Five questions for Renée Watson and Ekua Holmes

In Black Girl You Are Atlas (Kokila/Penguin, 12–17), Renée Watson insightfully explores Black girlhood and womanhood through poetry encompassing a variety of experiences and influences, with an emphasis on support from other Black women, all accompanied by Ekua Holmes’s stunning collages. National Poetry Month is in April; see also “At home with poetry” for recommendations for younger readers, our March/April issue of the Magazine with its mini-theme of “Poetry & Folklore,” our #HB100 Poetry tag, and our Guide/Reviews Database subject tag Poetry

1. Black girls are bombarded with negative images about themselves. How has art helped you define for yourself what it means to be a Black girl/Black woman?

Left: Photo of Renée Watson (c) Shawnte Sims.
Right: Photo of Ekua Holmes (c) Justina Thompson.

Renée Watson: Though Black girls are bombarded with negative images about ourselves, I was also given poems like “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, “homage to my hips” by Lucille Clifton, and “Nikki-Rosa” by Nikki Giovanni. I think having these poems about resilience, beauty, and pride is what helped me see my worth. These poets spoke to me and their words took root in my heart. There were certainly other voices telling me I was less-than because of my Blackness, my girl-ness. But the voices of these women proved louder and stronger.

Ekua Holmes: In my generation, Black girls were ignored by the media. Without books and television shows that featured us, I was fortunate to have powerful and supportive women in my life. My elegant, forward-thinking mother, who supported my desire to become an artist and sacrificed to send me to an alternative school. Her sisters, Louise, Callie, and “Sister,” who modeled for me various ways to be a Black woman. My librarian aunt who colored in the faces of white Santa Clauses at Christmastime. My hairdressers who “raised” me with conversation while I wiggled in their chairs wincing at an occasional steam burn, and my ballet teacher, the incomparable Ms. Elma Lewis, who brought her Garveyite upbringing and philosophies into the class and onto the stage.

Now there are so many images, many of them very hurtful. Through my art I make a world that reflects all that we are in my neighborhood. The saints and geniuses, the kings and queens, the prophets and gurus. The beauty of Black girls as they go about growing into themselves is a central subject that always includes a little piece of me.

2. Renée, how do you decide what form to use for a poem?

RW: When I am writing odes or poems of celebration, I tend to write free verse poetry. The words usually flow for me when I am writing about something joyful. Not having to follow any rules about syllables or the number of lines or rhyme schemes gives me the most freedom to express myself.

When I am grappling with sorrow or anger, asking hard questions, or writing about something that feels too hard to put into words, I turn to formula poems such as haiku, pantoums, sonnets, etc. These poems provide structure and give me a container to put my emotions into. With formula poetry, I only have a limited number of words and amount of space to express these feelings. It feels less intimidating when I have rules to guide me of how many syllables a line can be, or which lines to repeat. These structures add a kind of comfort, and I feel less overwhelmed by the blank page. Formula poetry is also a way to challenge myself to play with language and pushes me to say something in a unique way or a way that I’ve never said it before.

3. Ekua, which poem was your favorite to illustrate, and why?

EH: There are so many favorites, but the pairing of the poem “Scalp” and the illustration Hairstory #2 gave me great pleasure. I love that the hair has been separated and oiled and sits ready for the creative magic of the artist, whoever they may be, to display its “testimony” and “sculpt it into a crown.” This collage is like a visual haiku, a moment in time emphasizing color, simplicity, and honesty.

4. If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

RW: I would tell little Renée to give herself grace. Growing up Black and girl, Christian and economically poor, I received a lot of messages — spoken and unspoken — about how I should show up in the world: prove stereotypes about you wrong, be ladylike, be humble, be grateful, work hard…and on and on. These messages sometimes made me feel that I had to be perfect, that my needs should come second to everyone else’s, that I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes. There was a lot of pressure to perform excellence to prove my worthiness. I have grown from that little people-pleasing girl into a woman who is not trying to prove anything.

EH: As a young girl I spent a lot of time on my own. As a creative, I often felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. To young Ekua I would say this: your gifts will make room for you and bring you to where you need to be and to whom you need to be with. Your path is yours alone. Have faith in what your soul is saying and just keep going.

5. Black Girl You Are Atlas highlights the strength and resilience of Black girls and women. What do you do when the world gets heavy? How do you restore your strength?

RW: Many of the poems speak about sisterhood and friendship. When the world gets heavy, I turn to my sisters and friends. I’m fortunate enough that I have three older sisters — who are like friends — and I also have good friends who are like sisters. These women have walked alongside me through some of my darkest days and have also celebrated with me in some of my most joyous moments. We strengthen each other, we pray for each other, we encourage each other, we hold each other up.

EH: I work a lot and love all the creative pursuits I am involved with. In my art studio I experience peace and joy. A trip to the library or to a museum, or traveling an unknown road in search of yard sales and thrift stores — these things give me oxygen and allow my mind to wander and reset. A good dinner with friends and family supplies connection, laughter, and love. Also knowing and honoring when I need to talk and share my feelings and who to share them with.

From the March 2024 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Nicholl Denice Montgomery

Nicholl Denice Montgomery is currently working on a PhD at Boston College in the curriculum and instruction department. Previously, she worked as an English teacher with Boston Public Schools.

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