Poetry Contest: Poetry as Remembering/Reckoning with 2020 & Past Traumas
Open All April – Fee Free
Amanda Gorman inspired many on January 20th, with her inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb.” With her words, her performance and presence, and her radiance, she invoked past orators and poets, referenced the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and looked toward a collective future: “Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed / a nation that isn’t broken / but simply unfinished.” In his inauguration eve COVID memorial, President Biden said, “To heal, we must remember.”
2020 was a hell of a year. People have experienced traumas collective and personal; we have deepened our intimacies with each other, felt the divides deepen between ourselves and family, and learned new concepts like skin hunger and edging sorrow. For some of us, art has seen us through – for some of us, art has not been enough. Poetry cannot pay the rent or cover the groceries. A beautifully wrought line isn’t the same as holding someone’s hand or finger combing their hair. No words can make up for the systemic and structural negation of humanity or dignity or justice. But maybe, just maybe, opening spaces for language and imagery can let us see each other again – imagine proximity, touch, a held breath, inhabiting each other’s personal space limned with possibility.
At Brain Mill Press’s pop-up magazine for National Poetry Month, we’ll be sharing posts from poets & creatives that speak to the above theme, as well as inviting entries for our fee-free contest organized around the theme of Poetry as Remembering/Reckoning.
Please submit 1-3 poems of any form or style that speak to Remembering/Reckoning as a response to the traumas of 2020. Submissions will be reviewed for suitability by Brain Mill Press staff.
Those poets whose work is selected agree to grant Brain Mill Press the limited right to reproduce your piece on Voices. They retain all other rights to their work.
Poets’ submitted work and profile will be published on bmpvoices.com and promoted on our social media outlets. Your post will contain your headshot and bio, as well as information you may wish to include about recent work and your website and social media links.
Brain Mill Press strongly encourages submissions from people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ writers, First Nations writers, and disabled writers. Please direct inquiries not answered in this call to email@example.com.
Four times in April, the Brain Mill Press editors will select one or more submitted poems as the editors’ choice pick(s) for the week. Editors’ choice selections may choose any poetry title from the Brain Mill Press catalog for their prize. In early May, the editors will select a winning poem, and the poet will receive the full collection of Brain Mill Press poetry titles for themselves, as well as a second collection to gift to an organization of their choice.
As a Black Asian nonbinary queer femme from the United States, I find it fascinating to learn about what life is like for queer trans people of color around the world. Some countries have more queer freedom than others, but somehow international QTPOC always find a way to create a space to be themselves. This is exemplified in Dean Atta’s verse novel The Black Flamingo, which is heavily inspired by UK LGBTQ+ culture. It tells the story of Michael “Michalis” Angeli, a gay British young man with Greek Jamaican heritage. Growing up, his multifaceted identity makes him feel out of place. After deciding to attend a university in Brighton, Michael joins a drag club and slowly discovers how to combine his identities and his lived experiences to make himself feel whole.
One of the most notable aspects of this book that immediately drew me in was how it flawlessly combines standard poetry with narrative storytelling. As in Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, this book’s protagonist becomes a poet and gradually uses his poetry to express his blossoming sexuality as well as his gender and his racial experiences. One of my personal favorite poems in this book is titled “I Come From,” which features Michael reveling in his heritage and the experiences that have shaped him to that point: “I come from DIY that never got done. / I come from waiting by the phone for him to call. / I come from waving the white flag to loneliness. / I come from the rainbow flag and the Union Jack.”
The narrative storytelling in verse is also remarkable because it shows Michael’s life from childhood to early adulthood. I haven’t read too many coming-of-age verse novels that present the character at different stages of their life. This choice allows the reader to see how both small and large experiences shape Michael as he grows up. For example, Michael recalls wanting to have a Barbie doll as a child and how his mom initially thought he was kidding, since boys are socially conditioned to like “boys’ toys” like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In a more affecting episode, preteen Michael takes an Easter trip to Cyprus and hears about a black flamingo on the news.
In fact, seeing how different experiences shaped the development of Michael’s drag character, “The Black Flamingo,” was thought-provoking and poignant. Inspired by events such as having his dreadlocks touched by white people and reciting his poetry at an open mic, Michael’s becoming The Black Flamingo allows him to transform into a more confident and fuller self. The character also serves as the result of Michael’s growth as a person and how he has learned about, and unlearned, things like internalized racism and Black queer lives of the past and the present.
