Black Women Poets Will Start the Revolution
Anastacia-Renée, JP Howard, t’ai freedom ford, and Safiya Sinclair discuss how poets can find community, inspiration, and activist energy
If you’ve been to a Baptist church, you know what a poetry reading feels like. The meaning reverberates in each line and stanza, inciting an “umph” or snap or clap from listeners to validate what the speaker just said. Elder ladies fanned themselves with one hand and snapped agreement with another every Sunday as I sat beside my grandmother in church, and at poetry readings that “holy feeling” ripples through me whenever I hear the work of the four poets I asked to take part in this roundtable: Anastacia-Renée, JP Howard, t’ai freedom ford, and Safiya Sinclair. You are different after experiencing their poems.
Anastacia-Renée, JP Howard, t’ai freedom ford, and Safiya Sinclair are educators, mentors, creators, activists, uniters, and the list continues. They encompass what I think of when words such as “consummate artist” and “community organizer” and “litizen” and “grace” are used. There’s no one way to define them, because collectively they encompass what we need in the larger world. I ask that you hear them below and in their poems, feel the urgency in the work they do and love for the people they speak to/of in their work. These four women graciously took the time to talk about the poets who feed their souls and the ways you can build a community of your own (spoiler alert: don’t want for one to find you).
Jennifer Baker: A friend of mine mentioned that poets have often been at the forefront of the political conversations, speaking for/about the people, inciting change and revolution. There appears to be a prominence in this discussion in poetry, at least how I read it or whom I’m reading, and it makes me wonder about the accessibility of it through trade-y spaces.
Anastacia-Renée (author of Forget It, (v.), 26, Kiss Me Doll Face, and Answer(Me)): In my opinion it’s a luxury to write about rainbows and butterflies only. It’s a luxury to ask myself if I consider myself an activist or artivist—the question is when am I not? If I am writing about truths from the past or present, for MY WORK, there is no escaping the melting of artistry and activism and I cannot imagine a world where my writing predecessors did not do the same. Lately I have been trying to practice what I am calling “the mellow poem practice.” Which is writing a poem a week (I have been writing everyday since August 2010) about nature or love or hell…a lamp. But honestly if I go back and look at those “mellow” poems, they are still activist-driven. Yeah, no breaks for me in that realm.
JP Howard (author of SAY/MIRROR and a chapbook “bury your love poems here”): I think of June Jordan’s quote: “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.” Because poetry can be so powerful, so transformative, can speak truth to power. I think the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut movement is a prime example of how poetry’s truth can transform, unite, and empower folks. The #BlackPoetsSpeakOut activist movement actually gained its momentum from poets around the country/world sharing videos in solidarity and in protest and that digital component, showed how powerful and transformative poetry can be. When Black poets/Black voices took to the mic in poem after poem, video after video and declared for the world to hear: “I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry” this showed how poetry in this “digital/online forum” can both unite and empower folks.
t’ai freedom ford (author of How to Get Over; & More Black): I think the advent of social media has put a spotlight on poets in the ways that mainstream outlets probably never would. Because of this, we are now seeing some rockstar poets emerge. As for their political messaging and activism, well, I think it’s quite revolutionary to engage with folks on a microlevel where they are able to have conversations around self-love and care. But I also think it’s interesting that super mainstream mags like the New Yorker with Kevin Young as poetry editor and Terrance Hayes over at the New York Times Magazine are giving the gatekeeper keys to Black folk and thusly we are seeing more of the work of Black folk in their pages. This is important because so often poets find themselves preaching to the choir. No one buys more books of poetry than other poets. So to have the opportunity to reach newer and wider audiences is necessary exposure for poets who also assert a particular politic.
Safiya Sinclair (author of Cannibal and the upcoming memoir How to Say Babylon): In the literary world, poetry remains the purest and most innovative of the arts. It functions and flourishes outside of capitalism. It grows from a root of its own necessity, and bears the fruit of its own survival. Precisely because poetry operates outside of capitalism we find that poets are more politically engaged and unafraid of taking risks—formal, thematic, and otherwise. Poets are undaunted by being the discomfort in the room. Because most poets are primarily unconcerned with the desires of a market, poetry is inherently more revolutionary in its aims; work born from individual necessity translated into universal urgency. It’s hard for me even now to see outside of that urgency; I read at least one poem every day, and my world is constantly filled with poetry. For me, poetry is quite visible and also indivisible from my understanding of natural, socio-economic, and geopolitical systems. Poetry by its nature shapeshifts and evolves like wildfire, pioneering ideas, revolutions, and language, and I think it is innately suited for digital formats, where it has been thriving much in the same way it thrived on paper, and the way it thrived before paper. Poetry, which began with singing, and existed before the novel or the essay, will continue to outlive us.
