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5 minutes with wordsmith Monifa Lemons

Monifa Lemons is the co-founder of The Watering Hole in Columbia.
Monifa Lemons is the co-founder of The Watering Hole in Columbia. Submitted

When it comes to staples in Columbia’s poetry community, there isn’t a name that rings louder than Monifa Lemons. More than just a wordsmith, Lemons also uses her art to influence the community. She is the co-founder of The Watering Hole, an organization uses the art of open mic poetry to allow fellow artists showcase their talents and grow into their best work. These events, combined with outreach efforts, are helping he city recognize the power of words.

Q. Why is poetry something you’re passionate about?

A. I started my artistic career in theater, where I learned to stand in front of an audience and deliver work written by great playwrights. When I was about 18 years old, I found Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni, and it was in that space I found people who spoke of my thoughts and feelings. I remember reading “Phenomenal Woman” and “Ego Trippin’” for the first time and finding the power harnessed in stanzas written by women who looked like me. The lyrical styling presented in these lines gave me power, it gave me permission to be myself. They also gave me permission to tell my story, uniquely.

I am passionate about finding my truth and telling it poetically in hopes that there are people who will find it and realize their strength. Poetry frees you to be yourself, in form or out of form. I am blessed to take what I learned from my past, put in on paper, and use what I learned on stage to present it to audiences everywhere. Poetry found me and grew me. I live to bring that experience to others.

Q. Tell us more about the Watering Hole and how folks can get involved in this cause?

A. The Watering Hole invests in pursuing the craft of poetry. We are a home where poets of color in the South can learn and grow at each others’ feet. As a multiethnic, intergenerational, intersectional Tribe, we meet poets at every level from Slam to Ph.D. to beginner, from Gwendolyn Brooks scholar to Kendrick Lamar aficionado, from retiree to elementary school student.

The Watering Hole has been going as it has been for the past six years. We hold one open mic or reading per month, one school district a year, one youth trip every two years, and so on. That's all we can do with our full-time jobs, the cost of the events, the bills The Watering Hole incurs. That's all we can do with the money we're generating through sporadic grants and unpredictable sponsorships.

If folks have the means to contribute, that’s great; we'd love for anyone to join our community. Any amount helps! Take a look at our rewards — there’s everything from exclusive content to early access to discounts and more. Contributions would allow us to rely less on those revenue streams, and give us more to work with so that we can take on these new ventures. People can learn more at www.patreon.com/twhpoetry.

Q. What advice would you give to a young writer?

A. Never think about the reader first. Start with your truth, and write it like no one is ever going to read it. When you know that what is on the page is the most honest you can be, then the work begins. Edit! Edit! Edit! Place your work in your peers’ and mentors’ hands and listen to what they have to say about how you can make a piece better. Patricia Smith, world-renowned poet and a personal favorite of mine says, keep every edit of your poem until it is birthed. Then you know your “child” was nourished, and you can release it to the world with pride.

Also, there’s public poetry and private poetry. Know the difference.

Q. What projects are you working on?

A. I work for the South Carolina Department of Corrections. There I teach creative writing and art therapy. I never thought I would ever have the opportunity to teach my craft to others while working for the state of South Carolina, so I take my job seriously and I love what I do. What’s next for me is to help those who are incarcerated to find their voice and change their lives, one stanza and art piece at a time. I am also taking the summer to finish my manuscript (first draft, of course) and submit it to my mentors for feedback. Look for it early 2020.