Jennifer Bartell Boykin

Jennifer Bartell Boykin is the author of Traveling Mercy (Finishing Line Press, 2023). Bartell Boykin is the recipient of fellowships from Callaloo and The Watering Hole. In 2023, she was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Bartell Boykin will partner with The Watering Hole to conduct debate slam poetry workshops with Columbia youth that will culminate in a debate slam at the Soda City Poetry Festival. The festival—open to the public and poets of all ages—will also feature panels, readings, a book fair, open mics, an ekphrasis pop-up, and more. Some of the youth who participate in Boykin’s workshops will offer a presentation about their experiences at a festival panel. What do you hope for the future of poetry in Columbia, South Carolina, and what support do you hope future poets laureate in the state have?

Jennifer Bartell Boykin: My hope is that every person in Columbia—all ages, genders, races, religions, sexual orientations—will make an attempt to write a poem. My hope is for our poetry community to continue to build opportunities for us to come together and be in community with one another—to connect, to celebrate, to mourn, to love one another. South Carolina is currently without a state poet laureate and that needs to change. Our governor has a list of finalists from our state arts commission, but refuses to appoint anyone. Our state’s city and regional poets laureate are connected to each other; we support each other and we go on panels and readings with one another. That’s something I hope continues for future poets laureate. Another hope is that all of our projects will be fully funded. How has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing?

JBB: It makes me think of my purpose even more when I am writing. Why am I writing this poem? Who is this poem for? In many ways, it has helped me to sharpen my focus as a poet. I was able to write and revise poems for my second book of poetry in a relatively short amount of time because my sense of purpose for the book had finally been established. It has taken me years to write that book! It’s no coincidence that I was able to finish the book during my first year as laureate. 

Being a laureate has also made me hyperaware of my process as a poet. When people ask me to write a poem, I find that I need between two to four weeks to write it. Time is an essential part of my process. I like to research things. I like to sit with it and let it stew; write a little, stew a little more, write, revise, repeat. The subconscious work that I do on a poem when I am not actively writing it helps me write. How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together? 

JBB: Poetry is our first language. We learn nursery rhymes and songs as toddlers. We know the rhythm and the spirit of poetry very early. At some point, some of us lose our connection to that magic of poetry. We get a poem on a standardized test and are forced to choose a correct answer instead of relying on our own interpretations. When it’s time to grieve, when it’s time to celebrate, when it’s time to heal, when it’s time to love, when it’s time to explain the unexplainable, we turn to poetry. And in the midst, we learn something about ourselves and others. Poetry helps us hold up a mirror to ourselves and helps us to see ourselves and the world in a clearer light. It gives us the language to express our inner selves. What part of your project were you most excited about?

JBB: I’m most excited about working with the city’s teenagers in the poetry workshops. Our young people have so much on their minds, and poetry is a perfect way for them to express themselves and to find themselves. Some people believe that, just because our teens are young, that they have relatively easy lives. That’s not the reality. We have teens who are going to school and working long hours, teens who are survivors of abuse, teens who are raising their siblings, teens who are depressed and anxious, eager to be successful and to please others. Our kids have so much that they hold in because they are silenced so much. I’m looking forward to helping them find their voices. What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project? 

JBB: Timing has been an issue. We have been doing the workshops on Saturday mornings at Richland Library. We changed the start time to noon, but we still have low numbers. I’m looking into changing the structure of the workshops. Saturday just may not be a good day, which means we need to go to where the kids are, in their communities and in their schools. This may mean that the programming will need to look different, and I am up for that challenge. Is there a poem on that inspires you and your work in South Carolina? How so?

JBB: I will always sing the praises of Lucille Clifton, especially “won’t you celebrate with me.” Historically, the ending has always been my favorite:

“come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.”

It makes me think of my ancestors, who were once enslaved in this state. How they kept living even though death was the only path to freedom. How they still found a way to laugh and love and squeeze moments of joy from the oppression they endured everyday. It reminds me to celebrate each day I have breath because life is not promised. 

These days I’m more drawn to the beginning of the poem: 

“won’t you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life?” 

It’s the “shaped into a kind of life” that I reflect on often. What is the kind of life I’m living? How will my work make a difference in my community? What kind of life am I creating for my family, especially my husband and son. Lucille Clifton was married with several children and still found the time to write her tiny, powerhouse poems. She is a model for me. A model for the kind of life I can live.