Meet Benin Lemus, Honorable Mention of the 2022 Furious Flower Poetry Prize

by Megan N. Medeiros


SUMMARY: Megan sits down with 2022 Furious Flower Poetry Prize Honorable Mention, Benin Lemus to discuss her process and her win in advance of the reading tonight, Wednesday, April 20, 2022 at 5pm.

Benin Lemus, honorable mention of the 2022 Furious Flower Poetry Prize, will be reading alongside winner, Ariana Benson and judge, award-winning poet, Tim Seibles in the first in-person poetry reading at Furious Flower Poetry Center since 2020 tonight, Wednesday, April 20, 2022 at 5pm in Highlands Room in Festival on JMU's campus. Benin is a writer and educator. Her debut poetry collection, Dreaming in Mourning, will be published by World Stage Press in November 2022. She is an active member of the Community Literature Initiative (CLI) and the Sims Library of Poetry; as such, she seeks to create social equity and justice through writing. We sat down for a Q&A with Benin to get to know her a little better.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about how you first heard about Furious Flower and why you applied for the Poetry Prize?benin-lemus

A: "I regularly read Poets & Writers Magazine and one of the things I do⁠—I used to do it more frequently⁠—I would just look in the 'Contests' section in the back and I would make sure to look at poetry contests that I thought would fit my work in the sense that they had a deadline, vision, and mission that alined. When I saw Furious Flower, I loved the name of the poetry center of course, shout out to Gwendolyn Brooks. I also really liked the fact that Tim Seibles was the contest judge. One of the things I look at when I'm submitting work is what's the organization, what do they publish or produce, and who are their contest judges, that sort of thing. I clicked on the link for Furious Flower Poetry Center and I just loved everything about it; I thought, 'Wow! What an incredible place!' a poetry center specifically for Black poets but also just to honor the work of future poets."

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the poems you submitted for the prize?

A: "I submitted three poems. The first one was entitled 'On Arthur and August' and I dedicated it to my students. It's about Arthur Miller and August Wilson and the quick story behind that poem is that I was in a program with Center Theater Group where I had an Artist in Residence and they have the August Wilson Monologue Competition, so that semester I taught Fences. In addition to the other work we were doing with the Theater Group, I decided to teach a full-length August Wilson play in my play class and then I was thinking about another play that I could connect it to, because I like to teach literature in pairs, especially pairing different authors, different time periods, different typographies, etc., so I decided to teach Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Fences together and as I was teaching⁠—and it was so hard to teach those two because I think that the language that they use is very different than what today's kids use and how they're used to using⁠—so we were having conversations about family and about fathers and sons and husbands and wives. So what came out of teaching that unit was this poem and I sat down one day and thought "Our parents are really complicated people and as kids sometimes we don't understand our parents and we're mad at them but through our parents' own stuff we're able to be the people that we want to be." So that's what we discussed reading these two plays and I thought at first it was going to be too esoteric for them but they loved it! And so I wrote this poem for them because I wanted them to know, if you read Arthur, if you read August, you see how troubled families are - it's not just your family; that is a universal experience! I wanted them to know, as I say in the last line, 'Run from the shadows, from underneath them and into your own glorious reflection' and I think that that's what I get from Arthur Miller and August Wilson⁠—you have to be your own person and if you allow your family of origin to weigh you down it can break you. You've got to find a way to be your own person. 

screen_shot_2022-04-20_at_10.40.22_am.pngMy second poem was "Black Angels in America" and I wrote this poem last summer and I cannot remember⁠ his name⁠—I hate that I can't remember but I can't remember⁠—Al Sharpton I think gave the eulogy for George Floyd and then I think he did the eulogy for another Black young man that was killed by police. I watched about a half-hour of the eulogy and Reverend Sharpton's sermon and I thought about how good these men were in the sense of how many people loved them and missed them and valued them and then I also thought about the decorations in the church, all these flowers and wonderful pictures of them and people were wearing tshirts with their faces on them. And I thought about when the New York Times posted that Michael Brown was killed and it said 'He was no angel' and so I started thinking about the death of Black people specifically Black men and especially last summer and it was a long hot summer, and I thought about how, as Black people in this country, around the world but specifically in this country, we want to be just who we are alive and thriving and we don't want a funeral to be the place where we are depicted at our best. So I have this line, 'There are no angels, only bodies held hostage by heaven, dangling up above. We dare give them names that hurt less. Angels. Takes the sting away. Graffiti murals with another Black body, birth date. death date." And that poem just came to me on a riff and I just was like 'we want to be what an angel is: ethereal and beautiful, but we don't want to have to die to be in that place.' 

