“Tristan Strong Keeps Punching” Burns Bright and High

“Tristan Strong Keeps Punching" Burns Bright and High

While attending a family reunion in New Orleans, Tristan Strong is also doing his best to find his scattered friends from Alke who were brought into the real world. However, friends are not the only things that came from Alke.

When Tristan has an unexpected run-in with Alke’s oldest foe, King Cotton, Tristan pursues him and discovers a nefarious plot involving haints and departed spirits of the past. Now, Tristan must rally gods and heroes and new allies in the real world in order to defeat King Cotton once and for all.

One of the most notable things about Tristan Strong Keeps Punching is how it skillfully bridges the fictional world of Alke with the real world. Given that the folk heroes, gods, and other Alkeans now have their world literally stitched together with the real world, it is both fun and educational to see how they have been affected. This is especially notable because of the connections to the past and present that certain Alke characters and certain real-world inspired characters have. For example, there are the USCT, the United States Colored Troops, a group of soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The spirits of these soldiers not only serve as one of many guides to Tristan, they also have a surprising link to one of the Alkean folk heroes.

In fact, having the Alkean characters brought into the real world also allows for teachable historical and modern moments that aren’t sugarcoated for its younger audience. Instead, they say, “Look closer at the complicated world you’re living in, see its ugly racist roots, and then build something better.” Lessons like this often involve Tristan coming to a realization after using his powers to learn the untold stories of cities and places like New Orleans, Louisana, and Vicksburg, Tennessee. On the modern side of things, Tristan also encounters certain human individuals who are just as bad as King Cotton due to their desire to “discipline” Black kids by kidnapping them and stripping them of their spirits.

It is delightful to see how some of the Alkeans manage to adapt to the real world despite everything going on. A really cool facet of this is a group of children who form the skateboarding group called Rolling Thunder, partially as a refuge. With a new character, Grannie Z, watching over them and Thandiwe (the princess of Alke’s Isihlangu region) leading them, they are a pretty resolute and exciting bunch. There is also the contemporary version of High John’s spirit bird, Old Familiar, which has a coolness similar to Alke’s Story Box becoming a high-tech cell phone.

Both the past and present of the real world and the Alkeans allow for a variety of Black experiences to be shown in this novel. Moreover, these experiences are summed up in a beautiful allegory, “Black is a rainbow.” Black joy and Black pain are shown to be neither worse nor better than the other, but experiences that are connected and worth acknowledging. Despite the pain and hardship that Black people have experienced and continue to experience, we are also capable of fighting for and making our own Black joy. In fact, the character Gum Baby is probably one of the best embodiments of this, as she can literally fight and laugh at the same time.

In order for Tristan to fight for the past and present properly, he undergoes brilliant character development when he slowly confronts his anger in full. In the first book, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, Tristan’s anger is part of the grief he experiences after losing his best friend, Eddie. Now, Tristan’s anger isn’t just personal; it is felt by the entire community of Alkeans and amplified through their losses and untold stories. Since Tristan is an Ananseem, the anger of the Alkeans becomes his and manifests in a literal fire that Tristan must learn to control.

Given that the world often considers angry Black people to be threats, seeing Tristan learn to acknowledge and harness that anger is wonderful. Tristan puts it best when he says, “Anger uncontrolled is chaotic; anger given purpose is a tool.” Tristan shows that anger is multifaceted and a necessary emotion, because anger can fuel the desire to set wrong things right.

Not only is this book filled with amazing characters, real-life facts, and magic, but it is also a testament to resilience, surviving, and thriving. Tristan Strong Keeps Punching is an epic conclusion to the tale of Tristan Strong, burning bright and high.


The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Take Away: How a Renovation in Cuba Connected Me to My Chinese and Cuban Heritages

Take Away

How a Renovation in Cuba Connected Me to My Chinese and Cuban Heritages


by Katarina Wong

It was the tiles that clinched the deal.