JB: The question I get most often from artists breaking new ground is: How do I find community? It seems to be one of the biggest impediments for writers to keep going. What’s your advice to those struggling to find theirs?
Anastacia-Renée: The biggest and most important lesson I have had to learn about finding community is that: (1) You have to want to be found and be part of a community. (2) Sure, we want to handpick our community and be with our “chosen” family, but there may be times when what you are choosing or what you want may not come in the shape or design of what you imagined (I am laughing so hard at myself). The chosen family might not be what you chose at all but due to geography or energy or life circumstances or divine intervention. The third lesson I learned is that it takes work. No one plants a seed and says “My garden work is done!” The fourth lesson is that true community means trust and vulnerability from all its members. And the fifth and most difficult is that, just like family, if the love is there, it’ll be there whether or not you are in constant contact with your community members or not. Sometimes community comes and goes or you do. The older I get the less attracted I am to light lunches and casual exchanges. Long lasting relationships feel important and necessary. I have moved around so many times and have had to start over every time I move, so I understand the feeling of isolation and looking for a community but I also believe in energetic asking. Tell the universe what you want in a community and also tell the universe what you can give to a healthy community.
JP Howard: Yassss!! Community is literally everything and often what keeps me going when the world feels oppressive, which these days, can be often. The chance to be in conversation with the poets in this interview feels just right because I admire and respect my fellow poets and, like Anastacia said, we have many overlaps and connections in the poetic community. I am fortunate to call Anastacia one of my best friends, literally my “poetry sistagurlfirend” ever since we met during our first year at the Cave Canem Retreat as “suitemates” 12 years ago. I consider myself a community builder as the founder and curator of Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, a NY-based monthly writing community and traveling Literary Salon, inspired by traveling Salons of the Harlem Renaissance. I am a big believer in reaching out to community to collaborate and because I am a part of so many writing communities, some large, some small, each one has nurtured me in different, but important ways. I tend to reach out and collaborate with fellow poets a lot. I write and exchange two new poems a day with my NaPoMo groups (I belong to two) each April and sometimes we extend that to other months. I often speak to folks around the country about Bloom as a model of community and collaboration and I always tell folks that a writing community can be as small as two writers connected, exchanging and supporting each other, in person or even virtually. It is showing up and remaining accountable that keeps a writing space going. I agree that folks should seek out writing communities that feel “just right” for them; sometimes it takes time to find a writing community that is a “good fit,” so my advice would be please don’t give up! Do seek out and go to local readings, local writing series, take local writing workshops, attend literary Salons, and writing conferences; they are all great ways to find a community that fits. Of course, I’m also a big believer that if the writing community you want/desire doesn’t exist yet, then folks should consider starting it themselves. Ultimately, follow your gut and write with communities that affirm and welcome you.
t’ai freedom ford: I was talking to a younger poet at a writing retreat similar to Cave Canem but for fiction writers and she was lamenting how many times she’d applied and been rejected from Cave Canem. After informing her of how the math can work against you in ways that have nothing to do with one’s personal merit, I told her that she could very well create her own community of poets with whom she could regularly meet, workshop new work and fellowship. And that’s my advice in general, create what you are longing for. I admire the work of JP and her WWBPS writing group because she did exactly that. She created a space that seemed to be missing for women of color, especially queer women. Honestly though, I often feel just on the outskirts—a lonely outlier who would love to commune with folks but often times finding myself just going at it alone. Writing by nature is a solitary endeavor, but if community is necessary, attend readings, put yourself in public writing spaces and you will find your folks (and they will find you).
Safiya Sinclair: For as long as I can remember, my work was born in solitude, and I still write that way now. Alone at my desk, in the quiet midnight hours, sharing my work with only a few trusted readers. But I started writing poetry precisely because of that solitude, making art out of this forlorn sense that I lacked a community of like minds. It wasn’t until I started my doctoral program at USC and began attending writing conferences that I finally started finding other poets kindled by a strange fire. Poetry is such a small community and we poets all share that communal fire, what burns in us to burn brighter in the work. So many times I’ve marveled how much my own work has gone ahead and fostered this community for me. Once my first book came out, so many poets, particularly Black poets, welcomed me in with open arms, and I felt at home in an artistic community for perhaps the first time. I continue to find them now through their work, all of us poets who were born in solitude. Now my poetic seascape is so full. Often when I meet other Black poets for the first time we find that we already feel a kind of kinship, that we are already part of a particular family, and I cherish that. Find your people—reach out with your words to other writers who move you, and keep writing, keep doing this strange work, which is the most vital part of building the community meant for you.
