STEFANESCU: Saleem, I’ve been a fan of your poems and tweets and activism for years. Tell me a little about your job and the way it influences or plays a role in your poetry.
HUE PENNY: whenever i reflect on my work life, first and foremost, i think of my calling, then my vocation, then the jobs that i happen to be blessed to find myself with/in.
so the calling. that’s all about children and childhood broadly. for a minute i was trying on a silly acronym Y.O.C.O, (you’re only children once, you’re only in childhood once…) clearly it didn’t stick ;^) but i still believe in that. we really only get one shot at this beautiful, fragile, messy thing called childhood.
we can and should spend a lifetime learning and repairing, growing and revealing from that foundation. and we should definitely not be fatalist and give up on those whose childhood was a fat stack of A.C.E’s (adverse childhood experiences). but i do think to take it seriously, it’s important to realize that we don’t get another shot at it.
and my vocation–what i’m most deeply dedicated to–stems from that calling.
it’s all about sharing voices of those that primarily for structural reasons, find their voices disregarded, unappreciated, or silenced.
again, that’s primarily children, also adolescents, (also adolescents raising children).
if i’m not sharing stories with and for young people, broadly speaking, then i’m not answering my calling, i’m not fulfilling my vocation, i’m probably struggling, maybe even doing a wack ass job at that :^)
jobs. right out the gate, let me acknowledge how blessed I am to have the social capital that comes with formal education. and i’m fortunate to grow that social capital and—when paired with a spirit of openness—have access to unconventional opportunities.
right now i’m a volunteer hospital magician and an administrative social worker who gets to do innovative community engagement in the unconventional setting of a children’s museum. i could go on about the specific programs and strategies that excite me, the theoretical frameworks and logic models i’m puzzling over, the opportunities and limitations of the nonprofit industrial complex—i’m an introvert and these types of conversations feed me. but that’s a very particular type of writing and processing that’s not quite apropos to this conversation. one i do love, but not one i’m usually dropping in the Submittable queue, you dig? ;^)
but for real, for real.
both my day job and volunteer job could end tomorrow and i’d still have the job i feel is the most important: parenting our young twins.
i remember getting laughed at throughout grade/middle school when the career conversations came up. i’d say simply, “i want to be a great dad” and even the teacher chuckled some years. i’ve known since age 9 that i wanted to be a dad. so it’s pretty damn cool that i have the job i envisioned in childhood.
my favorite moments as a writer are when my calling, my vocation, and my jobs find that special triple-point and co-exist:
i’m capturing tales about young people wandering and wondering.
i’m presenting stories of young people reckoning with violence—internal and interpersonal.
i’m honoring the breathtaking, life-sustaining, back-breaking landscape of my ancestors: rural
i’m situating these stories in the culture of my generation: hip-hop
i’m respecting the language of my grandfather: blues
in my favorite moments, i’m living out my genre “rural hip-hop blues”
the dream is to re-present these stories to the folks that birthed them.
i want to see my dudes on the block posted up reading a chapbook,
i want y’all to know i say that with a wink and a smile, but i also say it with a plea and weariness in my eyes,
there’s no reason this can’t be the future. is there?
how far do you have to stretch to imagine this future?
can you imagine working and writing with me to build it?
across movements, throughout the struggle, poetry has always been part of what sustains Black life,
let me say that again for my people in the bleacher seats:
Poetry has always sustained Black Life.
and particularly because this country provides daily reminders that Black childhood does not matter,
i’ve got to keep writing y’all, with and for the young people,
even if folks in power won’t, the young people must hear and read and believe that they have the right to a childhood, they have the right to be children.
they have the right to be beautiful, bold, brilliant Black children.
if you’re also for that, then let’s build.
if you’re still getting there, i see you, now hustle up.
i’m patient, but our kids can’t afford to be.
STEFANESCU: I just want to give you a podium in the park somewhere and bring my family to sit and listen. Everything you said resonates with me—except the parts that inspire and fire me up.
I love that I can’t place you or box you as a poet—I love that you’re not flying the flag of any current trend, or obviously warming your hands around the fire of any particular school on the page. The older I get, the less patience I have for all the little dicta and dicktats.
Carmen Gimenez Smith describes herself as “aesthetically promiscuous.” In her words, she loves “the feeling of feeling infected by forms deployed by other poets.” Is this true for you as well? If so, what poets and forms infect you and how?
HUE PENNY: I’ve mulled this question over for weeks. Not thought about it, but just let it marinate, sit out on the porch in the jug. Let’s take a sip, see how it hits.
Forms deployed by other poets… right now i can lose myself in Tobe Nwigwe’s work for hours.
The consistency of the lyrical-aural-sonic-visual experience is really pushing me to dig deeper. I am fascinated by poets (w/ or w/out music) that encourage me to suspend disbelief and fully enter their world for 5 minutes. His #GetTwistedSundays project is a study in form and especially with all the lyrics captioned there’s no “i can’t understand the words” case for not engaging in his work.
Forms deployed by other poets… Magic City Gospel stays on deck.
