Talkin’ About a Revolution: JP Howard on Raising Her Fist—and Queer Women’s Voices

We are living in the midst of an extraordinary renaissance of literary work by lesbian and queer women of color. Some of the most powerful literary productions are by queer women of color and by lesbians of color; they are winning top literary prizes, gaining recognition in and outside of LGBTQ communities and gathering new audiences of all ages, genders and sexual orientations. This current issue of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal—expertly curated by JP Howard and Amber Atiya, two extraordinary poets in their own right—reflects and celebrates that reality. This issue lifts up the voices of African-American lesbians for us all to hear, see and know.

Howard is a 2018 featured author in Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools program, was a 2017 Split this Rock Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism finalist, won a 2016 Lambda Literary Judith A. Markowitz Emerging Writer Award and has received fellowships and grants from Cave Canem, VONA, Lambda, Astraea and Brooklyn Arts Council.  Her 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*). Howard curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon and is an Editor-at-Large at Mom Egg Review online, and her work has been published by Academy of American Poets, Anomaly, Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split this Rock, Muzzle Magazine and The Best American Poetry Blog.

Sinister Wisdom 107: Black Lesbians—We Are the Revolution! gathers together new writing by an array of emerging and established black lesbian and queer women writers. I spoke with Howard about editing Sinister Wisdom and she provided fascinating insights into the process and intentions of both editors in putting together the issue.

I have been so excited to publish Sinister Wisdom 107: Black Lesbians—We Are the Revolution. How did you come to select this topic as the theme for the issue? And how did you select the title?

I selected the titled based on my favorite black lesbian poet/muse/activist/ and agitator Pat Parker, who once said: “The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution.” The goal of the issue was to create a revolution of words. Black lesbian writers were invited to document their unique, powerful and diverse voices. The theme was inspired directly by Parker’s quote; essentially a call to be our full selves, to show up on the page, to use our words and voices and artistic images to create a revolution.

This issue speaks powerfully to histories of African-American lesbians and also imagines various futures. Can you talk a little bit about why this issue in this particular political moment?

This issue, a call for black queer womyn to share our voices and our art is needed, especially during this current political moment where LGBTQ, POC and marginalized voices are constantly under attack. It is crucial, in fact necessary, to have literary spaces like Sinister Wisdom to raise our voices, lift our symbolic fists and say “We are here! We are not going anywhere. We refuse to be silenced.”

How did you make your selections for inclusion in this issue? What principles operated for you as an editor while working on this issue?

It was urgent to have diverse voices represented in this issue. It was a long collaborative process to make sure that we included a wide spectrum of voices. The most difficult task was narrowing down selections, as we had more submissions than we could accommodate in this issue. As an editor, I was looking for work that fit the call, work that was revolutionary, work that was original and inspirational, work that could agitate, work that was sexy, work that honored our black lesbian ancestors, work that was forward thinking, work that was magical, work that refused to be silenced.

Talk to me about the gorgeous cover art. How did you find the artists? What speaks to each of you about these images?

Akinfe Fatou’s cover art features a striking photo of Amadi Agbomah titled Liberation. Amber and I put out a call to both visual artists and black queer womyn writers for recommendations of black queer womyn artists. Akinfe is an amazing writer and visual artist and actually ended up doing a cover photo shoot with a number of pieces for us to consider for our cover. Amber and I immediately gravitated towards Liberation and knew almost immediately that this was our cover. It is FIYAH! We are forever grateful to Akinfe and Amadi for this powerful and revolutionary cover. Our stunning back cover art piece is by phenomenal artist/photographer Nye’ Lyn Tho. I actually discovered N’ye’s artwork/photos from Sinister Wisdom contributor, poet Arisa White, who curates the Beautiful Things Project. I remember seeing striking work by Nye’ Lyn Tho when she and Arisa collaborated in California and posted photos of their collaborative project. Those visuals stuck with me and I asked Arisa if she could put us in contact with the artist. The rest, as they say, is herstory.

Can you discuss one of the challenges you encountered working together? What was the challenge? How did or did you not resolve it?

I think a big challenge was coordinating our schedules and finding time to actually meet to discuss and narrow down our choices. Sometimes Amber and I literally stayed up until early morning hours collaborating online via shared google documents. If we had a disagreement about a piece we would advocate vigorously for “why” it should or should not be included and then we would organize in order of preference, the pieces that we were each most inclined to accept. Often we were able to come to a joint resolution and sometimes one of us would defer to the other if a persuasive argument was made for accepting or rejecting a piece. Mostly, this process worked for us over time. It was definitely a labor of love on both our parts and I am forever grateful to Amber for accepting my invite to co-edit this issue of Sinister Wisdom with me.

What are you most proud of in this issue?

I am most proud of the amazing diversity of voices and black lesbian/queer womyn represented throughout. We have contributors from around the world, with so many parts of the United States represented. Our contributors are intergenerational, with a phenomenal line-up of both emerging and established writers and artists included. It includes black queer womyn whose work I have admired for decades and also work of new writers and artists who I only first discovered through the submission process.

Tell me about your relationship to feminism and lesbian-feminism. Is your relationship to feminism and lesbian-feminism informed by your understand of race? How?

I discovered the powerful words of Pat Parker and Cheryl Clarke, black lesbian feminists, while at Barnard College in the mid-to-latter part of the 1980’s. Cheryl Clarke’s words from “New Notes on Lesbianism” still resonate with me, so many decades later. I think because that is around the same time that I came out of the closet, that the world lesbian still feels most natural to me when I describe myself. Clarke said: “I name myself ‘lesbian’ because this culture oppresses, silences, and destroys lesbians, even lesbians who do don’t call themselves ‘lesbians.’ I name myself ‘lesbian’ because I want to be visible to other black lesbians. I name myself ‘lesbian’ because I do not subscribe to predatory/institutionalized heterosexuality” is definitely something that has influenced how I walk through the world. However, I also am acutely aware that many lesbian-feminist spaces are overwhelmingly white and as a black lesbian/queer womyn in this world, unfortunately those spaces are often not welcoming to me nor do they consistently celebrate how I walk through the world.

What advice would you give to future guest editors?

Future editors should start as early as possible to gather submissions and begin reviewing work on a rolling basis, set clear time deadlines and tasks, perhaps mid-way through the process, they can reassess and chart out new priorities based on earlier deadlines. Also please make sure to celebrate the issue as you are putting it together, it’s a HUGE accomplishment!

Interested in Sinister Wisdom 107: Black Lesbians—We Are the Revolution? Order your copy here.

Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is a scholar and a poet. Her book manuscript, A Fine Bind, is a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2009. Her scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Cultures, Journal of Lesbian Studies, American Periodicals, WSQ and Frontiers. She is the author of four poetry collections—Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sisterhood and Handmade Love—and is editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker, which won the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry, and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry, which was a finalist for the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She edits and publishes Sinister Wisdom and is a book reviewer for the The Rumpus and Calyx. 

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