30 IN 30(0): THOUGHTS AND APPRECIATION.

Bonus Tracks

I am not particularly good at fantasy sports. I play, regularly. I’m even on the more competitive end of most groups that participate in the absurd practice of drafting players for an imaginary team and rooting for their stats to be enough for a “victory”. I SHOULD be good at fantasy sports. I’d guess that I have an above average knowledge of statistics, when compared to other sports-watching Americans. It occurred to me this year, while watching my fantasy football team sink to another middle of the pack finish, that I’m never going to be good at fantasy sports, as long as I maintain this idea that I’m the smartest person in the room. Despite the fact that I haven’t read, paid attention to strategy, or approached the preseason with any curiosity. As long as I think that I’m somehow getting a leg up on everyone else by picking the running back that they’re “not smart” enough to take, even though he has an injury history.

Something I have found myself to be particularly alright at is asking questions of people. For a portion of my life, as a job, sure. But for most of my life, simply as a potentially annoying friend, date, dinner companion, or moviegoer. It dawns on me more and more each day that this is one of the truest gifts my mother passed on to me. When I was a small boy, and we would go shopping, I’d grow fidgety in stores where she would be deeply involved in full on conversations with the kid bagging groceries, or the woman behind the pharmacy counter. Annoying as it can be, I think genuine, generous and careful curiosity is one of the best gifts that we can give to others, and it costs us nothing.

We exist in this weird, fantastic, accessible bubble of space, as poets. Sure, it isn’t always ideal, or safe. But what I most love about it is how reachable everyone is. We have that on a level that other artists, actors, musicians, and so on, may not. Look, I got into poetry like three years ago, not knowing a thing about what I was doing. I feel like, in that way, I am still as much that same dude watching youtube videos in my room late at night, as I am a writer who takes the craft seriously and has had the fortune of having (some) poems really appreciated in a lot of places. Make no mistake, though. While not purely and completely, a lot of this was a selfish project. So many of the people I had the joy of interviewing this month are heroes, to me. Legitimate heroes. I read this Michael Jackson biography once, and it talked about how young he was when he first got to walk around Hitsville, how in awe he was of all the Motown artists. In one room, there’s Diana Ross. In another, Smokey. Marvin. The Four Tops. And how that admiration drove him as an artist. So much of that is how I still navigate the poetry community, at large. With admiration as fuel to grow. I still find myself searching journals, or reaching out. Often, it’s like, “Well, what’s Megan working on? I gotta get on her pace.”, “Nate Marshall has a new essay/poem up? Gotta read it”, “Bill wants to come through Columbus again? Clear the schedule”, “Oz is…I mean, being Oz??? Can’t sleep on that.”

I also hoped to use this as a timeline (an uneven timeline, but a timeline nonetheless) of the moments and poets who shaped me as a creative. Who, even without them knowing it, gave me a push. Getting a copy of Jon Sands’ The New Clean in 2011. The first time I saw Marty McConnell in person. The time I introduced Rachel McKibbens to a stage at an open mic, having no idea who she was, but quickly finding out. The local poets who I very seriously count as mentors (Scott Woods, Will Evans, Ethan Rivera, Rachel Wiley), and the local poets who will soon be the names on many, many lips (Meg Freado, Ryan Javery). I really aimed to put a lens on these poets. To give them to the world, in a similar way they were given to me. Unexpected gifts in a time of need, really.

I really want to thank these artists I’m fortunate enough to both admire and, in many cases, call friends. I don’t know if we appreciate that part of it enough.

I appreciate these people for letting me invade their lives and take up a block of time during what is a busy month for almost all poets (because, of course, the world at large never demands more out of us than they do in April). Some of them were touring, or teaching, or powering through school. All of them had better things to do than indulge my desire to have the not-so-easy questions answered. I arrived to poetry through journalism. In some ways, even in my poems, I think that I am still a journalist. It was so long since I had a chance to take on something I truly loved. It reminded me to feel small. To not know what it is to have all of the answers, which I sorely need, at times.  I have so many more questions, so I hope to do this again, ideally when I’m not on the brink of a wedding. I am overwhelmed with gratitude, and endlessly inspired. Thank you all.