My apartment search in Havana had grown cold, and I’d just about given up when the realtor called.

“A new listing just came on the market that I think you’d like,” she said.

We hoofed it up four long flights to the top floor and entered a living room with fourteen-foot ceilings and balconies that opened up to a spectacular view. It spanned from the Capitólio, a near-identical replica of the U.S. Capitol building, across the lush green treetops of the Granma Memorial and out to the malecón, the famous sea wall that marked the edge of the island.

But it was the cement tiles that ran the length of the space like an ornate rug that caught my imagination. Original to the building, one pattern of interlocking brick red, forest green, and ochre delineated the living room from the rest of the apartment, while a different configuration filled the other rooms. I thought about how generations of daily lives had polished them to a silky shine.

It was January 2015, only a few weeks after President Obama announced a reopening of relations between the United States and Cuba. The optimism this announcement ushered in was unprecedented, and I wanted to be part of what I hoped would be a new chapter for Cuba. I wondered too if I might find the next act of my story. I hoped to better understand my Cuban roots and maybe even find my place here—literally and figuratively.

This curiosity was sparked by a long-held feeling that I was a cultural imposter. Despite having visited my mother’s family in Cuba dozens of times—the first as a child in 1979 during the Cold War—I felt like the lite version of my Cuban relatives who lived in Miami, lacking any real sabor and sweetened artificially. English was my native language, not Spanish; I grew up in Florida, but not in the Cuban ex-pat community full of its rituals and large family gatherings; I never had a quinceañera, nor did I know who the Three Kings were until I was long past the age when I could expect gifts from them.

So, after all of these years, I found myself standing on the tile floors of a nearly century-old building in Habana Vieja, the oldest part of Havana, saying yes to the purchase.

Even though the apartment appeared solid to me, my contractor advised me to do a complete renovation and correct any underlying problems. He stripped the cement ceiling and walls down to the metal beams and fixed hidden leaks, upgraded the plumbing, and ran new wiring. I also changed the floor plan to make it more open and welcoming, but one thing I didn’t touch was the original floor. In redoing the bathroom, however, I learned my contractor needed to remove the ceramic tile floor to rerun plumbing lines. It was an opportunity for me to lay a new one, and I wanted cement tiles to complement the rest of the apartment. Like most supplies in Cuba, the challenge was where to find them.

Cuban tiles—referred to losas hidráulicas or mosaicos—were first brought from Spain in the late 1800s, and although Cuba became home to the largest manufacturer of cement tiles in the world within a few decades, by 2015 all of those factories had disappeared. Thanks to a Canadian acquaintance who was in the midst of renovations himself, I eventually found the lone fabricator of losas hidráulicas in Havana.

Walking into the showroom was like seeing the greatest hits of Cuban flooring. I recognized many of the patterns on the large panels displayed on the walls. There were the fat-petaled daisies against a background of dusty pink I’d noticed in a friend’s home; medallion patterns from a nearby hotel; and even designs from my own apartment. For the bathroom floor, I settled on a black, gray, and white geometric pattern that complemented the white bathroom fixtures.

While there, I was invited to see how the tiles were made. The saleswoman led me down a narrow staircase to the workshop where an artisan was attaching a metal mold to a twenty-by-twenty-millimeter (about eight-by-eight-inch) cement slab. The mold was divided into sections, and he filled them with liquid cement colored with mineral pigments. When the pattern was complete, the tile would be put through a press, then soaked in water to set the colors. After drying, each was not only a handmade piece of art, but one with a lifespan. I learned that the hand-poured layer (about four millimeters thick) corresponded to about a century of wear and tear—of children growing into adults, of fiestas, of families expanding and contracting.

I also noticed a curious thing. When Cubans made similar home improvements, many opted for mass-produced ceramic tiles made in China instead of traditional cement tiles. I’m sure a big factor was cost. While a dollar per cement tile was a bargain for outsiders like me, a dollar represented one twenty-fifth of the average monthly pay in Cuba. I also wondered whether having shiny new tiles seemed more exciting than keeping the faded cement ones they were used to living with. Perhaps it was like an American updating an avocado-green 1970s kitchen with clean white subway tiles and stainless steel appliances. I understood the impulse, but it broke my heart to see old, historic tiles covered over.

