Culture

The Tempest Interview: Jo Essense on Finding Beauty in Color and Words

"It’s my way of saying, 'I see you and I support you.'”

I first encountered up-and-coming poet @jo.essence’s short free-form poetry on Instagram, before discovering that she also posts her work on Tumblr. Online, Jo calls herself a “storyteller, lover of melanin and child of the sun”; all three traits come across clearly in the Haitian writer’s poetry, which tackles everything from self-love to spirituality to romance to race.

The 27-year-old wordsmith, who says she is enjoying staying faceless for the time being, lives in Miami and has studied psychology and public health at the University of South Florida and Bethune-Cookman University. She took some time to respond to our questions.

TT: You began using Instagram for your poetry fairly recently, just about a month ago. How does social media fit into your writing life?

Yes. Recently, Instagram and Tumblr are becoming MAJOR parts of my life. I did not anticipate the challenges that it would bring. I’m still trying to figure out Tumblr! Nonetheless, it gives me an opportunity for growth, a place where I can showcase my work, and give people the opportunity to get to know me.

TT: Did you study writing in school, or are you a self-taught poet?

I am a self-taught poet. Although I did not study writing in school, writing has and will always be my first love. As a young child, I was forced to read books, which later prompted me to write. And I would read and I would write for days. It was my escape from reality. And that’s where my love for writing began.

Jo calls herself a “storyteller, lover of melanin and child of the sun” Click To Tweet

TT: The central theme of your poems seem to be loving your skin. How does your identity as a black Haitian woman affect your poetry?

It took some time to be comfortable in this skin – years, to be exact. And I am still learning. It’s a beautiful journey, although the journey of unbecoming and becoming can be challenging. I want others to learn how to be comfortable in their own skin and to understand that they are others who share similar experiences. I want them to know that they are not alone in this journey. No one is perfect, and we are all a work in progress.

As a woman of color, I felt the need to speak on struggles of being black, being a woman and being of Haitian ancestry. It gives me the opportunity to touch on struggles that are affecting a particular group of people.  

Some of my poetry are influenced on the diaspora, learning from mistakes and loving the person that God created you to be.

TT: Much of your poetry references God and prayer. How does your spirituality impact your poetry?

Spirituality impacts every aspect of my life, so my poetry is not exempt. It all goes back to God. And for that I am thankful.

TT: Is there a poem you’ve written that you’re proudest of?

There are many poems that I am proud of. Especially some of my most recent ones. They are the most gut wrenching. Heartbreaking. Emotional poems to date. They come from a place of pain and beauty. All which showcase growth.

Due to copyright issues I cannot post my top favorite, so this is my second favorite. It talks about the plight of immigrants, the diaspora, people of color and culture.

immigrants // warriors

For the men.
For the women.
For the children.
Who had to tuck their country flags deep inside of their pockets.
Swallow their native tongues
Hid any traces of their homeland
In order to embrace the bitterness of a foreign one.
For those who traveled the roughest of seas
Wrestled with the four winds
Fought and faced their unfortunate fate with Poseidon
For those who conquered wars against their skin
Against their tribe
Against their Ville
Against their own fellow countrymen
For those who manage to save a piece of home
In between their teeth
In the pronunciation of their names
In between the grooves of their fingertips
And managed to grow flowers in the pit of their stomachs.
For those who stared boldly at the sun
And demanded respect from the clouds
Only to be met with rain and hail
From the wrath of Zeus
For those who survived
Tsunami waves and earthquakes
That took place in their bodies
May you remember that you are not alone.
May you remember the sweetness of home
In your favorite home cooked meal.
In the accent of another
That reminded you
Of mother.
Of father.
Of sister.
Of brother.
Of you.
May you never forget
Even when the ground seems
To crack from underneath you
Remember that there were others like you
Who conquered countries on top of countries
To make room for you.
May you never forget
Who you are
When you stare at yourself in the mirror.

TT: What poem do you wish you had written?

I will like to say that some poems come to you. Impregnate you, waiting for the birth of their arrival. And then you deliver. It all depends on their season. And then there are some poems that you must bury. The ones that you must never show the light of day. My only wish is that I can write more to reach the hands of the masses. So they can find healing. Growth. Love. And peace.

TT: How do you begin a poem? Do you follow a writing routine?

I do not have a set writing routine. For me that does not work. At all! The poems just come, and I listen and write their stories. On some days I can begin writing one line and don’t come back until days later and I have completed that piece. And some days, I start and I can’t stop writing. They just come. And they come. And I write and I write. And I wonder where they have been hiding all this time!

As a woman of color, I felt the need to speak on struggles of being black, being a woman. Click To Tweet

TT: You often use visuals from other artists of color, like David Uzochukwu and Will Sterling, to illustrate and accompany your work; other times, you simply post your writing. What makes you choose a piece of artwork to feature?

In choosing an artwork, I let it speak to me. And I question myself: Will it speak to others, too? The majority of the visuals correlate with my work. I choose pictures that broadcast the beauty of melanin, and the different shades that it come in. It is my way of showing my love and support to people of color, and the artists – models, photographer, etc. – behind the photo. It’s my way of saying, “I see you and I support you.”

TT: What are you reading currently?

Right now, I am finishing reading Claire of the Sea Light, a novel set in Ville Rose, Haiti, by Edwidge Danticat.

Find jo.essence’s poetry on Tumblr and Instagram. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan has worked as the Tech + Money editor and Culture + Taste editor at The Tempest. She's a journalist based in Baltimore, covering underrepresented communities and digital culture. Find her work on her website.

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