Essential Summer Vacation Reads by Black Authors

Essential Summer Vacation Reads by Black Authors

Summer vacation equals plenty of reading time, and there are quite a few young adult books that capture the fun and chill vibes of summer.

Whether planning for a comic book convention, attending a music festival, or even saving the world, there are plenty of young adult books by Black authors that feature Black protagonists enjoying summer. If you or someone else in your life needs a new summertime read, then consider the following books.


Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

Tristan Strong is a twelve-year-old boy grieving the loss of his best friend, Eddie, and smarting from being defeated in his first boxing match. While visiting his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, he accidentally unleashes an evil haint and creates a hole between the real world and a magical world of African American folk heroes and West African gods. Now he must work together with them and undergo an epic quest to retrieve Anansi’s story box to save the world.

my review



Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

Olivia is an expert at falling in love and at being dumped. After the fallout from her last breakup has left her an outcast at school and at home, she’s determined to turn over a new leaf. A crush-free weekend at Farmland Music and Arts Festival with her best friend is just what she needs to get her mind off the senior year that awaits her.

Toni is one week away from starting college. Unsure about who she wants to become and still reeling in the wake of the loss of her musician-turned-roadie father, she’s heading back to the music festival that changed his life. When the two arrive at Farmland Music and Arts Festival, the last thing they expect is to realize that they’ll need to join forces in order to get what they’re searching for out of the weekend.


Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender 

Set just before Pride, 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.

my review




Right Where I Left You by Julian Winters

Isaac Martin is an Afro-Mexican gay comic book geek who has been looking forward to spending one last summer with his best friend, Diego Santoyo. The two of them were supposed to be attending Legends Con, the biggest pop culture convention in Georgia.

When Isaac misses his chance to buy passes, he ends up gradually getting closer to his crush, Davi, and getting to know Diego’s gamer friends instead. However, as the day of the biggest teen Pride event approaches, Isaac finds himself drifting farther apart from his best friend.

my review


If It Makes You Happy by Claire Kann

The summer before her fall semester at college, Winnie is happily spending her time at Misty Haven, working at her grandmother’s restaurant, Goldeen’s, and spending time with her ungirlfriend, Kara. 

When she is unexpectedly crowned Summer Queen at Misty Haven’s traditional matchmaking event, she is forced out of her comfort zone by the spotlight, obligations, and the heart-on-your-sleeves honesty of the Summer King. Now, Winnie must confront her fears in order to become the best version of herself.

my review

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 nappy

National Poetry Month Contest Winners 2023

National Poetry Month Contest Winner 2023

Sujash Purna

Picking a poem from so many poems shared during National Poetry Month is always so difficult—how to set something experimental and free-versed against a tight form and judge one “better” when they reach for such different things?

While selecting a group of poems was no easier this year, the pleasures of reading were multiplied by being able to engage with a group of poems from each poet: to trace their voices through several poems, see how the notion of cycle translated from one to the next, how a subject could be visited across forms (sometimes turned inside out) or explored in concentric layers of complexity. Thank you for sharing your work—you turned me inside out, made me look again and again at what you were pointing to: be it a hummingbird, or a spare portrait in words, or the tangled mythologies of culture complicated by list forms.

For the winning selection, Sujash Purna’s poems “You Poor” begin with bludgeon lines, tender lines, sequestered on a page of negative space. Of the four poems, the variety in forms move from that spareness to a discursive voice-driven plea where the line endings deliver with a power that insists on being read aloud. The repetition of “your” and the breaking of “your” fragment not only the imperative to speak, but the self who speaks. In the final poem, the strategies of the first three coalesce: spareness, space, repetition, and concrete detail to connect the earlier poems in the cycle to each other, and to connect more fully to the reader.

Other noteworthy poets sharing their poem groupings include:

Ellie Lamothe’s “A Funeral in March,” “If We’re Honest,” and “Litany”

J.F. Merifield’s “Portraits”

Devon Balwit’s “Notes on Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers [II-V]”​

—C. Kubasta, Editor, BMP Voices Poetry Month



“You Poor” Cycle by Sujash Purna


I’m never going to see my mom again

…………………………………………………………………………..I am too poor to do that


People in Missouri
don’t know who
I am anymore
People in Dhaka
don’t know who
I am anymore
People where I
am now
want to know

There Must Be Something Wrong

Visually nothing is aesthetic
It’s the lens they put on you
And tell you that this is how
You should look at this thing
That will neither make you
Happy nor circumvent your
Danger unless you tell your
-self yourself yourself your
Self to believe in the story
That they built based on
Your struggles, based on
Your sacrifices, based on
Your absences from your
Loved ones. Even the
Word love has become
Corrupt. It’s how they
Want you to feel. Not
How you feel. Because
If you feel that way
There must be something
Wrong. There must be
Something wrong. There
Must be something wrong.

