June 17–23, 2019
Jenna Carter-Johnson is a Black American poet, scholar and educator from Harlem, NY. Having graduated from Brooklyn College last May with a BA in sociology and women & gender studies, she plans to pursue her PhD starting this fall. Her current research is on Black women and the importance of the biography. Tying closely into a theme heavily reflected throughout her poems, Jenna seeks to document her personal experience of queer Black millennial womanhood. She is a Callaloo Creative Writing Fellow, as well as a Watering Hole tribe member and Open Mouth Reading Series alum. When she is not writing poems or lost in academia, she spends her time cooking, dissecting early 2000s TV shows (For the Love of Ray J, Flavor of Love, I Love New York, etc) and talking about Beyonce. She is currently a teacher at Girls Prep Middle School in the Bronx. This past spring, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Patricia Spears Jones’s Living Women workshop.
let the leaves mimic their mother
I tried the oils, the teas, the crystals, the sage.
It ain’t work.
I took up botany.
It’s all the rage
on sad girl Instagram.
Bitches love them some plants.
but make it *aesthetic*
A final attempt to prove myself more than a bag of weeds.
I cut off my roots,
left the crib,
and bought all of Home Depot.
rolled me a blunt
found a green thumb on YouTube.
Left it in the bottom of the pothos by accident.
Got the cat glaring from the bookshelf like
you can barely remember to feed / me /
Your soil just as dry as the English ivy on top of the fridge.
Everyday I watch you
shrivel and burn in front of the window
where everyone else can see.
What good is a home if you can’t ground yourself in it?
Got the neighbors in awe
of how you done killed the plants before your damn self
I thought you were a Pisces,
You of all people should know that / just / sunlight is never enough.
Too busy swimming around in that anxiety to remember we stuck in here with you.
Your ego ain’t the only thing thirsty in this house!
You are just like your mother,
all full of sorries and almosts. I continue to fry on the windows(t)ill.
Look at you. Can’t no filter fix that.
You can’t wilt
make it *sexy*
What a way to die.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Being sad, being frustrated with myself for being sad, and then also feeling like I’m not even doing it the right way are all concepts that drove me to write this poem. I usually write when I’m in my feelings and I am in fact in them a lot … so I have tons of poems about depression, reclaiming joy, and my experience living with an eating disorder. I’m not sure what was going on during this particular moment but I was definitely trying to keep myself from spiraling. I’ve been on a very proactive self-healing journey for about three years now and because of that (and Instagram) I’ve experimented with all of the things! Oils, yoga, herbs, any holistic healing method you can think of, I’ve tried. But these things don’t really work without proper intention. And my intentions at that time weren’t aligned with my highest good, which is why I wasn’t receiving what I was asking for.
What are you working on right now?
My poetry tends to pick up where my academic pursuits leave off. Right now I’m working on two sets of poems. The first one is essentially an ode to Gossip Girl. I’ve been binge-watching the show for the past few months (it’s eight seasons and roughly twenty-four episodes each) and the parallels that I’ve drawn between both myself and the characters is really what keeps me interested. The racial disparities in New York City are apparent in our schools, hospitals, transportation systems, even our grocery stores. And so comparing my lived experience as a Black girl from Harlem to that of Blair Waldorf or Serena van der Woodsen of the Upper East Side evokes this kind of sociological euphoria that’s found in all of my poems. The second set was inspired by my graduate school research. In my thesis I use the lives of civil rights activists Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer to examine how the controlling image of the strong Black woman impacts their activism and public performance. And so because I LOVE history and also LOVE reimagining things, I’ve begun to write poems that interrupt the traditional narratives of Ms. Parks in particular.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me is when I don’t have to rush my morning. It’s very important to me that I can hang with my cat, clean, and set my intention for the day without rushing. I try to meditate, journal and fix a thoughtful breakfast for myself when I can. If I don’t have time for at least two of those things I’m usually kind of off for the rest of the day. A good day for me is also sunny; I need weather that I can glow in. And lastly I need to have twerked at some point, preferably with friends. Twerking is always better with an audience.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Poetry actually brought me to Brooklyn! I was raised in Harlem and moved upstate to Newburgh, NY, when I was seven. At the time I thought I wanted to be an athlete, but after my first slam in the eighth grade I never looked back. After high school, I decided to relocate to the city because the poetry scene is so much bigger down here. I did some research and heard that the Brooklyn College Slam Team was lit and then slowly but surely everything fell into place. I was on the team for two years and then I decided to take a break from performance poetry and start concentrating more on my written work.