This post of part of our online forum on Sandra Bland, coinciding with the third anniversary of her death. The forum includes historical and contemporary perspectives–and creative pieces–on Black women’s susceptibility to state-sanctioned violence.
In today’s post, Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, interviews Simone John on how the life and legacy of Sandra Bland has influenced her poetry and her first full-length book of poems, Testify. Simone John is a poet, educator, and facilitator based in Boston, MA. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College with an emphasis on documentary poetics. Her poetry has appeared or been reviewed in Wildness, The Boston Globe, Public Pool, PBS Newshour, Bustle, and more. She is the Associate Director of Organizational Equity Practice at Trinity Boston Foundation and the Chief Creative Officer of Hive Soul Yoga, a community wellness business. Simone has facilitated workshops and retreats at colleges and organizations across New England. Areas of expertise include: professional development for teaching artists and youth workers; mindfulness and life design for millennials and creatives of color; and incorporating racial equity into organizational change processes. Follow her on Twitter @simoneivory.
Phillip Luke Sinitiere: Please share the creation story behind Testify, the influences and revelations that shaped the assembly of the powerful poems in this volume. How does the book cover communicate the urgency of Testify?
Simone John: I think Testify’s evolution traces and locates Black women, visible and invisible, throughout the text. At first the Black woman is a literal witness to state violence—Rachel Jeantel’s testimony transcript from Trayvon Martin’s trial. Then the proximity shifts to an intimate perspective: Black mourning for a slain son, sibling, and partner. The final shift centers the Black woman as a target of state violence, which frames the section about Sandra Bland.
This arc closely mirrors my own experience writing the book. Initially my concern was for Trayvon and the vulnerable Black men in my life. Testify started as a way for me to grapple with the feelings I had about Martin’s murder. I know that the United States is not a fair and equitable place for Black people. But what felt coded became implicit with Trayvon’s trial: Black life is disposable. This revelation led me to question how this truth shaped other realities: what does it mean to live and love in a country that has explicitly rendered you expendable?
Then I began paying more attention to the women on the periphery of those incidents, those considered “collateral damage,” the families and communities impacted long after the news coverage fades. Finally, there was me, standing in the bull’s-eye.
As for the cover, my publisher often leans towards text based abstract cover images. I told the graphic designer, Drew Swenhaugen, that I wanted the image to evoke something tangible. That felt important because the book’s topics, themes, and implications aren’t abstract. I loved the image as soon as I saw it. I thought it was immediately striking, then it deepened as you realize what it is: police sirens. Reader reactions to the image differ, based on their relationship to police and all that police sirens represent.
Sinitiere: Your poems on Sandra Bland appear in a section called “Collateral” where you in essence textualize the dash cam video of her July 10, 2015 traffic stop in Waller County, Texas. Discuss the structure of this section, and what you wish to accomplish through your Sandra Bland poems. Perhaps you might select several of the Bland poems upon which to elaborate.
John: The Sandra Bland poems all started when I found a transcript of the dash cam interaction. To write the first half of Testify I watched and transcribed Rachel Jeantel’s testimony. I got comfortable dealing with transcripts and mining them for poetry material, figuring out what techniques to apply to point me to the poems in the text. I’d arrived at that method in lieu of watching the Trayvon Martin trial, which felt emotionally taxing.
I had a similar trajectory with the Bland transcripts. I was seeking a way to process my feelings about her death without following the media circus in real time. On a practical level, the transcripts were useful for two reasons. First, I didn’t have to transcribe the exchange myself, meaning I could get right to the poems. Secondly, the transcripts captured a finite moment that had already occurred. That meant my work couldn’t be rendered obsolete or inaccurate by the investigation that was still playing out.
I was immediately struck by the tension present between Sandra and Officer Encinia. Even on a bare page with no images or dialogue tags to instruct readers how to feel, the power struggle is palpable. The excerpt poems exemplify this dynamic. “Inciting Incident: What’s Wrong?” sets the scene:
-Do you have a driver’s license? Okay, where you headed to now? Okay, ma’am. You okay?
-I’m waiting on you. This is your job. I’m waiting on you. When’re you going to let me go?
–I don’t know, you seem very irritated.
-I am. I really am. I feel like it’s crap what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket.
–Are you done?
-You asked me what was wrong, now I told you.
In “Lawful Orders: An Abbreviated List” the situation escalates.
I’m giving you a lawful order.
I’m going to drag you out of here.
I will light you up!
For me, the most powerful transcript poem is “Unanswered Question,” which lists every question Sandra asked Officer Encinia, excerpted and in order. Sandra asks:
Why am I being apprehended?
So you’re threatening to drag me out of my own car?
You’re doing all this for a failure to signal?
You feelin good about yourself?
You feel real good about yourself, don’t you?