Inductive Reasoning for a Family

glycerine drops


psoriasis-looking spots


your hair

a harsh sun

this master’s degree minimum wage job

that phd holder adjunct gig

two kids

two parents


health care

who cares?

you do


who cares?

you’re on your own now

you’re on your own now

you’re on your own now

You Poor III

I don’t write about flowers and lovers anymore

I write about shit that went out of control

Not the white people Babylon

Or American Hustle kind of coke-infused

Out of control


I write about being in a place

Where nobody wants you

Paycheck-to-paycheck immigrant

Renewal-to-renewal immigrant

Paying-double-the-tax immigrant


Taking nothing because

I should be already



Sujash Purna is a Bangladeshi poet and photographer based in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the author of Epidemic of Nostalgia‘ (Finishing Line Press), In Love with the Broken (Bottlecap Press), and Azans for the Infidel (Mouthfeel Press). His poetry has appeared in South Carolina Review, Hawai`i Pacific Review, Kansas City Voices, Poetry Salzburg Review, Gutter, Stonecoast Review, and others. His photography can be found on Instagram @poeticnomadic.

Short List


“A Funeral in March,” “If We’re Honest,” and “Litany” by Ellie Lamothe

A Funeral in March

I belong to the cold bones of winter.
Bare-skinned, barren, and remembering

the sound of your laugh like a funeral bell.
The sound of the boreal wind

whispering through the pines,
a wisdom for our children and their children,

and the ones they will love
without knowing why.

The gentle grief of living one evening to the next,
exchanging one ending for another.

I want to leave my brittle body behind,
become lost in the brume,

a spectre collecting light
and sadnesses leftover from years before.

Still, I am willing to endure.
I am willing to endure.

If We’re Honest

it’s a miracle that we come together at all,
that romance
is ever more than a formality
between two unreliable narrators of their own suffering.

We became accustomed to the taste of saltwater,
learned to perform that ritual
of kind pittances,
found a peculiar lightness

in clinging to the soft things.
My body, clumsy and pitted,
lingering in the cold sweat of your body.
Several vital organs missing

between the two of us.
You tell me your sadnesses in a voice
so sweet and perplexing,
I almost forget hunger

and the way it blooms
violet like a bruise along my jaw.
I almost forget to cherish
the way your throat opens up when you laugh.

Now everything we do is imaginary.
And I fear our love, too,
is just in our heads.
So I touch you to make it real,

and slowly,
to untangle the solemn etymology of desire,
and the terrible things
we endure out of loneliness

The terrible things we do to the people
we are trying to love.
You peel my clothes off in the dark room
and I let you.

But touching me becomes an unnatural thing
with our bones bleached.
The ceremonial undoing,
by some despondent architect of quiet endings


I am sitting cross legged on a pier,
bargaining with the stillness of the morning.
Having no one to mourn
my body as it acquiesces,
surrenders memory (even the dear ones),
becomes the fog hanging low over the lake.
I am thinking about things too bleak
for the morning
and the delicate charms of its first light.
The temporality of bliss
and the reasons I have been unkind.
I am learning there is nothing constant
but the wintering
and warming of desires,
how even ordinary wounds can fester.
I am learning about curiosity
and too, about hunger,
from the ruby-throated hummingbird
and her relentless need to move toward something.
A tender certainty.
The medicinal commonalities
between sugar water and song.
You don’t sing for me
and I begin to keep some of my sadnesses to myself.
Even then, I don’t pretend to love silence
the way you do.
So this is how it goes.
We suffer,
and we owe,
and we rejoice
in the delicate light of dawn,
in the surrendered memory,
in the hummingbird and her hunger.
And each day
we sit at the mouth of the lake
and recite our own litany of yearning.

