The Journey of Departure

Joekenneth Museau

Coming of age moments. Everyone has them. Many include achievement or crossing some mythical finish line, but others are tipped by loss and heartbreak. In his book, Days After Your Departure, Joekenneth Museau memorializes his mother’s passing alongside his path through the valley of the shadow of death. In this radically intimate account of processing grief, he recognizes that his sorrow is not an island unto itself, but an opportunity to dive more deeply into life. It becomes a story about much more than death and what is lost, but how we find ourselves in it, about what we gain in the process, and what we must let go.

How did you first discover poetry?

It started off my sophomore year in high school when my teacher introduced me to great poets of the Harlem Renaissance: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson. I just remember being enthralled, like my eyes were opened to this universe of language and conveying emotion. So I was gobbling that up, reading this work and was then trying to write my own versions about what was going on in my own life. I started performing with a collective called Street Etiquette. We were blending this narrative around things we loved: style, fashion, character, but also something that spoke to our communities and things that we believe in. I wasn’t trying to become some famous poet, I was just finding ways to tell stories with my friends, making things together whenever we had free time. When you’re living for the first time everything is so new. 

Poetry started becoming more than just a hobby when my mom was diagnosed with cancer in June 2008. It was important to find ways to express what was happening to me. College was new, my mother’s illness was new, all while trying to finding my creative voice. When she passed away on May 14th, 2012, I was 22 years old and had a semester and a half left of nursing school. At that point I just didn’t have the focus nor the motivation, so that was the end of that. But also the beginning of asking myself, what is manhood, and how do I define myself amidst all the chaos around me? It was suddenly like, here goes adulthood; time to figure this out by yourself. When she passed, everything really flipped for me. It defined so much of who I’ve become in the years since. 

It seems counterintuitive that you would have the energy to create something out of trauma rather than be completely depleted and helpless. It seems to come more from an energy to memorialize her rather than a move to just get back to your life. 

My writing always ends up being a conversation with myself about how I’m going to persevere. Initially DAYD was going to be a commemoration of her legacy. I thought I would just do something to highlight how much I love my mother and sort of write her history. So I started writing about how she grew up and all of that. But I realized this is not how I write, and it isn’t helping me. Immediately after she passed, I was also writing about how I felt about her not being around. I have pieces of her time stamped, like a poem I wrote the day my niece was born a year before she died on her birthday and a poem I wrote on her first birthday after she passed. I started writing about the experience, but it turned into how I was going to survive her passing

Your poem How to Spell Grief mimics the arc of the grieving process as well as the overall arc of this book. There is sort of a timelapse page that gets us to the next phase. You mention visiting Haiti and the power of your pilgrimage there.

I went in 2014, right before Sara and I got married. I was always supposed to go to Haiti with my mother. Both of my parents were born and raised there, so we talked about it often. The constant political issues there prevented us from making it happen, so to actually get there was a really big deal for me. The purpose was to retrace my mother’s steps, to actually see where my people are from. I grew up hearing the language, tasting the cuisine, being engrossed in the culture of a Haitian American, but being there was a visceral thing for me. She may have not stepped on the same pieces of stone that I stepped on, but she had been there. I think my time there speaks also to the energy in certain places. I can go down Flatbush Avenue here in Brooklyn and see a whole bunch of Haitian people, hear them speaking the language and smells the foods that they cook. But the aura, the essence of a place, you can’t match that. It just meant the world to me to see the people and how they live there. There’s a resilience and a joy. It made me feel complete in a new way because I felt like, now I know what home is. After that, it was figuring out, how can I bring home within myself? 

You hit a rough patch after Haiti and after you married Sara. You wrote, ‘I read somewhere that depression is like a common cold of the mind / I dreamt of cough syrup dripping from my temples. / ‘I’m sorry but I would like to return this gift / I think it’s too heavy for my skin.’

Yeah, that’s when it gets dark. I was 25, having a very dramatic quarter life crisis. I think we all hold ourselves to standards about where our lives should be at certain ages or stages. I grew up with the idea that you have to be a certain kind of person, and when you get married you have to be a certain kind of person for someone else. But if you aren’t whole within yourself or you simply don’t know yourself, how can you be those things to other people? Things were just going wrong on my end mentally, spiritually, even professionally. 

What did that look like professionally?

