Passing Down the Maps
What was your last bite?
“Is your poetry in service to white supremacy?” – Willie Perdomo
I’ve been coming back to this quote often in my work/life. I’ve taken it for the foundation of a statement (read: demand) I challenge myself and others with: Use your power and privilege to break down power and privilege.
Which act makes you feel more infinite/empowered: creating the art, performing the art, or teaching others to do either or both?
All of the above. Each moment we are given is an opportunity to create, to use our power to inform and empower others. When I’m writing, I’m searching for something new, learning the voices and patterns calling to me, and listening to their stories/lessons. When I’m performing, I’m most interested in the conversation happening between the poem, the poet, and the audience. Energy is moving through us and we become one powerful force. Teaching builds connections and lays a path for students to travel beyond the classroom out into the world. Being able to pass on those maps, poems, and texts to others is how we amplify our power and privilege to break down the roadblocks power and privilege create.
Tell us about Black Poets Speak Out and the archive that has amassed?
Black Poets Speak Out (BPSO) began as a response to a conversation initiated by Amanda Johnston. Jericho Brown, Mahogany Browne, Jonterri Gadson and Sherina Rodriguez-Sharpe responded to the call with ideas, suggestions and various plans of action. What resulted was a hashtag video campaign housed on a Tumblr site featuring hundreds of videos from Black poets reading in response to the grand jury’s decision on November 24 not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who murdered Mike Brown.
This initial campaign grew into four phases. Phase 1: Video Declarations. Phase 2: Public Poetry Demonstrations. Phase 3: A Letter Writing Campaign. Phase 4: BPSO Classroom. To date, over 300 videos are archived on the BPSO site with more coming in regularly. Contributors range in age from 10 to 80-years-old. Black poets and allies share work from the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and earlier to contemporary Black poets of today. I believe this body of work represents where we fall in 2016 on the arc of a long narrative of racial oppression and state sanctioned police violence. As artists, we are not disconnected from the events of our time or shared history. We are speaking out for our communities, families, and our own lives. This campaign has been the entry point for many into direct civic engagement and will continue to educate and empower others to push beyond silence and speak out for justice.
How has BPSO informed the writing you’re doing?
My writing is not a luxury. I go through spells of not writing, not submitting, being busy with all the other responsibilities on my plate, as if writing is something that will always be there to pick-and-choose to do when there is time. The time is now. BPSO is a constant reminder of the forces actively working to silence people of color and women. My lack of work is supporting those forces by giving them exactly what they want – a space clear of uncomfortable truths that challenge their work on and off the page. I cannot let my inaction be their fuel. So I write. I write about anything and everything that interests me. I write crap and pin it to my wall like a badge. I’m here. I’m working. I’m growing. I will not die slowly in a quiet corner. I will write it all down. I will speak out!
Melissa Harris Perry talks about the “crooked room” and women of color always being situated in a skewed perspective. What are the ways that you crawl out of your “crooked room”?
By being rooted in my foundation and staying true to that in all things. Meaning, the structures shaped for me by others can only exist if I allow them to occupy space on my foundation, my slab, my being. We build and construct our existence. If that world is small and one dimensional, it can be molded and mutilated by external forces. But if that world is full and complex, as our lives are intended to be, it’s impossible for any limited idea of our personhood to hold us, define us.
Provide us with a 300-word lecture, titled: Poet As Activist, Poet as Trickster:
This is not a hustle. This is not a marked deck of cards or weighted die. This is waking to learn another Black teenage boy has been killed. This is learning the 17-year-old Black boy was naked and unarmed. This is learning the police officer was a veteran on the force, wasn’t new, was experienced. This is knowing the police officer began patrolling the Black boy’s city in 2005 when the boy was only 6. This is knowing the police officer had been watching the people, looking for troublemakers, bad guys, doing what he’d been trained to do. This is knowing the Black boy was found naked and unarmed in a clearing at 10:30am on a clear day. This is hearing the police officer shoot the naked unarmed Black boy in the chest. This is hearing the Black boy stop breathing. This is the Black boy still. This is hearing the police officer say the Black boy didn’t stop. This is the naked unarmed Black 17-year-old boy alone. This is the Black boy not growing at 10:30am on a sunny Monday morning in a clearing on the street you once lived on in a city you came back to because you thought it was safe for your children. This is the city where you raised your Black children near the clearing where the Black boy was shot by a Black police officer on a sunny Monday at 10:30am February 8, 2016. This is the blank page covered in black letters calling the poet to find the right words for the Black 17-year-old boy not growing as she counts the breaths of her teenage daughter sleeping in her bed the day after the Black boy was shot. This is not a hustle. This is not a weighted die. This is the line that matters most:
This is for David Joseph.
