“Poetry is something you reach for when your normal language just won’t articulate what you’re feeling,” says poet Simone John, whose debut poetry collection, Testify, published by Octopus Books on August 1. For readers of James Baldwin, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Solmaz Sharif’s Look, and more, Testify is a collection of documentary poetry that navigates and interrogates the violence inflicted upon black lives every day in the United States. John spoke with Bustle about her poetry — her inspirations, her process, and the staggering violence she bore witness to in order to compile this collection — just before Testify was released.
UPDATE: Testify will be published by Octopus Books on August 11, 2017.
Testify grew out of John’s graduate studies — an MFA from Goddard College’s low-residency program. During one residency, she attended a workshop where students were asked to bring an artifact for inspiration: a news article, a family heirloom, something of significance.
“The Trayvon Martin trial was happening during the time of this residency, and I had been mulling over all the circumstances of his death since earlier that year,” says John. “I was interested in engaging with that in poetry, but it also felt unruly to me. I didn’t know how to do that without just drowning in it. So, I brought an article about Rachel Jeantel’s testimony — that seemed like a way into it for me.”
The first poems in Testify are inspired by — and sometimes taken directly from — the transcript of Jeantel’s testimony; a document that John transcribed herself, while watching Jeantel’s exchange with the Martin family lawyer. “That process was pretty brutal,” says John, “Watching and transcribing the bits of dialogue that felt like they could capture a larger moment, the dynamics that were playing out in that courtroom.”
John describes her encounters with the conversations that were happening around Jeantel’s testimony at that time. “I feel like white people did not know what to do with this young woman — saying she sounded ‘ghetto’, making assumptions about her educational background, calling her illiterate. Among black people, it also seems there was this class of people who were made very uncomfortable by hearing her speak AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and make all sorts of judgments about it — which is really a statement about the way black women get policed, the way their speech gets policed, the way their actions get policed. So, her testimony seemed a way into that case for me. I went into that workshop thinking: ‘maybe I’ll get a poem about this thing that I’ve been turning over in my mind’ and I left thinking there was a book. There was so much more I could do with this.”
That process was pretty brutal. Watching and transcribing the bits of dialogue that felt like they could capture a larger moment, the dynamics that were playing out in that courtroom.
The second section of Testify, titled Collateral, pivots to the Sandra Bland case and evolved from the already-existing transcript taken from the police dashboard-camera footage of Bland’s traffic stop. “The dialogue between them [Bland and her arresting officer] was incredibly tense. It’s just the two of them, on the page, without quotation marks, nothing contextualizing it, just their back-and-forth exchanges as they happened. To me, it looked like a very obvious power struggle,” John says. “It was so finite, but then it extended so far beyond that moment. It started with this petty-sounding exchange that was so obviously bullsh*t and this woman wasn’t going to back down. She wasn’t going to acquiesce and be compliant, and a power struggle ensued that had all these other reproductions. This was a snapshot, but we know how it ended. I worked with that transcript while knowing in the back of my mind that she ended up found dead in her cell — knowing that she was held over $500 bail. It’s atrocious that she could be held for that and ultimately wind up dead.”
I ask John if spending so much time in these documents — transcribing them, at times intimately navigating the last documented moments of someone’s life — impacted her personally or artistically, and how it informed her work. “It was really difficult,” she says. “When I wasn’t in residency I was traveling a lot. So, I was in London, I was in Guatemala, still doing my coursework. I’d be sitting in a café in Hackney with headphones on, watching and transcribing this courtroom testimony playing out across the ocean, crying. It was really brutal. But it also felt important.”
Traveling while writing Testify not only offered John a unique vantage point on the United States, but on herself as well — one that definitely resonates throughout the collection.
“I’m trying to put language to what it means to be living in a country — and to be deeply from a country — that does not value you. Traveling makes me deeply aware of how American I am. My entire origin story, I mean, it’s disrupted by slavery, but so much of it starts here. So, what does it mean to be of a place that does not value you and that does not value black life? A place that thinks you’re disposable. I had a moment to reflect on it all outside the context of how America thinks of black people. This country is very ahistorical; it doesn’t like to think about anything that happened in the past. There’s this narrative of the self-made man: we conquer, we’re always looking forward. But I think that the inability to look back creates a lot of problems.”
I’m trying to put language to what it means to be living in a country — and to be deeply from a country — that does not value you
Part of what Testify does, with the inclusion of official court and state documents, is critique the dialogue of routine encounters — highlighting the racial and gender-based assumptions that permeate even the most basic exchanges: between white people and black people, between cops and black men and women, between the media and the American public — all parts of a structure designed to enforce the status quo.