I will sincerely try to let my strengthened level of curiosity consume me once again when it’s time for fantasy football. I could stand to ask a few more questions there.

Best,

 

Hanif

 

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HANIF ABDURRAQIB is proudly from Columbus, Ohio. He writes poems when he’s not judging your record collection or eating red velvet cake. So, not as often as he should. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in Freezeray, Joint, Muzzle, Vinyl, Radius, and other awesome places. His chapbook, Sons of Noah, is forthcoming in 2014. He sings in the shower, and encourages you to join him. Not during the Whitney songs, though. Those are all his. 

 

24/30: Ten Questions With Tatyana Brown

Tatyana Brown

(NOTE: Tatyana will be the final poet of this project. Like almost ALL 30/30’s, sure. This fell short of the goal. But, also like all 30/30’s, the goal was never actually ONLY about the number. So I call this a success, and I thank every single poet who contributed, and indulged this somewhat fanboy-ish idea.)

As I mention in these questions, I got to know Tatyana the artist years before I even said a word to Tatyana as a person. She came through Columbus to do a feature at Writing Wrongs a few years ago at a time when I was barely writing poems, and DEFINITELY not writing the kind of poems I was comfortable with other people hearing (even though in the privacy of my room, I thought they were GREAT). So I watched Tatyana unload this briliant, honest, intense feature. After the feature, I didn’t talk to anyone, I quietly slipped out of the back of the room, went home, and tried to piece together the gift I’d been given. At NPS 2013, in Boston, at around midnight on Tuesday, I get a text from my friend (and poet who has been interviewed this month) David Winter. He tells me that there are some poets reading poems to each other in his hotel room, and I should stop by. My initial thought was “Well, I’ll just sit and hang out and hear poems, but I’m probably not good enough to read anything”. Upon walking INTO the room, I thought (but almost exclaimed out loud), “Yep. DEFINITELY not good enough to read anything in this room, with these poets.” But, that isn’t exactly how ciphers work, it turns out. Someone reads, they call on you, and you read. Tatyana, really engaged in the movements of the room, and the poems being shared, read a poem, and then called on me to read. And I did. And I survived. And I found myself really thankful for this space where poets receive and enjoy their peers in a very honest fashion. So much of that is represented in the way Tatyana thinks/talks about poetry. The passion she brings to it, and the way she makes space for all writers is flat out beautiful. The way every voice is taken in, and given genuine respect is a lesson that even in those late nights/early mornings in hotel rooms at NPS, gave me so much life.

 

The writing of yours I find myself wanting to ask about first is the essay “Your Invitation to the Wake: For Alexandra Petri, After Her Article, ‘Is Poetry Dead?’” I found myself really rallying behind this really clear, important message. It seems, so often, that there are brief rushes to declare that poetry is dead or dying. What do you think provokes that type of thinking, and how can we, as writers/thinkers combat it most effectively?

 

Jeeze, Hanif. How about you open with a warm-up question, maybe? You know, something to let the reader ease in before shit gets serious. No? Okay, then.  Let’s get to the politics of art and silencing, why don’t we?

 

(I love that you asked this, because it’s at the heart of what I believe is most important about our community and its work. And—dear reader, consider yourself warned—I also don’t know how to respond without engaging some pretty broad, abstract concepts. Also this is only going to make sense if I out myself as a radical progressive (really no one can be surprised by this), which is to say in a nutshell that I believe in constantly working to take apart and heal from the various forms of oppression we’ve historically inherited. I believe this work is the bravest and most necessary thing we as humans can do, and that the process requires that we rethink social structures and values at a near atomic level pretty much continuously. It also requires lots and lots of listening and patience with one another and love. If you don’t want to spend time exploring my political landscape, by all means skip to question #2. But if you stick with me through it, maybe we’ll generate dialogue?)