Even on an island so cut off from outside goods, China’s inexpensive, expendable products had come ashore, and with them a business model that favors quantity over quality, desire over satisfaction. This disposability ran contrary to what my Chinese father had reminded my sisters and me about the longevity of that side of our inherited culture and the inventions that continued to reverberate hundreds, if not thousands, of years later.

As a child, he’d prompt us with bedtime recitations of the glory of our ancestors’ ingenuity.

“Who invented gunpowder?”

“The Chinese!” my sisters and I would say, a chorus of little voices chirping in unison.


“The Chinese!”


“The Chinese!”


“The Chinese!

The disparity between those mass-produced tiles and the history my father was so proud of stung as I tried to make sense of what was lasting and what was fleeting about my Cuban and Chinese cultural inheritances.

One evening back in New York, I had an epiphany. As I splayed out a carton that held my vegetable lo mein, I noticed the curious angles and cuts that, when folded, came together in a shape known the world over. Here was something designed to be disposable but that was still iconic. What if I juxtaposed Cuban tile patterns on them—not as cartons, but as flat surfaces. What new hybrid thing might emerge?

I ordered a sleeve of takeaway containers, pried off the metal handles, and laid several cartons flat. Using my arsenal of bamboo brushes, I painted a tile pattern from my Cuban apartment across them. I chose a rich yellow acrylic ink reminiscent of a shade called “wong” that was used only by Chinese emperors. This was also the surname given to my father when he immigrated to the United States in 1939 during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

My grandfather had entered the States illegally, so he couldn’t bring his son. Instead, he turned to a friend who was Chinese but had American citizenship. His friend, a Mr. Wong, sent for my father from Guangzhou, claiming him as his own. My father became part of a generation of “paper sons,” and although he was reunited with my grandfather, in the transaction our family name, “Liu,” was erased. This color—this “wong”— references both a royal privilege that lasted through dynasties and a part of my family’s identity that became disposable.

Take Away

by Katarina Wong

(click for full-size images, titles, and captions)

I called my hybrid pieces the “Take Away” series. Sometimes I would scramble the tile pattern, as in “Take Away (Landscape),” which was inspired by misty Chinese scroll paintings, or I’d cut through the cartons, letting the negative space create the image.

Eventually, I wanted to translate these pieces into a medium similar to cement tiles. Porcelain was a natural choice. It is unexpectedly durable, and porcelains play a prominent role throughout Chinese art history. In “Take Away (Runner),” for example, I glazed the Cuban tile pattern purposefully askew across a grid of carton-shaped porcelain tiles, resembling a puzzle that is either coming together or falling apart.

My “Take Away” series ultimately was inspired by a longing for home—a physical one and one I carry in my heart—a way of merging what’s transitory with what endures. My father is no longer here, but my memories of him, stories from his childhood, his pride in his culture, are contained in every brushstroke. These pieces also hold my mother’s stories, my relationships with friends and family in Cuba, and the feeling of walking across the cool tiles in my Havana apartment—floors that stretch across time, back to the building’s beginning in 1928, to the present, and then into the future, where I hope more generations will play, grow, love, and create on them.


