“I am going out in the world resolved to act boogaloo and bug-eyed…” begins the first poem, “Leaving the House” by Anya Creightney, setting the pace for the work that follows in Not Without Our Laughter: Poems of Humor, Joy & Sexuality by the Black Ladies Brunch Collective.
The Black Ladies Brunch Collective (BLBC) began as a social group of six writers from Baltimore, Virginia, and Washington, DC, who met for brunch on Sundays to enjoy each other’s company and support each other’s work. In the Spring of 2016, BLBC presented a group reading at Split This Rock poetry festival titled “Not Without Laughter,” inspired by the title of a Langston Hughes novel. “We wanted to do progressive poems of humor,” said poet Celeste Doaks. After the reading, audience members wanted more and asked the poets if they had any books for sale. “Out of that panel, the book was born.”
The resulting book is Not Without Our Laughter: Poems of Humor Joy & Sexuality. The collection, edited by Doaks, includes work from the six Collective poets: Doaks, Saida Agostini, Anya Creightney, Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Tafisha Edwards, and Katy Richey.
Baltimore-based Mason Jar Press published Not Without Our Laughter. Doaks knew Mason Jar Founder/Editor-in-Chief Ian Anderson and Managing Editor Michael B. Tager through the Writers and Words reading series, and they worked together to turn the BLBC panel into a book. “I was happy to do something with people like Michael and Ian who seem dedicated to the community, two people who are concerned with pushing forward Baltimore writers,” said Doaks. “That was really important to me. And also that they pick work that I respect and like.”
“We’re looking for accessible avant-garde work that pushes the envelope of what art is, but is still very much recognizable as art,” said Tager.
Davis said when Doaks approached her about turning the panel into a book, she thought it was a great idea. “I think it couldn’t have come at a better time, when we really do need laughter to deal with the current situation, the current administration,” she said.
Although many of the themes of the book are universal, and the perspectives of the poets are all individual, the collection specifically showcases black women’s voices and in a way serves as a response to our current political climate.
“The time in history is important for all artwork,” said Doaks. “Whether it’s Picasso or Pablo Neruda, artistic work is often very connected to what’s going on in the world around us. None of us would have known when we were working on the book that Donald Trump from reality TV would have been our president.”
When working on the collection, she was looking to the future and assumed Hillary Clinton would win the election. “We were going to have our first female president and then we’ll have this collection of poems by diverse black women and it will be so cool,” Doaks said of her mindset while editing the book. “And then after November, this collection became something totally different. It became almost like resistance.”
In her editor’s note introducing the collection, Doaks references the marginalization of black women’s voices, recent instances of violence and police brutality, and points to the use of humor by African Americans as a healing force.
“I really can’t think of a time when I think black people in America could say ‘oh this is a grand time and we’re doing well,’” said Davis. “So we’ve always had humor. From Moms Mabley to Richard Pryor, there’s always been some way we fought to laugh about the pain that we had to deal with and endure every day. This anthology speaks to me of that pain and says, ‘ok, we’ve found a way to mine what hurts and make it better and use this as a way to survive.’ And so in a lot of ways this anthology is kind of a workbook on survival for me.”
She expresses that survivalist attitude in “Shit Ain’t Never Simple,” an older poem she brought out and revised for the collection. It’s an anaphora poem that begins “I believe that what doesn’t kill you had better make you stronger” and uses the power of parallelism to drive the point home.
“I just hope that people recognize this anthology is really a testament to how humor is a way we can survive difficult times, and yet also use poetry as a way to divine truths about ourselves and to recognize that we are really equipped with the things we need to survive difficult moments,” she said.
Doaks said each writer had a base of poems from the panel, but it wasn’t enough for an entire collection. “As editor I had to sift through the new work they sent me and figure out how it fit with what I already had,” she said. “Some people got rejected. We argued about whether things were ready to go. It was my job as editor to parse through all that.”
Although the origins of BLBC were social, the group formed a strong working relationship during the process of publishing the book. “We’re united by some other common goals, like wanting women’s voices to be heard in poetry,” said Doaks. “When you have a common goal, anything else that’s an impediment falls away.”
The book is divided into seven sections. Our Moods and Foods introduces the collection, swinging from the gravity of despair in Richey’s “Depression Insists We Stay In,” to mischievous hilarity with Davis’ “That Time I Put Liver in My Panties.” Our Misbehavior? covers topics like desire and sex and a ride on a Harley. Our Good Housekeeping? focuses on domestic matters, such as Edwards’ contemplation of killing a rodent named “Sir Rodrick.” Next comes Our Lists and Litanies, in which Richey delves into self care in “Therapy” and Agostini responds with “Steps to Healing.” Our Body Politics, includes odes to vaginas, a contemplation on the act of breathing, and a reflection on reproduction. Our Technology, plays with hashtags in Edwards’ “#NotYourModelSurvivor.” And Our Divine Chords contains heart-felt homages to Prince, as in Doaks’ “For the Purple One” and Davis’ “Prince—Album Cover.”
