By Linda Mahal
As president of Cave Canem, the nation’s premier African American poetry organization, Stonecoast faculty member, alumna, and acclaimed poet Amanda Johnston has been busy. Johnston has spent the past year leading Cave Canem through an executive director search and through the dual pandemics of Covid-19 and racism. The threats to Black lives are omnipresent, Johnston says, but so is the life-changing hope that Cave Canem offers to Black poets at all stages of their careers.
From those “on the precipice of finding their voice” to seasoned poet laureates, Cave Canem provides “a space where Black people can come together, without the glaring, hovering gaze of white supremacy,” says Johnston, herself a former Cave Canem workshop participant and fellow.
Freed from the racism, isolation, and segregation they face in the world outside, Cave Canem poets are able to discuss and to write alongside fellow Black writers who accept and understand their work without questioning. “We bring our whole selves into the room,” at Cave Canem, Johnston notes. “That’s a gift for Black people that’s not always afforded.”
Workshops feature small groups with poets writing a nightly poem, which they submit for critique each morning and discuss shortly thereafter. “Rita Dove is going to write her notes on your poem,” Johnston says. “The rawness, the vulnerability of that, for a poet—it’s incredible.”
This fall, Cave Canem will host its regional workshops virtually for the first time. In addition, Cave Canem has not only waived its application fee, but will also provide a $250 stipend for each poet.
“Across the arts, we’ve seen a huge and necessary shift,” Johnston says, “to recognize the need to remove the punitive barriers to people who are trying to create art.” These obstacles, such as the long applications, letters of recommendation, and application fees required for acceptance, are part of a “system historically based in racist practices,” Johnston says. But this year, “There is nothing [the poets] have to do to justify their expenses. We know they have expenses. They will each get the $250. We wish it were more.”
While keeping herself and her family safe through the intersecting traumas of a global pandemic and the country’s current iteration of racist violence, terror, and backlash, Johnston says, of her own poetry, “I’ve been allowing myself to feel. I’ve started taking some different notes. Post-it notes, napkin notes, notes-in-my-phone notes.”
Recalling a required course on meter and rhyme that she took as a student at Stonecoast, Johnston says she’s surprised to find herself shaping what might become a book-length poem that is “uncharacteristically me.” She adds, “I’ve been contemplating threat. The known and the unknown. There are constant threats, but there’s also been the hope in humanity, because we go on. There’s the question, how do I, as a Black person, with a Black partner, and Black children, get up? But we do get up. It’s unbelievable. But in the doing is the hope. Because we go on.”
Johnston reassures writers that during this time of crisis and chaos, “writing doesn’t have to look like what, in your imagination, writing is supposed to look like. All of that was broken. That includes our creative spaces, that includes how we show up for ourselves. We are all very individual people. Try different things to see what’s best.”
Johnston says that capitalism drives us to be in our heads, constantly producing. To be in one’s body, with awareness, is both an essential form of self-care and an entry point into writing. “Allow yourself to be present and listen to where you are and what your body needs,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a certain way. It’s a process. It doesn’t go [directly] from idea to published piece. You get the words on the page, that’s step number one. Writers will revise, and they’ll keep writing until it gets to the essence of that emotion, so that when you release that poem, others will feel, they will feel what you wrote in those pages.
“Not all of your writing is going to make it to the public,” Johnston says. “The question to ask is, when you write this, when you release this, has it done something for your body?”
Johnston’s body of work includes her collection Another Way to Say Enter and the chapbooks Guap and Lock & Key, including complete audio recordings of the poems, available at her website, AmandaJohnston.com.
To support Amanda Johnston’s work on behalf of Black poets, please consider a donation to Cave Canem.