An old shotgun secures
the back end of their closet.
A father-in-law thought it made sense
to give it to the couple living in Texas,
his son married to a Black girl.
Pregnant and growing, a wife
cups her unborn baby, waves shift
from inside. She says, It isn’t loaded,
but it can be, and cocks it with one hand.
Man Picking Cotton
“No one wants to walk directly into pain.” – Jane Shore
I enter the museum and stop at a row of weathered photographs.
The description, Man Picking Cotton, assumes a long burlap sack
strung over wide shoulders and the heft of 300 pounds, and more,
of cotton can only be a man’s work because we must remember
the sun that has yellowed this still-life was also heavy that day.
Beyond the margin a man with a gun is counting to a number
then higher. Other men may have called this a necessity or
opportunity, or both because these bodies were made of labor.
Her tattered dress and matching headscarf carry more
than the hard-pressed black lettering can hold.
Austin, TX 2008
Nest of cars, yolk covered hoods, windows
shattered with rocks. A woman walks into a restaurant
to ask for help, to find the owners of the cars, warn them
paint will peel if egg isn’t washed off quickly. No one knows
anything. No one stops eating. A woman finds newspaper,
buys bottled water, cleans car after car, washing away
the broken bits that missed her head, flung from a truck
that roared take that, darkie as it passed her bus stop.
A few good words with Amanda
PDS: What role/power do you see black cultural history playing in the way you imagine your work? How does traumatic legacy inform your interests as a poet?
AJ: I’m always concerned with how trauma is introduced and might be triggering in my work. In this time of instant sharing and social media consumption, it is important that we pause and reflect on the work and wounds we open push forward. However, if the wound hasn’t been allowed time to heal, as our legacy is our present reality, we also cannot afford to look away. I try to write poems with their eyes and hearts open. Vulnerable lines that survive the page until they can thrive in the world.
PDS: In “Egg Wash,” after a woman inquires about who egged her car “No one knows / anything. No one stops eating.” How do you see yourself as a black poet, writing this poem about erasure, pushing up against that same silencing? How is writing itself a radical act?
AJ: I wrote this poem after it happened to my friend. I couldn’t believe how invisible she was in that moment except under the gaze of hate when a truck full of young white men and women drove by and threw eggs at her. I couldn’t believe how concerned she was for the stranger’s and their cars, who were oblivious to the incident and deaf to her call for help. Writing this poem was at the very least a testament to her. It was a small way to say I see you, I believe you, and I know this is still the black experience in America. Writing truth to power can be unpleasant and messy, but it is always necessary and we must be brave enough to do so. When we don’t, we have accepted the false narrative of our oppressors and their quiet gaze that cuts through us. This is not an option for me on or off the page.
PDS: What writers do you look to for deliverance? Who makes you feel free?
AJ: The list of writers is long, but Lucille Clifton, James Baldwin, Sharon Olds, Joy Harjo, Evie Shockley, Zora Neale Hurston, and Cornelius Eady are the writers I return to first when I need reminders of how to unapologetically write my truth.
Amanda Johnston earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine. Her poetry and interviews have appeared in numerous online and print publications, among them, Kinfolks Quarterly, Muzzle, Pluck! and the anthologies, Small Batch, di-ver-city and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. The recipient of multiple Artist Enrichment grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Christina Sergeyevna Award from the Austin International Poetry Festival, she is a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. Johnston has served on the board of directors for the National Women’s Alliance, the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, is a co-founder of Black Poets Speak Out, and founding executive director of Torch Literary Arts.