JB: When I look at more historically dated collections that remain defining tomes I think of The Black Poets by Dudley Randall. But even when reading it I see a dearth of female voices. Which women poets have been your influences and what aspects of their writing challenged you?
Anastacia-Renée: Some writing and creative ancestors who have helped shaped me are: Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pauli Murray, Toni Cade Bambara, Pat Parker, June Jordan, Monica Hand, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Octavia Butler, Jayne Cortez, and Nina Simone. It’s strange I know, but at times I feel like these women are pouring libations on me, though I am alive. They remind me not to grow tired and to continue to write and do the hard and heart work even when I feel completely spent or empty. I am in a place in my writing and personal life where I am thinking about what it’s like to be a living legacy and I can only do that by looking at those who have left a legacy for me to LIVE. For me to WRITE. For me to make change whether it be loud or by choosing to be mindful of self-care and or chilling with a high vibration and low tolerance for bullshit. In all of that, I know I can pick up a book and turn to a page and gain wisdom, strength, joy, and even divine spiritual guidance from these women.
JP Howard: I was an early fan of Margaret Walker and at age ten would memorize and recite her powerful poem “For My People” to my Mama and the elder church sistas every Sunday at Abyssinian Baptist Church over on Lenox Avenue. At that time, I was painfully shy, but I loved how powerful my voice “sounded” when I recited Walker’s poem week after week. My Mama was my first and fiercest fan of my poetry skills and really helped to build up my confidence.
I often say Black lesbian poets helped saved my life. I am a Black lesbian activist poet and write in the tradition of Pat Parker, Cheryl Clarke, and Audre Lorde. I discovered their work while a freshman at Barnard College, right before I came out as a lesbian to my family. Parker and Lorde wrote about being black, lesbian, feminists, mothers, activists and loving women unapologetically; Clarke in her early collection, Living as a Lesbian, mesmerized me with her honesty about loving women. Collectively these womyn/these magical wordsmyths, were kicking down doors/barriers and essentially giving me permission to raise my voice loud and clear. They gave me permission to write about loving women, about walking through the world as a black womyn, about race, and to also write about the early struggles of coming out to my family matriarchs. I adored my Mama and Grandma and was their only child and grandchild and was adored in return. However, they had migrated up north from the deep south, were deeply religous and on learning I was a lesbian in my freshman year of college, it was my beloved Grandma who boldly called me a “bulldagger.” I was heartbroken, but Parker had written about similar struggles in “My Lover Is a Woman.” Reading her work allowed me to speak up, use poetic forms that I adore, such as ghazals, etherees, and praise poems, yet to bring my activist outlook to the page and stage. I make sure to let folks know I am bringing all the parts of myself to the stage and, in doing so, I am honoring Parker and those that write in the tradition of queer activist poets of color.
t’ai freedom ford: When I finally I accepted that I was queer I was a freshman in college and I happened upon the work of Audre Lorde which cracked me wide open and gave me new ways to understand my existence. Before that, my sweet English teachers had exposed me to the usual suspects: Angelou, Hughes, Baldwin. Then, I came across the poetry of Sapphire and Asha Bandele and the fiction and memoir of Dorothy Allison and I finally felt as if I’d found my people. All of them allowed me to stretch the boundaries of subject matter because they were writing about desire and pain and family and sexual abuse in ways I’d never seen. Presently, I would say I’ve learned a lot from folks like Wanda Coleman, francine j. harris, Tonya Foster, Natalie Diaz, Bhanu Kapil, r. erica doyle, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and others. Formally and thematically they’re all over the place, but they’ve given me permission to take more experimental risks with both language and form.
Safiya Sinclair: I am always learning from Audre Lorde’s words, particularly how she writes about the power of the feminine erotic as a source of knowledge. June Jordan’s rebellious and unflinching poems light a fire in me whenever I most need it. As a budding poet, Sylvia Plath was the first poet to take the top of my head off when I saw what nuclear power could be enriched in a lyric line; the way music and imagery entwine to create the lushest hothouse of the poet’s interior. I love Lucie Brock-Broido and Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s work for the same augury and texture they weave to create their own verdant landscapes. I love the raw unearthing and historical keening of Bettina Judd and Natasha Trethewey’s poems, and the clear-eyed rigor of Monica Youn. My favorite poet writing today is Natalie Diaz, whose work always bewitches me, leaving me lovestruck and awestruck with its sheer velocity and beauty, entrancing me with her own moonlit duende. I wouldn’t be here without my mentor Rita Dove, whose work and words constantly teach me about grace, and how to let a poem breathe, and soar, and transform me. Most of all, the oral folklore, storytelling, and earthy spells of language passed down to me from my mother molded me into the poet and woman I am today.