Jareen Imam author photo

Ellie Lamothe is a poet living in K’jipuktuk (Halifax, NS) with her cat Arabella. She’s passionate about feminism, addressing gender-based violence, and engaging in community care through her role at a local women’s shelter. She loves going for walks with an iced matcha latte, being cozy, listening to Celtic music while she writes, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Her work has appeared in Glass: A Journal of Poetry (Poets Resist), Kissing Dynamite, Yes Poetry, and Ghost City Review, among others. You can follow her on Instagram @ellielamothe.

Short List


“Portraits” by J. F. Merifield

Portrait as Lost Calf

the barbed wire and dirt road sing
together of dust, of dry grass
tanning in the wind
on sun-swept
hills that roll away
from an unmulched garden
left to wild,
its nature becoming its own

Portrait as Hunger

the wind holds the hawk
above the ditch

no field mouse
nosing out just yet

the hunt afoot
all the same

a patient moment
an urge held

Portrait as Landscape Painting Titled: Night Flying Over Winter Mountains

the moon full

marbled mountains

and forest black.

squiggled lines
where light and dark


thirty-one thousand feet below.

Portrait as Impressionist Painting of the Seine River Bank Titled: Communique

my mind is a weighted hook
plunging through waves
of quells and quivers,
each distant image a one-piece
unshouldered one side at a time,
down to the hips for now,

factually speaking boats float
and “the sun always seems to be
your friend not mine,”
Guillemots sings,
so I count the waves
rolling on to shore,

warily we have spoken
of where the two meet,
saturating one another, these moments
fit us, as in exposing to each we see
there is thread tethered,
hooked at both ends.

J.F. Merifield, a poet living in northwest Montana with a Poetry M.F.A. from George Mason University, has poems published by Wild Roof Journal, High Shelf Press, Sheepshead Review, Cathexis Northwest Press, La Picciolette Barca, Neuro Logical, Verse, and Rust & Moth, among others.

Short List


“Notes on Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers [II-V]” by Devon Balwit

Notes on Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers [II]

1. What is it like to walk in the arrogance of one’s own beauty?

2. We lesser lights suspect mockery.

3. Coupled with the gift of prophesy and a diaphanous robe, it is too much.

4. Who could blame our plots and spite-dug pit,

5. our preference for small gods to one vaster than telling.

6. Our gods are amenable to thimble-sized offerings, atonements of human measure.

7. Why serve the ineffable, suffering blindness

8. when comfort can be found in the dark?

Notes on Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers [III]

The favorite son knows nothing
about jealousy, cannot imagine anyone
loving him less than he loves himself,

ignorant of how his very shadow sears
like coals, of how his dulcet voice
brays in our ears, or of the paths

we furrow in our dreams, each tracing
a different murder, a different exile,
a hoe against his skull, a shearing knife

to his testicles, eager for even one
of our father’s tears to vault
as a rich and much-awaited inheritance.

Notes on Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers [IV]

Do you love humankind? the angel asks.
What a question for even a favorite son to answer.
We love what loves us back, what is easy
to love, what passes the time. We usually smile
at one another, the boy says, the rest of humanity
and I. Despite near divinity, the angel smirks. How little
the lad has been thwarted. Later, much later,
the angel will ask again and receive a changed reply.
For now, he merely accompanies the boy
to the future, that doorway to heartbreak
through which every soul steps.

Schadenfreude: Notes on Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers [V]

The angels … were created in Our image, yet are not fruitful…[T]he beasts are fruitful, yet are not after Our likeness. We will create man—in the image of the angels, and yet fruitful!

1. Once again, creation disappoints.

2. The angels flutter a vast gloat.

3. Hadn’t they warned יהוה embodied souls could only blunder?

4. Even the cherubs suspected wombs would only gestate frustration.

5. Still, יהוה pursued his puny and petulant shadows.

6. Part of the problem, the favorite son observes the tutting echelons,

7. dazzled as they scintillate—uncountable gossiping mouths.

