I recently interviewed Jessa Challa, recent Aquinas College grad, artist, and mapmaker extraordinaire.
What advice do you have for people seeking to grow?
I just got this book, Kiki Palmer’s I Don’t Belong to You. It’s inspired me to think for myself first and not care about what other people think.
When do you feel most confident?
I always feel the best when I’ve accomplished something. Recently, that was on my graduation day. We were a really close group; we still go out for pizza and beer [together]!
Tell me more about your art!
My grandma’s an artist. I always did watercolors with my grandma, and then I’ve recently started doing acrylics.
You have a lot of great friends and people in your life. How do you suggest creating a positive network?
Reach out to your friends and role models. Kiki Palmer was a role model [growing up]. Now, instead of surrounding myself with beautiful people, I surround myself with role models. [Palmer] has videos where she talks about beauty and being yourself.
Also, devote yourself to work on relationships with people rather than [nursing] friendships with fake friends.
My friend, Taniah, will send me quotes, and I’ll forward them on social media because I want to share the confidence and share the advice.
What’s important to you?
Right now, my relationships with friends and family, self-love. I’m very much an activist so I’m learning and participating in different movements. I’m passionate about helping people realize there are opportunities out there for them.
I’m working with the internship coordinator at Aquinas [to help other students find internships that work for them]. People don’t feel like they know about opportunities. It’s important in the Grand Rapids climate that local people – not out-of-state [candidates] – be hired.
On the Pushed OutNPR podcast, one of the guys was saying there’re no jobs downtown, and that’s a lot of people’s perspective on GR. I want people to know they’re meant to be here.
Throughout your life, you meet people who stand apart from the crowd in their consistency and honesty. Angela Cluley and I became friends about two years ago and slowly realized that we have a lot in common, from struggling with anxiety to our shared experiences serving. We did this interview online, as Angela is living in Costa Rica, working for the PeaceCorps in child development, as part of her Masters in Social Work program through the University of Michigan. I hope you enjoy reading this interview and the poems that follow.
Tell me about your childhood.
Favorite childhood memory is playing football with my dad. It was my younger brother and I and my dad would finger draw out football plays on his shirt and then I would execute exactly the play and always win against my brother. (since I was older) We would then play football video games on the Nintendo after so that we could have additional practice. I loved it!
Least favorite childhood memory is being in foster care from 7 to 9 years old. I lived with different families, some related to me and others not. One of the random families I lived with were horrible to me. They had many foster kids they were taking care of, and it was too much. The kids bullied us, and one actually slammed my head into my birthday cake to be funny. Luckily, we didn’t stay very long.
When did you begin writing? Why do you write?
I began writing when I was in high school. I had a teacher who introduced us to poetry and I started to like putting my life on paper. I write for my own personal reflection and healing. When I began writing, I did not write from a personal standpoint, which didn’t feel genuine. When I perform poetry now, I am able to express myself and heal with the audience.
Favorite interaction after a performance?
The best reaction was when one of the audience members came up to me after reading a very personal poem that I had broke down after reading and not only did they give me a hug, they told me that they had gone through that same experience and thanked me for putting it on the stage for the world to hear, since the subject is usually stigmatized.
What’s important to you?
Family and friends are really important to me but also serving others. I want to dedicate my life to making the world a better place which is why I am currently serving in the PeaceCorps and studying for my Master’s Degree in Social Work.
Why do we delete blurry photos? Hit the trashcan when we see red eye or an extra flab of skin? We should love mistook photographs. Undocumented moments. Moments that cannot be tamed by the lens. The blurry laugh line of your grandpa’s smile as he sits back in his rocking chair telling stories of back in the day mischief and wander.
the camera knowing that this moment was too great to be staged. The grasp of your mother’s hand intertwined in yours as she takes her last breath. Tears uncaptured falling onto your hands.