 

As far as I can tell, poetry gets declared dead for the same reasons that so many radically progressive, revolutionary art forms do: It’s either privileged and/or conservative people trying to annihilate/delegitimize/make invisible things that feel threatening or uncomfortable to them, or it’s progressive folks themselves experiencing a crisis of imagination.

 

This is not to say that all forms of poetry are radically progressive. I’m generalizing here, but I won’t go that far. But the kinds of poetry that most often get ignored, ridiculed, or written off as “illegitimate” are the ones where the real spark of change is most alive. I’ll say more about this in a second, but first we need some foundations laid for my theories to make sense.

 

Let’s pan out and think about progressive vs. conservative thought for a moment (compassionately, without demonizing folks for their views): In my experience, the driving force behind conservative perspectives is often some kind of fear. Fear of change, fear of scarcity, fear of violence, fear of the unknown, fear of humiliation or rejection—these are legit concerns, for sure. Fear-driven thought is rooted in the survival mechanisms that have helped preserve humankind for the entirety of our history. And it stands to reason that if you’re getting a lot of the good stuff that society has to offer, you’ll be worried about preserving the way of life that’s given you your treats. So conservative thought and privilege (along the lines of race, class, gender, education/access, etc.) can easily go hand in hand. When a privileged person feels their way of life being threatened, often they will attack. This isn’t always a conscious move, by the way. That’s an important thing keep in mind.

 

Progressive thought, on the other hand, tends to be based in imagination. In order to reach for progress, you have to be able to envision something better than the inherited violence of our human lineage as possible (and here I’m talking about everything from rape culture and sweatshop labor to racially biased police brutality and homeless queer youth and beyond—complex and interrelated as all these issues are). Even the most outraged, rabid, “politically correct” (I put that in quotes because that is not a real thing) among us feel that anger because our imaginations tell us that we can do better than our past. Also, burn-out? That’s something progressive folks experience most severely when we no longer can imagine the next steps for building the world we want to live in.  Sometimes we just need sleep or a well-cooked meal or a massage. But when we can’t imagine a solution, everything falls apart.

 

I wrote “Your Invitation…” because all the experience I have as a touring poet and educator tells me that contemporary American poetry is in the midst of a resurgence in significance and popularity, and that this wave of art is saving and transforming lives at an exponential rate. Inside this rising tide, there’s a large movement (particularly, though not exclusively, of young people) who are aware of the incredible, radical power of poetics to relate, inspire, and liberate independent of existing institutional support and/or legitimacy. These people are crafting themselves into masters due to a combination of innate genius and compulsion, and their work is getting to the minds of folks that need it most. People are listening to one another, and educating themselves, and finding the kind of hope that literally unifies and sustains revolutions. We’re building the tools we need to make the changes we imagine, and we’re putting the resources together from the existing art world to wake folks up and make greatness spread even further. It’s happening in bars and street corners and classrooms all over the country. When I’m in the presence of the kind of work I’m talking about, it feels like an unstoppable force. And the crazy part, the real reason I wrote that article, is that the mainstream inclination is to ignore this change. There are tons of privileged folks who are either legitimately oblivious or must be sticking their fingers in their ears and pretending it’s not happening. I wanted to reach them, and to send up a signal for other progressive folks in the field who might need some recognition. This movement is too precious to me to see it silenced or made invisible.

 

I have the good fortune to see the success of radical poetics (past, present, and future) this way because travel and networking affords me a chance to peek at the bigger picture. I can line up the tiny miracles I see on the road and recognize a trend where others might only get to see coincidence. And sometimes being immersed in the work (particularly when you only get a limited view from your vantage point) is hard. Sometimes nobody’s in the audience, or the student gives up on themselves for a moment and just a moment too soon, or the grant doesn’t come through. And in those situations, we (as progressives) are at our most vulnerable. We may find ourselves wondering whether or not we were crazy to take up this work, if we should’ve become investment bankers instead, if anyone will ever even care that we tried to make things better.