Jareen Imam author photo

About the Maker

I’m an artist and writer based in New York City. Through my arts practice, I merge disparate aspects of my Cuban, Chinese, and American cultures. As a first-generation American, I’ve never felt fully claimed by any of these cultures, and my work is a way of reconciliation and reclamation. I use a variety of media, including installation, drawing, painting, and porcelain, and create work that merges iconography and meaning from my diverse cultures. My artwork has been shown nationally and internationally, including at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C.; the Chinese American Museum and California African Art Museum, both in LA as part of the 2017 Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative; El Museo Del Barrio and The Bronx Museum, both in New York City; The Fowler Museum in LA; the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden; Fundacíon Canal in Madrid, Spain; and the Coral Gables Art Museum in Miami. I’ve received numerous grants and awards including the Cintas Fellowship for Cuban and Cuban-American artists and a Pollock-Krasner grant, as well as residencies at Skowhegan; Ucross Foundation; Ragdale Foundation; the Kunstlerhaus in Salzberg, Austria; and the Open Art Residency in Eretria, Greece. My work is in numerous private and public collections including the Scottsdale Museum of Art and the Frost Art Museum in Miami, FL. In addition to my visual arts practice, I write about immigration and Cuba issues, including Cuban artists, as well as professional development articles for artists. I’ve written for The New York Daily News, The Miami Herald, Entrepreneur, the Art Business Journal, and the Two Coats of Paint blogazine. My essay “Between the Lines: Messages from my Family in Cuba,” was included in the Bronx Memoir Anthology, Vol. 3 published in 2019. I am currently working on a memoir about my Cuban Chinese American heritages. I have an MFA from the University of Maryland, a Master of Theological Studies in Buddhism from the Harvard Divinity School, and a BA in Classics from St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD.

Photos courtesy Katarina Wong. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

“Tristan Strong Destroys the World” Is a Magical Tale of Intergenerational Trauma

“Tristan Strong Destroys the World” Is a Magical Tale of Intergenerational Trauma

Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Destroys the World begins one month after the events of the first book. Tristan Strong and the mythical world of Alke are traumatized—but their battles are far from over.

When folk hero John Henry is attacked by a mysterious enemy and Tristan’s grandmother is kidnapped, Tristan must journey to Alke once more to save what’s left of the realm before its stories are lost forever.

One of the things that immediately grabbed my attention about this novel is the fact that Tristan is traumatized by his previous adventures. He has nightmares and distracted thoughts even when he needs to go save the world of Alke again. This is compelling, because I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. In most sequels, the hero seems perfectly fine emotionally and is ready to tackle the next adventure. It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.

In addition, Tristan’s trauma allows him to better empathize with the residents of Alke, the world of beings from African and African American myths and folktales. Alke has literal scars and emotional ones, and things only get worse for it as the plot thickens. Yet there is also beauty, life, and history in Alke, and to see Tristan search for and attempt to protect those aspects of the world is poignant and emotional. By telling and collecting stories of Alke’s history, Tristan is able to put his skills as an “Ananseem” to good use in order to get to the heart of Alke’s current problems.

I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. … It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.

Part of Alke’s history lies within characters old and new. This second book in the Tristan Strong series sees the return of spunky doll Gum Baby and crafty trickster god Anansi (albeit in phone form), but it also introduces new characters like the mischievous and mouthy boy Junior. The introduction of new African and Black women characters in this book makes up for the lack of them in the first one. There is adventurous folk hero Keelboat Annie, resourceful juke joint owner Lady Night, and regal goddess Mami Wata. And I would be remiss to fail to note that Tristan’s grandmother, Nana, also has a larger role in this book as Tristan’s source of strength and inspiration.

Alke’s history consists of elements rooted in African American history and culture. These elements range from the painful and ugly to the lively and the resilient, embodied in everything from the new antagonist, DJ Culture Vulture, to the jollof rice served at Lady Night’s juke joint. A personal favorite of mine is the SPB, the portable smartphone version of Alke’s Story Box and the new home for trickster god Anansi. It was fun to see more of the phone in action after the events of the first book, especially through the new “Diaspor-app” that allows Tristan to see how Alke’s stories are connected to the Diapora.

Combining Alke’s history, Tristan’s trauma, and Alke’s current issues, Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. Whether it be through family, history, or a bit of both, many African Americans deal with intergenerational trauma in one way or other. Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.

Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. … Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.

