April Poet #2: Saleem Hue Penny
Image Description: Saleem Hue Penny (he/him/friend) is a Black man with a beard, clear glasses, and an eyeshield over his right eye. Not visible is a right-sided cochlear implant. He wears a white/black mosaic print shirt, a bright red snapback cap (reading: “Dope & Carefree & Proud & Black”), a thin chain necklace with a hand stamped car key (reading: “Deadbolt Determination”). He is positioned against a solid black backdrop, three-quarter angled towards the camera. His right hand is propping up his partially-paralyzed cheek, he appears to smirk, but it’s actually a huge smile preparing to unfurl.
Saleem Hue Penny (he/him/friend) is a Black “rural hip-hop blues'' poet and arts educator. He is a mutual aid advocate with Lowcountry roots, single-sided deafness, and Ramsay Hunt Syndrome.
He is the author of the poetry chapbook The Attic, The Basement, The Barn (Tammy Journal, 2017) which was an effort to raise money for nonprofit organizations ConTextos Chicago Project and Chicago Books to Women in Prison. Largely a nod to Chicago’s underground/hustle economy, some of his poems such as "Youth Electric" and "All the Heat I Have" can be found here. ("Youth Electric" is reprinted below as well.)
Penny's advocacy for youth groups goes beyond the realm of poetry, according to the Poetry Foundation: his 2020 album You Just (Try to) Keep On: Songs of Solidarity + Self-Care, raised funds for Market Box, a mutual aid food distribution collaborative. Bundled with crayons and snacks, his children's zine The People’s Grab-n-Go Coloring Book was distributed to children at emergency meal sites in multiple Chicago food deserts.
They had no idea what we were capable of. With dollar store matches and a bloody nose, we could strike on any surface. A mailbox ignited: Window envelopes melt and junk mail shrivels like peace cranes. Amidst pungent lime green flickers our beanstalk bodies twist and rock, awkward chalk outlines too stiff to dance.
Lost boys wandering between railroad tracks and cul-de-sacs. A twisted ankle, sunburn on a new tattoo and a torn pocket sliding under the fence. Worthy collateral to make it back to the spot: A convergence of abandoned aqueducts, drain pipes for driftwood, empty spray cans scattered like seashells. In our oasis, roaches crunch beneath sneakers and mice stumble across cardboard, woozy from spilt malt liquor. We pile up mattresses and spend the afternoon seeing who can cannonball off the highest stack of milk crates.
As evening nears, we check our PVC pipe palm tree to see if the big raven found the French fries we stuffed inside. Then, with bruised shoulders and proud chests, the four of us head back towards land, pausing at shuttered storefronts to taunt the mannequins stripped of their overcoats and long since forgotten. Our invincible laughter echoes through the shortcut alleys we tagged while ditching 7th period last year. Faking like we lost our day passes, we tried to jump the crosstown bus, but this driver already knew our faces. We suck it up and roll out on foot, with or without street lamps— this is youth electric. Neon veins from vapor cigarettes.
Slouching home, the September sun rises. A decade away, whippoorwills line the rotting branches of a dogwood. Their cries echo off the hillside that would eventually claim us all: Carlos, on his yellow Honda, Kendrick, in a set-up, Me, in line getting quarters at the laundromat, Jaimey, in front of his girl.
From tricycles to the uptown train, Brother Death remained patient. All those years, like Spanish moss, barely a shadow on our paths. We had no idea what He was capable of. When we fell, He removed our hats, folded our bandanas, wiped the dirt from our shoes, sat sentinel in the red clover littered at our feet. Autumn and Winter passed this way, a ring of skeletons shining beneath a cloudless sky, bony hands gently folded across empty chests. In time, old willow leaves and last year’s snowpack became rich soil, and Spring promised new life. We woke to the hum of blind bees, feeling for pollen in the hollow holes where our eyes once searched. Hugging the spirals of our sun-bleached ribs, the energy sparked our ghost heartbeats and gave us reason to hope for Summer, that fireflies could fill the space between our teeth, illuminate our mouths and give us voice.
But seasons and tragedies fade, and eventually the world forgot our names. The headlines once sparked by our faces now faded into obscurity, an afterlife anonymous. No motive, no witnesses, no expectations, no hope.
Only then did Brother Death wake us up and show us how to dance, With no fear of the Fall.