(Cover Art: Chris Siemasko)
Reading Jacquese Armstrong's poetry is like going on a journey with her, but not only that, it is also an absorbing, enlightening educational experience. When we first had the opportunity to explore her work, we were awe-struck by how deftly she sculpts her poetry, the shrewd creative freedom throughout, and the power imbued in her words. The depth with which Jacquese reveals her story and displays before the reader her hopes, fears, perceptions, and experiences draws you in and creates an instant empathetic bond between poet and reader. We are excited to have the opportunity to publish Jacquese's new chapbook, dance of the shadows, and for our audience to experience her passionate and inspiring creative work.
RUTH F. HUNT: Poetry often has the power to elicit reflection and challenge our emotions and mindset. In the article you wrote about living with schizoaffective disorder (Living with Schizophrenia), you mentioned how you developed a four-part strategy from one of your poems. Can you tell me about the poem that inspired this strategy?
JACQUESE ARMSTRONG: The poem, like most poetry I write, just kind of flowed from my pen one day, and when I examined it, I knew it was the way I resumed my “walk” every time I fell.
This is the poem:
is a thief
until you refocus
and cheat the thief
out of his spoils.
I wrote the poem while in a peer training course and gave it to all my peers at the end. I tend to do that with my poetry as encouragement for people. I usually frame them.
After I had written the poem, I wrote an essay explaining exactly what the 4R’s—refocus, reevaluate, redefine, and redirect—meant.
HUNT: It can be quite difficult for those of us with severe mental illness to progress, especially if we believe that the “thief” has won. Your strategy helps with this process, doesn’t it? Can you describe to us some particulars of this strategy and how it can help people after a period of ill health/relapse?
ARMSTRONG: It’s a process for reframing and moving on, but you have to let go and truly believe in where you’ve decided to go. For those of us with mental health challenges, or any challenge or loss for that matter, it is essential. Otherwise, you end up in a rut. It’s an exercise to change your thinking and therefore the direction of your life. I encourage your audience to read more about it on my website: onepoeticvision/resilience.
HUNT: Do you often find that the creative process involved in producing a poem has led to answers and a deeper understanding of yourself and others?
ARMSTRONG: I’m amazed sometimes when I write. I may get an answer to a problem or see the problem more clearly. It lends quite a bit of insight. And the more you understand yourself in Truth, the more you understand others.
That’s the kind of poetry I write. I’m a truth seeker and have come to understand that everyone on the planet was born with a piece of the Truth and we will never approach a satisfying level of understanding unless we seek to understand ourselves first, and then consider everyone’s point of view, even those we consider morally wrong. We can learn from everyone. That’s what we’re here for.
HUNT: That’s a strong message for today’s world, and seems to be very pertinent to the question of stigma. You are on the advisory committee for AACT-NOW, which is part of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) - http://www.naminj.org. I would love for you to talk a bit about the great work ACCT-NOW does and why it is so important.
ARMSTRONG: AACT-NOW is the African-American Mental Health Outreach program of NAMI-NJ (National Alliance on Mental Illness New Jersey). We perform community outreach, organize support groups, and have educational programs to enrich the African-American community’s understanding of mental illness. Stigma is especially great among minority groups, and this not only makes it hard for those who are dealing with their illness, it can keep those who need services away from them. We think education and support are the ways to best help our community.
One of the programs we have, one that I created, is called The Onset Program. We use churches as venues to give a presentation that calls attention to the onset of mental illness in college. We give information from three perspectives: the student, the parent, and the mental health professional.
I created this program because my own onset was in college at age twenty, and I had no idea what was happening to me until it was almost too late. I want to give everyone a “head’s up,” so to speak, and make them more aware of their mental health.
HUNT: The debate about mental illness and how it is linked to creativity has been around for some time. The British poet Luke Wright said: “A lot of creativity comes from a conflict somewhere in your mind. I don't think you have to be 'mad' to be a poet, but if your mind is alive, then it can produce both positive and negative responses. It can mean wonderful things, but it can mean that fitting into 'normal' life is difficult.” Do you agree with Wright?
ARMSTRONG: I think his statement is fair. Creative people tend to think outside the box and rarely follow convention unless absolutely needed. The problem comes in when you can’t follow convention at all because your mind is stuck in an alternate reality. Some things I write may be surreal to you, and you understand them on another level and think, “Wow, she’s deep.” But in actuality, I am really experiencing them that way. This is where the challenge comes in. This is why I have the 4R’s. I have often been knocked down by perceptual differences, but, thankfully, I only experience this occasionally now.
Also, poetry, and any writing for that matter, can be very healing…it’s a very cathartic processes, which can only be good for mental health. It can only make you grow as a person.
HUNT: I’m curious about what your writing process looks like. I find it fascinating how much it varies from writer to writer…how do you personally set about constructing a poem?