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I spent part of undergrad living in Flatbush. Brooklyn College is the last stop on the 2/5 lines. It was my first time living alone, I was eighteen, and I had never really had a reason to leave Harlem so it was all new to me. Nonetheless, I felt right at home. There were always people outside and I couldn’t ask for better food. However, I eventually decided to move back to Harlem; all of my family is there. But the gentrification happening uptown mirrors Brooklyn, so I’m aware of the changes. Even where I used to live is starting to look different.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I know there’s recently been a lot of conversation around Afropunk’s politics and mistreatment of Black folx during the festival, but I remember going for the first time back in like 2013 with my best friend. I just stood there in awe of all the beautiful carefree Black people inhabiting the space. The vendors, the lineup, the food, the outfits—I was stunned. It was a vibe that I don’t think exists anywhere outside of Brooklyn.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
I am so blessed to have been gifted with a community of support that encourages me to live my truth every day. They keep me grounded. This conglomerate of awesomeness that I speak of started in Brooklyn but now that I’ve experienced fellowships like with the Watering Hole, as well as the Open Mouth Reading Series, I’ve found the same pockets of love across states. The great thing about community is that it doesn’t always need to hold physical space. We love a good group chat.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Aja Monet is a Caribbean American poet from Brooklyn whom I have yet to have the pleasure of meeting in person, but have definitely crossed paths with many lifetimes ago. Not only does she have an amazing sense of style, her demeanor is just so smooth and light! I love the way she uses her vulnerability to command space. And her approach to performance makes you feel at ease. She speaks with such wisdom and confidence, it’s like she’s been here before. And her ethos comes across so effortlessly in her poems. The way she travels between Florida and Palestine, using her words to facilitate social change? She’s really out here doing the work.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve only had one poetry mentor and his name is Juan-Carlos Piñeiro; he taught an after-school program called Urban Arts that I attended in the tenth grade. This was the first time I was exposed to what it was like to be a working artist. Juan-Carlos taught yoga, was part of an art collective that traveled the world, and facilitated programs every day. He was the first person to really help me identify my strengths. A lot of what we practiced at Urban Arts was about craft, but it was also about wellness. In our small classroom, poetry became a form of self-care, so when I was stressed or upset I learned to go right to the page. He taught me to check in with myself, even though at the time I didn’t understand what that really meant. It was my first “safe” space and I’m really grateful for it. This foundation is why I’m on the path that I am now.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
The last book that stood out to me is Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women by Brittney Cooper, and the last poem is “BBHMM” by Tiana Clark. Using a Black feminist lens, Cooper explores the lives of nineteenth and early twentieth century activists like Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Barrier Williams and Pauli Murray. In doing so, she reframes them as canonical theorists of social thought whose work challenges our understandings of both knowledge production as well as race and gender discourse. And as someone who has grown up during the era of Rihanna, “BBHMM” is an anthem. But beyond that, it is a call to arms. The way Clark is able to paint Black femme rage with such swag, it gets my heart racing every single time. I live for letting our anger loose, as messily as it may fall. These are the moments where I feel most alive, and she really captured that energy with this poem.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Definitely Homegirls and Handgrenades by Sonia Sanchez. I’ve also been telling myself to read The New Testament by Jericho Brown when I have the time.
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 going to be honest—undergrad kind of sucked the fun out of reading. BUT the best books have been the ones that I impulsively purchased. However, because of this I end up dipping in and out of books. I’m learning not to sweat it, I accept that school has changed my relationship to reading and so I’m working on it. However, when I really am feeling a book I can’t put it down and I need to have it in physical form. I love taking notes, leaving comments and folding pages!
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I recently learned what a pantoum is and now I really want to write one. I’m very interested in using that sort of sequence to create something mystical and carnivorous, but in the voice of something you’d least expect.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
One of my favorite places to write is Barnes & Noble. My grandmother used to take me there as a baby and read me books, so it’s kind of nostalgic. But when I’m in Newburgh, the Pisces in me jumps out and I usually write by our waterfront. I love the stillness of the Hudson River.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Brooklyn Museum, Café con Libros, Life Wellness Center, Sol Sips, MINKA and any event thrown by Papi Juice—each place makes me feel warm, seen and heard. That’s all I really need to have a good time.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the edges of the circle,
And what I have sharpened for you tonight,
For every meal pulled from my teeth does not feed me as good as it does you.
Because it’s poppin’ and has a unique authenticity that I don’t think you can find anywhere else.