JP Howard on Poetry, Family, and Writing Communities

The following excerpt is part of our interview series where we talk to members of the lesbian literary community. A longer version of this interview will appear in an upcoming issue of our literary journal, Serendipity.

JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard’s debut poetry collection, SAY/MIRROR, was a 2016 Lambda Literary finalist. She is also the author of bury your love poems here (Belladonna*). JP was a 2017 Split this Rock Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism finalist and is featured in the 2017 Lesbian Poet Trading Card Series from Headmistress Press. She was the recipient of a 2016 Lambda Literary Judith A. Markowitz Emerging Writer Award and has received fellowships and grants from Cave Canem, VONA, Lambda, Astraea, and Brooklyn Arts Council. JP curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, a NY-based forum offering women writers a monthly venue to collaborate. JP’s poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split this Rock, Muzzle Magazine, and The Best American Poetry Blog. JP holds a BA from Barnard College and an MFA in Creative Writing from The City College of New York.

What has surprised you the most about being a poet?

I’ve been surprised at how often my poetry speaks to people across so many diverse backgrounds and experiences. I’ve realized over time that many of the themes that I write about are universal, especially ones that are painful to share. Due to this unexpected and welcome connection from people with such varied life experiences, I’ve been surprised at my own willingness in my writing to explore topics that are often considered taboo, particularly within Black families. This includes writing about my mother’s depression, her attempted suicide when I was a child, her struggles with alcoholism and its effect on me as an only child. Many of these topics, especially her attempted suicide, were never allowed to be discussed in my own family and were considered taboo, so being able to write my truth and discuss my experience and perspective as an adult has been liberating and cathartic.

Full disclosure: When Lauren and I were trying to decide how to formalize the Black Lesbian Literary Collective, we did a bit of research on writing collectives and salons, specifically those focused on Black lesbian or LGBT writers, and realized that there weren’t all that many around. However, we were encouraged by your work with the Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, and just knowing that you were out there helped us to keep pushing forward. You’ve been curating the Salon for six years now. Can you tell us a little about why you started the salon and how it’s grown over the years?

I’m glad to hear that WWBPS was encouraging to y’all. I’m so proud of our community of writers. Ultimately, the Salon started because it was a community that I needed and wanted in my life. I received my MFA from The City College of New York in 2009 and a few years after graduating, I missed having a regular writing community. I knew that I wanted to be a part of a community that celebrated and included mostly women writers. During National Poetry Month in 2011 the Salon kicked off, initially with just a handful of friends coming together to write and share their work. My vision of the Salon included a nurturing space for writers to come together monthly, with a featured poet who would conduct a writing workshop, give a featured reading, answer questions from participants during a Q & A session and end with an open mic, where each person in the room could share their new work. Folks were receptive to the Salons after the first few months and it began to quickly grow, attracting a large queer women of color community of writers, along with allies. Writers began volunteering their homes and recommending or often donating low-cost community spaces each month. Because the monthly Salons are in often in homes or community spaces, we have a delicious potluck each month, so that we are nurturing ourselves both literally and figuratively. Once I received funding for my Brooklyn-based Salons, I was able to accomplish what I always wanted, which is to offer an honorarium each month to my featured poets and authors. I’ve been fortunate to be able to provide these monthly honoraria to each feature poet for four consecutive years.

What have you read within the past year that made you feel differently about poetry or about your own writing?

I just finished reading t’ai freedom ford’s debut poetry collection how to get over and it is fiyah! Her book has made me think about the importance of being true to self on the page and stage. I was already a huge fan of t’ai’s work and was familiar with her spoken word performances. Her book is exquisite, extremely personal, deeply historical, unapologetically political, Black and queer. Her book has made me think about the power of both the written and spoken word– her poems work so powerfully equally on the page and stage. Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s new collection Arrival has made me think about how uniquely we can bring all the parts of our past to the page. The voices of her loved ones, who are no longer here, are so clear and her use of Trinidadian dialect is so effective throughout. In her book, even when dealing with loss of loved ones, she ultimately celebrates and honors their memory, especially by keeping their voices authentic. Her work has made me think of my own Southern roots and about new ways I can honor my loved ones by holding on and rediscovering their authentic voices on the page. Cheryl’s collection has made me think about what voices in my own family I have silenced and consider how I can bring them to the forefront; in this way it has been a gift about future possibilities in my own writing.

If you could sit down with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and what would you want to talk about?

I would definitely talk to Pat Parker, my poetry muse and Black lesbian poet Goddess, whose work I first discovered back when I was in college. I would thank her for her honesty in her poetry and for letting me know all those years ago that Black women could love up on other women openly and write about and celebrate our queerness. I know she was an activist and a parent, so I would ask her what she would tell her children in this current political climate. I would love to know who inspired her to write so boldly and honestly about walking through the world as a Black, lesbian feminist. I would ask her to recite some of my favorite poems of hers too!

How do you overcome writer’s block? If you’ve never experienced it, how have you avoided it?

I have definitely experienced writer’s block and I try not to let it stress me too much. Easier said than done. I don’t have any secrets to avoid it, but what does help for me is my writing communities. Having friends who are writers who I can confide with when I feel “stuck” and who will let me vent and then share their own stories of writer’s block helps. Fortunately for me, my monthly Salons are a great help because I know that at least once a month, no matter how stuck I am, I will receive some fabulous prompts from one of the Salon’s featured poets.

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?

I would say seek out writing communities that will celebrate your voice, ones that will nurture and encourage you and give you constructive feedback.