“When I think about where I was, it was just me, and my daughter, and a hundred flyers,” says Monifa Lemons, co-founder and director of The Watering Hole, a South Carolina-based poetry collective dedicated to poets of color. When she moved South Carolina, Lemons felt displaced from the creative scene in her hometown of New York City. Lemons, then a working, single mother of a seven year old, was determined to create the change she wanted to see. She secured an open-mic night venue at the Jamaican restaurant This, That, and the Other in Five Points and Cool Beans Coffee Company. Lemons and her daughter walked down Main Street together, posting flyers for the spoken-word scene she had created. That was 1998.
Today, Lemons directs The Watering Hole (TWH). Started as a Facebook group with just eighteen people, TWH now serves as a safe space to over 500 members. In 2016, TWH was invited to present at James Madison University’s Furious Flower Poetry Center, the first center in the nation to be dedicated to African American poetry. This poetry conference only occurs every ten years. Furious Flower has honored nationally revered poets such as Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, and in 2016, Rita Dove. TWH also offers an annual Winter Retreat, where they offer expert education to Southern poets at economical prices. “I don’t create it if I can’t buy it,” explains Lemons.
Lemons has also has recently been published. Her work has been chosen for an anthology of Southern poetry entitled Home is Where, edited by Emmy award winning poet Kwame Dawes. Lemons’s poetry, like herself, is incredibly dynamic. In the beginning, she was strictly a spoken word poet. Also an accomplished actress, Lemons would jot down poems between scenes, drawing inspiration from 90s-era hip-hop. Presently, however, she has focused her poetry to reflect the many facets of herself. She writes about motherhood, specifically what it is like to be a single, black mother. She also writes about womanism (a form of feminism that emphasizes women’s natural contribution to society, used by some in distinction to the term feminism and its association with white women) and injustice. Her spoken word poetry is ever-changing. She reworks one piece in particular, “For Brown, for Rice, for Garner,” every time she performs, putting her poetry in a perpetual state of metamorphosis. In “Black Girls,” (below) she talks about her daughters praying over cereal and hoping for decorated pencils. In “B’s and H’s”, she provides a cutting condemnation of misogyny in the music industry. Lemons is a poet who can do it all, and do it all well.
When ask if her poetry is confessional, Lemons responds, “it is confessional, but it speaks for a sect of people who are not represented well.” Lemons has dedicated much of her time and craft to bringing to light what much of the poetry world ignores. Lemons is continuing the adroit work of her inspirations, Nikky Finney, Patricia Smith, and Roger Bonair-Agard. Though Lemons is a New York native, she also has a bracing Southern perspective in her work. In her youth, she spent her summers raising hogs and feeding chickens at her grandmother’s farm in Camden, South Carolina. “I’ve always been a kindred spirit to South Carolina … when opportunities came up to move back to New York, I never would,” she says. With Lemons’s recent publication, she is adding to the rich literary legacy of South Carolina, while also providing her own idiosyncratic commentary on motherhood, hip-hop, and injustice.
Two Poems by Monifa Lemons
I know Black Girls
Black girls running around in panties.
Black girls praying. Even over cereal.
Black girls bouncing. or sitting on stairs.
Black girls lit at the gift of notebooks and decorated pencils.
I know black girls
Black girls who hug with the wholeness of their arms
Fast black girls. Free.
Black girls who smile at no one.
I know black girls who pass mirrors and do their own hair.
Black girls showing off.
Black girls screaming.
I know black girls who silence when grandmothers speak.
I know them.
I know black girls who arch backs to drum beats and sax who make it truth because they say so they told them on the way here to us black girls who believe in their sisters hood who don’t ask for black dolls they expect them black girls who strut through your space and whip their hips passed newsstands they know they know they know they know black girls who blow and hush and hum and rhythm and concoct and draw and spell and conjure up you and you and you and you. i know them. I know them black girls and they comin’ for you.
You look good. You. Look good. Yeah
Good. Looking good. What are you doing? Now what are you doing? You
Look good. What have you been doing?
What have you
not been doing? What were you not doing?
When did you care? When
did you care about looking good? When you do that,
you look good.
Look, you are good. You are
You care now. You now care. Care has been taken. Now.
What were you doing? What have you done?
You care. Now.
now look at you.
We care to look at you. You look good.