 

Weirdly enough, the greatest weapon conservatives have in their arsenal is the denial or diminishing of progress. It hits progressive people right where it hurts the most—our imaginations. All it takes is a little doubt, and the work is harder to sustain. How do you get up in the morning as a progressive person if there’s no possibility for shit to get better? That’s the thing we’ve got to be vigilant about if we want to combat the thinking present in “Is Poetry Dead?” and similar attacks.

 

Sincere affirmation takes the edge off the “your art’s not really a thing” blues, and it’s a pretty easy thing to produce once you’ve made a practice of it. When you see a breakthrough moment in your community (be it yours or someone else’s) celebrate it, and add it to an ongoing list of similar triumphs. Look at that list whenever you feel overwhelmed, underachieved, or any tinge of hopeless. Keep in touch with artists and organizers doing shit you love, and rely on one another to talk through the doubt when it arises. I have at least five people I can call for conversations like that on any given day, and knowing they share my values and believe in the process I’m committed to around art, education, and transformation has kept me from giving up on countless occasions—definitely 30 times this past year alone.

 

All I know is that what we’re doing is working. It’s working, so long as we ignore and outshine our doubters. So, when someone pretends that poetry is dead or “over,” use all the tools you need to remember that IT’S HAPPENING IN AMAZING WAYS ALL OVER THE WORLD AND GROWING, laugh (in as good-natured a fashion as you can manage), and invite them to the next show.

 

 

 

I’m always interested in poets who also organize. I found poetry through organizing. I hosted an open mic for about a year before even writing a poem, which is an incredibly flawed timeline. You have created spaces in your community for poets to grow/share/write/express. I’m wondering what impact that has had on you, the writer. Are the two linked, in your process?

 

Bad News first: Anyone who tries to say organizing won’t cut into your creative time/energy is LYING. And it is a nasty lie, because it’s one that allows you to beat yourself up over an inevitability. On more than one occasion, I’ve sat with a writing partner in a café for hours while he wrote poems and I cranked out promotional copy for The Lit Slam and posted it on twenty different event sites. When my poet friend read me his latest draft, I found myself thinking “God, that was brilliant. Ugh. Why don’t I write more poems? I’m so lazy.”  …as though the process of building and managing space for audiences to encounter art wasn’t deeply important and engrossing creative work.

 

Overwhelmingly Good News now: I have never felt so constantly awed and grateful as when I get to watch everything The Lit Slam is and does takes flight. At least once a show I find myself slack-jawed at the art that happens on my stage just because we made an invitation and genius showed up. It keeps me on my toes creatively, and fuels further experimentation in my work. I do not write alone anymore, but rather in conversation. Now when I sit down to create for myself (and the poets I listen to at my show awaken an internal mandate to keep writing, even if I have less time for it), I feel lit up by the community around me. We’re in our third season now, and that feeling honestly just keeps growing.

 

It might be that creating and sustaining The Lit Slam and other projects will be a contribution that far outlasts any of my own writing. Instead of feeling burnt out and bitter, I honestly feel grateful to think that, because:

 

Extra-Surprising, Humbling GREAT News: Nothing makes an individual writer appreciate the power of the chorus quite like organizing can. Before my commitment to The Lit Slam, I understood that everyone’s voice contributed to something larger than the sum of its parts…intellectually. Hosting and producing has made me step back from the ego-driven pre-show jitters of performing as an individual, and made me pay attention what my peers create with an eye for the audience’s experience. I hear the brilliance in my community differently than I used to—poems bounce off and challenge one another, creating richness and depth that no single voice can bring alone. The rockstar impulse (which I think brings many people to spoken word, as backwards as that might seem) mellows out right quick in the face of the gorgeous mess that is the big picture, leaving behind gratitude and a sincere desire to contribute to growth and further inspiration. Nowadays, I just want to write poems that could stand up next to what happens at The Lit Slam. Believe me, that’s not a small goal.

 

I really like the idea of what the Lit Slam represents. When I finally got a grasp of what it was, it occurred to me that something like that just isn’t happening in other places. Can you talk a bit about the Lit Slam, how it came about, and what the future of it is?