Jareen Imam author photo

Devon Balwit’s work appears in The Worcester Review, The Cincinnati Review, Tampa Review, Barrow Street, Rattle, Sierra Nevada Review, and Grist, among others. Her most recent collections are We Are Procession, Seismograph [Nixes Mate, 2017], Dog-Walking in the Shadow of Pyongyang [Nixes Mate Books, 2021] and Spirit Spout [Nixes Mate Books, 2023]. For more, visit

Editors’ Choice, Week 4


“Ekundayo (Daughter When You Read This…),” “Survivor Series,” “Pray for Me,” and “Inner Child” by Donnie Moreland

Ekundayo (Daughter, When You Read This…)


I’ll begin with a sermon on empty pill bottles,

a full tub and desperation.

I’ll begin with a confession — a lot of niggas don’t make it here.

I’ll begin with the ground beneath my daddy’s feet rotating like a crooked wheel,

keeping him in place but spreading him apart

like the black hole between my teeth and

each letter in the declaration, “I’m going to kill myself.”

I called him first.

I’ll begin with the semicolon on my right wrist.

I’ll begin as your father.

I’ll begin where Pa Pa refused to say your daddy’s name in the past tense.

You began because he refused our finale.

I’ll begin with his rebuttal.

I’ll begin with his love.

A love swollen between wounds and cures.

Fear and fire.

Gore and glory.

A love.


I’ll begin with love.

And somewhere along the way, we’ll figure out that joy part.

Survivor Series


My father used to wrestle me.

Pin me.

Raise my legs and count to three.


I laughed, in defeat.

Each holler covers the distance between the cosmos in creation.


We don’t talk much now.

I feel his hand on my shoulder when I wrestle my daughter  —   the pressure of falling onto a bed

or into birth  — and I turn to reverse his maneuver.

But he’s not there.

Just the marbled monument to a tag team comeback that never was.


We don’t talk much now.

But luckily, ghost stories don’t always belong to the dead.

Pray for Me


Say a little prayer for the boy.

For me.

For him.

And his men.

Say a little prayer for his father.

His father’s keeper.

And his keeper still.

Say a little prayer for the boy.

And if you can, say another.

Inner Child


I hope that boy inside you…

the one kicking his feet in the air, hollering at cartoon characters and

eating cotton candy in Crayola crayon castles,

picking his nose and

dirtying his pant legs while running shoeless

to the corner store…

I hope that boy still triumphs over his archnemesis.

I hope he’s still doing somersaults on wood chips

where the splinters jab deepest.

I hope that boy still pulls on fire alarms and opens closet doors to evil empires in need of a champion.

I hope that boy still throws himself down rolling hills, under a pink sunset and a white moon.

I hope that boy knows his golden grin is still heaven.

Jareen Imam author photo

Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Houston-based health educator and multidisciplinary artist. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree in Film Studies from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie’s work centers cultural healing, black masculinities, and film criticism. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, Brown Sugar Literary Magazine, RaceBaitr, Root Work Journal, A Gathering of the Tribes, Unmute Magazine, and Sage Group Publishing.

National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

As the pandemic has continued into its second year, we at Brain Mill are thinking about spaces & places: how we exist in space, the importance of access, and the particulars of navigating places. We have gathered together in ways that may have been new to us over the last few years, greeting each other in small squares of connectivity, developing relationship and care with virtual check-ins, follows, and voices translated via technology. In our best moments we have learned to listen; in our worst, we have been caught up by all the ways we need to do better and think more deeply about community systems and for whom entry is barred.

Jareen Imam author photo

About the Editor

C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. Her most recent book is the short story collection Abjectification. She supports her creative work as Director of Education at Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Find her at and follow her @CKubastathePoet

Top photo by Jill Burrow

Eintou and Atari: In Conversation

Eintou and Atari: In Conversation

by Jennifer Morales

I recently learned of an African American poetic form called the eintou from a substack post by writer, editor, and yogi Cosima Smith and it’s been talking to me since. An eintou is a 7-line poem with a specific number of syllables in each line: 2-4-6-8-6-4-2.

Smith offered this example:

The pearl
holding wisdom
spoken from the sweet tongues
Wet with Hunger, Red with Power,
of poets met in verse,
and verse alone,
is home.

—Cosima Smith

That reminded me of a form I invented in 2019, called atari—Japanese for “neighborhood” or “in the vicinity of,” or “the surroundings”—and introduced at one of the last in-person writing workshops I taught before the pandemic shut that kind of life down. The atari is 15 words forming two interconnected poetic lines, a verb joining them in the middle. Three words coming from the left and three words coming from the right develop two neighboring lines. The verb connects the lines in the middle, then they part again by way of four more words each.

