Pam Johnson Davis Shares Love, Healing & Redemption In Her Best-Selling New Poetry Book
Written by Vocalo Radio on June 30, 2020
In her new poetry book, Chicagoan, author and activist Pam Johnson Davis brings us along her journey of love, laughter, loss, and learning.
It was only a few short months ago that we were honored to interview Pam for our Chi Sounds Like series. She spoke on her work as the Director of Fellow Support with OneGoal, as well as what Chicago means to her (which you can listen to here.)
Ever a bright, unfailing soul, she continues to shine in her gorgeous new collection which premiered at #1 on Amazon’s New Releases on Women’s Poetry and African-American Poetry.
“Seasons (I’ll Be Seeing You): A collection of poems about heartbreak, healing, and redemption” was written from 2013-2020 as Pam navigated divorce, homelessness and job loss. Throughout the book, she moves through unflinchingly the grief, dances unashamedly in the redemption, and unapologetically pours grace upon both herself and her readers.
One section of the book, titled “Black in America” directly speaks to the Black Lives Matter movement playing out in real time across our country. But as Pam told Vocalo, “In order for Black lives to truly matter, we must honor the full humanity of Black folx. This book showcases the fullness of my humanity, as a Black woman who navigated her own personal pain while trying to survive being Black in America.”
We spoke with her on how she decided to bring these stories to light, how she approached writing about such painful topics, and what advice she has for those still on their own journey.
Vocalo: Healing is rarely ever linear. It’s often a long journey filled with twists and turns and false starts and tiny triumphs. How did you discover the role that writing could play in helping you navigate everything?
Pam Johnson Davis: You said that beautifully. That is such an accurate description of the journey to healing. It is filled with change. Sometimes those changes feel really positive, other times they’re extremely difficult. Because of that, for as long as I can remember, I’ve kept journals. I have always felt that writing is how I express my feelings best.
Writing in my journal was the one place I could be completely and totally honest. I could write my pain without restriction, without trying to soften the blow or make the words seem less…intense.
I often describe this work as “poems I wrote in the dark.” I was writing these poems, alone in my room, at night when I hurt the most. I wrote when I had nightmares. I wrote when I couldn’t get out of bed.
After each poem I wrote, I remember feeling the tiniest bit lighter. Like speaking the truth allowed me to inch my way closer to freedom. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know these would ever be published.
Can you tell me the story of the moment you decided you were going to just do it and take your poems and stories and truths to print? And how did you know that now was the time you needed to bring these poems to light?
I remember the exact moment. I was mourning the loss of Black lives here in America due to police brutality. Another video of a Black person being murdered was making the rounds on Twitter. People were rightfully outraged, demanding justice. My heart was racing, aching…and I logged off of social media and I wrote the poem, “hashtags.” I cried while writing it. I released all of my anger and fear and frustration into my poetry journal.
Afterwards, I was flipping through the pages…and I began re-reading poems that dated back several years, from when I was experiencing homelessness and going through divorce. There were poems about loss and grief. There were poems that I wrote as I started therapy. There were poems written as the Black Lives Matter movement really started to take flight. There were poems about falling in love again. There they all were, laid out – my entire journey from 2013 to 2020.
And right in that moment, something came over me – I’ll call it a gut feeling. I knew the time had come for those poems to see the light.
Some of the book’s poems have previously been published on your blog, but you’ve said that many of them were never meant to be seen by other people. What pushed you to be so vulnerable and bring such honesty to the public?
Quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure where the sudden sense of courage & certainty to put these out into the universe came from because, again, these were not written to be published. These were poems I wrote in the dark after all…but the best way I can explain it is I realized I was no longer afraid of the dark. It no longer scared me for others to know the depth of my pain, to know what I survived to become who I am today. It was time for these poems to see the Light. My therapist says this is probably because the past no longer holds power over me. I’m inclined to believe that’s true.
One thing that really pushed me was the decision to not just publish these on my blog, and instead to publish a book. My blog has a particular audience, but books are more universal. This was another vulnerable layer for me. I asked myself, “Am I really willing to put myself out there like this, to share these words, however raw and uncensored they are, not just with my loved ones, but with strangers?” When the answer that came back in my head was a resounding, yet soft, “Yes.” I knew I had my answer. I was going to publish a book.
This collection was written over the course of an eight-year journey. What advice do you have for someone who may be thinking they don’t have the energy or time left to continue on their own journey?
You’re not alone. That is the main thing I would want another person to know. So often, we suffer in silence, thinking we are the only ones who know the pain we’re experiencing. But it’s simply not true.
That is part of why I published this work. To show the story arc – the defeat and the comeback (and the hard times in between). That is also why I’ve been honest about how long it’s taken. From 2013 to 2020. There is no quick fix to suffering. It is a journey to healing. And it’s not a straight & narrow path. It’s a windy, wild ride. But it is worth it.
