The Writer caught up with Goddard MFA alumna Simone John for an interview about Collateral, her first chapbook of poetry, just published by Octopus Books.

TW: What was the impetus for writing Collateral?

Collateral began as a project to sustain my writing practice while I submitted my manuscript, Testify, to presses and contests. The process of submitting work can be demoralizing (and expensive), so I was looking for prompts in the world. At the same time, Sandra Bland’s traffic stop was dominating headlines. I felt my poetry being pulled in that direction, but I didn’t know how to enter the story without engaging with salacious real-time news coverage. I knew the poem I wanted to write wasn’t going to surface from a think piece or press clip.

TW: How did you find your way into this material?

I eventually came across the transcript of the dash cam video that captured Sandra Bland’s entire interaction with Officer Encinia. Testify largely consists of excerpts of testimony from the Trayvon Martin trial, so utilizing transcripts was already a significant part of my work and writing process. The Bland transcript immediately felt familiar. It was clear to me that the poem I wanted to write was in there. What I didn’t foresee was how many other poems were there, too. The subtext struck me at once— their exchange is an extended power struggle that escalated to physical violence. Bland repeatedly asserting her rights and her personhood. Encinia denying the former with his words and the latter with his actions.  All of the assumptions and implications playing out in between. The story seemed contained, almost completely, in the transcript. I set to work excerpting pieces of dialogue and juxtaposing them with other poems and texts, eventually arriving at a chapbook-length series of poems.

TW: What did you do when the going got tough?

When writing about brutality and trauma inflicted upon one’s community, the going is always tough. Sometimes the process feels like war reportage: writing about state-sanctioned violence against a community that is implicitly understood to be expendable.  During difficult times I anchored myself in the facts of the material I was working with. Having a finite and objective document to return to kept me from getting lost in thoughts of my own mortality and safety (or lack thereof).

I also feel a strong sense of responsibility that pushes me through challenging parts of the writing process.  It’s imperative that Sandra Bland and the dozen other victims of brutality mentioned in Collateral aren’t disregarded or forgotten. The act of forgetting isn’t apolitical, regardless of how innocuous it may seem. But forgetting isn’t inevitable, either. We can make a different choice. We can choose to hold space for victims of violence and police brutality. When confronted with silence and apathy, we can choose to say their names.

Simone John is a poet, educator, and freelance writer based in Boston, MA. Since completing her MFA in Goddard College, Simone has devised youth poetry workshops that explore hip hop culture and poetry as a form of protest. Her poetry and essays have been published online and in print in The Pitkin Review, The Writer in the World, and the Elohi Gadugi Journal. Her first full-length poetry collection, Testify, is forthcoming from Octopus Books in 2017.