The third poem, called "Second Chances"⁠—and interestingly enough during the pandemic, I only wrote 2 explicit pandemic poems. I have no essays, no think pieces, I only wrote 2 poems. This one was the first one I wrote⁠—is another one of those where I just sat down and wrote after thinking about the packing up of all these different spaces: our classrooms, our offices, our breakrooms, all these spaces, you're canceling plans. I started to think about not being able to get toilet paper, not being able to get our basic goods, no doctors' appointments; and I remember being on social media a bit and someone had said that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein during one of the plagues and a lot of people were saying 'What are you going to do? What's your big creative project for 2020?' Well, I'm going to try not to catch COVID, that's my big goal, to be alive, to survive 2020. I have this line: 'I was agitated and restless, I wanted to be creative. I wanted to summon Shakespeare, write an opus during the plague, but nothing came to mind but fear and boredom.' So I also wrestled with 'what do I do with this time in addition to my job of teaching from home?' So I wrote that poem and then I saw a lot of people on Twitter and other spaces like Instagram saying 'You don't have to write The Great Novel. You can just be at home and try to be helpful. Don't let other people try to shame you or you shame yourself into thinking that somehow you should be doing some magnanimous thing so at the end I say, 'Everyone I love still breathing, I am breathing too. / There is a measure of reassurance that while there is so much I cannot hold, I can hold this blessing even in the midst of misery.' So I thought about, what do I have to be grateful for and that balance, because there were many people that were sick or out of a job, just devastation. So, how can I channel some gratitude as well."

Q: How do you feel about the honorable mention and being associated with The Furious Flower Poetry Center?screen_shot_2022-04-20_at_10.44.22_am.png

A: "When I got the call from Lauren, I was actually teaching so I couldn't get the call so she sent me a text and my heart just lept and I wasn't sure if I was going to cry or laugh from pure shock and ah in the best way. For me, 1) the poetry center is named after a Gwendolyn Brooks poem and she is one of my literary sheroes so that's fantastic and in fact, I just finished reading a book called Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks and she talks about all the different interviews and she's this woman who was married and had kids and she was raising a family while writing so for me the Center is so important for a number of reasons one is that it's named after one of our literary greats; I think the fact that the Center focuses specifically on Black poetry, Black poets, and you know all of us are poets in our right and different spaces but to nurture the talent of Black poets I think is incredibly important, especially coming out of the Black arts movement, that renaissance. So for me, it's really important because I'm being recognized by the people that I think are my peers but also my mentors. Like Tim Seibles, he doesn't remember me but we actually met some 20 years ago. Reading his poetry at that workshop where we met really affirmed for me that there's a space; for whatever we're doing as writers, there's a space for you. So I think for James Madison University and the Furious Flower Poetry Center to say that we are crafting, carving, creating a space for this kind of writer and we're going to nurture them and we're going to support them and we're going to uplift them, to me is like one of the best things that has ever happened to me in my career. I think of all the things that I could win and be acknowledged for, again, your peers, the people who mentor you, the people who understand the world that you walk in, the land that you walk on, I think is incredibly powerful; I'm very grateful. Also, just to have the support, the financial support of actually winning a monetary prize to say that not only do we love your work but we're actually going to support it physically and then also make sure that you get ou there, have a place to stay, you get a reading; all of that is so important because it says we value you, not just the poem but you as the poet."

Don't miss your opportunity to hear Benin read her poetry alongside winner, Ariana Benson and award-winning poet, Tim Seibles in-person or virtually tonight, Wednesday, April 20, 2022 at 5pm. You can find out more information on the Facebook event page and on our website.

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Published: Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Last Updated: Tuesday, September 20, 2022

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