CONVERSATION WITH JP HOWARD
SMALL ORANGE (ORANGE): In your book, Say/Mirror, you use such an impressive array of forms to discuss your personal history—namely, the ghazal and zuihitsu. Could you tell us a bit about the role that form plays in your work?
JP HOWARD (JPH): Thank you. I’m a big fan of using various forms, especially the ghazal and lately, I’ve been trying my hand at more zuihitsus. Generally forms, such as ghazals or tankas, allow me to tackle challenging subject matters in a very confined space; this helps me to really focus on a difficult issue or topic. Zuihitsu, on the other hand, gives me space to stretch out on the page. It’s a hybrid form that really appeals to me because it incorporates so many random and sometimes seemingly disconnected items. I am a huge fan of Kimiko Hahn and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, who are true zuihitsu experts. I’m still learning to explore this form; I love using family archival material in poems and the zuihitsu feels like the perfect form to allow a poet to dig deep. A zuihitsu is appealing because the poet can include random thoughts, journal entries, fragments of essays, letters, excerpts of poems, lines from authors, journal recipes, emails, texts, tweets and even snippets of conversations. It is a delicious melting poet.
ORANGE: You are a part of several writing communities in New York—Brooklyn Poets and Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS), to name a few. How does your work within these communities influence, or perhaps intersect with, your work as a poet?
JPH: I am curator of Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, a writing community in the New York area that meets monthly for workshops, readings and open mics. The Salon celebrates and brings together marginalized writers, many of us are people of color, queer and we are intergenerational. Brooklyn Poets gives so much back to writers in Brooklyn and I’m honored to be a BP Professor who will be teaching The Praise Poem Workshop this Spring and I’ve just recently joined their Board of Directors. These writing communities, along with other local writing communities, deeply influence and intersect with my work as a poet. I definitely thrive and grow as a writer and literary activist when I’m part of supportive writing communities. While I love teaching and facilitating writing workshops with community, I also get so much back from writing communities that sustain me. When new writers relocate to New York, I always suggest first finding writing communities that support and challenge them as writers. Many of the writing communities that I am a part of help to keep me accountable with writing goals and deadlines, push me to do better, provide invaluable feedback, and if I fall off-track, my writer-friends (including my NaPoMo Crew) help me to get back on track.
ORANGE: Say/Mirror focuses on a number of personal themes; specifically, you discuss your relationship with your mother. Tell us about how that relationship has influenced your poetry, and about some of the challenges, but also the joys, of writing directly about a parent’s role in your life.
JPH: Say/Mirror explores my relationship with my mother, including the challenges of growing up as the only child of a single mother, who was a successful runway/print model and true Diva, but who also struggled, at times, with depression and alcoholism when I was growing up. My mother loved me fiercely and was my biggest advocate; the book explores and documents our unique relationship. My Mom passed away a few years ago, soon after the first edition of the book was published and I’m grateful for the book as legacy now. We clearly each grew into our mother/daughter relationship over the years and reflecting back on Say/Mirror helped me realize that. One of the biggest challenges for me when Say/Mirror was accepted for publication was deciding whether to include poems that explored our “family secrets” (my mom’s depression and alcoholism especially). Ultimately those poems stayed and have generated powerful and honest conversations about relationships with parents.
ORANGE: Your poems are a powerful blend of memoir and verse, touching on your experiences as a mother, a daughter, a wife, an activist, etc. Given our political moment, why might memoir be an especially important tool for writers right now?
JPH: Memoir is an important tool for writers, especially now, as a way to document and speak out on a variety of topics. I am a big believer in speaking our truth, even when folks or perhaps especially when folks don’t want to hear it. Activism in writing can serve many purposes, it allows the writer to connect with a larger community and to maintain open dialogue on difficult yet necessary topics.
ORANGE: What advice would you give to writers who are struggling to find their voices while writing about personal experiences?
JPH: I would say to those writers be gentle with yourself. Give yourself permission to step away from the work/those difficult topics (it could be for a day or for a few weeks), but then return to it and document your unique story.
JP Howard’s debut poetry collection, SAY/MIRROR (The Operating System), was a 2016 Lambda Literary finalist. She is also the author of bury your love poems here (Belladonna*). JP is a 2019 featured author in Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools program. She was a Split this Rock Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism finalist and is featured in the Lesbian Poet Trading Card Series from Headmistress Press. JP was the recipient of a Lambda Literary Judith A. Markowitz Emerging Writer Award and has received fellowships and grants from Cave Canem, VONA, Lambda, Astraea and Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC). JP curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, a NY-based forum offering all writers, but especially women, a monthly venue to collaborate. JP is an Editor-at-Large at Mom Egg Review online and co-edited Sinister Wisdom Journal Black Lesbians--We Are the Revolution! (2018) Her poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Academy of American Poets, Anomaly, Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split this Rock, Muzzle Magazine, and The Best American Poetry Blog. Her poetry is widely anthologized. JP 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. Visit JP online at: http://www.jp-howard.com