Furthermore, some of the experiences that influenced “The Black Flamingo” also give the reader an interesting glimpse into LGBTQ culture in the United Kingdom. The contrast between a gay bar and a Black queer gay bar, and the homophobia casually tossed around by schoolchildren with terms like “bwatty bwoy,” show how complex the experiences of Black queer UK youth are, especially those of the children of immigrants. Michael has to unlearn a lot, especially regarding gender norms and heteronormativity. Neither completely fertile nor arid, UK LGBTQ culture is represented as something that Black queer people must navigate well in order to grow into the people they want to be.
Michael’s story also gives the reader a solid introduction to drag culture, with clear and creative explanations of what it is and what it isn’t. Since Michael is new to drag culture, the reader is able to learn about it alongside him. I love these lines that sum up what Michael wants from drag culture: “I’m just a man and I want to wear a dress and makeup onstage…. I’m a man and I want to be a free one.”
While The Black Flamingo is enjoyable as-is, it would have been interesting to see what the Jamaican side of Michael’s family thought of his queerness. Michael doesn’t mention his queerness to them at all, since he knows it’s illegal to be gay in Jamaica and that his family might have brought some of that prejudice with them to the UK. It is entirely possible that some of Michael’s family will not accept him. Yet given how completely Michael’s Greek mom accepts his queerness, it would have been nice to see at least one member of Michael’s Jamaican family do the same.
On the whole, The Black Flamingo is an electrifying, poetic declaration of identity. Through poetry, coming-of-age perspectives, and drag, the novel offers a triumphant tale of transformation and self-expression.
When other people define you based on labels, it can be hard for you to define yourself. This is the conflict at the center of Julian Winters’s second novel, How To Be Remy Cameron. After being assigned an essay about who he is, seventeen-year-old Remy Cameron must come to terms with the labels others have given him and how they fit into how he sees himself.
For Remy, the most suffocating labels are the gay kid, the Black one, and the adopted child. Each label is a reminder of his Otherness, and confronting them via an essay that’s worth half his grade and a chance at a prestigious college is overwhelming—as it would be for anyone who has attended public high school. In fact, Remy feels so overwhelmed that he refers to the essay as “The Essay of Doom.
While dealing with this essay and the labels placed upon him, he also experiences two life-changing events. The first is learning about a previously unknown member of his biological family. The second is crushing on Ian Park, a Korean young man who recently came to terms with his orientation and isn’t publicly out. These events are notable not only in terms of character development but also because they deliver refreshing storytelling.
As a reader, I really appreciated how Remy isn’t completely cut off from his biological family. Given that the book’s premise is about identity and his adopted family is white, it would have felt uncomfortable not to see him interact with any other Black people besides one of his friends. The biological family member who reaches out to Remy is wonderfully fleshed out, becoming a nice confidante while being her own character. Furthermore, the topic of adoption is explored in a sensitive and realistic manner through Remy’s adopted family and his biological family.
When it comes to Ian Park, Remy’s crush and their subsequent romance is both amusing and heartwarming. A particularly enjoyable aspect of their interactions is how they always ask each other permission to kiss and touch each other. Remy learns to do this from Ian, who in turn learned the importance of consent from his grandmother. It’s really nice to see Remy adapt to Ian’s needs this way, especially since Ian isn’t publicly out yet. Remy never tries to get Ian to do anything before he is ready to, and this allows Ian to explore his orientation at his own pace.
In addition to these events, other aspects of the storyline help Remy question his identity further. One enjoyable scene is a conversation about music tastes between Remy and Brook, another Black student. It moves from talking about their favorite music artists to how eclectic their tastes are and how music doesn’t define them. The dialogue shows how close the two are as friends while giving Remy a small nudge in his personal journey.
Speaking of friendship, Remy’s interactions with his circle of friends are fun to watch. Featuring the witty Lucy Reyes and the single-minded Rio, among others, their dialogue never sounds forced or too cheesy. Remy and Lucy’s scenes together are especially amusing, because Lucy teases Remy in a way that is friendly and supportive. At one point, Remy must learn not to keep his friends in the dark too much, and it’s touching to see friendship and romance given an equal amount of weight.
