JP Howard (aka Juliet P. Howard)’s poetry collection/memoir SAY / MIRROR is both a self-excavation of her childhood and a testament to her beauty queen and professional model mother whom she frequently refers to as “Diva.” Her poetry salon Women Writers in Bloom has featured many emerging and established poets such as Keisha-Gaye Anderson, Xanath Caraza, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Venus Thrash, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, and Arisa White; it has recently been awarded a Brooklyn Arts Council Community Arts Fund Grant. I asked JP some questions about her debut book, her process, and what’s next. This conversation is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color.–Rosebud Ben-Oni
Rosebud Ben-Oni: SAY / MIRROR strikes me as both a collection of poems and a personal ethnography that sheds light on the worlds of beauty, performance, and maternal expectations. The photos and news clippings themselves help piece together the world you’ve (re)created as poet and daughter. Can you tell us about the conception of this work, and your process?
Juliet P. Howard: I had been writing a number of poems with my mother, myself and our sometimes complicated mother/daughter relationship at the center, before I acquired the photographs. As an only child, I was fascinated growing up with a mother who was so beautiful and who had a full glamorous life, before she became a mother, that revolved around her physical beauty as a runway model. When my mom gifted me a huge collection of her vintage black and white photographs a few years ago, including pictures of her on magazine covers, I became interested in the idea of merging the photos with the poetry as a mixed media visual audio project. The book is in some ways an extension of that project which is currently in progress. Though most of the pictures she gave me were taken before I was born, they seemed to perfectly capture the glamorous life that my mother had often talked about when I was growing up. While beauty was a theme that ran through our lives, my mother, who was most comfortable being a Diva, had to grow into her role as a mother. Some of my poems explore that struggle. I continued to write Mama-themed poems and edit them at a number of writing residencies and retreat workshops until I felt the manuscript was ready. Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, my editor and also the founder of The Operating System, which published SAY / MIRROR, was very open and eager to include multiple pictures in this collection. This was definitely a dream come true for me when she provided a space for me to not only include the photos, but also to explore in the preface of my book how ideas of beauty and maternal expectations, including ideas/ideals of beauty in the African American community, played out in my own life. I wanted the pictures to complement and enhance the poems and the story that unfolds within the pages of SAY / MIRROR.
RB: There are a lot of tensions in SAY / MIRROR. How did you negotiate and/or navigate these tensions from personal life to the page?
JPH: Negotiating and navigating these difficult tensions on the page felt very risky, yet also necessary. I spent a lot of time weighing whether I should pull some very personal poems from the collection, but ultimately felt that those poems were crucial to the collection, so I took that risk and included them. Poems that dealt with the childhood memory of my mom’s attempted suicide and my mom’s struggle with depression, mostly as seen through the lens of a child’s eye, found their way into the book. I believe that poetry and the (spacial) constraints of poetic forms often help to carry difficult and weighty topics. The confined space of a poem can be freeing for the writer. I think having to often fit these personal “poetic snapshots” of my life into a tight space, makes the process of tackling those tensions on the page more approachable and perhaps less scary.
RB: While your mother inspired this collection, this seems to me to be very much your story as well. Which poems in the collection do you believe are truly “yours”?
JPH: I think there are a number of poems that are truly my poems and each for different reasons. “Praise Poem for the Journey” is a grown folks poem that mourns the past, while also celebrating the complicated journey that got me to the present. I completely own and celebrate this poem.
I would say “Family Secret” is also my poem. It is based on a child’s memory and an attempt to make sense of the memory of my mother’s attempted suicide through a child’s voice. It was one of the hardest poems I’ve written and the most difficult to include in the book, but also possibly the most necessary. This poem is for all the folks who have childhood secrets.
Finally, “Ghazal: What Love Takes” is definitely my poem. While my mother enters this poem, she’s not central too it, though the poem offers a peek into a snapshot of love’s complicated role in her own life.
RB: SAY / MIRROR creates a space as much as your own salon, Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon. When did you found this salon? What have been some of your favorite readings or workshops?
