Amina Jordan-Mendez is a poet, spoken word artist, and educator from Western Massachusetts. They are the 2020-21 Straw Dog Writers Guild Emerging Writers Fellow and the inaugural recipient of this fellowship.
Speaking to Valley of Writers about Amina’s selection, Fellowship founder, Nicole M. Young said, “There’s a unique rawness to Amina’s work – one that is very poignantly relevant to the crises of our society as they are relevant to race, gender, sexuality and class oppression that speaks to igniting spirits of young people to get involved in the work all while offering points of engagement to a diverse audience.”
Amina themself, once wrote, “Much of the intellectual property of Afro people has always been storytelling, poetry, song. I write for my soul. I teach for my heart. In my curriculum, I strive to invite young people of color into poetry, wellness, spiritual health, advocacy, radical accountability.”
And yet, despite their obvious talent, they have often felt discouraged and unsupported. Finding creative space as a Queer, Black, AfroLatinx woman hasn’t always been easy.
Valley of Writers’ Fungai Tichawangana spoke to Amina about their journey into poetry, growing up in Western MA, and being nominated as the Straw Dog Writers Guild Emerging Writers Fellow.
What one thing do you keep avoiding that you badly want to achieve as an artist?
Whew! I love this question! I find that I’m often asking myself questions like these, flirting with the edge of the ever-changing comfort zone.
I would say that I am avoiding editing some of the more deeply vulnerable poems that touch on either traumatic events, or thought processes that ask me as an artist to toss to the side everything I know about who I am and who I’ve been. Picking up these poems feels heavy, and I always say “Hold on! I haven’t lifted this much weight in a long time!”
During the quarantine, though, I’ve had more quiet moments to walk a bit more mindfully in that direction.
Were you surprised to be nominated for the fellowship? What three things did you are planning to achieve as an artist during your fellowship year?
I was shocked! As an independent artist I have applied for fellowships and competitions, more for the experience of readying material and myself for collaboration and/or support, not usually expecting to be chosen out of so many applicants. So when I heard that I was awarded the Straw Dog Fellowship I was so elated and honored! It felt like a real opportunity to formalize my poetic presence, and to gather resources to start this professional journey.
During this fellowship I am working to:
- Create and maintain meaningful supportive connections with other artists, and the organizations that celebrate us,
- Get a good start on a collection of poetry for publishing,
- and Show up for the arts and poetry community as an advocate for young people, bringing awareness to mental and emotional health and wellness through spiritual and artistic expression
As a Facilitator for Youth Development and Advocacy, I am very passionate about highlighting human-centered expression and connection so that we may continue to see our young people creating, sharing, and believing in the power of art, and the power of their voices and stories. Ultimately that is my main goal and focus.
You’ve spoken about your work with young people before, and this is something you love doing. What would you say are the biggest killers of creative energy and creative confidence that young people face?
I really like how you mention “Creative Energy” and “Creative Confidence.” I think both take a huge blow as we grow and develop, especially in this American culture that is far from human-centered, or youth-friendly.
That said, I don’t think Creative Energy ever dies or gets completely stamped out. I think it is often redistributed away from its most original and natural expression, toward those that are more accepted in society–even if they are destructive to self or others, or completely misplaced and not serving the creator.
I find that adultism is a major detriment to the Creative Confidence of young people. We as a society carry certain expectations of “growing up” and “Getting serious” that do not allow for creative wiggle room. This mindset labels Fun, Curiosity, and Creativity as a waste of time, and Stress as not only an inevitability but a necessity. Almost like the “if it stings it’s working” idea. As a classroom educator, I see this happen a lot in classrooms, especially within the public school system.
This definition of Achievement, or Goodness, being defined completely by outside validation and benchmarks.
When young people are more encouraged to fulfill the requirements of predetermined answers and static information for the sake of ‘basic knowledge’ we fail to engage their sheer human brilliance, their unique youth perspectives, their raw and present creative thinking and expression.
We need both for well-rounded development. We all, folks of any and all ages, know this. I believe it’s our responsibility as adult allies of young people and youth development, to regularly engage and interact with practical academic goals, and (honestly even more so), the creative and unique and heart-forward conversations of humanities, fun, creativity for creation’s sake and not consumption or productivity, and celebrate mistakes much more! I myself am a big kid and will forever appreciate the newness and possibility of the youthful mind.
During the online launch event for the fellowship, you read a poem that was directed at your mother. In it, you said that growing up, “The bus was a scary place.” Is the bus still a scary place?
Oh my, yes. Haha! That poem really touched on my experience with anxiety, Anti-Blackness, and the helplessness that we often feel in our youth. We are all in search of a safe place, or thinking of returning to a safe place whether that be your home, your bed, moments alone, or in company with loved ones. The bus was one of the first places I could feel the effects of my absolute discomfort in such a direct and isolated way.
Connecting this to the discomfort of my mother- who I’d come to understand is reflective of my future as a Black AfroLatinx Woman in America- meant being able to dissect how we are asked to show up in the world and either perform acceptability or dare to push folks to humanize our existence as we are.
I believe ‘the bus’ which is really a metaphor for the world, will continue to be a scary place for me, and people like me.
And the only way this will shift is if I continue to show up in all my unfiltered and unapologetic Blackness and Queerness and Greatness, so the children in my life, the youth I so admire, can walk through the world and trailblaze even further
“The bus was one of the first places I could feel the effects of my absolute discomfort in such a direct and isolated way.” Was this because of the ’sharks’ you spoke about in your discussion with Diana?
I think they are definitely related. The way anxiety puts us on edge, what could very well be the crests of waves, appear as the fins of sharks.
That said, given my blatant ‘minority’ status, I tended to attract the eyes of folks who, whether intentionally or unintentionally could and would cause me harm.
I think we also think of ‘shark’ and think of a mindless savage that torments us and creates fear. When sharks are also just doing what they know to do in order to survive.
In a human context, the responsibility is on people to not prey on one another
It’s also our responsibility to protect and uplift ourselves, despite that folks seek to prey on some of our marginalized identities.
You work as an educator. How do you make time to write? How often do you write?
Actually, I find that working with young people inspires even more opportunities to write.
I’m always talking about intentional spaces, uncovering and discovering our identities, community wellness, and cultural shifts.
The discussions we have, the writing they generate, the questions they ask, the wisdom they offer always inspire and ignite my thinking.
I often find myself either writing poems, monologues, short stories, or adding to a novel I’m currently working on, after sessions with youth participants.
In general, I write a little bit every day. When inspiration hits I’m always taking notes on my phone, or recording a quick stanza.
You can keep up with Amina on their Instagram account @illypsisspeaks.
Check out their website illypsispoetry.com.
I love the quote on adultism and creativity. So true. We limit ourselves as we grow. Society puts a lot of pressure on us to conform. Amina has such a great way of seeing the world – and yes, I feel I am constantly in search of a safe space too. All the time. All the damn time. There are few of those in the world.