Smith’s eintou example reminded me of the atari, with that strong middle line of wet hunger and red power cinching two ends of a poetic conversation (the “sweet tongues”, the “poets met in verse”).

Here are a couple of ataris I wrote for the 2023 National Poetry Month (I highlighted the two lines in different colors, for ease of noticing the structure, but color isn’t necessarily part of it).

I encourage you to write your own. Remember that the line descending from the left and the one from the right should be in conversation with each other. It can be helpful to come up with an evocative verb for that single middle position, then build out the two descending lines from there. Once composed, the poem’s two lines can be read however you’d like, but I see it as two lines running vertically, reading the left one first, top to bottom, then the right one, top to bottom.

And, yes, Gen Xers: I was indeed inspired to create this form by the blocky alien shapes of the 1978 video game Space Invaders. Once I learned what the word atari means in Japanese, the form basically created itself, as I reflected on how two neighboring lines can entangle, complicate, and enrich each other.

About Jennifer Morales

Jennifer Morales is the second-place winner of the 2020 Wisconsin People & Ideas Fiction Contest. She is a poet, fiction writer, and performance artist based in rural Wisconsin. Morales lived in Milwaukee for over twenty years, and served as the city’s first elected Latinx school board member. She’s also been a mom, a doula, a Sunday School teacher, a grantwriter, and an editor for academic and artistic clients around the world. Her short story collection, Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories (UW Press, 2015), was Wisconsin Center for the Book’s 2016 “Book of the Year.” Recent publications include “Cousins,” a short story in Milwaukee Noir  and “The Boy Without a Bike” in Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Morales is the president of the board of the Driftless Writing Center in Viroqua.

National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

Happy National Poetry Month! For poets and poetry lovers—and perhaps for those who love poets—this is a special time. At Brain Mill Press, we like to celebrate all month long by sharing featured poets, and with our fee-free contest. This year, we’re thinking about poetry cycles, poems that speak to each other, forms that build on each other (like crowns), and the ways a poem can be a scaffold or foundation for other poems. Our words are often in response to other poems, and our own body of work is often an ongoing conversation. We speak to each other, with ourselves, and sometimes into the void—hoping someone will answer back.


Top photo by bady abbas on Unsplash

Editors’ Pick Week 3: Poetry Cycle by Victoria Gransee

Editors' Pick, Week 3

Poetry Cycle by Victoria Gransee

Khakis Creased at the Altar


Pinches of a rosary, black breath muttering, and you’re not here.
Red knees to the floor, clammy palms clasped, and you’re not here.

Republics, homelands, houses and ceilings all fall.
I live in a tear habit looking for you, here but not quite here.

When looking for saviors, I turn to you last. You know this.
I speak first the name of my brother, but he’s not here.

I threaten you with temples, “pull me out and I will sing.”
It’s not a real promise; I know you are not here.

The woman in red tells me I am wrong to denounce what I have
not seen. I have seen trace in the trees, but certainly not here.

Nowhere I know resembles a church. No one I know resembles
a churchgoer or a god. I search for you alone, and you’re not here.

From the open window, the whistling wind has nothing to say
of my heretic vices. I blow out my candles. You’re still not here.



When imagining your face, all I see
is the furrowed brow of a brother
tossing years and years into half a suitcase
I think about your bruised ankles hitting
the bottom stair, you’re the rusty nail I remember

Oh, God, sitting on the windowsill, watching you wait for the train
You’re going home and that isn’t where
the burn marks are from, you’re thinking about covering
your scars
We share the same ones, you’re thinking about covering

I’m thinking about the streetlights you avoided, the black night shrouding
the set of your jaw
Glancing back, missing my vantage
point, our leather jackets

hung beside each other
Think about flailing, think about how it felt; a cliff and three feet of water
I want to sit on the roof, I wanna smoke again
I want to talk about death hanging between us; I never wanna talk again
This is the mercy of the Now, the horror of the Cycle.

