From Apartment to Bryant Park: A Poetry Salon Grows Up
Poet JP Howard Creates Community for Women Writers
Poet JP Howard launched the Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon in April 2011, two years after receiving her MFA in Creative Writing from City College. Howard missed the sense of community the MFA program had provided, and, inspired by the traveling literary salons of the Harlem Renaissance she’d grown up hearing about, the Harlem native decided to start a salon of her own.
Aptly, Howard cofounded Women Writers in Bloom during National Poetry Month with friend and fellow poet Sheila Slaughter. What began as an open mic and potluck at Slaughter’s apartment in New Jersey quickly evolved into a monthly event with themes that have included family, healing, love, grief, and growth. Featured readers lead attendees in workshops built around the themes. Notable alumni of the salon include Kamilah Aisha Moon, Arisa White, and Mahogany L. Browne.
Beyond hosting an inclusive and open salon, Howard’s mission is to cultivate a safe creative space in which women like herself—queer women writers of color—can thrive and grow. That mission prompted the series’ name and is why she has likened her salon to a garden. It’s not a bad analogy—Howard offers writers who are often devalued an environment in which they can flourish.
I met Howard through my friend Anastacia-Renee, a performance artist and Seattle’s civic poet. Anastacia was the featured poet at a September 2017 event. While the salon is usually held at a larger venue, thanks to grants Howard has secured from organizations like the Brooklyn Arts Council, it was at Howard’s apartment that afternoon. The event was at capacity, and Howard had emailed us in advance, requesting more chairs. She’d also invited us to bring our own poems to share after Anastacia’s workshop on writing about our bodies.
Howard offered a spread of snacks and drinks, and to help defray costs for future salons and compensate featured poets, she asked for donations. As they arrived, many of the women embraced one another—either they’d attended frequently or had been to at least a few salons in the past. They called one another by name and planted kisses on cheeks with an intimacy that is rarely accorded black and brown women’s bodies in the literary world. I had not experienced anything so comforting and nonjudgmental in a creative space, and it was a healing and beautiful moment.
I had a similar feeling recently when four featured poets from the salon were invited back for an event at the Bryant Park Reading Room. Sherese Francis, Patricia Spears Jones, Pamela Sneed, and Anastacia-Renee read to a crowd of about 50 people on an uncharacteristically cool summer evening. In the middle of Manhattan’s busy Bryant Park, their poems echoed through the space, accompanied by rapturous applause from the audience and the curious glances of passersby. Paul Romero, the Bryant Park Reading Room director, introduced each poet with a gusto and energy on par with the poets themselves. Behind the neat rows of forest green chairs, Kinokuniya Bookstore managed the sale of the readers’ books.
Queens-based poet and literary curator Sherese Francis opened the reading with a kind of simmer, her soft voice and ethereal poetry surging with the energy of the crowd. Award-winning poet Patricia Spears Jones cracked jokes between resonant readings of her work. And Pamela Sneed and Anastacia-Renee made us laugh and sigh with pointed political poems that questioned why we fawn over celebrities yet disregard the lives of everyday black women. The reading was a multifaceted rumination on the times in which we’re living. Evoking ancestors who survived challenging eras, the poets urged us to continue taking action.
“They’re so crucial,” Howard said. “The salons give us a voice. These are difficult times. We hear all these messages from society that we’re not being supported. But monthly, when we have the salon, we give folks the space to give voice—it’s healing, it’s freeing. It’s important to have that space to be able to create.”
Not everyone is ready at first. “Some folks come to the first salon very shy, but the next year, they might feature,” Howard said. “We’re an intergenerational community. Some women are in their twenties; our oldest poet is in her mid-eighties. We are learning from each other—elders are learning from the young folks, and young folks are learning from their elders.”
The salon has traveled with her: to Berkeley for the VONA/Voices Workshop, where she cohosted an event with Idrissa Simmons, and to AWP when it was in Seattle.
Howard sometimes has challenges making room for her own work as she curates the work of others, but she is a dynamo. Say/Mirror, her debut poetry collection, was published in 2015. She is both a Cave Canem graduate fellow and a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voices fellow. In the months ahead, she plans on hiring an intern or assistant for the salon so she can fit more writing time into her schedule.
As for Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, Howard is weighing 501(c) 3 status, considering securing sponsorship, and thinking about starting a traveling salon and library to promote small presses and poets. “Folks may not have heard of poets I grew up respecting like Cheryl Clarke, but we can display her books alongside the books of emerging poets,” she said.
Building a community like this is not just aspirational for Howard—there are tangible results. She has found that encouraging women writers of color has amplified their confidence not only to submit work and publish, but also to apply for MFA programs. “I can’t tell you how many references I’ve written because these women feel that they can really bloom and blossom,” she said.
When I asked her how it feels to have built this kind of garden, Howard said, “I’m the mom of two sons so it’s kind of like that—wow.”