ARMSTRONG: I know this goes against everything that they tell you about being a writer or poet, but I only write when inspired. And I consider myself a conduit. Sometimes things just pour on the page—I edit them, though.
There are other times when I may be thinking to myself and get a line I’d like to pursue or a title, and I write it down for later when it flows. I also tend to have a cycle of constant creation and then nothing. And, when nothing comes, I wonder if I’ll ever write again. But time has proven that I do.
It’s funny, I never wrote outside of classes until I got sick. I was a junior in chemical engineering when I had the break, and I had no intention of being a poet or writer. Now it has become a part of my identity.
HUNT: That is interesting, I’ve heard that from other creatives, they may start out on one path but later emerge as poets, writers, and artists due to a particular personal experience or several connected experiences. It’s as if these events direct them down a path they had never envisioned.
ARMSTRONG: Yes. Also during that same period, there was an African-American literature class I took that was very influential and introduced me to poetry from the Black Arts Movement. I thought, this is great. A poem can be anything you’re thinking, and there are no constraints. So, I latched on to the poetry of people like Nikki Giovanni, Carolyn Rodgers, and Sonia Sanchez. These three women are the reason I write poetry today.
I liked Nikki Giovanni because of her boldness and directness. Carolyn Rodgers because she wrote this poem “breakthrough” that so succinctly described how I felt at the time. I still revisit it. And what can you say about Sonia Sanchez… Her poetry is manna from heaven. I wrote a poem in tribute to her, which was published on For Harriet’s Soar website. I also love Gwendolyn Brooks. I’m very old school. And I really feel Alice Walker’s poetry.
Also, when I was little, I had a fascination with Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I still see my life in those poems.
HUNT: Your new chapbook, dance of the shadows, goes on pre-order beginning May 2017 here at GFT Press. How would you describe dance of the shadows? How much of the experiences that led you down your creative path emerge within the pages of this collection?
ARMSTRONG: dance of the shadows is a creative statement on my mind at challenging moments. I tried to capture certain aspects of my “alternate universe.” It also illustrates that healing and recovery are possible…though not simple.
This is why I disclose that, number one, I made a conscious decision not to participate in the “shame game.” And, two, that I want to be a part of the solution that brings society closer to acceptance and away from stereotypes. It’s my ambition to educate, inspire, and motivate from a mental health perspective.
One of my central goals is to be a successful inspirational speaker. By successful, I mean that I have no shortage of invitations. Right now, I only speak on occasion. The other is to write a national column on mental health. I’m on the first step, I am an occasional survivor columnist on the Ourselves | Black website and have just started a column in New York City Voices: A Peer Journal for Mental Health Advocacy, a newspaper that comes out twice a year. The first entry will appear in the summer edition.
It’s a process for both. In my poetry, I embrace the journey, because, in the final analysis, it is very hard to get your stuff out there.
HUNT: And the people who are going to be reading your poems in dance of the shadows, what is your desired outcome for them?
ARMSTRONG: As far as my aspirations for readers?
ARMSTRONG: First, I hope that this collection of poems will help reduce the stigma associated with mental health challenges. But as far as any further aspirations for readers, I want them to feel whatever it is they feel and feel it with intensity. I want them to explore those feelings and discover the truths residing there.
I also want “in our natural state” to act a solidarity statement for anyone who has felt like an outsider at any time in their lives. I wrote it for us.
Obviously, readers will also find that I don’t only write poetry from a mental health perspective. On the contrary, only a small portion of my poems deal with the subject of mental health. I predominantly write about the historical relationship between Blacks and the United States and how it relates to me in the present, and how I can improve on that stance in the future. Readers will notice that the first poem in the collection, “invocation of the ancestors,” calls on my ancestors for Power and strength. I hope to use this poem first in any book I publish.
With that being said, I have a collection I’m circulating right now called for sisters who fear their own magnificence. It is an open love letter to my sisters of color. It emphasizes sisterhood and reminds us of the paths other women and men have taken to get us to this point. To quote the title poem:
we are blinded
that never passed our grandmothers’
intimidated by stalking shadows of park and madison/
garner our self-obsessed mirrors
‘cause that’s the tv series they want us
The collection is an attempt to urge my sisters to look back and bring it forward in a unique way. I think our magnificence is rooted in our inheritance, which is manifested on all the pages of our history.
I urge us to:
create the screenplays
that will play out
and the next day
and the next day
we have that power
and that power cultivates change
as sure as a certain seed cultivated
will grow blossoms
HUNT: We here at GFT Press absolutely love your poetry and your message. I want to thank you for talking with us about not only your creative work but the social work you are doing within the mental health community, as well. I know that we are all equally excited about the release of dance of the shadows. We wish you nothing but the best.