Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Interview with JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard, 2017 Freedom Plow Award Finalist!

The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation and co-sponsored by the Arts Club of Washington, Busboys and Poets, and the Institute for Policy Studies, recognizes and honors a poet or poetry collective doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. The award, judged this year by Holly Bass, Dawn Lundy Martin, and 2015 award recipient Mark Nowak, is being given for the third time in 2017. Tickets now on sale! Join us on April 21 at the Arts Club of Washington for the Award Ceremony!


JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard is the author of SAY/MIRROR, a debut poetry collection published by The Operating System (2016, 2nd expanded ed. and 2015, 1st ed) and a chaplet bury your love poems here (Belladonna Collaborative*, 2015). SAY/MIRROR was a 2016 Lambda Literary Award Finalist in the Lesbian Poetry Category. JP is a Pushcart Prize nominee and was selected as a 2016 Judith Markowtiz Emerging Writers Award Winner from Lambda Literary Foundation. She was one of Velvetpark Magazine's Official 25 Queer Women of 2016 and was selected as one of GO Magazine's 2016 "100 Women We Love!"

JP curates and nurtures Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS), a forum offering women writers at all levels a monthly venue to come together in a positive and supportive space. The Salon, which has been featured in Poets & Writers Magazine, celebrates a diverse array of women poets and includes a large LGBTQ POC membership.  

JP is a Cave Canem graduate fellow, an alumna of the VONA/Voices Writers Workshop, and a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voices Fellow. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Queer Voices Anthology, Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split This Rock's blog, Nepantla: A Journal for Queer Poets of Color, Muzzle Magazine, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, The Best American Poetry Blog, MiPOesias, Mom Egg Review, Talking Writing, Connotation Press and the anthology, Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander. She is Editor-at-Large for Mom Egg Review.

JP holds a BA from Barnard College, a JD from Brooklyn Law School and an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. She resides in New York with her wife and two sons. Her family was proudly featured on a 2014 cover of Gay Parent Magazine.



By Fran McCrae

How would you describe the role of poetry in activism and community building?

As a queer poet of color, I am especially aware and appreciative of the long-standing history of black lesbian poets who have used poetry as a form of activism and as a way to both agitate and empower. Poetry for me is part and parcel of activism and community building. I'm thinking particularly of black lesbian poets, Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, and Cheryl Clarke. Discovering their voices while in college helped me to to understand the clear intersection of poetry, activism, and community building. They wrote about racism, feminism, the beauty and sexiness of loving women, and consistently used their poetry to speak truth to power. They made it crystal clear that poetry is political and that poets can and should use poetry to bring community together.

Modern day political movements like #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, follow in the great literary tradition of black activist poets and allow black poets and our allies to use the power of our words to march, chant, write, build, and empower community, both nationally and internationally.

What poets have most influenced you and why?

I grew up in Sugar Hill, Harlem, and as an only child of a single Mama, I spent countless hours afterschool in my local library, the Hamilton Grange Branch of the NY public library. It was really my home away from home.

Early poets who influenced me way back in elementary and middle school include Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Lucille Clifton, and Sonia Sanchez. I discovered The Black Poets Anthology edited by Dudley Randall in the poetry section of my local library and it became my poetry bible. I checked it out of the library so much, that my Mama went out and got me my own copy.

Later on in college, black lesbian activist poets who I mentioned above (Pat Parker, Audre Lorde and Cheryl Clarke) had the most significant influence on me personally, politically, and socially. They literally gave me the courage to come and stay out of the closet over thirty years ago. I continue to call out their names and celebrate their work. 

What was your defining moment in becoming a poet-activist? 

A poem that I loved and memorized when I was back in elementary school, For My People, by the dynamic sista poet, Margaret Walker, was an early defining moment for me. Her poetry showed me, at a very young age, that a writer could be both a poet and an activist. I may not have had the word “activist” in my vocabulary at that age, but I remember that Walker’s poetry made me feel alive.

For My People educated the reader about African American history (both painful and empowering moments), while simultaneously serving as a call to action for black folks. When I reread For My People, as an adult, I remembered that I had always loved this poem on a visceral level, before I fully understood its power or all its social implications. I was probably no more than nine or ten years old and my Mama would proudly have me recite it each Sunday to the church ladies after church.

