February 12–18, 2018
Jacqueline Johnson is a multidisciplinary artist who works in poetry and fiction as well as fiber arts. She is the author of A Woman’s Season (Main Street Rag, 2015) and A Gathering of Mother Tongues, winner of the Third Annual White Pine Press Poetry Prize. A Cave Canem fellow and recipient of awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Middle Atlantic Writers Association, Johnson has taught poetry at Pine Manor College, the City University of New York, Poets House, Very Special Arts, Imani House, the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center and African Voices. Her writing has recently been published in volumes including Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks and Speculating Futures: Black Imagination and the Arts. “Somekindaway” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released last spring.
Author photo by S. Sanviki Chapman/AWE™
for James Brown
Always the demi-god,
under that velvet cape.
Deacon of the funky butt dance.
Slickslide mike swing your burlesque signature.
Owner of sweaty rivers and too many women’s skirts.
Shimmer in Oshun’s rattle-mirror.
Bowlegged, pigeon-toed, keeper of
triple axial, double joint moves.
Rhythm maker, sound sifter from mud of Oshogbo,
rising in a South Carolina country town.
Uncut, uncaptured, blue you so …
James our poet of the “B” side and the “break” moment.
Had some kinda’ way over your audience;
followers leapt upon stages some so young
they formed an ocean of brown girls,
stick legs stomping and pumping up the next wave.
Walked ten blocks from home
to learn the “funky Broadway.” Soul
transmitted from slender waist to hip bone.
Released a record a week some summers.
Made the music and money serve you.
Dedicated black blonde, back-up singers,
wore sequins and gold, stirring up
chaos and heat to keep the music real.
Seven degrees and all your personas
strung out. Worked fifty-two out of
fifty-two weeks. Lines between an
ordinary life and the stage blurring
in a PCP haze dimmed by painkillers.
Maceo long defected to some prince formerly or not.
Body wearing down, askew with sickness.
James, who else would leave on Christmas day?
shaking the chandeliers of heaven
or some Afro Eden.
Your “good foot” in flight,
possessed beyond redemption.
—Originally published in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, Brooklyn Arts Press & Brooklyn Poets, 2017.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
The title of the poem comes from a Sterling Brown poem. I wrote “Somekindaway” very shortly after James Brown died. I wanted to capture a little of the “soul” that he embodied on stage and in life and what it meant to listen to him as a child. I met him briefly at a club in the Village—the Lone Star Café. It was an intimate setting and he was so humble and friendly. Maceo went out onto the street and played a while and then came back into the club. It was one of those rare nights in New York. James Brown was a showman above all else. That’s where the poem comes from.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on two collections of poetry, as yet untitled, a collection of short stories called How to Stop a Hurricane and a novel, The Privilege of Memory. I am also working on a few essays in various stages.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is when I can either start it or end it with writing or reading a good poem.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I came to Brooklyn right after college at NYU. A bunch of my friends had moved to Brooklyn. I initially moved in with a college friend and then got my own place. Brooklyn was one of the cheaper places to live.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I live in Bedford-Stuyvesant and have lived here for about thirty years to my great surprise. What I found and liked about Bed-Stuy was the community of first- and second-generation Black people from the South who brought their traditions and ways of living with them. I like the irony that it had this terrible reputation, but on most days was the complete opposite. It wasn’t only that my neighbors spoke to me but they also looked out for me—a lot of times without me knowing it. At one time on my block we had a drug problem. The men on my block got together. One day I went to work and came back home and that property was cleaned out and those folks were never seen again. That was the old Bed-Stuy.
