Cal Humanities

"Part of resilience is finding joy, finding beauty, finding love."

— George Takei, Actor, Author, Director, Activist

"Part of resilience is finding joy, finding beauty, finding love."

— George Takei, Actor, Author, Director, Activist

Daniel Summerhill Mausoleum of Flowers Book Cover

3 Questions with Daniel Summerhill

A photo of Daniel Summerhill
Daniel Summerhill. Photo by Quianna Summerhill.

Inaugurating our new series of questions for California Humanities board members, a new feature in our monthly eNews during 2022, is Daniel Summerhill: poet, performance artist, and Assistant Professor of Poetry/Social Action and Composition at California State University, Monterey Bay. Daniel was recently named the first Poet Laureate for Monterey County. In addition, his poem “mama” was published by Columbia Journal last month as the runner-up for the Columbia Journal Poetry Prize. We are thrilled to share his answers to our questions and “mama,” which is also featured in his forthcoming collection, Mausoleum of Flowers.

What is the context of the poem “mama” and its meaning for you?

The poem “mama” came out of a conversation with my mother about her reflecting on her life and considering her own happiness, as well as my older sister about her observations of my mother and happiness. What I was able to gather was that my mother has not experienced unadulterated sustained joy. I speak of “joy” here differently than temporary jolts of gaiety, but rather in the sense of happiness that simmers and seeps into the soul. “mama” explores this idea through the lens of childhood nostalgia, generational trauma, and righteous optimism.

How will you approach your new Poet Laureate role in Monterey County?

Being the inaugural Poet Laureate of Monterey County is exciting but doesn’t come without its due responsibility and urgency. I now have a specific duty to the county [read: people] to leverage language as a means of social action, community building, and truth-telling. I plan to use this same sentiment to foster exposure and relationships to poetry that folks might not have had previously. Folks don’t need a champion or a hero but a vector capable of empathy, compassion, and truth-telling. Poet June Jordan says a poet is somebody who is free. I plan to use poetry in service of freedom. To unearth the songs that folks already have in their bellies.

What can you tell us about your new book?

My forthcoming collection of poems is vastly different from my first joint. It was written mostly during the pandemic, which like many of us, forced me to spend time introspectively, which of course led me to consider myself in relation to the world around me. From Kendrick to Kanye to a Sunday in Oakland with Frank Ocean’s falsetto in the foreground, Mausoleum of Flowers is still life set against the backdrop of demise. My sophomore collection grabs fate by the throat and confronts it. What does it mean to continue living when my friends are dying beside me? This collection melds an exploration of spirituality and rebellion with Black tradition. I hope the poems invite the reader near in order to self-excavate and explore tones of loss, love, and light.

mama,

knows what it’s like to hold & not
be held mama nancy, who is not my
mama, but is the oldest mama i have

a name for in this way, history is
young, not because it is young, but
because it goes only as far back as

we have a story & i’d like to think
memory counts for something three
women separate her from my mama

each of them a comma, each of them
should have been a semicolon, but we
know genealogy isn’t forgiving that

way i’m the son of all four & i am
told, by mama, that her earliest recall
of joy, was being handed a quarter

to buy a hamburger & still having
fifteen cents left over to buy penny
candy this girl, a woman, a mother

who has never been to the bottom
of the earth & not that any long-haul
flight will buy happiness, but being

awaken by the unswallowed sun over
the southern ocean seems like a cheat code
for sustained joy i say sustained in

the sense that the sunrise is the only
infinite rhythm i’ve seen this isn’t
a poem about joy, so much as it is

a poem about dying without ever knowing
it but mama, you’ve always stricken me
as someone who champions distance over

depth or faith over long suffering in
this way, i suppose joy isn’t the antonym
to pain, but the antibody it is 1998, &

you have just given me a pink
food stamp, enough to buy a zebra cake,
kool-aid jammer and three packs of now

& laters the walk to the corner store:
my faith, the slow skip back home: small
joy here, my perception of small is grand

enough to get me through the immensity
of summer how my mother summoned
enough jubilance to share with me its

blood it is 2018 & i think of my trip to
south africa as a metaphor for food stamps
the flight: my faith, the flight: my joy—

what i don’t deserve, not considered here
the miles between me & the earth: stretched
faith carrying me back home i search

out my window for land, but find nothing
green, just blue plenty blue to feel small
enough to remember my small mama

with outstretched hands— waiting
for a quarter, for joy a girl, a woman, dear
mama: your water will come, & the sun

will brass knuckle its way out the ocean
with enough triumph to make you feel
golden the ocean is the only constant

here, it delivers us all, i’d imagine
it’ll deliver you too, if not you, your body,
if not your joy, your pain, it will carry it

in its mouth, back to shore, like a flood

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