Before discovering poetry, I was a painfully shy child. However, that particular poem, really spoke to me and helped me find and share my voice. I loved the rhythm of the words and how strong my voice sounded when I performed it. It made me stand tall because of the force and power of the words. The church ladies would clap each week and I’d smile each time, then run and get a warm slice of sweet potato pie. I still love that final stanza, a call for action, that still speaks true today:

        Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
        bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
        generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
        loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
        healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
        in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
        be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
        rise and take control.

Your collection SAY/MIRROR takes its inspiration from vintage photographs of your mother. How would you describe the potential of poetry to impact collective memory?

Poetry can sometimes be a trigger and here I’m using the word “ trigger” as a tool: poems can get our collective attention, remind us of our history (both political and personal), and encourage political activism.

While there can be collective power and beauty in poetry, there can also be collective pain and mourning. This is particularly true when we remember/honor/start a literal “roll call” of names of our black, brown, and LGBTQ bodies that have been murdered or maimed, seemingly without any justice in sight. Poetry ensures that we don’t forget the growing list of names as we seek justice for our ancestors and our injured, who have been targets of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination based on immigration status. Poetry forces us to pay attention; to look this sometimes ugly country directly in the eye and call it on its flaws.

Sometimes poetry can give us unexpected hope. Recently I participated in a Poets Vigil for NEA at Trump Tower in New York City organized by my friend Loma (Christopher Soto).  Poets and allies were on the street protesting and local poets shared our poems of protest. A bus driver driving his bus along Fifth Avenue, saw and heard our vigil of protester poets, with our signs, placards, and candles. He pulled his bus over towards us, looked over in our direction from his drivers side window, gave us a big thumbs up and honked his horn loudly in support, while encouraging us to keep it up. Strangers on the street stopped, listened, and many clapped or shared supportive words of solidarity. Ultimately, it was a beautiful and empowering experience (though freezing outside) as we bonded over our shared activist experience; that evening became a part of our collective memory. 

Being a woman, a person of color, and a member of the LGBTQ community, you are able to channel many voices in your work. How do these communities intersect in your writing and what are the challenges of representing them all?

It is basically impossible for these voices/parts of myself, black, queer and woman, not to enter my work or intersect. It frames the lens through which I see and experience the world and it is part and parcel of who I am.

When I am writing poems celebrating or mourning black youth, I am writing as a black lesbian mother of two sons, including one queer teen. When I write political poems, the various parts of myself intersect and inevitably speak up. I want others in the room who may be too shy to speak up, to know that we are here, we queer POC voices exist and we will speak out as long as there is breath in our bodies.

I’m constantly thinking about a quote of one of my favorite poets, the late black, lesbian, activist poet, Pat Parker, who once said: "If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, 'No, you stay home tonight, you won’t be welcome…' The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution."

I am fully aware that all those parts of me (black, queer, woman), all those voices are not welcome in some forums simultaneously, but that never stops me from making my best efforts to bring “all the different parts of me” and to bring my fullest, queerest, blackest, full woman self into the room, onto the page, up on the stage, and in my role as curator and educator.

You curate and nurture the Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS). How does this forum support women writers?

WWBPS supports primarily women writers (though we are open to everyone) by hosting monthly writing workshops with a new featured woman poet/writer/author monthly. Each month featured Salon writers are paid honoraria thanks to donations and my Brooklyn Arts Council Grant (BAC), awarded the last four years. Our workshops are pay-what-you-can and there’s no required fee, though donations are always welcome.

The Salons occur on weekends and we have a four to five hour leisurely chunk of time to produce new work, have a featured reading by our visiting author, and a Q & A session with our feature. We wrap up with a multi-genre open mic, open to all participants. We celebrate our powerful voices, while producing new work, thanks to generous women who open their homes to us each month or help me find affordable community spaces. WWBPS literally and figuratively nurtures us; Salons are potluck events and participants bring delicious home-cooked meals.

