Sexy as F*ck: Interview with Poet JP Howard

“Anyone who has ever been in love, who has ever loved at all costs, who has been screwed over, who has screwed someone else over, who has forgiven themselves, or anyone who is still learning to love themselves will love this new project,” JP Howard tells me.

She’s talking about the debut of her new project at Lava's Night of Renegades this Saturday night, October 22, 2016, at 8pm, in Brooklyn, NY. The event brings together artists to share genre-bending works in progress: dance, theatre, comedy, music, puppetry, and more.

Poet and emerging essayist JP Howard has received fellowships from Cave Canem and Lambda Literary Foundation and is part of the VONA/Voices Writers of Color community. She also founded and nurtures the Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS), and her first collection, SAY/MIRROR, was a 2016 Lambda Literary Award Finalist.

Howard describes the upcoming solo performance piece as “a decades-long queer love letter (poem) to all the parts of myself,” and says it is “part of a larger conversation about what it means to be a black queer womyn and mother of two black sons, and how a complicated, sometimes scandalous past can sometimes, unexpectedly lead to a long-term committed queer partnership.”

I caught up with Howard before her big debut, and we talked about the inspiration for this project, and the powerful women’s writing community she leads.

Kristy Lin Billuni: Let’s begin with the piece you’re performing this weekend.

JP Howard: This project is a long-performance, queer love letter to myself, performed against a back-drop of photos of me over the decades.

KLB: Woohoo! I am all for self-love art, especially coming from queer women of color.

JPH: Ultimately, it’s a nod to the importance of self-love and self-care; writing and performing a long sexy love letter to oneself is my way of saying, "I'm here, I’ve had struggles and loves and disappointments and yet, at the end of day, I'm still here, I'm still sexy as f*ck. I’m still alive."  It's important to me to let all the parts of myself enter my poetry/performance, and this current piece is letting me do alla that!

KLB: Can you talk more about the inspiration?

JPH: My Diva Leo mom, Ruth King, passed away over 10 months ago. She was a well-known African American runway model in the 1950s, before I was born. I learned so much from her big, bold personality, and this expanded performance piece is spectacular in its embrace of my own inner Divaness. It allows the audience to realize that if we admit it, ultimately, we all have this sexy, fabulous Diva at our core. We just have to embrace her.

KLB: Say/ Mirror is stunning. Are you working on any new poetry?

JPH: Yes, I'm working on a collection of poetry that explores what it is to love, mourn, celebrate, and fear for our black youth. I'm the mom of two black sons (suns), ages 19 and 12, so this is both political and personal. The working title is "We Beautiful Black Boys." I’m also working on a collection of memoir essays/vignettes. I intend to explore other genres, as well, because as I recently heard from a writer I truly admire, Alexis De Veaux, there is no need to box ourselves into a specific genre. Hearing that from her was really empowering and has given me permission to explore genres I might have once felt I shouldn't try.

KLB: That can require a lot of courage for a writer. Do you get ever feel fearful about your work?

JPH: There's sometimes a little bit of fear after I've written a piece and pressed send/submit. Underneath, a small part of me is thinking, "Will this really resonate with someone else, this deep dark secret?" Over time, I've found the answer is usually yes, it will almost always resonate/speak to/touch someone, and so I just keep on writing.

KLB: That ‘keep on writing’ attitude is so vital, I think. How do you nurture yourself to be able to keep writing?

JPH: To quote Alexis De Veaux once again: "We make the spaces we long for." That's really my greatest indulgence, creating those spaces and keeping them going. As the founder and nurturer of Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, I've helped to fill my own need for an ongoing local writing community these past five-plus years. I've also been the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem and Lambda Literary Foundation, and am part of VONA/Voices Writers of Color community. All of these writing communities support and nurture my writing needs.  

KLB: Your salon sounds so dreamy to me. The video was a real inspiration. Can you talk about it a little more?

