Write or Die: Simone John Is Writing the Good Fight

In her newest collection, this Boston-born poet looks American racism square in the face.

The murder of Trayvon Martin sent shock waves through all of us, but for Simone John the experience hit too close to home. In her newest collection, Testify, released this summer by Octopus Books, the 26-year-old poet confronts the dark realities that underlie the experience of being black in America. In poems as stark and severe as the realities they outcry, John takes on police brutality, the expendability of black lives, and the labyrinth of fear, grief, and rage on the other side of every haunting hashtag.

What originally drew you to poetry?

I had a wacky educational background and wound up at Goddard College, which is a great, progressive school where I was allowed to create my own major and curriculum. I had previously majored in anthropology because I was interested in people, and through the freedom I was given at Goddard, I found myself writing a lot of poetry. I had actually always written poetry; I was a teenager with a lot of feelings. But definitely in my undergrad I was able to find my way to it on my own; I wasn’t having white, canonized authors thrown at me, which can create a barrier for people who don’t immediately resonate with those narratives. Poetry became a place where I could do whatever I wanted. People use the phrase “poetic license” a lot, and it’s watered down, but it’s true: there is license poetry gives you to play and experiment.

This collection is both really beautiful and really haunting—what was your process like writing these poems?

The process felt like I was being haunted—I would say haunted and hunted, maybe in equal measure. I was already wrestling with some thoughts about what it means to be black in the United States, to have to claim a thing that doesn’t necessarily want or value you. But when Trayvon Martin was murdered, it just fucked me up. I started wondering where, if anywhere, it was safe to be a black person. I was struck by the similarities between us: he was 17, I was 20 at the time; he was the youngest of the family, I’m the youngest—a lot of things that felt eerie to me. I wasn’t necessarily deliberately grappling with that in my work for a while or even watching the trial; I honestly kept a lot of distance because it was so painful and scary. And then one of the faculty advisors at Goddard was doing a workshop on documentary poetics, and we were supposed to bring some news clippings to the workshop. I brought some articles on Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon Martin’s friend and the last person to have spoken with him; that’s how it started.

THE GENERAL PUBLIC VIA THE COMMENTS SECTION

I.
Well, since they are both sub human
and they didnt have language skills
until the arabs gave them a language;
I would say the feral groids are
reverting back to their natural state
of incomprehensibility.

II.
Good grief, how did Trayvon
even have a conversation
with this girl? She has trouble
stringing more than a few words
into a sentence.

III.
I couldn’t get past those huge earrings.

I love that you mention her because I wanted to ask about your poem “Small Talk.” It’s such a stark look at people’s internet responses to Rachel Jeantel’s testimony, and it’s followed immediately by a poem called “Rachel’s Earrings.” I was interested in how you used the earrings as a symbol of your solidarity and sisterhood with her.

Yeah, there was palpable conversation happening around her testimony, and both white and black people had opinions about that. I think that she would have been perceived differently by the public if she was thin, fair-skinned, and had long straight hair. That she was this curvy, dark-skinned, black woman I think made people engage with her differently. It was an interesting intersection of different conversations, particularly around people policing the way that women speak and look. The earrings that she wore during the trial were big, gold doorknockers, which is a type of earring that women of color often wear. The last comment in “Small Talk” was somebody saying, “I couldn’t get past those huge earrings.” That seemed to exemplify the fact that ultimately people were judging her for her physical self—black and white people. I felt like if you understood the context that she came from, her behavior would make sense and you wouldn’t be asking questions like: Why did she have to have these ghetto-looking earrings when she’s in court? It made me think about what her morning looked like that day, how a teenage girl might prepare to testify in court about her friend who was murdered. Maybe those earrings made her feel confident or safe—the idea of earrings as armor.

RACHEL’S EARRINGS

I brush her cheek as she shakes her head:
No, he never called back.  A gesture of comfort

like seeing a sign written in your mother tongue
while traveling in a foreign land. I hang

at shoulder height, dangling from an ear titled
towards a question doubling back on itself:

Are you saying that you rushed through it
and you didn’t think about it carefully

enough to be sure that you told it accurately?
I watched from the dresser this morning

as she held her own gaze in the mirror
hands skimming the jewelry box

seeking armor, seeking anything
to make her brave.

