April 16–22, 2018
Simone John is a poet, educator and facilitator based in Boston, MA. She received an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College with an emphasis in documentary poetics. Her poetry has appeared or been reviewed in Wildness, the Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, Guernica and on PBS Newshour, among other places. She is chief creative officer at Hive Soul Yoga. Testify (Octopus Books, 2017) is her first full-length book of poems. On Friday, April 20, she will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at Industrious Brooklyn in Prospect Heights with Charles Theonia and Dorothea Lasky.
When you are born, I will be faced with a choice:
raise a fearless boy to be buried young
or raise a man constantly reminded
of his place. I will tread this tightrope—
teach you the rules. There are things
you cannot do. You cannot
be reckless like your paler peers.
Do not run in public.
Passersby feel prompted
to wonder who you’re running from,
where you’re running to. Keep nothing
in your hands.
Your hands are the stuff of magic
tricks. What was bought appears
stolen. A snack shape shifts
into a weapon.
When you ask where we came from
I will pull out a map of Boston, point
at neighborhoods still scarred from forced
busing. Trace my finger along avenues
that serve as mini Mason Dixon lines.
I will pass over the park where my father stood
a year older than you wiping
another boy’s spit from his cheek,
Nigger still ringing in his ears.
And before that? I will fumble
for an appropriate answer, summon
an image of the share cropping South
My grandmother with a suitcase on her lap
looking for the last time at a body
lynched limp on a sturdy branch.
We’ll take turns laughing at Nana’s funny phrases:
Lawd amercy, it must not be but fo’ degrees outside
I’ll explain how her accent followed her from the South.
You’ll ask if we can go down there someday
Someday I’ll say. Someone should know
where you are at all times. I’m not naïve
enough to think it will be me.
But this rule provides the alibi
you never thought you’d need.
Eventually you’ll develop
an inner compass to navigate
this path. I am laying the groundwork
to keep you alive long enough to get there.
—Originally published in Elohi Gadugi, Spring 2013.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I think this poem is technically the earliest poem in Testify. This poem was written on February 5, 2013. It was Trayvon Martin’s birthday—the first since his murder.
I hadn’t even encountered documentary poetry or started formally exploring Trayvon’s murder in my work. (I don’t think the trial had started yet, which eventually became the bulk of the collection.) It was a first stab at trying to grapple with and articulate the feelings Trayvon’s death surfaced in me: What does it mean to live in a world where black life is disposable? What does it mean to raise black children in a country that regards them as grist for the mill? I tried to put myself in the position of a black parent having “the talk” with their child and incorporated specifics from my own life, like the anecdote about my father getting spit on at the park.
What are you working on right now?
I’m pretty hyped about the project I’m working on right now. I don’t wanna discuss it in too much detail but I will say that it’s fundamentally fueled by one question: How have we (black people in the US) survived? How have we survived and thrived and loved and created culture and art living in these complex multigenerational oppressive systems? This project is a meditation on this line of inquiry. It’s not a work of documentary poetry per se, but it is definitely research-heavy. My foundational research involved spending time with the Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narratives. Lately I am steeped in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle and scholarly reflections on his work, as well as various texts on black folk healing traditions.
I’ve also been working on a staged version of Testify for the past six months or so. It’s given me a different way into that material, which has been fascinating to play with.
What’s a good day for you?
Any day that I get to do my morning routine is a good day. That means coffee; reading a secular devotional; reading a work of literature or writing craft book; reading a contemplative text; meditating for around ten minutes and (if I’m lucky) getting some writing done. That’s basically my ideal day boiled down to its essence. A great day is any day I get to do all those activities without time constraints—no meetings, no day job. I remember the episode of the Commonplace podcast when Rachel Zucker interviewed Kaveh Akbar. He made some great comment—I think he was quoting someone else—about how there are “ox poets” who dutifully fulfill their poetry tasks and “cat poets” who lounge and go about their day until inspiration strikes and they pounce on it. I’m definitely in the latter category.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Home for me is Boston, MA. This is where my family is from, by way of the Great Migration, and where most everybody still is. I spent a few years traveling abroad while I did my low-res MFA, but Boston is my home base. Most days I feel pretty ambivalent about this place tbh. Like I have a deep affection for it, but I also feel a way about living in a place where someone spit on my father’s cheek and called him a nigger, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of tension there that I haven’t quite figured out what to do with. It’s getting more expensive, gentrifying as tech and pharma sink their talons deeper into the city. My saving grace is Hive Soul Yoga, a community wellness business I run with my yogi twin and our team of badass black women work-studies. It’s a labor of love, for sure. We’ve been at it for a few years and it just keeps getting better. Weekly POC yoga practices are how I keep my shit together. There’s nothing better than looking around and seeing a room full of brown yogis of every shade and shape, with fros and head wraps and durags. It’s like part trap singalong, part yoga, part church. We do a group check-in / intention-setting ritual at the beginning and I love hearing from transplants who’ve recently arrived in the city. For outsiders who are POC, Boston is, at best, difficult to navigate. At worst, it’s straight-up hostile and alienating. So when someone new comes to POC practice we’re like: link up, exchange numbers, follow up with folks who announce events. It’s not an easy place to be a person of color. (See also: the Boston Globe’s recent investigative series on anti-black racism in Boston.) I feel fortunate to be part of the crew holding the space.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I grew up on a steady media diet of Spike Lee movies, so I’ve always had a soft spot for Brooklyn. I’ve spent a lot of time going from Boston to Brooklyn for the better part of the last decade, for gigs, for boos, for shows or exhibits. I’ve always had a friend with a place, usually had keys to someone’s apartment. Bed-Stuy had my heart from day one. Most of my friends got priced out a few years ago, which was rough. These days my BK home away from home is in Kensington, which feels like a world of its own. Some of the houses and architecture are wild—these ornate art deco–looking silver and gold fences. It makes me appreciate how many different Brooklyns exist in that one borough.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
Like I said, finding community as a brown person in Boston is challenging. There aren’t a ton of poetry spaces / institutions, and the ones that exist are—surprise—white af. That’s started to shift over the past few years, due in large part to black queer women carving out their own spaces. The open mics at the House Slam and through If You Can Feel It, You Can Speak It are necessary parts of Boston’s poetry ecosystem.