Turn around, turn around, turn around
I wanna hear your footsteps, I want to feel the lack of sound from the creaky floorboards,
I miss dancing around them, hot pokers pressed to feet, I’m thinking about maman and her eyes
her prayers – Fear is divinity; God is a Poetic Device –
I’m thinking about those glittering balls

The family tree in the family jewels, we talk nonsense, we speak French
We drink champagne, we sip truth serum, we trip
on the back garden stair
and rupture our lips
and don’t speak for days




My little brother was born with a sea in his head,
haunting him at night, waves lapping the shore, a
steady drumbeat, white foam.

Come and find out.

I’d find him perched on the sailboat bed, sheets
clinging to him like hands, choking on the stuff,
and bring him down, clicking my tongue
“oh malen’kiy, where have you gone?”

He says, “I am half my maker’s shape,” and I see
that he’s been drowning in the dream. He spits up
water and hope. I nurse him to health with pills
and potions, doctor’s orders.

We cannot have a dreamer in these walls.

My little brother was born in a snowdrift December,
flurries of snow howling through his hair, a
blue child with eyes set on the nearing horizon.

What is it you’re looking for?

“The sun,” he says, and I see that he watches the sky
like a Catholic, expectant. When night falls, he climbs
the mast of the sailboat bed and sets off for distant
lands. I hardly recognize him come morning time.

He says, “It exists, you know,” and what I know is
he’s been spending time in someone else’s
kitchen, tasting stone houses with cluttered
mantelpieces. He has found a Home, found it foreign.

We cannot have him in these walls.

My little brother was born in the place the horror movie
happens. A werewolf howling from distant hills.
The blackening of her eyes, the curve of their lips.

Come and find out.

I find him perched on the sailboat bed, hand
wrapped in white gauze. He has been drowning.
He spits up seafoam and ale. The wallpaper peels.
“Oh malen’kiy, what did you say?”

He says, “I am half my maker’s shape,” and I see
two summers ago, his palms carving through waves.
He has seen the Catholic’s sun. There is no nursing
him to health. There is no need.

We cannot have a dreamer in these walls.

About Victoria Gransee

Victoria Gransee (@vgransee) is a Wisconsin-based writer fascinated by memory, self, and the divine.

National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

Happy National Poetry Month! For poets and poetry lovers—and perhaps for those who love poets—this is a special time. At Brain Mill Press, we like to celebrate all month long by sharing featured poets, and with our fee-free contest. This year, we’re thinking about poetry cycles, poems that speak to each other, forms that build on each other (like crowns), and the ways a poem can be a scaffold or foundation for other poems. Our words are often in response to other poems, and our own body of work is often an ongoing conversation. We speak to each other, with ourselves, and sometimes into the void—hoping someone will answer back.

Top photo by Isabella Fischer on Unsplash

Editors’ Pick Week 2: ‘Daughter of Our People’ Cycle by Sandi K. Johnson

Editors' Pick, Week 2

'Daughter of Our People' Cycle by Sandi K. Johnson

The Devils Come to Town


Often the Kru or Gola dancing devils visited the city:
us, city folks, would hear the drums and abandon markets
or food on coal pots and run like goats to go witness;
we, the school kids, would leave our day’s lessons,
leaping through windows in our green, school jumpers,
and arguing couples would quit to run together, holding hands;
everyone wanted to watch the country dancing devils,
even the frighten children hiding in their mama’s lappah;
we would follow the dusty cloud of their paths,
the village people in Kente suits singing old songs,
and young boys beating leather drums with sweaty hands;
the trailing crowd would circle around like morning chickens
as the country devils dance stories with their bodies;
some wore outfits of dried palm leaves and wooden masks
with old clothes holding long stalks for arms and legs,
others wore huge rice bags filled with banana leaves,
making them look round as lumpy, giant balls,
but none of them showed skin or signs of a man inside;
they ran through backyards and streets in hurry,
and we would watch the spectacle as they flipped or romped
as if they drifted and weaved by like walking mango trees,
zapping in and out of crowds, leaving stings of happiness;
the old people loved them for reminding us of our heritage,
and they loved us for our generous handouts;
some of us would give them money from knotted lappahs,
others would hand over cold water or sugarcanes,
and when they departed, we would stand around for days,
comparing records about the wonders of the devils’ visit.

Growing Hands


By the age of four,
…………I’d already made up
…………my mind to grow my hands
like my mother’s. I wanted
…………to keep my nails long
…………and strong like hers.
Polish of some obscene color,
…………bemused in ego,
…………wasn’t her fashion.
Her nails’ styling sat clean
…………like blessed communions,
…………which felt soothing
on my scalp as she braided my hair.