“I was reflecting on some of the conversations that were happening in the media that were just asinine: articles about what Rachel Jeantel wore, her earrings — seeing vitriol and ignorance reinforced. Or in Bland’s case, every time a new piece of information came out they’d return to the question of whether or not she committed suicide. That’s not the point. The point is that we live in a society where black life is disposable. Decontextualizing the transcripts, presenting things as they happened without manipulation is a way of forcing people to grapple with the thing as it is versus the thing and all of the dialogue happening around it.”
Testify also navigates stories that are less-told (or left out of entirely) in mainstream media: those of missing black girls, of transgender women of color, of the uniquely gender-based violence that black women are at risk of — in contrast to assumption that men of color are always the victims of racialized police violence. It’s a conversation that came later in the writing of Testify, after an academic adviser asked John where all the women were in the collection.
“It was interesting to acknowledge that I myself — as a black woman and as a queer black woman — could be standing in my own blind spot. Part of Testify is me grappling with the ways that I am increasingly and uniquely vulnerable to violence as a black woman and as a queer person, in ways that are different from the ways that men of color are vulnerable. I think specifically about trans women, because that is something that feels personally significant to me. I spend a lot of time thinking about collective liberation, what it would look like if we were all free. I feel my own disposability so much more when I bear witness to the violence of trans women of color. I’m not safe if black trans women of color aren’t safe. You can’t talk about liberation if you’re not talking about liberating trans women of color too.”
It was interesting to acknowledge that I myself — as a black woman and as a queer black woman — could be standing in my own blind spot.
Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland aren’t the only victims of racialized violence that Testify recognizes, and John is intentional about naming the victims that appear throughout her collection, saying that often after she gives poetry readings, listeners will remark upon the number of victims they’d never heard of before.
“There’s so much more of this than what you know,” John says. “There are so many more people for whom this is their lived realty than what breaks through the surface of your news feed. These are not isolated incidents. We know two or three names of women who are victims of police violence, when actually women of color have been targeted for police violence — and sexualized police violence — for as long as men of color have. By trying to include as many names as possible, I’m also trying to indicate that this is not a thing that happens periodically. This is a natural output of the system we’ve created.”
Testify blurs the boundaries of the personal and the political, braiding the poet's own experiences and reflections with the types of information we’ve all heard in soundbites on the evening news. It’s a collection that will not only stay in your mind long after reading it, but in your body as well — in your heart, in your stomach, the sweat on your palms.
“Part of it, for me, is grappling with living in a world where the sort of stuff I’m writing about is possible,” she says. “Living in a country where it’s possible to record the police killing an unarmed black person and yet nothing happens. There’s the trauma of the incident — the killing of an unarmed black person — and then there’s the trauma of watching the gears shift, the system start to work, and things playing out exactly as you know they will, with an acquittal. While I was writing, I was aware of my own mortality as a young black person, aware of the mortality of my loved ones — my family, my friends, my community — and the idea that at any moment I could be on either side of it: I could be the person who is mourning a sibling or a parent or I could be the victim of it.”
While I was writing, I was aware of my own mortality as a young black person, aware of the mortality of my loved ones — my family, my friends, my community — and the idea that at any moment I could be on either side of it...
I ask John if she has a sense of what this country might be if there weren't an entire group of people constantly at risk, thinking about their own mortality — what the United States might look like if nearly half of us weren’t in danger of getting shot every day.
“We’re not the only country with a history of settler colonialism," she says. "We’re not the only country with a storied path, positioned on the wrong side of history. But other places, with varying degrees of effectiveness, have made attempts to reconcile that. You don’t go to Germany and see swastikas, because we can acknowledge that the Holocaust was an atrocity against humanity and that a society that can do that should be embarrassed. Whereas in the United States we have Confederate memorials, we have mascots that make fun of Indian massacres. There's a tastelessness to it that feels so specific. There's a cost to this, every single day, for your entire life. The reality has real ramifications. That reality could look different if we had different priorities, but we’re not even trying and we’re not even pretending to try. We’re not even mincing words — we just put young black men on trial for their own deaths and let the cops walk away.”
...in the United States we have Confederate memorials, we have mascots that make fun of Indian massacres. There's a tastelessness to it that feels so specific. There's a cost to this, every single day, for your entire life.
John also works as a teaching artist, bringing experiences of reading and writing poetry to youth outside the traditional educational setting—something, she thinks, could take steps towards changing the dynamics of racialized violence in this country.
“We need to be empowering young people, giving them tools to think creatively and come up with innovative solutions to problems — because we’re going to need some new ways to think about things if we’re going to get out of this mess,” she says. “Poetry is one way to do that. Poetry can create a counter-narrative. This moment we’re in right now is definitely happening, but there will be a time when we look back on it and I think we’ll need a people’s history about what’s going on. I think that poetry can have a really interesting, really unique ability to create that.”
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