JPH: The Salon was founded in April 2011, during National Poetry Month and is still going strong over four years later. The Salon has created a safe, nurturing and creative monthly space for women writers especially, to gather, produce new work each month in a workshop setting and share previously written work during the open mic portion. The Salon space welcomes and celebrates a gorgeous melting pot of poets who are often writers of color, queer poets, and multi-generational poets of all educational and social backgrounds.
This is a difficult question re: my favorite readings or workshops because I have enjoyed every Salon that I have curated these past four years! Some recent favorite workshops include: Poet and author Keisha-Gaye Anderson, who facilitated a workshop entitled “For My People: The Protest Poem.” This workshop occurred earlier this year and was so timely, in light of all the important and necessary work currently happening around poetry and politics, such as #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. This was an important way for our Salon to keep that necessary political writing continuing in our Bloom community. Xánath Caraza, poet and author, gave a multi-lingual workshop “Poetry Carved on the Skin: Writing with the Senses,” which had us use visual images, language and our senses to write our way into some powerful poems. Poet and filmmaker Olive Demetrius facilitated a workshop entitled “Connectivity ~ Our relationships with each other are the ways we frame identity.” Her workshop had us explore poetry that asked “Who am I in relation to you?” Mothers, daughters, spouse, brothers etc. Olive had us experiment with work that speaks of the space inhabited by the poet to the most important people in their lives. This workshop really helped me tap into some difficult-to-write mother/daughter poems that I had wanted to write, but due to the difficultly of the topic, I needed that extra creative push. A really unique workshop that was a favorite for all participants was lead by poet and author Arisa White, who had us transform newsworthy items into poems that reflected our distinctive point of view, using language that compelled us to pay attention. Her workshop was unique because she had us meditate and use breathing/stretching exercises to help release the tension around some of the difficult topics explored. This year one of the most memorable readings was given by poets Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Bettina Judd, who both shared powerful and often emotionally difficult poems from their latest collections at the Salon’s Four Year Anniversary Celebration.
RB: What’s next for you?
JPH: I have a new chaplet, bury your love poems here, coming out from Belladonna* Collaborative in June 2015, and I’m excited about that. I also have a chapbook manuscript, with the working title, We Beautiful Black Boys, which is looking for a home and which honors the memory of black and brown youth taken away from us too soon, due to racial injustice, while also celebrating our youth who survive and blossom, despite the racial inequalities that still exist in this country. I plan to expand my multi-media video project and anticipate in the future a mini-traveling exhibit of the large collection of vintage Diva photos of my mom.
As Salon Curator, I plan to continue to collaborate with community (both individuals and organizations) as the Salon grows in numbers and blossoms. My current 2015 Brooklyn Arts Council Community Arts Fund Grant will allow me to continue to expand the collection of poetry books for the traveling Salon library, which I started last year. Last year I held a few Salons out-of-state, with one in Seattle and another in California. A number of women from other states have expressed an interest in opening their homes/community spaces to the Salon, so I look forward to the opportunity to collaborate across the country in the future.
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a 2014 New York Foundation Fellow for the Arts (NYFA) in poetry, a CantoMundo Fellow and the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013). Her work appears in The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. In Fall 2014, she will be a visiting writer at the University of Texas at Brownsville’s Writers Live Series. Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (vidaweb.org). Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org
JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard is a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She is the author of SAY/MIRROR, a debut poetry collection published by The Operating System (2015) and a chaplet, bury your love poems here (Belladonna Collaborative*, 2015). Howard curates and nurtures Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS), a forum offering women writers at all levels a venue to come together in a positive and supportive space. She is the recipient of a 2015 Brooklyn Arts Council Community Arts Fund Grant on behalf of the Salon. Howard is an alum of the VONA/Voices Writers Workshop, as well as a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voices Fellow. She was a finalist in The Feminist Wire’s 2014 1st Poetry Contest and in the poetry category for the Lesbian Writer’s Fund of Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Feminist Wire, Split this Rock, Nepantla: A Journal for Queer Poets of Color, Muzzle Magazine, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, The Best American Poetry Blog, MiPOesias, The Mom Egg, Talking Writing and Connotation Press. Howard holds a BA from Barnard College and MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York.