Gentrification has brought a diverse group of people to the once all-Black enclave and has brought resources back to the community—banks, stores, restaurants and family businesses and a lot of those old brownstones have been renovated and restored. The flip side is rents have quadrupled and the price of housing is in the $2–4 million range. Bed-Stuy is beginning to reflect the same level of resources that one sees in most communities within NYC. It was not always the case. The Bed-Stuy I once knew is fading fast even as I type and is actually gone, as a different one fiercely emerges.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
As a young poet and artist, I wanted to experiment with going to the audience rather than expecting them to find me. I worked with the Fulton Art Fair, which does a community art fair every June for three weekends in Fulton Park in Bed-Stuy. I curated twelve poets and fiction writers to read over three weekends and I made sure everyone was paid for their contribution. At Fulton Park there was no stage, but just a space on a long path that the community walked along. They had one of those really bad “church” mics. It was my turn after a group of musicians played. They handed me that bad mic; as I started to speak, the mic completely cleared. It was weird. I kept staring at it as I introduced the writers. I had seven people read that day—two who had never read anywhere. People stopped and listened, some kept walking; in the end a small crowd formed as we read. That was enough of an answer for me. Of course when I handed the mic back it became foggy once again. Black Girl Magic? Maybe? What this poet learned that day was the audience for our work would come and appreciate the work—if we as artists sought them out. I like to bring poetry into spaces where it previously did not exist.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
When I think of poetry community I break it down in three ways: there is a community with whom one develops or practices one’s poetic craft; a community that comes to hear one read; and a community that buys one’s books and products. They are not one and the same. One hopes for overlap. My sense of community is in flux and a lot of the time—temporary. No matter what group I join, I still have the same three to five folks I count on. My poetry community is not defined by location or age, but by devotion to keep writing, growing, challenging others and being challenged. At this time in my life I have a scant few poets I reach out to—to actually look at poems or edit them. I am known at times for going to too many readings, supporting poets, buying too many poetry books; I’m not sure if that is community or a sign of my addiction to the sound of the river of language that is “live” poetry.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Too many to name. Here are a few: Akua Lezli Hope, Luis Reyes Rivera, Mervyn Taylor.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
There are writers of different genres that I studied with for a long time. The novelist John O. Killens was one of my mentors. My cousin, the novelist Louise Meriwether, is one too. They were the writers who showed me what a real writer does—write! Ntozake Shange helped me to find voice. I studied with the brilliant Bill Matthews who gave me permission to go into different narratives and places. Cornelius Eady was one of my angels—he helped me to get out of City College and found space for me at Cave Canem.
I voraciously read and listened to Lucille Clifton, Colleen McElroy, Jayne Cortez, Opal Adisa, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, Devorah Major, Safiya Henderson-Holmes and an endless list of poets. The late Jane Cooper rescued me when I was at MacDowell. She invited me to her studio for tea and over several hours spoke with me about craft, Walt Whitman and mother poems. She went over several of my poems line by line, revealing how to strengthen the poems. The lessons she taught me that afternoon remain with me today. I studied Amiri Baraka for about twenty years—mostly at his live readings. The late Brenda Connor-Bey was the first person to ask me to do a big, professional reading at BACA Downtown. In the middle of the night, I read Neruda in both English and Spanish—all the time. I read Jane Hirshfield, and the list goes on.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why?
Martín Espada—Vivas to Those Who Have Failed—I love this book and read the poems whenever I can. It is filled with the complicated history of unions and long-forgotten craftsman. Far from just being elegiac, it really celebrates the lives of the men and women of Espada’s father’s generation. It is the song of the common man.
Dolores Kendrick—a poet whose work I did know of until she passed away late in 2017. I read The Women of Plums and Why the Woman Is Singing on the Corner. Such haunting, powerful poetry. I found in her work so many meanings. I feel she is like one of my soul sisters. I am looking forward to getting her new book.
Layli Long Solider—I am enjoying her refreshing song of the land and her native heritage. I appreciate the lean style and clarity with which she writes.
William Brewer—I Know Your Kind is just a powerful, wonderful book. He was the best thing I heard at the Brooklyn Book Festival.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I started Derek Walcott’s Omeros and would like to complete it. Ai’s Collected Poems, Elegguas by Kamau Brathwaite, Rumi’s Secret by Brad Gooch.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I like to read multiple books simultaneously. I tend to start off with three to four books and then narrow it down to one and read to completion. I have both a Nook and a new Kindle Fire with only two audio books on it. The digital books are a different read and sometimes I miss important details. I consider myself to be amongst those who are keeping the “book” alive. I rarely take notes but will put napkins, bookmarks, brown paper bags on pages that I like. The digital devices allow me to highlight paragraphs or phrases that I like.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I love the sonnet and the obsessive forms. I would love to do a crown of sonnets and a successful bop. All my attempts in the bop form have been failures. I like the Japanese forms such as the tanka and somonka and would like to play with some of the contemporary forms. I would also like to try my hand at some of those crazy old Irish forms that will take me three lifetimes to master, just to keep things interesting.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love reading in art galleries, outdoor theaters and garden spaces. One of the best spaces I read at was in the Studio Museum in Harlem. I would like to read at the Brooklyn Museum.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I am a huge fan of the Brooklyn Museum—for the way they engage and reach out to the larger NYC community and for their courageous and wonderful art exhibitions and panels. I like some of the new art spaces in DUMBO. I have been enjoying the new waterfront parks and spaces down by the promenade.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
His first night in the Stuy, a Japanese tourist
asks where does Jay Z live? The Marcy
Houses are straight down Fulton Street, I say.
Our obsession with the other a kind ruin and sin.
I don’t know jack about the Dodgers.
To practice restraint and not rob each other of love.
My pen saves me in this Brooklyn where my
father used to tend bars. Here Biggie has a larger
afterlife than most people have of real life.
It’s the center of the universe.