“Our poems are really accessible,” said Doaks. “Poetry can be difficult I think our work is pretty – not simplistic, but more transparent than other works.”
Transparent, yes. But the collection as a whole is also complex, with a range of emotions and themes expressed through the Collective’s diverse voices. The individual works touch on everything from everyday nuisances like dealing with a cockroach, to musical icons and their album covers, to sex and sexuality, to therapy and mental health.
For example, Davis contemplates the divine power of rock and roll in “Houses of the Holy—Led Zeppelin’s Album Cover” as she writes “In this temple of bare bottoms and breast buds, my ears follow the steps of the guitar, each chord progression—a gospel raising the hair on my arms.”
And Edwards uses vivid language in “Husbands” to explore the desire for another woman’s partner and the potential ramifications of acting on such an impulse: “What if the woman whose husband I want to fuck cuts my throat and glitter rushes out over her hands, a sea of shine…”
“It’s stuff that people in a lot of ways don’t like to admit,” said Doaks. “That’s what I think is cool about the book. It makes people not feel ashamed about what’s going on in their personal lives or how they feel. Humans have universal feelings about love, house cleaning, sex, all of those sorts of things. And so it’s nice to be able to read something that makes you feel less guilty about your own life.”
Doaks said it was important to her as an editor to include a diverse mix of poetic forms in the collection as well. “We have things that are really straightforward and simple and narrative, and then we have things that are expansive and experimental in form,” she said. “That was really important for me to represent.”
She describes “Atomic Snowstorm” by Edwards as a remix of Creightney’s “Ars Poetica with Fever” and said it’s “really avant-garde, as Michael [Tager] would say, very experimental, very progressive.” The poem plays with spacing and structure and includes parenthetical phrases within parenthetical phrases, deconstructing the words of Creightney’s original verse to create something new.
An example of a narrative poem is Doaks’ own “The Perfect Sign, or Too Much Wine, Not Enough Gratin,” about her relationship with her husband and foretelling the future from a holiday dinner mishap.
A particularly enjoyable, insightful device in the book is the inclusion of response poems, where one poet has written a response to another’s work. One standout pair is “Knowledge of the Brown Body” by Davis, in response to Agostini’s “Harriet Tubman is a Lesbian.”
“It pushed me, as a writer, into some different spaces that I never thought I’d be in,” Davis said of her process in writing the response. “There’s that moment when you’re writing a poem when the poem takes you by the hand, rather than you leading the poem … all of a sudden the language fits together in a way that you were never really conscious of until you began to write.”
Davis had an immediate, visceral reaction to “Harriet Tubman is a Lesbian” and wanted to explore it further when writing her response poem. “It was an amalgamation of so many different things that were in my head at that point,” she said. “Thinking about the Confederacy. Thinking about Harriet Tubman. Thinking about slavery. Thinking about the violence done to black women’s bodies during slavery, and really continuing on into now. And thinking about the courage that she had to go back there.”
Perhaps it’s because the book was borne out of a social group and a panel reading, or perhaps it’s because the voices in the collection are so distinct and clear, but whatever the reason, reading Not Without Our Laughter feels like being drawn into in a raucous and clever conversation—at times serious, at times raw, at times laugh-out-loud hilarious—and, in the end, uplifting.
“If this book gives people hope, if this book makes people feel like their lives are more tolerable, if people laugh from this book, and if they feel like that’s what’s making me be able to withstand what’s going on in the world, then that’s a good thing,” said Doaks. “That’s what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to help people get through the day.”
Not Without Our Laughter: Poems of Humor, Joy & Sexuality by the Black Ladies Brunch Collective can be purchased online here.
More Praise for Not Without Our Laughter…
“Not Without Our Laughter is brilliantly addictive. A collection of talented voices that lyrically blends poems full of passion, pain and perseverance in an honest and sobering way. Not Without Our Laughter offers a rare perspective with insight we all need to experience.”
— D, Watkins, New York Times bestselling author of The Beast Side and The Cook Up
“In body-splitting, heart-baring poems, Not Without Our Laughter rocks you nearly sane. The Black Ladies Lunch Collective spill it hard and beautiful: imagine all this machinery just to love. As celeste doaks says: We find divinity wherever the hell we want.”
—Jan Beatty, Jackknife: New and Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press
Lisa Lance lives and writes in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a nonfiction editor at The Baltimore Review. Her essays and articles have appeared in publications including The Toast, Full Grown People, Baltimore City Paper, Baltimore Magazine, Bmore Art, Engineering.com, National Parks Traveler, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and Sauce Magazine. www.lisalance.com.