At the time I was partnering with a creative company here in NY to produce the DAYD, but things were just moving very slowly. Things just weren’t clicking with how I thought I was supposed to finish it. I was just throwing away draft after draft with deadlines weighing on me. But with DAYD, I couldn’t just stop, because my healing process wasn’t complete. This project can’t just end here, because I’m not done grieving. I felt like if I did stop I would be frozen in time. Losing my mom shouldn’t have been the end of my life. I just knew there was more to me than that. Like things go awry in your life and that’s just the end of your story? This isn’t some kind of deadline, which almost sounds like a pun, but it’s more serious than that. This isn’t where I die. There has to be more. 

When I completed the book, it wasn’t just about completing a project, either. In completing it I was moving into a different phase in my life. It took my five years to write this book because these things were happening in real time, like me reaching certain conclusions. That’s why I recorded time stamps, because I was writing what I was living.

It must be rather frightening for you to expose such personal stories in your writing. 

Definitely. It is like I’m undressing in front of other people, so to speak. I did have some apprehension about releasing DAYD because so much of my family is in that book. I’m handing them copies like, please don’t kill me. I had to ask Sara, Is this okay with you? Because at the end of the day this story isn’t completely mine; I have to respect what I’m telling on behalf of someone else. People may be hurt or shocked. They may feel like I don’t have the right to talk about certain things publicly. But truth is so important. It’s important to keep truth relevant in our society which is thriving on propaganda and things that make a good headline, things that take us away from our own stories. Keeping truth out there will always bring you back to your own story. It will always make you question and analyze what’s going on inside you. I think if you read a work like DAYD you can’t help but think about yourself. 

Life will present its challenges, but there are times when we need to challenge ourselves. There are certain things that life doesn’t test you on unless you test yourself. I think it’s really important to challenge what masculinity is and what we think that means. Or vulnerability: is that a weakness or a display of bravery? Part of me sharing what I do is for men to really challenge that in themselves. Get to know yourself better.

What does it look like to be a modern poet?

It’s a little crazy to hear myself referred to as that. Some people say that poetry is a dying art. I don’t believe that, but it’s true it’s not as prevalent as it used to be. It’s changed with how we’re living life now. Poetry has always been so personal that I’m always trying to diversify my writing with scripts or commercials, and social campaigns. It really is a privilege to have different ways to tell stories outside of poetry that allow me to bring my audience back to what’s at my core. 

Ultimately, I can’t get away from my story. It’s the story I tell the best. Even if I fictionalize certain things, they’re going to be things that I can relate to. I had some reservations about releasing DAYD because it is so personal, but my wife was the one who really pushed me to. She told me, people need to know what this really looks like, for someone of our generation who is a black man in America. They need to see this side of grief. I realized how right she was, that this can open up so many conversations. I need to get those thoughts out for our generation and generations to come. Like what was it like living in 2018 with social media at centerstage in our culture and being black in America. The work has to comment on those things, if not outright then in a way that’s funky and clever. 

Do you think people are involved in their own lives as much as they should be? 

No, they’re not. I think it has so much to do with people constantly being fed by the lives of other people and what everyone else is doing. If you’re engaging with certain apps for such an inordinate amount of time, it’s virtually impossible for you to look within. People aren’t taking time to deal with their own issues because there’s always a distraction or something to take you away from what’s going on inside. There has to be something that pulls you back to what’s going on within you. It’s just the culture of our generation to use technology as a coping mechanism to check out rather than deal with themselves. 

I feel like if we don’t take the time to express what’s on our hearts and minds, we’re not giving ourselves the opportunity to fully live life. I think most people don’t find value in their thoughts or their feelings. It’s so important to give those value because that’s essentially what our existence is. It’s our make-up. It’s so important to me to encourage people to tell their own stories. Otherwise we’re defined by the stories of someone else. 

You wrote in the dedication of your book, For those who know the depths of loss, you have every right to grieve and an even greater privilege to breathe. May you fill your vacancies with life and abundance in service to hearts like yours. What do you mean by in service?

I find it so fascinating that creatives have been given such a gift to be able to give, that we can really help other people through what we create. Even people that we never meet. Some people need coaching or a little nudge to get them to another plateau in life, for them to see that they’re able to heal themselves. I guess it’s kind of selfish in a way because it’s cathartic and I’m trying to really write through things that I’m going through. But what I’ve found is that when I choose to share my work it really becomes the stories of other people. That really fuels my reason for sharing in a generation where I think we tend to overshare. I don’t write poetry to impress. I don’t write it to gain favor with people. It’s really just to tell a story. That story happens to be mine, but it doesn’t belong to me. I’m telling the stories of people before me and people now and people that will come after me. It’s the story of humanity being retold again and again. 

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