Other notable characters include Remy’s adoptive family and his English teacher, Ms. Amos. Remy’s adoptive family is quirky and loving, with the mom into 80s music and the father able to make wicked French toast recipes. As the book progresses, both realize that while they can listen to Remy and try their best to cheer him up, they aren’t always going to be able to help him through certain things. Meanwhile, Remy’s English teacher is wonderful and honest in a way that puts things in perspective for Remy and encourages him to find his own voice.
All in all, How To Be Remy Cameron is a thoughtful, poignant, and fun coming-of-age experience. While self discovery isn’t always easy, Remy’s willingness to question and learn about himself is inspiring. With a great cast of characters, memorable dialogue, and a entertaining setting inspired by Dunwoody, GA, this book is wonderful.
Summer tends to be the most fun time for teen coming-of-age stories because some of the best ones take place outside of school. The movie High School Musical 2 and Claire Kann’s book Let’s Talk about Love immediately come to mind. Now, Julian Winters’s The Summer of Everything is adding a new story to the teen summer coming-of-age lexicon, one that takes place in Santa Monica in the fictional used bookstore Once Upon a Page.
Wesley Hudson is an eighteen-year-old Black gay comic book geek who planned to spend his entire summer working at Once Upon a Page and somehow confessing his feelings to his best friend and crush, Nico Alvarez. Adulthood looms in more ways than one, however: his father keeps asking about his plans for a college major, his brother, Leo, wants him to help with wedding planning, and Once Upon a Page is in danger of being bought out. Soon, all these issues pile up, and Wesley must learn to face adulthood head on.
One aspect of the book that immediately drew me in was Wesley Hudson’s internal voice. He sounds chill, anxious, and nerdy all at once due to the pressures of adulthood towering over him. A bit of internal dialogue that demonstrates this goes, “Frankly, Wes doesn’t know who he wants to be in five minutes. An influencer? A teacher? Alive after suffering through that last chapter of his mom’s book?” Wes’s voice is also evident in the various lists he makes to weigh his options and determine how much he likes someone or something. For example, his list titled “Five Things I Love the Most” has Once Upon a Page at number two. He calls the store his “safe place” where he doesn’t have any stress and can be himself.
In addition to Wesley himself, there is a wonderful cast of characters that play a role inside and outside of the bookstore. Wesley’s best friend and crush, Nico Alvarez, is a kind and compassionate skateboarder and a good foil to Wesley’s flaws. Ella Graham is a fat bestie with sarcastic wit who is something of a slacker. Kyra is a Black lesbian who organizes the events for the bookstore. Zay functions as a sort of music DJ for the bookstore. Lucas, one of the youngest bookstore workers, is a shy comic book lover. There are other notable characters, too, like Wes’s inscrutable older brother, Leo, but the main teen cast stands out due to their fun personalities and diverse queerness. They are a near perfect cast for a coming-of-age teen rom-com.
With the help of all the characters, Wesley eventually grows into a more mature and level-headed person. One notable aspect of Wes’s coming of age is how the book shows that it is impossible for anyone to be completely sure of what they what with their life by a certain age. There is pressure on teens and twentysomethings to have certain things done in a certain amount of time, such as going to college or having a particular amount of money in savings. As demonstrated by dialogue between Wes and Zay, kids of color feel an intense pressure to live up to their parents’ expectations. Although Wes’s personal circumstances can’t be applied to everyone, there are moments of uncertainty and lack of direction that will resonate with the reader.
Providing the backdrop for Wesley and the others is the bookstore and the Santa Monica area where the story takes place. Both places come to life through sights, tastes, and sound that will even make the most unfamiliar reader feel as if they are right there with Wesley and the others. As someone who has frequented big chain and some small chain bookstores, I found the bookstore interactions were realistic and enjoyable to read. There are stressed-out parents telling their kids to hurry up and pick a book, coworkers “canceling” each other’s music selections for the store, and tender one-on-one conversations.
A particularly endearing aspect of the character interactions is how no particular type of relationship is depicted as more important than the other. This is especially notable given that some teen rom-coms tend to make the romance the central focus of the plot. Wes does have a crush on his best friend, but he also has to work on being a good friend to Nico in the meantime. Furthermore, Wes has to make a relationship with his brother, Leo, work in order to get his help to try to save the bookstore while he helps plan Leo’s wedding. Meanwhile, the group interactions are just as hilarious and heartfelt outside the bookstore as they are inside it.