JPH: Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon is a Literary Salon based in NY, which nurtures and celebrates an intergenerational and diverse collective of womyn writers, especially, of all levels. There is a workshop component to it, so that insures that at least once a month, I am consistently producing new work with a community of diverse writers.

KLB: I think it’s great that you get so much out of this community yourself as a writer, when it’s so obviously a service to all the writers around you. I want to hear more about your writing process.

JPH: Sometimes my process is all over the place! I usually write mostly in the evenings, after my partner and son have gone to bed, since I work best when it's quiet.

KLB: Handwriting? Laptop?

JPH: I type much of my work on my laptop, but often during the day I will jot ideas down in a journal or even on my iPhone notes app.

KLB: How many drafts?

JPH: I revise multiple times, even when I'm convinced I've finished the last draft. I can return to a  piece months later and see where edits could help. Sometimes I'm like, J you have to just let it be! I definitely edit essays/memoir pieces more critically and exhaustively than I do with my poetry. It could be because it's a genre I'm still new to and super self-conscious about.

KLB: What about feedback?

JPH: I do periodically exchange work with others writers, either online through a writing group or in person, and this is a tremendous help to produce new work. Just knowing that someone or that a group of folks are expecting to see a new poem or a new piece is often incentive enough for me to write.

KLB: What’s most challenging for you about writing?

JPH: I would say my biggest challenge, when it comes to my writing, is trying to balance my full time job (which has nothing to do with my creative writing) with curating my salon, while also being present for my family. Like so many working artists and parents, I’m constantly trying to find ways to create more time for my writing.

KLB: Any other big challenges?

JPH: Expanding the genres I’m exploring is an exciting challenge right now. My new memoir nonfiction essay, "Goodbye, Mama" in the current, Issue 7 of Apogee Journal, went through many, many revisions, both before I submitted it and more after I submitted it. It was initially daunting, but ultimately, a really positive experience having journal editors provide constructive feedback and provide edit suggestions on such a personal piece. I got to talk a bit about the process of how I went from poetry to writing memoir in this Apogee interview.

KLB: Writing heroes?

JPH: Too many to list them all here, but for starters, my friend Vanessa Mártir totally inspires me! She is a fierce essayist, memoirist, educator, and single mama and has literally been publishing a personal essay every week of 2016! Check her blog and her essays on Huffington Post.

KLB: Vanessa blows me away. Who else do you love?

JPH: Poet, educator,  friend and one of my favorite Queer Black troublemakers, Cheryl Clarke, has a new collection of poetry out, By My Precise Haircut. I first discovered Cheryl's poetry over thirty years ago; her work remains relevant and powerful and I would definitely encourage folks to get a copy of her new book.

KLB: One more?

JPH: Writer, advocate, educator, and friend, Caits Meissner, has a new poetry collection, Let It Die Hungry, out from The Operating System, which is the same press that published my debut collection SAY/MIRROR last year. I just received a copy from our publisher and look forward to reading her long-awaited collection.

KLB: And you know I’m going to ask you about sex. Is writing sexy for you?

JPH: Oh, yes writing can definitely be sexy! There's that fine, fine, detailed attention one gives to the page, just as we would to a much-desired lover. We carefully inspect and adoringly place every word, stanza, paragraph, and punctuation mark, just as we might slowly and sensuously kiss every part of our beloved's body.

KLB: Wonderful. Anything else?

JPH: Yes, there is that slow, steady euphoric buildup leading to our final draft. Once we've devoted all this time and energy and then complete our writing, there is literally a high, a feeling of euphoria, and ultimately a sexy-ass release as we put our writing out into the world. So, yeah writing can be sexy.

I love to talk to writers like JP Howard about the process of writing. Follow JP on Facebook and Twitterbuy her book, and get yourself down to Lava on Saturday, 10/22/16 for her performance piece. To meet more writers in social media, follow me, The Sexy Grammarian, on Facebook or Twitter. Yearning to jump into the writer’s life yourself? My free ebook, Arouse Your Writer Self, will get you going. Want more? Private sessions with me are more affordable than you think, and the first one’s free.


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