Over the years, her hands endured
…………hours of typing and longhand writings
…………as a secretary at the U.S. Embassy
and still carried patience
…………like Mother Mary’s tears when she
…………returned home to her children;
with grace and peanut oil,
…………she rubbed our bared backs
…………as we fell asleep to her touch.
Her hands remained holy
…………when her husband roamed
…………to other women’s abodes,
and with dignity, she wielded
…………them again to pack us
…………away from a house of contrition.

Far across the Atlantic in America,
…………she ascended her hands
…………in soapy waters, cleaning
dance studio’s mirrors as tuition,
…………and with those same hands,
…………she clapped for my passions,
mended theater costumes and dresses;
…………even my lavish, velvety prom dress,
…………with embroidery and sequins,
kept her aching hands up all night,
…………stitching and tagging beads
…………days before I walked in
as the prettiest Liberian girl
…………dancing the Moonwalk
…………at my American prom.

When her mom became sick
…………with failed kidneys,
…………she rolled up her sleeves;
like Sunday’s ushers, she
…………roamed back and forth
…………in the aisles of our home,
employed her warm hands
…………to bathe, change, and care for
…………her mom in a dying bed,
and when that Sunday morning awoke,
…………a little flower knelt on a bedtable
…………as her mom’s last breath surged.
My mom kissed her mother’s hand as if a relic,
…………then she offered her hands as freely
…………as a martyr to seal her mother’s silent eyes.

Now, in her own age of discernment,
…………as dementia and time kneel at her bedside,
…………I render my hands into hers,
which feel as cold as last rites
…………but anointed in beatification
…………with parables left untold.
I pass on some of the warmth
…………she loans me,
…………and as our hands unify,
I can’t help but dwell on
…………how lovely the wear
…………might look on my hands someday.


Devil Makers


She was always told
Red was Devil color
The brighter the shade
The further she strayed
Covered in Eve’s sin
In the eyes of God
Tradition shamed her
As if her lineage wasn’t kin
Church wives cursed her
As if she summoned wraths
But who taught her
That crimson shade?
Who caused her to bleed
As an innocent child
In her bed at night
Just to feed into lust?
Who craved her more
When she flushed out
The life inside of her?
Who glorified her curves
In skimpy red dresses
Or kissed her like holy feet
when she plastered
that brassy red lipstick
Like stains from Holy wine?
Who came soliciting
With lacy red lingerie
And ordered her to spread
Like a good little girl?
Who called her sexy
In those red Gucci heels
Only to spank her to pout
During the heat of infidelity?
Who showed her a woman
Flashy in red is a pure vixen?
Who’s the true Devil?

About Sandi K. Johnson

A Liberian, West African born. Holds a BA and MA in English: Creative Writing from Mount Mary University. An English professor of 13 years in Houston, Texas. Published works include: “Little Kate’s Shoe” (poem) in Sounds of this House with National Book Foundation, “Smoke Break” & “The Invisible Woman” (poems) with Solstice Literary Magazine, and “Waiting” (short story) & “A Good-bye after a Hello” (poem) with Swirl Literary Arts Journal. Awards include: The Solstice Institute for Diverse Voices Prize in 2009, and winner of the Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize in Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices in 2021.  

National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

Happy National Poetry Month! For poets and poetry lovers—and perhaps for those who love poets—this is a special time. At Brain Mill Press, we like to celebrate all month long by sharing featured poets, and with our fee-free contest. This year, we’re thinking about poetry cycles, poems that speak to each other, forms that build on each other (like crowns), and the ways a poem can be a scaffold or foundation for other poems. Our words are often in response to other poems, and our own body of work is often an ongoing conversation. We speak to each other, with ourselves, and sometimes into the void—hoping someone will answer back.

Top photo by Godisable Jacob

Poetry Month Spotlight: Amanda Reavey

Poetry Month Spotlight

Amanda Reavey

The Attrition of Luz


Home #1.

……………..In the beginning, there were no orphans, but God created a cloud which burst into a thousand pieces and it rained. The sky littered with diamonds.

Home #2.
…………….Language is a curious thing. How to shape her lips to fit this. It could be a flood or a dam. Her yaya said, “and she cries and cries and cries. Because that’s what Luz is.”

