Poet Simone John talks her book ‘Testify’ and Sandra Bland’s legacy on the anniversary of her death in AAIHS interview
As part of their continuing coverage on the life and impact of Sandra Bland, the activist who was pulled over and aggressively arrested following a broken taillight in 2015 then found dead in the Waller County Jail less than a week later, AAIHS (African American Intellectual Historical Society) interviewed poet Simone John.
John is a poet, educator and facilitator who is based in Boston, Massachusetts. She has an MFA from Goddard College with an emphasis on documentary poetics. John’s poetry has either appeared in or been reviewed by The Boston Globe, Public Pool, PBS Newshour and Bustle among others. In addition to this, John is also the Associate Director of Organizational Equity Practice at Trinity Boston Foundation as well as the Chief Creative Officer at Hive Soul Yoga.
John was interviewed by Phillip Luke Sinitere, Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies.
Sinitere asked a wide range of questions relating to both John’s work and Sandra Bland’s legacy. When asked to share about the origin of her collection of poems Testify, John replied:
“I think Testify’s evolution traces and locates Black women, visible and invisible, throughout the text. At first the Black woman is a literal witness to state violence—Rachel Jeantel’s testimony transcript from Trayvon Martin’s trial. Then the proximity shifts to an intimate perspective: Black mourning for a slain son, sibling, and partner. The final shift centers the Black woman as a target of state violence, which frames the section about Sandra Bland. Testify started as a way for me to grapple with the feelings I had about Martin’s murder. I know that the United States is not a fair and equitable place for Black people. But what felt coded became implicit with Trayvon’s trial: Black life is disposable. This revelation led me to question how this truth shaped other realities: what does it mean to live and love in a country that has explicitly rendered you expendable? Then I began paying more attention to the women on the periphery of those incidents, those considered “collateral damage,” the families and communities impacted long after the news coverage fades. Finally, there was me, standing in the bull’s-eye.”
Asked about the religious language present in “Ars Poetica” John replied:
“An ars poetica is a poem about poetry. It can be difficult to read poetry quickly. Something often gets lost that way. Every small detail as slight as a line break has meaning in a poem. Poems require you to slow down, and one reaction to that is resistance. I feel it myself sometimes when I read poetry, the desire to look away. Even as a voice in my head reads the lines on the page, a partitioned part of my brain might be thinking about something else. For me, that metaphor mirrors people’s desire to look away from the realities of race and gender-based violence. It is uncomfortable to confront and some people will look for any excuse to do anything else. Because once to know, you are responsible for every action you take—or don’t take—going forward. The line about quotation marks is also a comment on proximity. Quotation marks convey distance, allow you to place these words in a fictional setting. I wanted readers to know that this is not fiction.”