It was Shirlene Bridgewater’s collage art that first caught my eye on Instagram. She’d combine text with images to create captivating posts that would always stop my scrolling. After Shirlene became a member of the See Jane Write Collective, however, I learned that collage art was just scratching the surface of her talent. Shirlene is a phenomenal poet. And her personal essays are top-notch, too. Shirlene is a former English teacher and editor and she once co-owned a bookstore. She’s worked in PR and she’s been a freelance journalist. Shirlene has done it all! But Shirlene is the See Jane Write member of the month because along with being a great writer she’s just a fantastic human being. She’s always cheering on other women in the See Jane Write community, pushing them to write and share their writing with the world. She even recently encouraged a fellow member to go after her goal of pursuing a master’s degree.
Get to know the September 2021 member of the month, Shirlene Bridgewater.
When did you fall in love with writing and with poetry, specifically?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved the written word. I have a photograph of myself in a wicker rocker when I was fourteen months old reading a book, leg over the chair arm, in full concentration. I continued to read everything I could get my hands on, including the words on cereal boxes. I became a writer in the fourth grade when I had to keep a diary and pretend to be a little French girl traveling the countryside on a train, her suitcase filled with books. And, of course, I kept a lock-and-key diary with the ruminations of a teenager. My first published poem was titled “Uncertainty.” I was in high school, and my English classmates and I compiled a book of poetry. I still have a copy of the poem. At Spelman College, I continued to write poetry for campus publications. Journaling has also been a way to release emotions during life’s sweetness and challenges.
It’s hard to describe the ways in which poetry speaks to me. In its conciseness it ironically stretches the boundaries of language and form, creating a freedom of expression like no other. Poetry is one of my love languages.
You enjoy creating collage art as well. How do you feel visual art and the written word can work together?
I truly believe artistic expression in any form is a universal human need. Since the beginning of time, it is the way we tangibly actualize our imagination and express who we are in the world. I am a visual learner, and I discover a new depth of meaning when visual art complements the written word. There is a point where the two can merge to create beauty and truth. I’ve recently created a collection of greeting cards that combine collage and poetry. My hope is to have them featured in a local art gallery.
What writers and poets inspire you most?
I love writers whose use of language and emotion melds into a new and refreshing voice—writers whose words move me to reflect on life, history, and the future, and who also offer a call-to-action in my personal life and the world. Some of my favorites include Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, J. California Cooper, and Mary Oliver. Most recently, I’ve added Jasmine Mans, Tracy K. Smith, Kiese Laymon, Sarah Broom, Robert Jones, Jr., Jacqueline Woodson, Isabel Wilkerson, and Akwaeke Emezi to my list of admired wordsmiths, to name a few.
How does your experience as an English teacher, editor, and a book store co-owner impact your writing?
My professional life has always been centered around words. I started my career in publishing as an editor at Howard University Press and moved on to work in healthcare public relations. One of my lifelong goals was to own a bookstore, and that dream came true when a friend and I opened Amistad Bookplace in Houston in the eighties. Hosting book signings for authors I had read in college was the ultimate joy, in addition to being featured in Essence and Black Enterprise Magazines. As a freelancer, I wrote articles on books and local authors, participated in a performing poetry group, and co-hosted a call-in radio program on the arts. Teaching was the next stepping stone in learning about various writing styles and the structure of language. With every writing assignment that I gave my students, I modeled with my own work. All my experiences have contributed to how I approach my poems and essays. Retirement now affords me more time to devote to my writing life and collaging.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?
I will publish a book or two of poetry and a children’s book in the next five years as well as continue to submit creative nonfiction to women’s journals and magazines. I’m excited to add to my greeting card collection also. Starting a blog is an option I’m considering as a way to share my passions and build my online presence. Most importantly, I love learning, and I will continue to hone my craft while discovering other ways to be creative. There are no boundaries!
Why did you decide to join the See Jane Write Collective and what do you like most about being a member?
I joined the See Jane Write Collective because of the opportunity to work with other writers—essayists, bloggers, poets, novelists, etc. Writing can be isolating, and during the pandemic, I needed to feel a sense of belonging. I love the See Jane Write community as well as the leadership and instruction from you, Javacia, our biggest cheerleader. Let me not forget the guest speakers, the critique sessions, the group coaching sessions, and the resource library. I walk away from each of these opportunities feeling motivated and that I can conquer and even befriend my fears and keep writing. My “Jane” sisters are dynamic women who share and give of themselves and their knowledge. Who could ask for more?
To learn more about Shirlene and see her collage art, follow her on Instagram @writingreadingsoul.
Who should be the next See Jane Write Member of the Month? Send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t be afraid to nominate yourself! Not a member? Apply to join here.