 

So, this is a funny thing to think about, because (as I may have already made clear above) The Lit Slam is one of the most meaningful endeavors in my life to date, and it arose from a snobby art gripe.

 

Back before The Lit Slam started, major Bay Area slams offered $100 first prizes, and those of us who wanted to see the community “focus more on writing” kept theorizing that the money was getting in the way. Why take a big creative risk when highly performative, tried-and-true (read: boring) poems could pay your phone bill? So I tried to think of a prize that would encourage risk and attention to written craft, and it was suddenly obvious: Have the prize at a show be getting published alongside the feature. Put together an annual book. Only folks interested in writing would go for that, right? And that sounds like it’d make a fun night of poetry, wouldn’t it?

 

Nobody else trusts an audience to select poems for publication, and I’ve learned why over the past few years: Good god, it’s terrifying. The few hours of the show itself end up being Hitchcock-level harrowing for me, since my crew and I are having something permanent decided by a bunch of folks we just don’t know but have to trust. And while they sometimes pass on poems I wish we could print, it’s mostly because there are so many great poems onstage on any given night. The writers in my community step up and save the book every month. It’s like a trust fall, except it takes a year before I can all the way rest easy.

 

If that was all there was to The Lit Slam, it’d still be a pretty neat idea. But the more I pushed at the concept (and the more smart, capable, enthusiastic folks I talked into working on it with me), the richer and more compelling things became. I found myself talking regularly about how anthologies serve as historical documents, and how they could bridge the divide between academic and “non-traditional” poetry. (Seriously, what does “non-traditional” even mean? Why are the terms for poets who write because we must and do so without academic pedigree so absurdly othering?) Issues like representation, authority, and access started to sit at the forefront of my (and my crew’s) mind. And we found ourselves grappling with an exciting political imperative packaged as an enticing night of art.

 

At this point, The Lit Slam has produced two annual anthologies (called Tandem, and both volumes are for sale as ebooks and print books on Amazon), and we’re starting on our third. As an organization, we’re committed to interrupting and dismantling systemic oppression, providing access to publication to brilliant writers who folks might not otherwise get the chance to read, and doing so in a context that proves that our values are not out of place alongside the published works of contemporary poetic masters.

 

We’ve just split from our original publisher (Bicycle Comics) in pursuit of going nonprofit this year, and we intend to turn our ten monthly shows and a side event at the National Poetry Slam into Volume III of Tandem by April 2015. We’re coming out with Alight: The Best-Loved Poems of WoWPS 2014 just before NPS. Our team is expanding to include people who actually market and distribute Tandem, so it won’t just be me with a megaphone duct-taped to my Facebook page anymore. I can’t tell you how happy I am about that.

 

We’re going to keep producing exceptional poetry books through our ass-kicking live shows until the wheels fall off. The pipe dream is to expand The Lit Slam to other cities, and eventually produce Tandem as a quarterly/more frequent journal with other scenes contributing an annual anthology (and we’ve had offers from organizers in NYC, Boston, and Chicago), but that’s a couple years off, at least. We’re still working the kinks out of our system locally, and we’re not going to expand until we know we can support another crew while they get their sea legs. For now though, it’s pretty damned gratifying to know we’re doing something right, something that captures the finer qualities of live poetry shows in a book.

 

I’ve asked a similar version of this question this month, but I am most excited to get your answer. I was introduced to your work in about 2011, during a feature you had here in Columbus. But I think I was most introduced to you more personally through gaining an understanding for your appreciation of poetry. I get a vibe that you genuinely just crave hearing the poems of your peers. Which amazes me. So often, I think we see people who have heard poems so frequently that they’re just not into the idea of still being active listeners. What drives your relationship with listening?

 

What a fantastic question. I’m so flattered that that’s how you feel like you got to know me, Hanif. That’s awesome.

 

Today in practice, Jelal (my teammate on The New Shit Show’s slam team) was describing what he loved about Joy Harjo’s work and he said, “When she writes, you can just tell that she’s listening.” and something about that description lands in my heart and mind exactly right. The masters are master listeners. How do we engage properly as poets without spending the vast majority of our time listening? If we’re all just waiting for our turn to speak, where is the community?