At the beginning of your book you quote yourself by saying, “let this be proof that the richness of My soil is enough to turn darkness into Light.” What are some ways you continue to ensure your soil, your own mental state, is tended to?
There are a few tools that I use to till my own soil.
- Therapy: I cannot say enough about the beauty that comes from therapy. When you commit to it and don’t run away from your truth, it is life-changing. And I know at first it may be hard to bare your soul to a stranger, but keep trying. Let it be beautiful.
- Meditation: I learned to be still and to be present through mediation. I use apps and have attended a few meditation retreats.
- Toolbox: Think of your ‘toolbox’ like a first aid kit for your mental health. Find healthy ways/habits that you can keep in your ‘toolbox.’ These are things you can turn to as you navigate the journey. For me, one of those things is writing.
- Community: never underestimate the power of surrounding yourself with people you love.
You have a section called “Black in America,” which, interestingly, comes in between the sections “Freedom” and “Truth.” Was this intentional?
Ooof, this is a good question. Yes, it was absolutely intentional. Because even in the midst of finding my way to personal freedom, I am still Black in America. And the collective trauma and pain that comes from racism takes its toll on me, daily. So, even though I personally have internally reconciled particular parts of my past trauma, I am still affected by racism every. single. day. And that is my truth.
You deal with years of mourning in this section, as you write about the murders of Black folx in America. How did you approach writing about such a deeply personal and painful topic?
Writing was how I worked through the pain. I couldn’t not write because I couldn’t keep the pain inside of me. I literally felt it in my physical body. And if I didn’t release it, it would manifest itself in other ways. So I wrote it out. And often cried while doing so. And it has helped me to cope.
It’s been years since you began writing about the murders and it’s still, painfully, relevant today. I’m curious, what reflections has the current movement brought to you?
What’s wild is I wrote “You Don’t Know the Struggle” from the Black in America section back in 2016. There is a line in that poem that says, “Whispering, “I can’t breathe…” while your murderer goes free?” And it haunts me…it haunts me because I wrote that in 2016 and in 2020, when Elijah McClain’s brutal murder at the hands of the police in Aurora, Colorado came to national attention, “I can’t breathe” were some of his last words. So many Black & Brown folx have gasped these words as they lay dying, without help, without compassion…without Love. For many years. And this is why we fight. Why we demand justice.
“Seasons (I’ll Be Seeing You)” is unapologetic in showing off every side of you as a talented, multifaceted, emotional, loving, grieving, relatable Black woman. What do you hope this book gives to other Black womxn who read it?
You know, there have been so many conversations around antiracism and equity over the last few years as the Black Lives Matter movement launched, and especially so in 2020. These conversations are necessary, important steps towards racial equity. However, in order for Black lives to matter beyond statements and holidays, we have to be willing to truly see the full humanity of Black folx.
In that way, it truly has been an honor and a privilege to be in a position to share my humanity with those who choose to engage with my work. Especially Black womxn. My hope is that any Black womxn who read my work would know they’re not alone. My hope is that we might feel a sense of connection – of peace, of freedom – together as we journey through “Seasons (I’ll Be Seeing You).”
What does it mean to you, to have your book debut at #1 on Amazon’s New Releases on Women’s Poetry and African-American Poetry?
When I tell you I was stunned, I mean that! As I was going through the publishing process, I didn’t even know that these lists existed. I was so focused on ensuring the quality of this project that I hadn’t thought too far beyond the publication date. So, when one of my close friends sent me a photo of my book on these lists at #1, I was absolutely floored.
It is such an honor for my work to debut at #1 on Amazon’s New Releases on Women’s Poetry and African-American Poetry. I will always cherish that fact. But in the grand scheme of life, numbers are fleeting. In popular culture, I try not to get too caught up in likes or ratings. Because that was never the goal. If I can help one person not to feel alone on their journey of healing, then I’m living into my truth. That’s the ultimate goal.
After all you’ve been through, what’s one lesson you’ve learned from publishing this collection that you would like to tell your readers – young or old – who may be starting their own journey?
If you’re someone who is on your journey to healing, I would simply say don’t give up. Because you are worthy of this. And it’s never too late to start their journey.
For anyone looking to publish, my number one lesson is research, research, research! Especially if you choose to self-publish. There are so many resources out there, from first-hand author accounts to trainings and webinars to help you get started. On Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon’s service), most of these resources are free!
Interviewed & edited for clarity by Shelby Kluver
More from Vocalo:
- Release Roundup: September 2022
- Vocalo’s Late-Summer Nights Out in the Parks
- A Lion For Every House: Interrogating How Art Exists In Space
- Byol DaLeader: A Poet With A Purpose
- Luis Tubens Gives Back To Pilsen Through Art And Education