A child dancing in the wind, dandelion seeds swirling around, their laughter touching your cheek. Daring you to put down your phone and dance. Children are more knowledgeable than adults. They know that technology cannot replace interaction. They understand how to live life, to enjoy the sunrise, soak in the scents of flowers of grass and earth. Imperfect photos remind us that the screen cannot replace people. The night sky cannot be felt in a Facebook post. Dreams and aspirations will not be contained in 140 characters or a hashtag. Fears and regrets cannot fully be expressed or heard in a 4 walled plexiglas solitary confinement. Love cannot be shared the same without the touch and hug of a friend. Active listening without distraction.
Don’t be mistaken, photographs are beautiful, we are able to capture a percentage of a moment through a mechanical apparatus that soaks in light… that is magnificent but realize that there’s always a place and time for everything and though the camera can be an amazing tool it can also be the knife that stabs us in the back as we lose moments with distraction. And if you must capture then don’t pose, don’t delete post the photos with the least amount of preparation. The ones with extra hazy laughlines, wrinkles and too much or too little makeup.
You never know when this moment will be captured and ruined.
I was 8 years old when I wrote my first suicide letter At 8, I wanted to die, found that life was too difficult and wished for a time machine
Shaking pen hand, trembling my goodbyes across construction paper, shouting silence to the world I don’t belong, never belonged. Tears smudging letters, creating thumbprints evidence of my existence. Existence I want to wash away. Moments flood the mind, moments alone at this table with thoughts and a pen.
As a child I watched my family drown themselves with poison and addiction so they didn’t have to feel anymore. Everyone was slowly committing suicide so I decided to write mine.
At 14 I took razor blades to my arms trying to cut the hurt off, trying to get rid of the evidence of my failures. I took scissors to my legs and stomach trying to cut my fat away. Shaking scissors interlaced in defiant fingers, cutting the moments away, ridding my body of ugly of laughing, pointing children mooing in the hallway
Hoping to be my own lipo-surgeon
At 15 I found my uncle’s suicide letter, written on canvas so elegantly, telling everyone it wasn’t their fault and not to blame themselves. I spent hours at my uncle’s grave, contemplating why, justifying his reasons then justifying mine. I imagined his moment-
Staring down the black hole barrel of a gun, the smell of dumpster death lingering, contemplating the moments that came to this.
Counting the bullets in the chamber, 1, 2, 3.
Each a different tragedy leading to this. One click into position-raise the black hole where an outstretched hand should be, a heart should be. He goes unnoticed, he leaves like the silence of a tree in the woods that nobody hears. With one click.
At 23, I wrapped a belt around my neck. The belt a noose to end the nuisance of breathing. I pulled, playing tug of war with my breath. before collapsing to the floor and clutching the dying inside me. wheezing in and out of a self induced asthmatic attack. Each belt notch marking a tragedy, a devastating moment coming to where the belt loop meets the strap.
At 25, I learned that my brother drove his truck at a tree. Key burning in ignition, foot on the pedal revving the engine to life, he never felt so alive. Shifter in park, just two shifts down and the moment of adrenaline
the moment of impact. Fingers caress the button contemplating the moments
2 shifts down, engine charges ahead
tree in sight as he closes his eyes. My brother wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t gotten stuck in the mud right before the crash.
That’s when I stopped dreaming of my own death, when I realized that someone I cared about was dreaming of theirs.
I got accepted into grad school! I’m so excited…don’t I sound excited?
I guess I’m not as excited as I should be because I only have 3 months to say I’m sorry, I apologize.
3 months to make amends to take back all the words that I said that slithered through your ear canal, leaving remnants of poison in your cranial cavity, acidifying your blood stream and finally sucking the blood out of your heart…leaving it cold. Colder than bitter frostbit ankles on long winter hikes through Antarctica. I left it below freezing.
And now I have 3 months to unthaw freezer burn, to defibrillate your heart from cardiac arrest, repair puncture wounds and warm your soul with hot cocoa. I’ll let you have the marshmallows.
I’m sorry that’s not enough, not enough time because I caused more than 3 months worth of damage and instead of healing your wounds I’ve been blanketing them in bleach, whitewashing them to agonizing thresholds, digging into your skin deeper and deeper beyond what any skin graft could repair.