Simone John

A lot of the poems take a relentless look at police brutality, and as you do in “Small Talk,” you often use actual words that are spoken by police or their victims during fatal incidents. Talk about using direct quotes as poetry and what that means for you.

Two things about that: One, I think there’s power in making people engage with that literal language outside the context of the news. It’s not my opinion, I didn’t write it, I’m not the Wizard of Oz behind the scenes; those were the words that were said. And then the other part of it is that using the words of victims feels like a way for their voices to live on. Once a narrative starts rolling, sometimes the point gets obscured by people simply skimming headlines. People love to ask questions like, “How do we know what happened?,” so I think there’s power in using the text itself.

You touched on providing a space for these voices to live on. There’s a point in one of your poems, “Letter to White People,” where the focus shifts from a list of racist behaviors to the lasting imprint that one of those left on a single person. Do you think that that moment encapsulates that motivation you were talking about, that it was a way for you to protect and defend these victims?

I grew up in a predominantly white suburb, and I definitely think about how people’s actions can impact somebody for a lifetime—behaviors that seems innocuous. I think about these cops sometimes saying they were afraid for their lives, that someone else’s ignorance or discomfort could have a much more lasting impact on the victim in the scenario, and in the worst case scenario, it could lead to that person’s death or incarceration. That’s part of the origin of that poem. I also think a lot about the families and communities that victims of police brutality come from. The mourning doesn’t stop for them. There’s someone right now who’s having breakfast at a table with an empty seat, and there are others who are inoculated from that reality. Part of how this book came to be is the fear of being a person involved in that–either as a victim of police brutality, or the sibling or daughter of a victim, and knowing that that’s possible whenever I leave my house, whenever loved ones leave their houses. So it’s not so much about protecting the victims as it is humanizing them for people and giving people, if only for 80 pages, the experience of sustained grief that’s not even a quarter of a fraction of what someone would experience.

THAT ASS

Black leggings cling to the curves of that ass;
Work out every day just to firm up that ass.

She quickens her pace, counts sidewalk cracks
Hums to muffle Ma, lemme get at that ass.

Men’s hoodies are the perfect size for hustling
through school hallways, tryna cover that ass.

Just then the DJ drops the bass
them girls can’t keep up with the pace of that ass.

Her palm met his cheek when his hand
landed, uninvited, on the arch of that ass.

Hips pinched while grandma sucks her teeth,
You sho yo momma’s daughter, just look at that ass.

You have another poem, “That Ass,” where you use that colloquialism to shed light on the complex nature of having a woman’s body, and also the complex way that women relate to their own bodies. Can you unpack that a bit?

You’re right, women have really complicated relationships to their bodies and aren’t given a lot of positive ways to relate to them. Boys can have a concept of their bodies as strong, fast, and athletic, whereas women are socialized to think about their bodies as something to be consumed, a thing for other people to look at. I was playing with different forms when I wrote this and had landed on the ghazal. What I love about the ghazal is that the stanzas don’t have to be connected in an obvious way, so I was able to incorporate these different experiences of being a teenager, walking through a hallway wearing a boy hoodie literally trying to cover your ass because you grew hips overnight, of being on the dance floor shaking that ass, of slapping somebody for touching that ass. And then at the end, another scene pulled from real life, which is of my grandmother saying, “Look at your ass.” It goes back to a common kind of black girl experience, or like an inside joke for black and brown people—these ordinary experiences that people who aren’t black can still appreciate.

What was the most challenging thing for you in writing this collection?

I think the hardest part was absorbing that something could happen to a loved one or to me, and there wouldn’t even be a ripple on the surface. I didn’t have any expectations that George Zimmerman would be held accountable, but when the verdict came out, it was like nobody was mincing words anymore: black lives are disposable, the end. There is this lived reality every day of feeling afraid of a cop, or that you yourself could be in your house, but if someone in your family is out, someone you love—that could be it. They’re a hashtag, that quick. The poetry was an attempt to articulate and understand what was going on, but living that reality was the hardest part.