Jasmine Mans’ new book is so Newark it has a 973 phone number on the last page.
Dial it and you’ll hear Mans recite a poem in an answering machine message. Her arresting voice draws you in so fast that by the time the beep hits, you may forget you’re on the phone, not in the audience at one of her performances.
“Black Girl, Call Home” (Berkley/Penguin Random House), a poetry collection published Tuesday, is one of the most anticipated releases this year. Both the book and Mans have made lists from Oprah Magazine, Time magazine, Essence and Vulture.
Covering Mans’ work over the last decade, the collection includes poems about Michelle Obama, Kanye West and Serena Williams, but also Whitney Houston, the South Ward and the 39 bus.
“The book, for me, is Newark,” says Mans, 29, poet-in-residence at the Newark Public Library.
“Black Girl, Call Home” is as much about the character of the poet’s home city as it is about her childhood and family.
“Some of my friends that I was in that paper with are not even alive anymore,” she tells NJ Advance Media. “So for almost 15 years later to say that little Black girl that was in the speech and debate room at Arts High is now a Penguin Random House author in every Barnes & Noble and has made damn near every book list is a very important moment for Newark and New Jersey.”
Mans knows full well that with her new book, her voice is going to travel far beyond the bounds of Brick City. But no matter how much her audience grows, she is proud of staying local. And not just in where she lives, but how she writes about home.
“There are these moments that people from New Jersey and only people from Newark will understand,” Mans says.
The poet found herself editing her work to add specific street names — Lyons Avenue, Broad Street, Chancellor Avenue, Market Street.
“It’s a map to bring people back to Newark,” says the writer, who is also an artist. There’s even a series of map-like sketches at the back of the book from Mans.
“Bergen Street stands like an old man who was once an artist, back in his day, but has, since, painted his kidneys a whiskey color,” she writes in “The 39 Bus Makes Stops in the South Ward,” which calls Newark a city “that always had enough home to come home to.”
“Black Girl, Call Home” takes readers from Mans’ kitchen table growing up to city streets and beyond. Newark is her home, and home begins with family.
In poems like “B’Nai’s Three Babies,” she writes intimately about her mother’s experiences raising three young children while her husband works long hours. Mans, the middle child, had colic and “cried like she already knew how much pain the world had in it.” (Her mother adjusted by giving up sleep and a job at the bank.)
Mans defines food as ritual.
“Ma could count a teaspoon with the lines on her palms,” she writes in “Macaroni and Cheese” — “could measure an ocean and tell you how long it would take to bring it to a slow boil.”
And there are other rituals, like getting her hair done in her mother’s kitchen salon:
‘Don’t make me pop you!’”
Home serves as temple.
“We didn’t go to church on Sundays,” Mans says in one poem, “but my mother cleaned the whole house. Wiped behind the toilet — to inside of the oven. That was her way of honoring Gd.”
And home is being gentrified — her grandmother decides to move out of the house where she got married.
“Nana’s kitchen is as old as the Civil Rights Movement,” Mans writes in “Grits: 1967″ — “Sometimes she can’t remember which came first, the grits, or the riots.”
But she kept a close record of the young poet’s progress.
“My grandmother literally has all of my Star-Ledger articles in her Bible, from freshman year to senior year,” Mans tells NJ Advance Media.
She used the Star-Ledger scholarship, sponsored by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, as well as poetry scholarships, to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she majored in African American studies with a focus on literature.
In 2012, when Mans was still in college, she released her debut poetry collection, “Chalk Outlines of Snow Angels,” via Thorn10 Publishing — the publishing company founded by Gene Thornton Jr., aka rapper No Malice from the hip-hop duo Clipse. Some of the work in that book can be found in “Black Girl, Call Home.”
She talks about her mother’s sacrifices for the family, but also about resenting her mother for those sacrifices. In “Momma Said Dy– at the Kitchen Table,” Mans, who is gay, recounts how the woman who raised her reacted to her sexuality. “1,000 Questions on Gender Roles for a Lesbian” documents a laundry list of what seem like ill-informed Google searches that are actually ill-informed questions, like “How do you know this isn’t a phase?”
Other themes of the book include systemic racism, police brutality, rape and trauma.
Whitney Houston nearly has her own section of dedicated poems.
Mans remembers Houston, who died in 2012, donating money to Apostles’ House, a Newark shelter for women.
“That’s where my love for Whitney Houston started,” she says. “Because she gave these kids all of these good toys for Christmas.”
In “Whitney: Fairy Godmother,” Mans describes the singer “holding notes as strong as wooden Baptist church pews.” In “Whitney: Hologram,” which takes on the Houston hologram tour, she is “our most favorite tragedy”:
“Gave you a second chance at life/did you a favor, saved your career, just not you.”
A rosier picture of celebrity can be found in “Dear First Lady,” in which Michelle Obama surpasses Disney princess status.
“I watched as my 4-year-old cousin, as she sat in the mirror, placed my grandmother’s pearls around her neck and said, ‘Do I look like Michelle Obama?’” Mans writes, addressing the former first lady. “You proved that her identity belongs somewhere in this American dream.”
Many have come to know Jasmine Mans’ work through another celebrity — Kanye West.
“Footnotes For Kanye,” a poem included in “Black Girl, Call Home,” went viral in 2016.