 

I feel like I need to admit here that I’m not always the best listener some days. I’m a cynic, and sometimes it feels like all I do is listen to poems, so I have very little patience for being bored. Occasionally I’ll write a poem off ten seconds into performance due to an uninspired image, or an assumption, or some other arbitrary hiccup. This is something I work on, because I believe that really listening to one another (especially when it comes to poetry, a discipline that’s often dedicated to bearing witness and expressing a person’s internal reality) is the best way to challenge the ways I’ve been socialized not to see people around me, and the issues they face. Sometimes the best I can do is push myself to listen even when I disagree or dislike what I’m hearing—whether it’s a craft issue or a disagreement I have with the author’s content. Sometimes I decide to step outside instead. My best self knows to ask, “what made this person need to write that?” to bring me back to the poem, and most of the time that helps. But yeah, listening is a conscious and deliberate practice on my part. Even when I’m reluctant, I’m bound to learn something from it.

 

To answer more specifically, the nights I think you’re thinking of where you saw me being consistently enthusiastic were informal late night hotel room readings at Nationals, yeah? That’s something else entirely. If I’m being honest, those gatherings are the real reason I still attend national slam tournaments at this point. You’re right to say I’m genuinely excited to hear the work of my peers in those spaces. They’re essential to the way I think and reach and try to write.

 

My relationship with that kind of room started in the Fall of 2011. Danez Smith, Robyn Bateman and I had just made Finals for the first time together at iWPS, and we were at a bar celebrating with a ton of other writers we love (Sam Sax, April Ranger, Megan Falley, Miles Walser, and many more), and someone—probably Sam—mentioned that really all they wanted to do was take our party someplace quiet to say poems together. Everyone’s face sort of bashfully lit up. There was an earnest eagerness between us that had finally been named: a shared excitement for one another’s poems, and for the opportunity to share the work of our own that felt the most alive and see what other respected writers thought.

 

It’s not like we invented the cipher in that moment, but it was my first time I’d been in a space with so many stunningly talented people with that same relentless enthusiasm. We read together that night and the next, and managed to pick up even more great writers (like Jamaal May, who hadn’t yet become one of my living favorites) as folks in our group pulled poets they admired and wanted to share into the circle. Both nights we stayed up till dawn, unable to stop reading to one another.  The work shimmered all the more brightly, considering the vulnerability of putting it in front of so many discerning and talented eyes. It was mesmerizing.

 

I’d never felt that kind of alive before, and though it’s a familiar feeling now, I appreciate its uniqueness. It’s a mix of family reunion, space expedition, and quiet fireside chat in the pantheon. I can never really all the way believe how lucky I am to know and like folks who blow me away as writers, and to be able to sit in a room with so many of them at once. That I get to watch them love one another and be inspired by each other, and feel like there’s a fraction of hope that I might also belong there. Considering how widespread our tribe is across the country, coming together and examining our growth together is pinch-me-I’m-dreaming gratifying when it happens. It’s a strange thing to admit, but every time I’m in a room like that, a large part of me is thinking, I have no idea how fate let me be here, but please god just let me be good enough to belong in this room. Please let me be good enough to stay and listen and maybe say another poem.

 

All of this to say: I believe in the fire and genius of my peers (do I even get to call them that?), and I feel blessed to get to be alive in this moment, as part of the conversation—especially as a witness. It’s an honor to listen year after year, reading after reading, as young enthusiasts step into their own mastery—one I don’t intend to waste. It’s also a challenge, and a constant source of delight.

 

I really like how you examine and write about relationships. I think there are many ways to do that, and so few of them are honest, and too many of them are kind of easy exits. I’ve heard pieces of yours that really hit at the heart of relationships, or the end of relationships, at their most ugly. Of course, “How To Move Into A House That Is On Fire” has always been something I turn to when writing about the end of something. Anything. It’s kind of a test I run through, “Is this as honest as Tatyana?”  How important is giving an honest story its due, even if it’s also an ugly story?

