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National Poetry Month: Bonita Lee Penn finds joy in 'Death Doula's Song'

On the podcast: Pittsburgh-based poet Bonita Lee Penn ’15 talks about being a Black woman poet, publishing her work, and contemplating death with peace.

Episode notes

On our final National Poetry Month episode of the year, Bonita Lee Penn ’15 shares a hopeful poem inspired by death (no really).

About our guest

Bonita Lee Penn is an alumna of our MFA in Creative Writing program, a Pittsburgh poet, and the author of Every Morning a Foot is Looking for My Neck (Central Square Press). Her work has been included in the anthology Where We Stand: Poems of Black Resilience (2022 Cherry Castle Publishing); Taint Taint Taint Literary Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, and others. Penn is also Managing Editor, Soul Pitt Quarterly Magazine, literary program coordinator with United Black Book Clubs of Pittsburgh, and Poetry Instructor for Madwomen in the Attic Creative Writing Workshop (Carlow University).

Check out previous Poetry Month episodes:

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  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    [music starts] This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about book, writing, and the writing life. Hello, my name is Georgia Sparling, and it's the fourth and final episode of our National Poetry Month series. Today, we're finishing with the inimitable Bonita Lee Penn, a Lesley Creative Writing alum, of Pittsburgh poet and the author of Every Morning A Foot Is Looking For My Neck from Central Square Press. Her work has been included in the anthology Where We Stand: Poems of Black Resilience, Taint Taint Taint Literary Magazine, The Massachusetts Review and others. She's also the managing editor of Soul Pitt Quarterly Magazine, and a poetry instructor for the Madwomen in the Attic creative writing workshop at Carlow University. Today, she performs her poem Death Doula's Song, and also talks about her poetry journey, which began when she was very young. [music fades out]

    Bonita Lee Penn

    Poetry to me is like breathing. When I was born, I was a poet. That's all I can say. [music starts] I started writing my own poetry in short plays, I was probably like in elementary school. Well, of course, being a young poet, like elementary school, junior high, high School, it was something that had to deal with childhood: first love, crushes, things of that nature. But as soon as I got out into the world, the world came at me, and I saw things that I would have questions about, so I would write poetry about it. And the world is filled with poems. I mean, poetry is the bloodline of the world, of the whole universe, and I really don't think the world could exist without poetry. [music stops] I write about things that are happening in the world from the view of a regular person. [music starts] I don't try to use big words or anything, I just report what's going on in the world. So it's always about not the underdog, but just regular people walking around. People know me as a, they may call me a political poet because I deal with a lot of things, some, of course, you know, black woman's point of view, you know, everything we everything we say is political for some reason. But we're just telling the truth or how we see it. But now I've been thinking of like, the poem, we're going to read it today is called Death Doula's Song. It's a poem about facing your own mortality. And also, I'm writing a series of poems about the history of the Pentecostal Church, which is like a history from the enslavement and its connection to spirituality from the continent of Africa. I'm working on the stage performance of that from one of my poems, also.  A long time ago, I never really thought of sharing my poetry in publications, because I was so busy writing. And to just start writing was the important thing, of course, until I got around people who were publishing, and I'm just like, "Oh, I guess have to publish, too." I guess when you get of age, you do have to publish. Who's gonna know what your writing if you're not publishing it? [music stops] Today's poem is called Death Doula's Song. And I was inspired by this, I read an article, I think it was in the New York Times Magazine, and it was talking about a death doula as a ritual. And we all have issues with our money, our own mortality, and I definitely don't know what death is really about. Sometimes it's just, you have a lot of anxiety when it comes to that. And after I read this piece, I had such a peaceful feeling about it. I'm not saying I'm still peaceful about death, but I had a peaceful feeling about this experience that I might have. So I set out to write that down in a poem and share that with other people. When I read it, it does calm a lot of people down and it calms me down for the moment that I'm reading it, and it makes us all think about our own mortality. [music fades out] And this poem does start with an epigraph, ones that I did get from the magazine article. Death Doula's Song.

    "Dying has become foreign to us, and it's having some devastating effects, because we don't know what death looks like, what it sounds like, what it feels like. It has given rise to a lot of fear and anxiety. This was from Mariam Ardati, a death doula. [music starts]

    death, we know is an unknown but confirmed destiny, but if i could, let me be ready. i would want my going home, met with joy, with goodbye to this life, and hello to home, with drums, with songs, with doulas that bring life in to this world with warmth and guides you out with as much warmth. light the scented candles, fill the room with flowers and plants that emit fresh air. fill the room with hums, with music from the desert, from the forest, from the mountains, from the jungles, from the west to the north, to the east, to the southern hemispheres. from the concrete streets, from the green grassy yards. let the thunder and lightning sing the chorus of my earthly life, let the moon and sun carry me home. rub my body with my favorite scented oils, massage my face, my arms, my legs, my neck, this death ritual. loudly speak lines from my favorite poems. speak loudly lines of my poems that were your favorite. words spoken out of mouths of family, friends to soothe my soul. speak of this better place, a place of no pain, a place of peace, a safe place. a place where happiness jumps excitedly, to greet me. a place where my language is that of all my ancestors; finally, a place where I understand the songs coming off the waves of the atlantic. whisper to me what will be found in this paradise. the treasure that will be mine. you need to know, so you too will be happy. face me towards the sun. let my wrapped body find home in the sun’s warmth. allow the sins of my life to disintegrate out an opened window as the sage burns, scent of my mother's fresh baked cinnamon buns. this is not a death trip but a pilgrimage to the promise land. that place I was promised. send me in my death wrap, of silks and soft cotton dyed in shades of purple, orange, yellow and indigo, wrap me from head to toe, with cotton tassel ties at the head, waist,

    and feet. let the hums of the end of life doula weave with yours. sing me to that beautiful place.

     [music fades out]


    [music starts] That wraps up our poetry series. I hope you've enjoyed it and that you'll share the episodes with other poetry lovers. Make sure to check out our show notes for links to our Creative Writing program, to learn more about the poets we featured this month and for the transcripts. We have even more wonderful content coming in May. So be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast platform. As always, if you have an idea for the show, email us at news@lesley.edu, and make sure you put podcasts in the subject line. Alright, we'll be back in May. [music fades out]