I apologize for not being genuine, for pretending everything was Alice in Wonderland shoveling all the pain down the rabbit hole and now…Where’s Alice? Searching for her in a Where’s Waldo portrait. And finding that she doesn’t exist, or maybe she’s in costume.
I apologize for sounding condescending, when I said I was proud of you, I meant it. I am so fucking proud of you. I hope that sounded heartfelt
it was, it is.
I apologize for taking jokes too far, not understanding boundaries or understanding but still crossing the line. Every time. Treating you as a finish line in a marathon race, I shouldn’t have crossed. But I did. Life’s not a competition but sometimes we still treat it like it is.
And now I have 3 months to shred the tears on pages in your book of pain, turning them into confetti pieces thrown on your birthday. Each becoming a wish for the future that could come true after you blow out the candles.
I wish you happiness, I wish you love. I wish you healed wounds. Scabbed over turned to scars that I can only hope go away eventually.
You’ve always meant the world to me and I still love you. Take out that piece of paper that I gave you.. I still love you.
These next three months I will help craft our resentment into paper airplanes named X and O and we can fly them in our spare time. Every Time they crash will be the last line in a goodbye letter XOXO from me to you.
P.S. I’m sorry that I wrote this into a poem but this was my only way of knowing that you’d hear my apology.
Sincerely, I hope you forgive me.
What advice would you give to other creative people who feel insecure / stuck in their art?
Keep writing, be in spaces where creativity and writing happens, practice makes perfect and if you get stuck…change your environment or people around you. Share your work with different places and avenues, with schools, publications, and open mics.
Interview and poems edited for grammar, clarity, and aesthetic / spacing.
On the first Friday of every month, Division Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan bursts with art, performances, food, and laughter. Avenue for the Arts‘ free event is attended by artists, curators, art-lovers, young people, students, and world travelers.
Shibori [indigo dyeing] mini-workshop with Annie from LIGHT Gallery + Studio
All displayed artwork, books, shelves, candles, jars, etc. inside LIGHT is for sale.
What a beautiful way to shop!
Friendships are tough. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been a shoddy friend and an amazing friend, and most of the time, my behavior had very little to do with my friends and a lot to do with my own availability and interests.
Like many of you reading, I’ve lost, made, and lost touch with lots of friends. Middle school was rough; I cried a lot on the bus ride home, lonely and feeling left out of inside jokes and dating. In high school, my closest friends drifted into other cliques, dedicated their time to sports and colorguard, and spent time with their significant others. It was really tough to lose friends during those years, when I often needed someone to sympathize with over A.P. Econ or to fret with over what to wear to the school dance. I found my closest friends in those who I had never given much thought to, friends I’d never hung out with except in group settings but who went on to stand with me in my wedding.
It’s really difficult to be lonely; I feel for those of you out there who have been home alone on a Friday night or who miss the sleepover days of childhood. Loneliness comes and goes; sometimes, you’ll find you’re relieved to have alone time to process life, catch up on a good book, or go for a run. Look for opportunities to bond with new (or familiar) people over your hobbies and passions. I made lots of new friends by joining a club in college that organized social justice actions and protests. I also am still best friends with two women I befriended back in high school through a writing group.
That being said, I still rarely go out with friends, and most of the events I RSVP to on Facebook I end up going to solo. But it gives me the chance to challenge my independence and have interesting conversations with new people. My last piece of advice – don’t take it personally when people cancel plans or don’t reply to a text message right away. I’ve been the person too busy to return a text or too overwhelmed to follow through with plans, and I always feel terrible for cancelling, but sometimes I find myself doing it anyway.
Do the things you’re interested in doing, whether it’s seeing the latest movie or going for a Saturday morning hike. Sometimes, friends will be able to tag along (or maybe they’ll see your Instagram pics and invite you to their next outing).
Sometimes, you’ll have the day to yourself, so live fully and embrace your days no matter who they’re spent with. And if you find yourself complaining about a lack of friends, start cultivating a spirit of gratitude for the experiences you have shared with others; I’m sure your past is much more richly embroidered than you remember.