are those poems?” I didn’t send anything. She followed up again, she said, “Your voice is important and we’re going to take our time. Send me ten poems.” And so, I sent her ten poems. And then once I sent her those ten, I said “Well, now these other ones should be next to those poems.” And then the work of putting the book together really started. But if it hadn’t been for that care and attention from her, it wouldn’t have happened. And I think that’s okay. There will be some people who would say, “Well in the professional world…” No, I’m a professional and this is how it had to happen for me. I think we’re missing a lot of people who have really important things to share, because we are rigid as a society about how we do this work. We end up continuing the bad habits of generations before us, and enforcing that on those to come. “You have to be hazed. You have to jump through our hurdles. You have to do X, Y & Z.” No, we can imagine it a little differently and we can demand better for ourselves.
That’s a wonderful story. So, you walked through the door, Another Way to Say Enter opened. What’s ahead?
I dunno. [Laughs.] And that’s okay. I’m here. And that in itself is enough. I’m going to say again, if I don’t write another book, if I don’t write another poem — and I don’t think that’s going to happen, but truly where I’ve come from, and the challenges that I’ve faced in my life, again, this was not a traditional path, whatever that means. And, you know, very much my own design with the generosity of others. This is a huge accomplishment and it will feed me for the rest of my life. But I know my heart won’t let it go. My husband once asked me — he’s gonna hate that I’m mentioning this [Laughs.] — when I was very committed to some things in my writing world, he’d asked me if I would choose him over poetry.
Oh God. [Laughs.]
Right? Deep. And the best way I could explain it to him with all the love that had — we’ll be married 20 years in March  — but I looked at him and said, “The thing is, that question assumes I have a choice. You could be on your deathbed, and I can be in deep mourning, and the poem is going to write itself. When you’re a poet, it doesn’t leave you. It will be there.” So I’m excited to see where it takes me next. My husband gonna be healthy and fine and with me. [Laughs.]
[Laughs] Carrying them books around.
Carrying them books around! Because you don’t have to choose, actually. You don’t have to choose. But yeah, it’s brought me here to you; it’s brought me here to the Furious Flower Poetry Center. And I know that there’s nothing but more in this big, big world to do and write about.
What are some lines of poetry you keep close, or that keep you close?
Of course, Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.” That whole poem, every time you land on that end line, the “everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” If that’s not a mantra for survival and joy — that even in our hardest moments, we did survive; come celebrate that with me. I have that printed and framed on my desk at work, so I read it all the time. It’s good for your health. So, Lucille just stuck with me. That image of a mother’s power and love, it stays with me. So that even in this work, you know, there’s always still going to be this presence and protection.
Motherhood and mothering appear a lot in your work and it’s a huge source, just talk to me about how you pull on that. And is it always… fun? No. Absolutely not. If anyone got into mothering for a good time…[Laughs.] It is a lot of work but it’s a lot of joy. It’s a lot of joy. I think one of the things that inspires me from that part of my journey and that understanding — and it is a part, it’s not a whole — is having this time to watch these incredible people grow as you’re still growing, too. And you can think you know yourself and then you have children, and you find out, “I had no idea who I was going to be when these little people came into my life.” And so from a very young age, before I was writing poetry, but a mother, I had my children, and I found myself being vulnerable with them in ways that I did not expect to be: having really mature conversations with them at early ages, apologizing to them, owning when I did wrong. I think it’s made me a better person and a better poet. Being in that position, a mother, is not that you’re here above and they’re, you know [gestures down], and you’re disseminating this knowledge and experience. No, y’all are right here. They’re growing up and learning the world and you’re growing up and still learning the world as a parent, right? I’ve learned so much from them, and it continues to feed me on and off the page.
When you were pulling the book together as a thing you wanted to accomplish, what was that conversation you were trying to shape? With the poems that are included in the book, I wanted first and foremost, to be honest. Sharon Olds talks about being the “I” in the poem. I know I was kind of stumbling over that earlier, “she” and “the speaker” and… I am the “I” in my poem. Even when it’s a poem that has a different subject or a persona poem, it’s still coming through my lens. I’m still that “I”, in some way, so I wanted to be able to own my story. I wanted to be able to share the difficult parts, and in doing that, free myself from some shame, free myself from some things that I thought might do harm if released in the world, to survive that, to enter that space where this is in the world and it’s okay. It’s still part of life. And in doing that, hopefully make a space for others to enter and receive the same from the work. If I can speak a truth, if I can speak an honest experience, inviting you to enter and do the same.
If you had to give a poem to a presidential candidate hopeful, what poem would it be?
Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song For the Day.” That poem is a beautiful expression of the daily lives of the people who live in this space that you are daring to represent. There’s the line in the poem which says, “Say it plain, people have died for this.” She was the inaugural poet for President Barack Obama at his first inauguration, and that was the poem that she shared. I think that poem would serve well any president who’s coming to do the work of actually serving the people in this country.
I knew this was a hard question, but I knew you’d have an answer! [Laughs.]
Elizabeth did it right, so it made it easy for me!
I think that’s a good place to land. Thank you so much.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).