Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! For this installment, JP Howard reads poems from Cheryl Clarke and talks about literary activism, the power of poetry, and the importance of black, lesbian voices in the community. Thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read these poems by Cheryl Clarke for Lyric Essentials?
I know that the Lyric Essentials series provides writers an opportunity to pay homage to poets that have guided us and transformed our work and Cheryl Clarke and her work have spoken to me for many decades. Her writing has consistently inspired my own poetry. I first discovered Clarke’s work when I was a freshman attending Barnard College. I’m pretty sure “Of Althea and Flaxie” was one of the very first poems of Clarke’s that I read. I loved that it was bold and that it celebrated an out-loud love between two women. The time period at the start of the poem (1943) lets the reader know from the start that this was a love that was not easily swayed by society or society’s expectations. Her entry into the poem is quite exquisite with her narrative description of the couple; she paints a portrait of a butch-femme couple who are proud of their relationship. This book was written in the early 80’s and I believe it was significant and empowering to note that Cheryl Clarke, like Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, all fierce black activist lesbian poets writing during that time period, wrote unapologetically about lesbian love. I choose this poem, in particular, because Clarke painted this couple so vividly on the page, that many years went by before I read the poem again, yet I clearly remembered Althea and Flaxie. It was as if I had actually met them at some point in my life. I also chose this poem to honor my 18 year old self. It’s a way of saying “JP you are still here. You are still living your life out loud too!” The poetry of Clarke, Lorde and Parker, all gave me the courage to come out to my own family, soon after discovering their work while at Barnard. Ultimately, this is a classic Clarke narrative poem that deserves to be both read and heard.
“i come to the city” wasn’t a poem of Clarke’s that I was familiar with, yet it had a strong New York energy that drew me into the poem. It reminds me of the vibe of New York lesbian clubs and bars, that once were in abundance, but sadly, no longer are. This poem, while concise, effectively captures all the promise and sensuality of women making connections in a big city, like New York or San Francisco. It is also infused with Clarke’s acerbic wit and determination in the ending lines “I been in love/six times in the last six months/and ain’t done trying yet.” I think it’s a poem of lesbian desire/longing that many can relate to—also the ending and the speaker’s determination “ain’t done trying yet” makes the reader chuckle to herself!
EH: Has Clarke’s work influenced your own work as a writer or educator?
JPH: Clarke’s work has influenced me tremendously, both as writer and educator. She continues to speak her truth. I love that she is a black lesbian activist poet speaking her truth through generations and to new generations. She proudly refers to herself as a “queer black troublemaker” and I love that description! It’s so on point. Her poems are honest, incredibly sexy, consistency political and often challenge the reader to think about all the intersections in our lives. She makes the reader work and I love her poems for doing that. Her work has and continues to challenge me to speak my truth and also to consistently teach her work, along with other black lesbian activist poets, so that writers of all generations can be exposed to Clarke’s early work and her current work. Much of my own poetry is political and deals with the intersections of being a black lesbian activist poet in America—I try to always bring my full self to the page, the stage and to the classrooms and/or to writing workshops that I facilitate.
Much of my writing and how I move through the world as an activist poet, I owe to Clarke. Discovering her work at a young age made me realize I too can speak my truth and maybe someone will read my work one day, the way I was reading and being influenced by her work. I’m fortunate to now also call Cheryl Clarke friend. During this past April during National Poetry Month (NaPoMo), we were in a small online writing group, Elma’s Heart Circle, founded by another dynamic black lesbian poet, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. Our small group of women poets exchanged poems daily. Cheryl Clarke’s new poems were political, unwavering in their directness, and often gut-wrenching in their ability to shine a light on painful Her/Histories. She continues to speak her truth and inspire me as a writer and as a friend.
EH: Clarke’s life’s work is an example of the power of poetry—how important do you think it is to share and highlight the work of such influential activists like her?
JPH: I think it is absolutely crucial to share and highlight the work of influential activists like Cheryl Clarke. Her poetry, her essays, her political activism, her current work as co-founder, with her sister Breena Clarke, of the Hobart Festival of Women Writers, are all models of literary activism. She not only speaks her truth, but each year brings hundreds of women writers together to share their stories and their words at this annual women writer’s festival that centers and celebrates women writers. I think it is important to also highlight when poets and writers are giving back to our writing communities—literary activism is crucial and inspiring.
EH: Is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with readers?
JPH: I’m delighted that one of my praise poems was recently selected by Tracy K. Smith, former Poet Laureate of the U.S. for The Slowdown, Smith’s daily weekday podcast series. I’m not sure what day it will be arriving in peoples inboxes, but folks can subscribe on Apple and Google podcasts. I’m working on completing edits for two poetry manuscripts, one full length and the other a chapbook. I’m excited for my second full length collection to find a home. I’m the proud curator and nurturer of Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, a monthly literary series that usually meets in New York. Since March, I’ve been busy reimagining and bringing the Salon & Open Mic series online during this current pandemic while many of us are sheltering-in. The responses to the online iteration have been incredible. While our online gatherings confirm my belief in the healing power of poetry and community, I still fiercely miss our monthly in-person gatherings.
Cheryl Clarke is a widely recognized black lesbian poet, essayist, educator and community activist who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement in Washington D.C. Her work is known for its significant cultural impact in black, lesbian, and feminist communities, and has been anthologized and featured in various journals such as The Black Scholar, The Kenyon Review, The World in Us: An Anthology of Lesbian and Gay Poetry, and many others. She is the author of five poetry books, including her most recent, By My Precise Haircut (2016); her book Experimental Love (Firebrand Books, 1993) wasnominated for a 1994 Lambda Literary Award. She holds a B.A. from Howard University and an M.A., M.S.W., and Ph.D. from Rutgers University, and she works as the Director of the Office of Diverse Community Affairs and Lesbian-Gay Concerns at Rutgers, and co-organizer of the Hobart Festival of Women Writers. She lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Hobart, New York with her life partner.
JP Howard is an author, educator, literary activist, curator and community builder. She curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, in New York and herdebut poetry collection, SAY/MIRROR (The Operating System), was a 2016 Lambda Literary Award finalist. She is also the author of bury your love poems here (Belladonna*) and co-editor of Sinister Wisdom Journal Black Lesbians—We Are the Revolution! JP is a 2020 featured author in Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools program and was a Split this Rock Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism finalist. She is also featured in the Lesbian Poet Trading Card Series from Headmistress Press and was the recipient of Lambda Literary’s Judith A. Markowitz Emerging Writer Award. JP’s work is widely anthologized and poetry and essays have appeared (or forthcoming) in The Academy of American Poets poem-a-day series,The Slowdown podcast,Anomaly, Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split this Rock, Muzzle Magazine, The Best American Poetry Blog, Nepantla: A Journal for Queer Poets of Color, Talking Writing, Connotation Press and others. JP is the Editor-at-Large at Mom Egg Review VOX online and holds a BA from Barnard College, an MFA in Creative Writing from The City College of New York and a JD from Brooklyn Law School.
Subscribe to The Slowdown to listen to Howard’s feature on the podcast with Tracy K. Smith.
Purchase Howard’s latest collection, SAY/MIRROR.
Learn more about JP Howard and keep up with her work at her personal website.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/