Family Photos, Grief, and Poetry

A Poetry Squawk
By JP Howard
Author of SAY/MIRROR

JP HowardIt has been six months since my Mama passed away. My debut poetry collection, SAY/MIRROR, was published last year and explored complexities, as well as joys, of growing up with a Leo diva for a mother. My mother was a successful black runway model in Harlem in the 1950s long before she became a mother, and my book includes some of her vintage modeling photos. Mama’s gorgeous sepia-toned photo on my book cover, a rhinestone-studded smoking pipe confidently dangling from her mouth as she sits in a vintage car, staring seductively at the camera, makes me remember when I first showed her the book in her hospice room last year. Her body was frail, but her mind sharp. She held it in her hands, slowly traced the cover with her thin, wrinkled fingers, then looked up at me with a mischievous smile and said, “Damn, I look good!” We both laughed and I loved that, at 91, she was still a diva.

My book was a small part of a larger memoir project that I had been working on prior to her death, inspired by hundreds of vintage and family photos that Mama had gifted me a few years earlier. I had begun to explore our complicated single Mama/only child relationship in memoir form. After her death, I didn’t know if I would be able to write about Mama again. My entry back to writing about us has been slow and sometimes painful. Initially, I spent days looking through her photos, vacillating between crying and laughing. Some brought unanswered questions or prompted historical research about my family’s longstanding presence in Sugar Hill, Harlem. Hardest to view were childhood photographs of Mama and me.

Ultimately, I discovered a smorgasbord of buried treasures in those gifted photos: that small house in Atlantic City that Mama rented for the two of us for one week each summer, with its pastel-pink walls; a Polaroid shot of Mama and me on the boardwalk in rented bikes, Mama in her colorful dashiki, her huge rhinestone-rimmed sunglasses, dangling silver-sparkly earrings and those chunky high-heeled mules she always wore, with me by her side on a purple bike, a skinny little girl with ponytails and lavender barrettes, always slightly embarrassed by Mama’s flamboyant personality; a weathered photo of six-year old me grinning, front tooth missing, next to my huge doll collection; my favorite photo of teenage me and Mama, beaming in front of our Sugar Hill apartment building, and stiff professional studio shots Mama made me sit for each year. I looked sad and distant in some photos and happy, especially in our summer beach photos, where Mama stayed sober all week. I realize now that those photos, initially a painful reminder of my loss, are really generous gifts, and now writing prompts for my memoir.

I recently wrote a short essay connecting Mama’s death to one of my most painful childhood memories and was encouraged when it was accepted for publication. Losing Mama, yet having this huge gift of photos, has allowed me to reminisce, explore and document, via memoir, both beloved and complicated childhood memories.

mama me teenJP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard is a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She is the author of SAY/MIRROR (The Operating System, 2015), a finalist for the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry, and a chaplet “bury your love poems here” (Belladonna Collaborative*). JP is a 2016 Lambda Literary Judith A. Markowitz Emerging Writers Award winner. JP curates and nurtures Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon  (WWBPS), a forum offering writers at all levels a monthly venue to come together in a positive and supportive space. JP is an alum of the VONA/Voices Writers Workshop, as well as a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voices Poetry Fellow. Her poems and/or essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split this Rock, Nepantla: A Journal for Queer Poets of Color, Muzzle Magazine, PLUCK! Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer WomenThe Best American Poetry Blog, and others. JP holds a BA from Barnard College, an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York, and a JD from Brooklyn Law School. You can find her online at