Quaker Valley grad publishes poetry book

Tuesday, October 29, 2019 | 6:01 AM


Bonita Lee Penn uses her words to empower women. Her poetry gives a voice to those who are not heard or are marginalized.

Through her writing, she tells the story of her experiences as a black woman and the troubles she sees in the world.

“Usually, I am inspired by things that I just can’t wrap my head around, like the mistreatment of people,” said Penn, 63, a native of Sewickley who now lives in Pittsburgh’s Manchester neighborhood.

In June, Penn published a chapbook, “Every Morning a Foot is Looking for my Neck,” containing 15 poems about living in a world of oppression. The chapbook was published through Central Square Press and is available on Amazon.

“She writes about her political views, her vision of how life and the world should be,” said friend and colleague Lorena Amos.

After reading Penn’s poetry, Amos said she feels empowered.

“I also feel like I’m getting the truth. I feel actually refreshed,” she said.

Penn, who has always loved to read, received her first poetry book about colors when she was nearly 10 years old. She was drawn to the way that words play off one another.

“I just loved the way it sounded,” she said. “And it was like a whole story on one page.”

In junior high, instead of telling boys she liked them. Penn would write poems about her crushes and keep the secret to herself.

It wasn’t until many years later that Penn, a 1974 graduate of Quaker Valley High School, started writing poetry more seriously. While working in various government jobs, she never stopped writing.

In workshops she attended, Penn found that while she knew how to write poetry, there were techniques and forms that she had never learned.

So, she went back to school, taking evening classes. In 2012, Penn graduated from Carlow University with a bachelor’s degree in professional writing with a minor in creative nonfiction.

In 2015, she graduated from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., with a master’s in poetry.

Over the years, she’s done readings across the city and participated in groups like “Madwomen in the Attic” while at Carlow and curated a program at City of Asylum.

She hosts workshops to discuss female poets at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Homewood.

During the day, Penn now works for the Girl Scouts as an administrative coordinator in recruiting and retention.

As she rides the “T” to work, she has internal conversations with herself that ultimately become poetry. She makes sure to type it out in her phone so she doesn’t lose the idea.

Over the years, her poetry has progressed. Today, her focus is on what happens to people like her, or people in her life.

Penn performs as a poet with jazz music fusion group Heroes are Gang Leaders, based in New York City. The group performed in Paris earlier this year and in Lisbon, Portugal, in August.

She returned to her hometown on Oct. 17 as part of a panel of female poets at Sweetwater Center for the Arts, presented in conjunction with the annual MAVUNO Festival of African American Art and Culture.

On Dec. 5, Penn is excited about her opportunity to read one of her poems at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s event at City of Asylum. She’s working to evolve the poem into a performance piece with music and dance.

Penn, who is admittedly humble, says when she looks back at her life thus far and what she’s accomplished, she realizes, “I really have a great life.”