“Trayvon Martin was murdered toward the end of my undergraduate career,” said Simone John, a poet just a couple of years older than Martin, the Florida teenager whose killing ignited anguish and anger. John, who grew up in Stoughton, was pursuing her master’s in fine arts in poetry from Goddard College when Martin’s killer was put on trial the next year.
The testimony of Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel — the last person to talk to Trayvon — captured John’s attention, as did the way both black and white people responded to her. Everyone, John recalled, “had a lot of negative things to say about her. From both sides, there was this desire to police what this young black woman was saying.” John was in a workshop that focused on using documents — newspaper articles, court transcripts, public records — to create poetry. She brought in an article about Jeantel. “I left that workshop thinking: This is a book,” John said. “This is not just a poem; this is a book.”
“Testify,” John’s debut collection, includes poems about Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and dozens of other black lives cut short. Her work is also informed by her deep roots in Boston, especially in the triple-decker in Dorchester her family owned, which featured “relatives on every floor, and my nana on the first floor for my entire childhood,” John said.
Her relationship with Boston is complicated by its history of racism. “For black people who live here there’s never been a question about how this city feels about black and brown people,” John said. “It’s not Boston-specific,” she said, but added, “white people in Boston and people who have power in Boston are fully invested in this image of this liberal, educated city,” she said. “That is contrary to the experiences of so many brown people in the city.”
John will read at 7 p.m. Aug. 11 at Porter Square Books.
Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.