Ashley M Jones has this incredible poem Addie, Carole, Cynthia, Denise that takes the acrostic form to another level. I don’t even want to say how/what the poem spells, because i want folks to get that feeling i got on the first read, by the 6th/7th line–that, dayumm, THIS is what she’s doing!? I admire when a poet can take a form that many of us have dismissed as juvenile (c’mon y’all be for real! You know you see a poem that spells some word down the left and you flash back to grade school) update that form and show why THIS particular poem needed THIS particular form. In this case, it’s beautiful and heartbreaking that she uses a form associated with grade school to pay homage to the Four Little Girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley (#SayTheirNames).
Forms deployed by other poets… being in South Side Chicago, i’m fortunate to occasionally cross real/digital paths with the genius that is Dr. Eve L Ewing. Her multilayered poetry, prose, visual, collection Electric Arches has two poems that just crush me, but then propel me beyond the clouds with hope: the first time [a re-telling] and four boys on Ellis [a re-telling]. The mechanism might already have a formal title, but essentially half the poem is typed, then it breaks off midline and the remainder of the poem is handwritten. The typed portion is the telling, the actual events and experience, the handwritten portion is the re-telling, wherein the ending launches to a different, more hope-filled, resolved place, where the young Black protagonists are heroes, victors, unscarred, #carefreeBlackgirl and #carefreeBlackboy. Her four boys on Ellis [a re-telling] hits me because i remember her livetweeting the experience and me wanting to dash in my car, drive the 5 blocks over and stand witness, join with her and protect these four boys against the weight of the police, and the state/property they swear to protect. But i was home putting my baby twins (age 4 now) to sleep. I just reread the poem now, and it’s ringing anew, especially after having someone call the police on me and my napping 4 year old in our own car, in front of our own condo this month. Maybe i should do a re-telling just to help me heal from the officer’s words that still ring: “I’m responding to a report that you’ve been sitting parked in this car for a long time, with uhm, with, with a child.” Maybe it’ll be the first thing i post on the domain i just bought https://nappingwhileblack.org/
Forms deployed by other poets… I started re-reading Nikky Finney’s piece The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy. To span 12 magazine pages (The Oxford American, Fall 2015) is just epic, in and of itself to say “my poetry demands this expanse of space, my black words require this massive quantity of white paper, your readers will turn a page, and then a page, and then a page, and still another page, and they will do this until i am done.” that’s bold and gives me hope that editors/publishers won’t relegate poetry to a trio of 20-line poems tucked in the final 1/3 of their magazine. But back to the form… she uses off-kilter stanza alignment (right-tabbed and center), subtly varied font sizes (maybe .5pt – 1pt difference), italicized line breaks paired with the punctuation many of us loathe—the “!”—all to incredibly effective ends. I usually think of the punctuation extremes like e.e. cummings, but seeing Nikky Finney’s approach was a wake-up that i need to break away from that left margin and literally explore more of the page.
Forms deployed by other poets… for this final one, i still don’t understand exactly how it’s affected me, but the lessons are burrowed in here somewhere, so i’ll stumble through it… The Smart Museum of Art (University of Chicago) recently curated the first U.S. solo exhibition of self-taught Thai artist Tang Chang (or Chang Sae-tang) called The Painting That is Painted with Poetry is Profoundly Beautiful. Essentially he stopped painting with brushes and exclusively made “poetry-drawings” using his body (fingers, elbows, forearms…). I’d love to do large scale poetry—beyond just writing the words really large ;^) this is something that also makes sense to me being surrounded by young children at work (Chicago Children’s Museum) while volunteering (Open Heart Magic) and at home. One of our twins has to touch and feel and manipulate all parts of the medium in front of her. She leaves preschool smeared and dabbed and dotted with inks, paint, and glue every day. There’s some lessons there for my poetry. Also Tang Chang has a form where he repeats a single word/phrase over and over and over (often arranging them in rows, columns, spirals) and then switches the tone, rhythm, and pace by altering the final word/phrase in a jarring, contrasting, and unexpected way. It really showed me that a poem doesn’t need a lot of different words to have impact. Rather, it can strive to use a few words differently.
Exploring infectious forms. I’ve enjoyed this process. Open to what flavors the marinating yields.
Saleem Hue Penny is a Chicago-based ‘rural hip-hop blues’ artist, with strong ties to Pisgah Forest, NC, and deep roots in Monck’s Corner, SC. His work seeks to reclaim the pastoral moments embedded in urban landscapes. He explores how young adults of color traverse wild spaces and come to define freedom, shelter, community, and solitude on their own terms. He utilizes electronic music, collage painting, and improvisational performance to punctuate his poetry.
During the workday, Saleem directs community and educational partnerships at Chicago Children’s Museum. He also serves on the steering committee for Museums+Race and is an Open Heart Magic volunteer hospital magician on the south side of Chicago. Most importantly he is Rosetta’s son, Katie’s husband, Micah and Rachel’s brother, and twin-papa of August James and Elsie Pearl.
Holler when y’all can!
In October 2016, Pidgeonholes published “Sunset, Before” by Saleem Hue Penny. This poem, among others, can be found in Hue Penny’s chapbook, “The Attic, The Basement, The Barn”, available through Tammy.
Logo by: Robert James Russell