Home #3. Ormoc City, Leyte, Philippines
…………….Luzviminda knew something would happen two days before it did. She went outside where the air smelled like pig roast, sampaguitas and shit, and meditated on a stoop along the Malbasag River. She realized the circumstances of her birth were not unlike the baby Jesus. Her mother: unwed, pregnant. There was no father because she was immaculately conceived. No, there was a father; her father was god.

Home #4. Tacloban, Philippines
…………….She didn’t learn of her divinity until she was eleven years old, but others had already begun to suspect it when she was four. Her foster father, drunk on San Miguel and an unbearable sun, lunged at her with a karambit knife and the next thing she knew she was crouched down on all fours on the highest branch of a jackfruit tree.

…………….“She flew! She flew!” the housemaid shrieked.
…………….“She didn’t fly, she floated!” her foster mother said.
…………….That evening, at exactly 7:00pm, a social worker arrived. After three hours of trying to coaxing Luzviminda out of the tree, they decided to saw it down. Once on the ground, she looked up and shook her little fist: “Ako si Luzviminda. Huwag mo akong kalimutan.” I am Luzviminda. Don’t you forget me.

Home #5. Angono, Rizal, Philippines
…………….She knew then that she could grow wings. Once, she flew to the top of the Bay Leaf Hotel where there was a restaurant overlooking Manila Bay. She watched as the owner’s son snapped his fingers and a servant was immediately there. The Don Papas flowed freely from a carafe. How beautiful it must be.

Home #6. Taytay, Rizal, Philippines
…………….The process of becoming an adult happens very quickly. In a night that turns the blackness to lemon green, the moon ashen. Irises the shape of discs transmute into crescents. A shooting start fixes forever on the retinas. This is the moment he asks you how an Asian leopard cat moves and you immediately drop to the ground on all fours. This is Luzviminda. Before she bends, she whispers, “ako si Luzviminda. Huwag mo akong kalimutan.” I am Luzviminda. Don’t you forget me.

Home #7. Metro Manila, Philippines
…………….Luzviminda can’t think in the way you want her to. If you try to push her into talking she’ll start rocking –– an outrigger canoe several knots from where it started –– staring at the wall until she sees herself reflected back. The caretaker calls the children to the table for dinner. When Luzviminda doesn’t turn, the caretaker taps her shoulder. She flinches. Sensation hurts. What can we do? We stop. Instead, we wait. At the limit or point beyond which the thinking begins. Ako si Luzviminda. Huwag mo akong kalimutan. I am Luzviminda. Don’t you forget me.

Home #8. Metro Manila, Philippines




Home #9. Muntinlupa City, Philippines
…………….Days later, in a different house, she awoke to discover the white linens had turned red and she bled for six days. After, she climbed an iron fence and found a garden where she picked lemons from the tree and squeezed them, letting the juices run down her face, her neck. To cleanse the body.
…………….That day the Pasig River reversed itself and flowed upwards. Taking her towards the sky. Along an orange-red blue. What does it mean to switch hands? To go. …………….Again. To go. Again. To go. Again. Again. To go.
…………….Ako si Luzviminda. Huwag mo akong kalimutan. I am Luzviminda. Don’t you forget me.
Ako si ––. Ako si ––. Ako si ––.
…………….I am. I am. I am.


This poem was previously published at TRUCK.

About Amanda Reavey

Amanda Reavey is an Emeritus Poetry Fellow at Black Earth Institute and the author of Marilyn (The Operating System, 2015), which won the 2017 Best Book Award in Poetry from the Association for Asian American Studies. She is a member of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and holds an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. She curates the Tabi Po! Poetry Series & Open Mic every third Sunday of the month at County Clare Irish Pub in Milwaukee. More at

National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

Happy National Poetry Month! For poets and poetry lovers—and perhaps for those who love poets—this is a special time. At Brain Mill Press, we like to celebrate all month long by sharing featured poets, and with our fee-free contest. This year, we’re thinking about poetry cycles, poems that speak to each other, forms that build on each other (like crowns), and the ways a poem can be a scaffold or foundation for other poems. Our words are often in response to other poems, and our own body of work is often an ongoing conversation. We speak to each other, with ourselves, and sometimes into the void—hoping someone will answer back.