My only issue with the book is how unrealistic Wes’s living situation seems at times. Even though he does have friends and family who bring him food, has his own job, and can live alone unsupervised, it felt a little weird to not see his parents check up on him more often, even if they are working abroad. It would be more understandable if Wes were living on campus in college, but his having barely any adults around seemed unusual.
All in all, The Summer of Everything is a fun and heartfelt teen summer story. If you’re looking for a bookish, geeky, and queer teen summer novel, then this four-star book should more than satisfy your needs.
Julian Winters is a best-selling and award-winning author of contemporary young adult fiction. His novels Running with Lions (Duet, 2018) and How to Be Remy Cameron (Duet, 2019) received accolades for their positive depictions of diverse, relatable characters. A former management trainer, Julian currently lives outside of Atlanta where he can be found reading, being a self-proclaimed comic book geek, or watching the only two sports he can follow—volleyball and soccer.
Having a sense of self-worth is important for any LGBTQ+ person, but especially for queer trans people of color. Our race often means that we are ignored among the LGBTQ+ community, while our gender identity and sexual orientation get scorned or overlooked among allocishet people of color. To that end, it is often up to QTPOC to support each other and show each other that we are worthy of life, love, and happiness.
In Kacen Callender’s Felix After Ever, protagonist Felix Love is an artistic trans boy who wants to experience romantic love. When his pre-transition photos are leaked for the world to see, he must figure out the culprit while examining his own sense of self and what kind of love he deserves. Through his experiences with others, Felix Love must look at who and what should determine his self-worth.
One of the most notable things about this book is how it shows the harmful effect of transmisia on Felix’s self-worth. His father helped Felix transition, but he can’t bring himself to say Felix’s name. Ezra Patel, Felix’s best friend, is sensitive and understanding, but another “friend” is revealed to be trans exclusionary. In turn, the behavior of family and friends, and the experience of having his pre-transition photos displayed, make Felix feel he wouldn’t be enough for any lover. The dialogue and scenes combine with Felix’s internal thoughts to convey his pain, but they also motivate Felix to confront transmisia by holding his family and friends accountable.
In fact, Felix’s relationships with family and friends are notable for their joy as well as their pain. Felix’s friendship with Ezra is wonderful and complex, in that they have fun together but also have hard, honest discussions about their future and themselves. At one point, Felix and Ezra fight because Felix is projecting his insecurities onto Ezra. As a rebuttal, Ezra points this out without invalidating Felix’s feelings. They do all of this while examining Ezra’s class privilege as the child of wealthy parents and the pressure that Felix feels as a child of a working-class father. Their friendship is never depicted as perfect, nor as competitive, but as a relationship based on support, care, and honest communication.
Meanwhile, Felix’s father is a source of financial and emotional support, despite Felix’s issues with him. Given that Felix’s mom left them years ago, Felix and his dad must learn to make their relationship with each other work—not to mention Felix can’t quite let go of his mother, and he’s constantly drafting unsent emails to her. A particularly poignant bit of dialogue occurs when Felix and his dad discuss Felix’s mom and how some love can be unhealthy to hold on to when you’re getting less than you deserve. This conversation has an impact on Felix that stays with him when he undergoes his introspective journey.
Speaking of which, Felix’s internal journey is an emotional roller coaster. Prior to having his photos leaked, Felix was already feeling stressed because of interpersonal issues, his ongoing questioning about his gender identity, and feeling that he needs to prove himself by going to an elite university. Once things go south, Felix gets angry enough to pursue revenge against the person he assumes leaked his photos while dealing with online harassment in the aftermath. Yet his frustration also urges him to hold his loved ones accountable for their transmisia and seek answers about his gender identity via an in-person support group and online resources.
While some might find Felix unlikable for his revenge plan, his reaction is totally realistic, and his feelings are never invalidated—nor are they completely condoned. His revenge plan turns out to be less cut-and-dried than it first appears, and Felix must learn to channel his anger in a healthier way while holding himself accountable for any harm he causes. In this sense, Felix feels like a true-to-life character: he is neither perfect nor a completely bad person.