 

Holy crap, what a compliment. This means so much to me, especially considering the fact that “extremely important, to the point of being essential” is the short answer to this question. Thank you a few thousand times over. 

 

Similarly to The Lit Slam, I fell into a profound relationship with honesty by being a snob at first. As a young writer, the first thing that made me cynical about slam was the way it rewards folks with savior complexes. I’m guilty of indulging in epic self-righteousness myself, and I understand the impulse (I mean, the poem I wrote as a 20 year old about volunteering in a soup kitchen for homeless HIV positive folks? Yeah, I’m not proud of it, but it happened.). When you’re standing in front of a crowd, it’s human to want them to like you, and to find a comfortable place to speak from. It’s human to want to show only the most attractive version of yourself and erase the rest. But the insincerity hollows out what is an otherwise rich and complex opportunity. It flattens the discourse, and leaves little room for growth. Everyone can pat themselves on the back and go home without experiencing self-reflection or vulnerability.

 

So after a slam where I heard not one, not two, but five Noble Teacher Poems in the first round (you know what I’m talking about, where the writer  appropriates the raw deal their students got in order to talk about themselves as a hardworking everyman’s hero?), I decided to set myself a challenge: turn the comfortable bombast of slam on its head and write a poem where I was (am?) the villain. Get ugly onstage, if only to create some kind of diversity of message.

 

It started off as an act of defiance, but the first thing that fell into my notebook was a vignette about punching my younger sister in the stomach and realizing that I was perpetuating the abuse I survived as a child, and I basically couldn’t sleep for a week after writing it. The game changed pretty much immediately then.  It was like switching the lights on and discovering you’re in a slaughterhouse instead of a library. I realized I could either spend the rest of my life in denial, or start taking my history apart and writing to get free.

 

I write for my own liberation, and to invite others to continue (or begin) the hard work for themselves. I come from a background of poverty and violence, and I was born into a body that’s valued as an object or source of service. I learned some pretty terrible things about love early on, things I’m spending a lot of effort to un-learn (Have I mentioned that my therapist is the greatest? And that therapy and poetry are not the same thing? They can inspire one another, but neither does the other’s job all the way.). And on top of that, I’ve been socialized into a position of often un-interrogated privilege as a white person, so sometimes I walk into spaces where I mean to be supportive, considerate, and kind and my actions come out like it’s opposite day. This process of rebuilding and reimagining and accepting and listening is such an ugly one—like birth. It’s disorienting and overwhelming and the only way I know to get to growing. Sometimes beauty is stasis. Survival depends on learning. The better world I want requires art that lets this process be seen, so we can all feel less alone and freakish for it. So we can be encouraged towards the next step while acknowledging the complexity and difficulty at hand, instead of shutting down in fear.

 

There are ways my heart has been broken and never set right. There are crooked parts of me that need recognition just as dearly as the bits that are easier to love. There are stories in my life where the unglamorous details are the most universal. In order for that to be true for me, it stands to reason that it’s true for just about anyone. And when I think about the artists whose work I love the most, it’s pretty clear the trend in what draws me in has to do with the byproducts of honesty: vulnerability, honesty, originality, and bravery (not as in, “look what a hero I am,” but rather “holy shit, I can’t believe I’m admitting this out loud”). That’s where the magic happens in the creative world, far as I can tell.

 

How are you as a reader, and as a critic? I think listening is one thing, but I also feel like you call for a type of awareness of the work that is happening in the moment (like, of course, with the Lit Slam). What is your relationship with reading and critique?

 

As a reader and listener, I think it’s super important to separate critical analysis and critique. I didn’t know how to do this for a long time, and it got me into sticky situations all the time.