Tristan Strong Destroys the World is a powerful sequel to its predecessor. There is more magic, action, and stories to learn from than ever before. If the ending is any indication, things are going to be even more epic in the next book of the trilogy. For now, though, readers who enjoyed Tristan Strong’s first adventure can join him once more and have their world rocked.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

“The Black Flamingo” Is an Electrifying, Poetic Declaration of Identity

“The Black Flamingo” Is an Electrifying, Poetic Declaration of Identity

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.

Seeing how different experiences shaped the development of Michael’s drag character, “The Black Flamingo,” was thought-provoking and poignant.

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.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels.


Poetry Month Spotlight: Jessica Mehta

Poetry Month Spotlight

Jessica Mehta

Artist Statement

I am a multi-award-winning poet, artist, and performance artist working at the intersection of mixed- and digital-media. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, much of my work focuses on space, place, and identity in post-Colonial America and often addresses the vast disparities faced by indigenous people today. Many of my projects also directly address issues that have impacted me personally, such as mass incarceration, alcoholism and drug addiction, homelessness, eating disorders, and the opioid epidemic. One example of this hyper-personal implementation is my curation of an anthology of poetry by incarcerated indigenous women. I am the only person in my family to never be incarcerated, and offering workshops in correctional facilities while providing these women with a platform for their voices was a project stemming from my own experiences of having family members trapped in the nation’s “justice” system.

In the business facet of my life, I own a small writing services company (MehtaFor) which specializes in creating search engine optimization (SEO) rich content. The emphasis of technology in my business life organically spread to my creative and research life in the past decade. Increasingly, I have been utilizing technology in my creative work, such as the creation of a virtual reality (VR) poetry experience with proprietary software that allows users to immerse themselves in indigenous poetry in new, intimate ways.

My interest in VR partially stems from research from the University of Barcelona that suggests embodiment in VR has the capacity to permanently increase a person’s understanding, empathy, and compassion—my hope is that non-Native users who experience poetry in VR may undergo similar results. I also offer poetry in other non-traditional formats, such as in performance art with elements of shibari rope tying using customized measuring tapes to draw attention to eating disorders. Eating disorders are the deadliest, most under-insured, and most under-diagnosed of any mental disorder, and are especially under-treated in non-white communities.

Indigenous audiences are a natural fit for my work, but I know that those who might benefit the most are non-Native. I consider myself an artist and writer first, but hope to also serve as a source to help encourage knowledge-sharing, the opening of discourse, and information exchange beyond indigenous communities. I am constantly working towards making poetry, art, and technology as accessible and engaging as possible. Unfortunately, poetry is often seen as the literature genre which is the most elite, dry, and boring—even though this, of course, is not true. By introducing poetry to audiences in different formats, I aim to create a welcoming opportunity to experience the genre.

For more information on my art, background, and projects, please visit my site at www.jessicamehta.com.

Do You See the Stars?

This is waking up. Remember
when you pressed your thumbs,
thick and unforgiving,
into my eye sockets? Slow as death
until I caved
to the dizzy and you whispered,
accent sticky, dripping in rose syrup,

Do you see the stars?

And I did. They burst in the darkness like kisses.
This city has a heart, fluttering
crazed and drunken as a beast, hands
itchy and always wanting, wanting
and a mouth with hunger so palpable
I gave myself in an instant. I was new,
damp when I came here, ridiculous
as one of those puppy mill survivors

too petrified to take a single step from the cage
into green grass and sunshine. I stumbled,
but for the stars.

I risked it all for you
because it was home, because it was you,
the cage I left behind, dank and cloying
and so sadly, pathetically familiar. It was a husk,
forgotten like nightmares and used to be’s,

but it was all I’d ever known.