Women who attend often tell me that the Salons are warm, welcoming, and safe spaces to create new work and to share works-in-progress during the open mic. Recently, some Salon members have been accepted into MFA programs across the country, others are getting their work published in journals, often for the first time, some have their first chapbooks or books published or forthcoming, many are getting accepted into residencies or writing retreats. Some, who were once shy, now perform their poetry in larger venues, after building up their confidence in our open mics.

The Salon has become an extended poetry family, where members support each other on an ongoing basis, even outside of the Salon, networking and building community. We are an incredibly diverse and intergenerational group of writers, many of us are queer POC and allies, as are many of our features. We learn from each other, as well as from our featured authors, who are often dynamic educators. Featured poets are invited to sell their books at each Salon, thereby supporting small, independent presses.

Thanks to my Brooklyn Arts Council grants, I started a traveling Salon poetry library a few years ago. My 2017 BAC Grant allows me to stock the library with new poetry books throughout the year, often from LGBTQ and POC writers, thereby exposing members to diverse, emerging poetic voices.

What has been your most memorable experience within the WWBPS?

One of my most memorable WWBPS experiences was when we performed in front of a full house at the renowned Word for Word Reading Series at Bryant Park in New York City last summer. It was really a dream come true, as that reading series has been one of my favorite series for many years! I was interviewed on behalf of WWBPS, along with Salon member Keisha-Gaye Anderson, and portions of our Bryant Park performances were featured on CUNY-TV’s Study With the Best cable tv show. 

What’s coming up next for you? Any new projects in the works? 

As for my writing, I’m in the early stages of writing my memoir and recently finished taking a memoir writing workshop with the amazing Bushra Rehman, so I have lots of editing to do. I’m editing my poetry chapbook manuscript, “We Beautiful Black Boys.” My literary baby, WWBPS celebrates its Six Year Anniversary on Friday, April 28th with a phenomenal line-up of Salon poets performing! I’ve rented a lovely space and am catering it so I’m super excited.

I’m especially looking forward to some upcoming collaborations with various community and literary organizations. I’m currently the guest editor, with poet Amber Atiya, of a special edition of Sinister Wisdom Journal entitled “Black Lesbians: We Are the Revolution!” (influenced by who else? Pat Parker!) It’s forthcoming in the latter part of 2017; we are busy making final selections and edits.

Apogee Journal and New York Writers Coalition recently received a 2017 Community Arts Grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council to design and facilitate affordable craft-based writing and editing workshops.  I’ve been invited to facilitate one of their generative writing workshops as a teaching artist for this new series. My workshop will use the brilliant texts of Audre Lorde and James Baldwin to help writers create powerful mini-personal essays or narrative, memoir-themed political poems.

I’m partnering with Humanities New York and have been invited to serve as a Readings and Discussions Scholar to create an inaugural Audre Lorde Readings and Discussion statewide program in NY for them. Of course, I’m always busy lining up featured authors for the Salon; some upcoming 2017 featured poets include Antoinette Brim, Donika Kelly, DeLana Dameron, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, Anastacia Renee, and Heather Buchanan, plus others!

What advice would you give to emerging writers from underrepresented groups (people of color, LGBTQ, etc.)? 

I would urge emerging writers from underrepresented groups (folks of colors, LGBTQ, and marginalized writers) to find and build a writing community wherever you are. This can include reaching out to local writers, to friends who are writers or even an online community of writers, particularly for folks in rural communities without easy access to queer POC writers or allies.

I also encourage emerging writers to apply to organizations that specifically support and celebrate their communities, such as Cave Canem, Lambda Literary, VONA/Voices Writing Workshop for Writers of Color, CantoMundo, and Kundiman. Many of those organizations, including Cave Canem, Lambda, and VONA, have really provided a nurturing space for me to grow as a writer throughout the years.

It’s also important to go to readings, meet and hear other poets, and if folks can, attend local affordable writing workshops when offered. Also read everything you can get your hands on! 

Learn more about JP at her website.


Fran McCrae is a poet, advocate for the cooperative model of business, and volunteer for Split This Rock. She hails from the Texas Hill Country and currently lives in Washington, DC. Her work has previously been published in Epigraph Magazine and Burnt Pine Magazine.

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