What are the places (physical, emotional, spiritual, imagined) you return to in your work?
So much of my writing centers around family, love (its joy and complication), and for me that lives in food, bodies, babies and the everyday way we exist and interact with each other. I search for the center of the heart, blood memory, and try to let that place speak clearly through my present work.
Take a photograph of your feet. Write a short love epistle to them or the places they have been or will go.
tender loves / i’ve heard you croon a hymnal of pain / felt you buckle under the day / watched you travel miles in the dark / listen, loves / you are safe here / you are free here/ you are home / stay awhile / where else would you rather be
Make a poem from the spines of the books you are currently reading (or wanting to read)?
Redbone of the Wild Hundreds
what Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
it must be learning How to Be Drawn
in The Light of the World
Blood, Tin, Straw mark the cracks –
Bastards of the Reagan Era.
When reflecting on your younger selves, where do they reside within your body? Do they guide your wild and uninhibited risk taking or are they quiet and suggestive? Describe them, what they would wear if they came to speak with you today, and what they would say to you.
She lives in my neck. She wears the Purina work shirt that belonged to one of our mother’s boyfriends. It’s red with the company logo covering the heart. It was the most comfortable shirt in the house and she claimed it for us. She wore it until it was threadbare and even then it had to be taken from her. She tells me not to waste time. She tells me to take what I need. She tells me I have survived. She says I am not a dog. She reminds me the logo coving my heart is the one I choose and the work I do is what I want and need to be in the world. She says stay focus and know comfort. Touch soft things and don’t stay as hard as we learned to be. She lives in my neck. She keeps my head raised and eyes looking forward.
What “self care” rituals/practices would you pass on or give to other poetivists?
Be an advocate for yourself. Your time, health, and sanity are not up for negotiation with anyone (and I mean partners and children, too). I’ve found myself in extremely stressful periods that led me to make some unhealthy choices. With time and experience, I realized I put myself in those uncomfortable situations or allowed the stressful moment to take over my life. When I said ENOUGH, I started to sleep better, breathe better, love better, and acknowledge the simple joys and pleasures laced throughout my daily existence. Having this mental and physical stability makes it possible for me to take on challenging subjects on and off the page.
Kore Biters Womanifesto: Please add two-three approaches, recipes, directions and/or practices for transgressive and transformative behavior that you believe every woman writer should incorporate into their lives and writing.
Know you are not crazy.
Know what you are seeing/feeling is real.
Know no one is coming to do your work for you.
Know we need you to do your work.
Know you need you to do your work.
Know you and your voice are needed.
Please come up with a writing prompt that situates us in our times.
Do a web search of #BlackLivesMatter. Print the first article and create a blackout poem by marking out all excess words until only the words that make up your poem remain.
Amanda Johnston earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Her poetry and interviews have appeared in numerous online and print publications, among them, Kinfolks Quarterly, Muzzle, Pluck and the anthologies, Small Batch, di-ver-city and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. The recipient of multiple artist enrichment grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Christina Sergeyevna Award from the Austin International Poetry Festival, she is a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She has served on the board of directors for the National Women’s Alliance, the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, is a co-founder of Black Poets Speak Out, and founding executive director of Torch Literary Arts.
Kore Biters is a monthly interview series that highlights the writing and literary activism of women writers who are transgressive and transformative. by Arisa White and Imani Sims.