Pulitzer Prize Pig

Pulitzer Prize Pig spoke of what it means
to be ***** as a ***** man with a look
the look      that look
women were born knowing
how to read. I knew
that look      the look
at fifteen when the AP teacher crouched
beside my desk in the dark
while flashes of syphilis
and gonorrhea shuddered
across the projector screen. (Still, even now,
I hear the tired clicking of the tapes).
I knew the look, saw      a look,
at eleven when grown men whistled
at my unfolding hips and high
school boys rolled Corollas
along middle school parking lots
with eyes that spider-scurried
pressed breasts. And I knew, I saw
that look,      his look
at four. In the bathtub, I learned shame—
I shot my father
in the eye with a plastic alligator squirt
gun and never bathed with open doors again.
Pulitzer Prize Pig sidled up close, nosed for nipple
drinkers and sniffed out my slop. Trough walls
are low, but sticky, slick beside stys,
and boars are happy with scraps.

I Thought You Were Praying

Through the deserts outside Al Ain, the baby
sucking like a beast at your breast,
mosques gave way to dunes
and the oiled street workers to palms.
Beyond the camels,
past the tribesmen,
we didn’t stop until we were away from it all—
the malls with their ungodly air conditioning,
the fat children making loud love to their sweets,
the fat wives engorged in their abayas, rolling
like sun-swollen beetles through the shops.
In ballet flats and the jeans that hugged my ass
like a fetish, I climbed the dunes as if I belonged,
while beautiful golden men in glorious keffiyehs
honked safely from the highway. And I,
staggering like a drunk
as the sand clung begging and desperate,
my cuckolded lover to my perfect white feet,
mounted the crest, dropped to my knees,
ready and eager as a whore,
to fill a mason jar with contraband. And you,
nipples burnished as the sand, laughed,
I thought you were praying.

About Jessica Mehta

Jessica (Tyner) Mehta is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, multi-award-winning poet, and author of over one dozen books. Place, space, and personal ancestry inform much of her work. She’s also the Editor-in-Chief of Crab Creek Review and owner of an award-winning small business. MehtaFor is a writing services company that offers pro bono services to Native Americans and indigenous-serving non-profits.

Jessica integrates technology, archival photos, and performance art into many of her creative projects. “Red/Act” is a pop-up virtual reality poetry experience made with proprietary software. It aims to introduce more people to poetry, and specifically indigenous poetry, through a uniquely immersive encounter. Her “emBODY poetry” performance series features experimental poetry on nude form while incorporating shibari rope work to address topics on body image and eating disorders.

Her novel The Wrong Kind of Indian won gold at the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) and at the American Book Fest Best Book. Jessica has also received numerous fellowships in recent years, including the Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington and the Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship at The British Library in London. Jessica is a popular speaker and panelist, featured recently at events such as the US State Department’s National Poetry Month event, “Poets as Cultural Emissaries: A Conversation with Women Writers,” as well as the “Women’s Transatlantic Prison Activism Since 1960” symposium at Oxford University.

She has undertaken poetry residencies around the globe including at Hosking Houses Trust with an appointment at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, Paris Lit Up in France, and at the Crazy Horse Memorial and museum in South Dakota. Her work has been featured at galleries and exhibitions around the world, including IA&A Hillyer in Washington DC, The Emergency Gallery in Sweden, and Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico.

Jessica is also an experienced registered yoga instructor (ERYT-500®), registered children’s yoga teacher (RCYT®), certified Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider (YACEP®), and NASM-certified personal trainer (CPT). She’s the founder of the Get it Ohm! karma yoga and strength movement, which offers free classes to groups that don’t have access to traditional yoga studios and/or don’t feel comfortable in such environments.

Learn more at www.jessicamehta.com or find Jessica on Twitter and Instagram @bookscatsyoga.


National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.

Where Stillness and Resistance Have a Form

Poetry Month Spotlight

Kimberly Blaeser on the work of Lance Henson

Expatriate Cheyenne writer Lance Henson’s new work in Dead Zone et autres textes has the same powerful slight lines, imagistic suggestiveness, and resistance vision of his earlier work.