A final aspect of this book that was enjoyable is how Felix eventually uses visual art as catharsis for his newfound self-love. Art in any form has long been a refuge for QTPOC to express themselves, and to see Felix learn to take time for himself and literally draw his true self into existence is beautiful. If the book’s cover is any indication, Felix’s final portrait encompasses all that he is in his vibrant glory.
Despite some slow, suspense-building pacing, after the first hundred pages Felix After Ever is an engrossing coming-of-age novel that presents queer pride in all its complicated and powerful aspects. Readers will root for Felix as he learns that the love he deserves can be found inside himself, as well as outside himself among others who truly care for and respect him.
When I first learned about Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water and how it featured Black mermaids, I couldn’t help but think of mythology, especially the Yoruba orisha Yemaya and the water spirit Mami Wata. Depending on who you ask, some people interpret them as mermaids. I thought of them because I’ve wondered what a modern interpretation of a Black mermaid would be like. A Song Below Water managed to answer my question in a thought-provoking and touching way.
Tavia Phillips is a siren who must hide her powers in order to keep herself alive. Her best friend, Effie, is struggling with a painful past and strange happenings in the present. While they are trying to navigate their junior year of high school, a siren murder trial shakes Portland, Oregon, to the core. In the aftermath, Tavia and Effie must come together and come to terms with themselves.
One of the most notable aspects of this book is how it blends fantasy and reality almost seamlessly. Mythical creatures such as sirens, elokos, and gargoyles exist alongside humans, albeit not peacefully. Sirens (and other mythical creatures) have always been interpreted as an allegory for a dangerous woman, but this is especially noticeable when applied to a Black female protagonist. Tavia Phillips’s experiences as a Black female siren parallel what real Black women deal with every day, especially when it comes to police brutality. Not only are they considered dangerous for simply existing, but their voices are often silenced and dismissed when they try to speak up.
In fact, I found this book hard to read sometimes because it is a reminder of how difficult living can be for Black girls and women. Tavia is physically and emotionally scarred by a desperate attempt to get rid of her siren abilities as a child, while Effie is battling anxiety and nightmares as a result of a traumatic experience with mythical creatures. At one point, Effie even states, “Black and female and a siren is just layers upon layers of trauma. One time I said she’s [Tavia’s] too young to deal with this, and she said we don’t get to be.” Yet what kept me reading the book were the moments of joy that Tavia and Effie experience together and by themselves.
When it comes to Tavia and Effie’s friendship, they are close enough to be sisters. Sometimes I forgot that they weren’t related by blood because their interactions with each other were just as beautiful and memorable as those I’ve seen between real and fictional siblings. A particularly memorable scene is when Effie and Tavia are gushing over fan fiction written for Euphemia, the fictional mermaid who Effie plays at the Ren faire. Scenes like this show that despite the hardships they are dealing with, Effie and Tavia still create moments when they can enjoy their youth.
Tavia and Effie’s individual character development is just as powerful as their sisterhood. Over the course of the book, Tavia learns to embrace her siren abilities and use them as a force for change. The potential of her siren abilities is explored further as Tavia realizes just how powerful she can be. Meanwhile, Effie comes to terms with her past and learns that what’s “wrong” with her can be something that is wonderful, even when the world says otherwise. The mystery around Effie’s past and present keeps the plot intriguing and develops into a wonderful coming-of-age story.
As much as I appreciated many aspects of the book, there were a few I didn’t like. The lack of explanation for what an eloko was resulted in me doing my own research and doing my best to imagine what they looked like in my head. It might be difficult for other visual readers like myself to “see” what elokos are without a fuller description.
Another aspect of the story that made me a little uncomfortable is how Tavia uses spasmodic dysphonia as a cover story for her siren abilities, as well as how she sometimes uses American Sign Language when she can’t speak without exposing her siren abilities. Her use of ASL is understandable, but the author’s decision to have Tavia pretend to have what is a real muscle disorder is problematic from the point of view of disability advocacy.
It’s not clear whether A Song Below Water is a standalone or the first book in a series. Either way, it’s a compelling read. While the portrayal of police brutality and Black trauma doesn’t make the book easy to digest, the sisterhood and magic are major payoffs. A Song Below Water encourages Black girls to embrace their power, stick together, and never let themselves be silenced.