“I Tried” offers a corollary to Sandra’s experience, through an excerpt of Officer Encinia’s call with his superior. While reading the excerpt I was struck by how often he said, “I tried, I tried,” though the whole transcript contradicted that assertion. “Over a simple traffic stop,” he says, feigning incredulity. “I don’t get it. Really, I don’t. Why they act like that, I don’t know.” I wanted the poems to make people engage with the indisputable facts of the traffic stop, without salacious news spin.
Sinitiere: The poem “Ars Poetica” moves me. You begin, “Sandra’s words live here without/the cushion of quotation marks.” Later in the poem you write, “If attention is a form of prayer/these poems are psalms/for slaughtered women./Stanzas built of names/excavated from footnotes/from collateral collected/carefully for preservation.” I’m struck by several subjects here—e.g., religion, intellectual history, Black women’s history—that I hope you can discuss further, especially since they are part of regular conversation at Black Perspectives. First, the invocation of religious language as a kind of commemoration that performs a literary libation, if you will. Second, the use of archival language in a poem whose very construction practices a form of historical methodology and offers a poetics of historical memory, i.e., drawing on, or excavating, the text of Sandra Bland’s words (as well as Encinia’s and Prairie View officer Penny Goodie).
John: An ars poetica is a poem about poetry. It can be difficult to read poetry quickly. Something often gets lost that way. Every small detail as slight as a line break has meaning in a poem. Poems require you to slow down, and one reaction to that is resistance. I feel it myself sometimes when I read poetry, the desire to look away. Even as a voice in my head reads the lines on the page, a partitioned part of my brain might be thinking about something else.
For me, that metaphor mirrors people’s desire to look away from the realities of race and gender-based violence. It is uncomfortable to confront and some people will look for any excuse to do anything else. Because once to know, you are responsible for every action you take—or don’t take—going forward. The line about quotation marks is also a comment on proximity. Quotation marks convey distance, allow you to place these words in a fictional setting. I wanted readers to know that this is not fiction.
This pursuit is anthropological. It did feel like I was excavating names and stories, lives that someone saw fit to bury or ignore. And it is also about building something for these women, an altar made of names and affirmation of their lives. Our lives and deaths are worth more than a single 24-hour news cycle or the duration of a court trial.
Sinitiere: While many of your poems in ‘Testify’ center the story of Sandra Bland, in “Collateral” you offer four elegies for dead Black women along with a powerful piece titled “The Poet’s Eulogy.” How do these elegies, and eulogy, contextualize your Bland poems, and vice versa? More broadly, as you ponder Bland’s death three years later and the poems you wrote about her, how is it that poetry testifies? What role does art play in helping us to both contend with the reality of Black precarity—particularly related to Black women and police violence—in a viciously racist society and draw from cultural resources the inspiration for insurgent resistance against the white supremacist violence that inhabits society?
John: On the whole, the book is a barely-veiled attempt to process my own hopelessness, my sense that the plagues of race and gender-based violence could claim me at any moment. “The Poet’s Eulogy,” written in the voice of my family’s pastor speaking at my funeral, exemplifies this. I don’t spend as much time in that headspace as I used to. I think that’s due in large part to the fact that I worked through many of those feelings while writing this book. But that despair is present in the text and it’s authentic, which people react to.
The “Elegies for Dead Black Women” are a series of four poems, all written in linked haiku, which honor murdered Black women. The series builds to Elegy # 4 “An Invocation for Black Transwomen Murdered in the United States,” which names twenty transwomen of color who were murdered while I wrote this book.
As for the relationship between the Sandra poems, the elegies, and the eulogy, I think they form a complete thought: look how easy it is to go from driving your car or writing a poem or just being a Black woman, to being murdered. Look how permeable the borders are between now living and recently departed. Look how the losses continue to mount.
To your question about art, I think Black folks have always been artists and makers. It predates colonialism. Art is our historical record, and it can offer a counterbalance to dominant cultural narratives. I’m working on my next book and reading about art and African American folk healing traditions as part of my research. It’s all there. Our legacy, our origin stories, the sophisticated interdependent worldview of our ancestors, the seeds of our survival. I think the map that will lead us through our current struggles is there, too. I feel lucky to spend so much time building bridges to that ancestral knowing.
I think Black people find Testify affirming. It affirms a type of racist terrorism at work in the United States. It’s not as blatant as some of the previous iterations (i.e. Jim Crow, lynchings), but its mechanisms persist.
It also affirms Black joy in spite of it all. The beautiful and complicated relationships we have with each other, our families.
I also wanted to convey that we love each other. I think about the ways at which Black family and community have been rendered since slavery as an afterthought. Because Blacks weren’t people, how could a mother mourn her sold infant? Sometimes I think we aren’t far from that today.permission.