The poem “secret” claims the kind of revelation I have always discovered in Henson’s work: “the half blindness that allowed you to see further / words forged in motions” (24). The back cover text “places” Henson and his stance with this description:

somewhere between rage and freedom
I am sitting in the ashes of a dream
singing. . .

Finally, one of unnamed poems in the collection offers the kind of straight-forward societal indictment that also characterizes his work:

no longer a theme park
now a killing field
if you are
………………the other. . . . (54)

A member of the Cheyenne Dog Soldier Warrior Society, veteran, Native American activist, AIM member, and member of the Native American Church, Henson also holds an MFA from University of Tulsa and has worked as poet-in-residence in over 800 schools in the United States and Europe. Since his first volume of poetry, Keeper of Arms, was released in 1971, he has published twenty-eight chapbooks or volumes of poetry which have been translated into twenty-five languages.

Throughout his oeuvre, Henson presents his sparse uninflected poems in lower case, without capitalization, and with ellipses as his main form of punctuation. His poems often weave together images of the external landscapes with spiritual terrain reflecting on their porous interconnections. They also offer commentary on historical and contemporary failings of the U.S. government and on the broader capitalistic colonizing forces at work in the world. Henson’s comments in “The Whirlwind is a Mirror” shed light on his aesthetic when he claims, “All poems are prayers when they work,” and “Poetry is revolutionary. It must be to survive.” About his preference for the short poem, he notes: “I think brevity is one way to acknowledge strength and one way to acknowledge and pay homage to the Great Silence we came out of.” Indeed, Henson’s poetry may be crafted to a large extent of prayer, revolution, and great silences.

A poem like “strong heart song” that gives title to his 1997 collection Strong Heart Song: Lines From a Revolutionary Text seems to contain all of these elements:

nadors do mi uts e mghon bach ni tseheskotseo

i will walk on the ashes of the earth
singing (iii)

By opening the poem first in Cheyenne, the bilingual Henson enacts a revolutionary response to the colonization of language. Then, with the phrase “the ashes of earth” he implies something about the fleetingness of physical reality and perhaps offers a warning about the inevitable destructive effects of contemporary human actions. Still the poet will proceed “singing,” which in the larger context of Native ceremonial tradition is often the equivalent of prayer. Both verbally and visually the poem is small — much is left unspoken; much is contained in the implied silence.

Perhaps the finest gesture in Henson to silence comes in the poem “celebration” which opens with “cold light / at the edge / of words” and closes with this word picture:

in a portrait
a woman is
holding her

catching the
snow (Selected Poems, 10).

The poem accumulates meaning from the idea of an artist’s creating a picture/portrait, the vision of the woman “catching” snow (or perhaps manna), and the idea of her making of herself a vessel — attempting to gather or hold that which will only melt as snow or dissipate as fleeting knowledge. Such, of course, is always the poets’ futile quest, particularly in the light of injustice.

It is as well Henson’s quest in Dead Zone. In the poem “Kofi,” he recognizes that Sisyphus-like task of poets to build with language even as we already acknowledge its inadequacy:

now your words have entered
a frontier known only to poets
in our collective
of the wind. . . . (70)

In this new book, as in all that came before, the success of Henson’s poetry stems partly from its eloquent portrait of its own fleeting reality.

About Kimberly Blaeser

Kimberly Blaeser, writer, photographer, and scholar, is the author of three poetry collections—most recently Apprenticed to Justice; and editor of Traces in Blood, Bone, and Stone: Contemporary Ojibwe Poetry. She served as Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2015-16. Blaeser is Anishinaabe and grew up on White Earth Reservation. A Professor of English and Indigenous Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, Blaeser is also on faculty for the Institute of American Indian Arts low residency MFA program in Santa Fe. Her photographs, picto-poems, and ekphrastic poetry have been featured in various venues including the exhibits “Ancient Light” and “Visualizing Sovereignty.” Her fourth collection of poetry, Copper Yearning, will be published by Holy Cow! Press in fall 2019.

National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month — Break Poetry Open

For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like... the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.