A lot of the poetry community I’ve found in Boston is through the youth poetry world. I directed youth poetry / youth development programs for a few years. Boston’s youth scene is a special thing. Some of the adult poetry silos get broken down because folks come together to support the young people. Like, we’re all aware we’re blessed to know these youth. MassLEAP, which puts on Louder Than a Bomb MA, is a major player in keeping that scene thriving.
Since Testify came out, I’ve been really appreciative of my long-distance poetry fam. Friends and advisors from grad school have been a huge support. I’ve had moments of envy for poets with institutional resources and support, but I’ve come to realize my street team is A1 and you really can’t put a price on that.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I feel like most of my mentorship comes from reading poets closely, both their poems and anything they’ve written about their process. So many poems from Testify contain seeds of other poets I was reading at that time: Frank X Walker, A. Van Jordan, Cornelius Eady. Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder was instrumental for me, as was Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead. (West Virginia University Press recently republished the latter and I’m so glad they did.)
Elena Georgiou advised me during grad school and has been a great sounding board and cheerleader ever since. I’ve known Casey Rocheteau since I was a teenager and she’s always been a cool cousin / poetry fairy godmother hybrid.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I picked up Gabrielle Civil’s Swallow the Fish at AWP. It’s currently dog-eared, highlighted and scrawled on. It’s part poetry, part memoir and part meditation on being a black woman performance artist, using her own performance art as a lens. Artists’ processes fascinate me. I always want to know how the proverbial sausage gets made. What was this person reading and listening to when they created this? Where were they and what influence did that have? Gabrielle delivers and then some. I found the performance art aspect very interesting, particularly as I consider what it could look like to bring Testify to life. She’s also just a dope person and performer, straight up. Once, after seeing her perform a poem, I had an ugly cry meltdown that led to a total overhaul of my poem “Elegy for Dead Black Women #4: An Invocation For Black Transwomen Murdered in the United States.”
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’m typically reading about three to four books at any given time. (Luckily I mostly read poetry collections and plays, which are easy to take on the go.) Always cover to cover, but usually multiple books consecutively. I get so excited about the cross-pollination that happens that way. If I’m working on a project I usually have a list of books to read—some combination of poetry / literature, craft, and research. I move through the list at my own pace, though, jumping around and changing it up through the process. I used to be an anti-e-reader book purist. I was traveling in grad school and I relied on an e-reader—my interlibrary loan wouldn’t send texts to Guatemala or Croatia. When I got back to the US I realized I liked being able to look things up and annotate digitally. I’m really big on exporting and coding my notes, usually to turn into poems or prompts or new research topics (#virgorising). I have a similar process for reading physical books but it’s hella time-consuming to transfer the notes. Also I cannot read poetry on an e-reader—something about the line breaks drives me crazy.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
All of the things. I have a running list. I’m good for having an idea and thinking “this should be a series!” then never writing it. I have some sestina half-drafts floating around. I have an idea for a series of “retellings” after Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches that I’m playing with for my current project.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
In Boston, I like to write at the Writers’ Room. It’s like an unpretentious coworking space where silence is the number one rule. I have 24/7 access and I like to go there at odd hours when no one is there and write in my slippers, sipping wine from whatever mismatched cups are in the cabinet. I got a fellowship last year that came with a free yearlong membership and it was clutch. Reading and writing outside is one of my favorite things. It’s too good, almost like I’m getting away with something.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Botanic Garden is dope for sure, as is the Brooklyn Museum. I love Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop in DUMBO. So many of my fave spots in Brooklyn would be unspectacular to anyone else. Like my best friend’s little balcony (especially in the summertime, especially with a drink in hand). The Goodwill by Hoyt-Schermerhorn has gifted me with some of my best statement pieces over the years. I like to have brunch solo at Taqueria de los Muertos at a table facing the sidewalk. Everyday People’s day parties feel like a black oasis. And if I can schedule my trips to coincide with A Party Called Rosie Perez I’m doing something right.
Because I’ve seen Crooklyn so many times that BK must be in my DNA by now.