The scorching work incorporates and interpolates well-known Kanye West lyrics to criticize the artist with his own words. The poem drew a wide audience from outside the poetry community through a video of Mans performing the verses in London.
“Maybe Yesus was all talk,” she said in one part of the poem. “Jesus never needed Adidas to walk.”
The crowd exploded.
“Why is he outlining sneakers when the Southside is outlined in chalk?” Mans continued.
Warning: video contains explicit language
Though the poet wasn’t thinking of Donald Trump at all when she was writing the poem, when Trump was elected president and West went to see him, people began sharing the work.
Mans, who grew up listening to West, anticipated the poem would get attention.
“I worked really hard on that piece and spent months sharpening that piece and workshopping,” she says.
When the poem was evolving in 2014 and 2015, some thought it was amazing. For others, it was “world-shifting,” Mans says. And to some, it was a nonstarter.
“I knew it was going to be something special,” Mans says.
“Part of the reason why this poem can age so beautifully or be referenced over time is because it holds so much of Kanye’s language,” she says.
“I don’t want people to reference my poem and laugh at Kanye,” she says. “I want people to see it as an intellectual piece of art to be explored … it is a piece that has much depth and was written from the heart and creates so many conversations around appropriation and Black men desiring whiteness as a form of success.”
One particular subject of the work — West’s relationship with Kim Kardashian — has made headlines following news of their divorce.
“You look hungry,” the poem begins, “like that girl don’t make you no fried chicken or macaroni and cheese/like she don’t feel you on the inside, like you haven’t had a home-cooked meal since your momma died.”
“You look like you lost the Psalm in your own song,” Mans continues. “Like you want to talk to God but you’re afraid because y’all ain’t spoke in so long.”
After graduating from college in 2014, Mans returned to Newark. She wanted to build a poetry community in her home city. By 2015, Newark Public Library had hired her as poet in residence. She hosted poetry workshops and created a space where artists could thrive, and the library published an anthology of that work.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, a poet himself — like his father, former New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka — took notice of Mans’ efforts and invited local poets to host monthly poetry shows at city hall.
“He told me he always thought that city hall was a beautiful space that art should be curated in,” Mans says.
The program was given a budget, and artists were paid for their work.
“We’re downstairs having this highly captivating and loud open mic and then above us they’re having chamber meetings and city meetings,” she says.
Each time, the mayor would visit for a few minutes.
“He didn’t care that there were city officials having meetings,” Mans says. “We were city officials having meetings to him. It was very valuable to him to have both exist in the space. Every time we would have an event, you would see all of these white men walk out in suits and look down and it’s like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ And the mayor would not care … he made it important for those people to know that we would be here and we would always be here and it’s our space.”
“That was really, really big for us,” she says.
The group of poets had two shows left before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of public life in March 2020. They went virtual. Then, last April, Mans got a call from Taneshia Nash Laird, president and CEO of Newark Symphony Hall, to become the creative director of its Embrace Newark pandemic initiative.
Mans curated and edited the “Symphony of Survival” project, which invited writers, photographers and poets to chronicle their experiences during the pandemic and national reckoning with systemic racism in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The public art exhibition was displayed online and on the windows of Newark Symphony Hall.
As Mans worked to keep poetry and public art alive during the pandemic, she watched in January as 22-year-old Amanda Gorman delivered her poem “The Hill We Climb” to the American people. Her hopeful words about finding the light in the shade arrived at President Joe Biden’s inauguration just two weeks after the Capitol riots.
“So many audiences felt spoken for and received and heard,” Mans says of Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in history. “Young people, Black women, Black people, the poetry community, the youth poetry community. There is a youth poetry community thriving in the United States, and that’s the reason why I made it to college. There’s so many of us who felt like we had a voice, and it’s going to be a moment that we have in our canon and in our hearts for a very long time.”
In 2009, Mans told The Star-Ledger she saw herself running for Newark mayor at 40. She also said she enjoyed making clothes.
“I don’t see it as a career,” Mans said. “I just do it for fun.”
Today she presides over a venture that is part poetry, part clothing and part branding.
“Buy Weed From Women” is the sentiment printed on her line of clothing and accessories including T-shirts, tote bags and jackets.
The venture is rooted in her time as a touring performer. She would design merchandise to sell in order to make ends meet on the road, using memorable quotes from her work. It was a hit. A friend asked Mans if she could stock the products in her New York store. People started scooping up “Buy Weed From Women” shirts and bags without knowing anything about Mans the poet. The one-line, Instagram-friendly merch became its own business.
“The cannabis industry just welcomed us greatly,” Mans says, speaking a little more than a week after New Jersey legalized adult-use marijuana. But the poet noticed a marked change in who was consuming her creations.
“When I’m writing poems, I’m writing for Black women,” she says. “When I look at Buy Weed From Women, it is thoroughly being purchased by white women … It’s a very new experience for me.”
She searches for her voice
in the bottom of her bathtub
it drowned, a few and a half
years before she did.
The choir makes whisper
of her squanderings.
They speak of what
they would’ve done
with such favor,
She’d be a woman
to know two deaths.
‘All them bags’
A dead boy threw a rock at my window.
He asked me where all the flowers from his
memorial went and where’d they put all the
teddy bears tied up to the fence after the rain
stopped. If the Jackie Robinson
Little League team was still undefeated, and if his
mother and sister still walk from the grocery
store on Lyons and Chancellor Ave. every
and if it’s hard for them to
carry all those bags
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