At Cambridge Common Writers, we’re always looking to showcase the many talented and accomplished alums who make up our community. In honor of Black History Month, we reached out to a few of our BIPOC authors to ask them about themselves and their writing lives.
Bonita Lee Penn — Poetry, January ’15
Bonita Lee Penn says “I am a Black woman poet and I sound like one (Lucille Clifton).” She lives, breathes, and believes it is important that her poems celebrate the voices of Black and Brown women. Her interests include exploration of connections: to the ocean; Africans in America history of religion and its connection to practices of their African ancestors. She is Managing Editor of Soul Pitt Quarterly Magazine and a community creative writing instructor. Her poetry has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, JOINT.Literary Magazine, Hot Metal Bridge Journal, Women Studies Quarterly, Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices and forthcoming in the poetry anthology Our Names Mean Home, from Cherry Castle Publishing. Her poem, “Nina’s Fire: Frantic’s Go-Go,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
What drew you to the Lesley MFA program and what take-aways did you have from it?
Lesley’s program was a Low-Residency and it fit into my work/family schedule; it was close and in a location I’ve never visited. I like to explore new places. The mentors listed I felt could assist me to evolve as a poet.
What I took away even though the make-up of the program was very important, just as important was the support and friendships I established. There are always gaps in an academic program, but the circle of cohorts made sure they shared resources in our healthy and lively discussions after classes.
What is your writing process like? Do you have a particular routine or ritual to help you get into the writing zone?
My writing process is consistent, I write when the words hit me. I don’t get up early in the morning or sit in a room late at night. When the words fill me up, it’s like being hit with the holy ghost and all you can do is cry. Well, when the words hit me like that no matter where I am I sit down and write and write and write until I am empty. Yes, that means if I am walking down the street, I’ll stop and write, if I am at work I’ll bring up a clean page and write. To get in the writing zone, I read, books are filled with images and languages, and my creativity is easily trigged. Music is another trigger, music of all genres.
What are some of your favorite books you’ve read in the past year?
In the Wake on Blackness and Being (Christina Sharpe) and A Map to the Door of No Return (Dionne Brand); Praisesong for the Widow (Paule Marshall) and Remote Control and Lagoon (Nnedi Okorafor) and Pleasantview (Celeste Mohammed). I read all genres and they inspire and fuel new poems.
Why do you write and what do you like to write about the most?
The voices of my poems are Black and Brown women universally, as our voices are usually dismissed; our view of the world is not heard, our stories are not heard. I like to let the sun shine on the voices of these women.
Who are some of your writing inspirations?
Sonia Sanchez, Tamara J. Madison, Nnedi Okorafor, Octavia Butler, Isabel Wilkerson, Zora Neale Hurston, Lucille Clifton, Carolyn Rodgers, Jayne Cortez, Wanda Coleman, Amina Baraka, Alice Coltrane (even though she is a musician, her music inspires me), Amira Baraka, James Baldwin and a bunch more.
If you could get coffee with any writer (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
Wanda Coleman. This semester I am facilitating a workshop with a focus on her life and works. I am drawn to her determination that did not allow anything to stop her from being that poet. Many writers worry too much about being accepted, instead of being who they are. Wanda was always Wanda.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that doesn’t have to do with writing.
I like musicals (don’t tell anyone).
What are you working on now? Is there anything we can promote?
I am working on a full-length poetry book to follow my chapbook “Every Morning a Foot is Looking for My Neck” (2019 Central Square Press).