 

When it comes to critical analysis, I’m voracious and incessant. This keeps me engaged, aware, and reaching at all times, which is pretty important to me. I view every piece of art as being is in conversation with its surroundings, its creator, its predecessors, and so on. I take apart and think about each choice—conscious and unconscious—and spend time as I read or listen considering both the performance and motivation behind them. I consider the relevancy of the piece to its environment, and how its reception occurred. I try and do this even with work I don’t like, because I believe examining what doesn’t work for me can be just as valuable as understanding what does (so long as I give myself permission to fuck up horribly and make a mess). I do this with everything all the time—poems, billboards, news articles, speeches at rallies, facebook statuses, outfits on passers-by. My mind is constantly churning on the mechanisms of authority and publication. I don’t really know how to turn it off, and I’m not sure I would if I could. It fuels my own creative process, and it helps give me a sense of my environment that’s nuanced.

 

Critique is another thing entirely. The more involved I’ve gotten in writing intimate work, the more highly I value consent-based relationships around critique. I feel like creative people deserve to feel understood and respected by the folks who tear apart their poems, and that it’s important for it to feel like the critic appreciates the art under renovation. If I can’t engage with that level of care, and if there isn’t that level of trust and intimacy between myself and the artist, I try to hold my tongue unless it’s to deliver sincere praise. If I feel an absolute need to talk to a poet, I try to ask if they’re interested in my opinion first.  And when I do talk with poets about their work, I tend to try and consider everything in the process—where the individual piece is occurring in the development of their voice, what their intention is, how they tend to read—in order to make sure that I’m offering critique from a place of advocacy for their own voice. I know what it feels like to be in a shitty critique relationship, and I’d like to do everything in my power not to perpetuate that. (Please note that I mess this one up constantly. I’m a nosy Jewish grandmother in training, and sometimes when I want to help I push my way into situations that I shouldn’t. Sometimes I also forget that no matter how much I gush adoringly at poets I love, each poem also deserves this kind of gentleness. It makes the growing process so much less obstacle-laden and more kind.) 

 

There are two major exceptions to the above standards around critique: New poets and problematic/oppressive work. 

 

With new poets, since I want as many people writing and exploring as possible (again, progressive agenda), I try and come with enthusiasm for their work, encouragement, and a few tips to get them started (“so the mic stand here is tricky, you might want to only adjust this knob,” or “hey, have you heard of (insert relevant poet to their interests)? You might want to check out this poem by them. I think you’ll like it.”), and then I’ll invite them to talk with the local regulars about poems. I do this because most folks don’t know that they robust conversations about art are even happening at all in the local scene when they get started. I think it’s important for folks to know that it’s available, so I’ll get a little hands-on then.

 

When it comes to problematic/oppressive works, I try and make sure that shit gets addressed by somebody at a show. At this point, I’m committed to also making sure that no one is trying to take on all of it by themselves, so I check in to make sure it’s my turn (there are a few folks in my scene who informally split this work), and then I start by asking questions. “Hey, I’m curious why you made the choice to say (insert problematic thing)” tends to work nicely once we’ve been talking for a bit. I try not to come in anger, but with earnest curiosity and at least some modicum of care for the person I’m asking. If I can’t do that, then it’s not my turn to do the work, so I find someone who can.

 

I think what I’m trying to say is that when it comes to critique, I’m a pragmatist at this point. It’s got to be valuable to both parties, and it’s got to yield results. Otherwise it’s masturbation—and not the good kind. Really pompous, somewhat boring masturbation.

 

 

The Bay Area poetry scene, from afar, seems like this really energetic, bursting thing. I’ve had friends make the trip out and come back so refreshed and excited about poetry. I’m assuming that it isn’t just the weather. What parts of community are most important to you, and what do you love about being so heavily in the mix out there in the Bay?

 

What’s hella funny about this question is that there was a long period where, because I was touring so much, if I had the chance to go to a show in the Bay (which was something like once a month or—for shows that weren’t The Lit Slam—every two), there were people who would actually yell, “YOU DON’T EVEN GO HERE!” (which, I had to be informed, is a Mean Girls reference) in my face whenever they saw me. They did this because they missed me, I think? That’s indicative of something, I guess. The parts of the Bay that I love the most (and that love me, or love telling me about myself, or something) are playful and pretty goofy with one another, no matter what happens onstage.

 

But seriously, the Bay scene is way too big for me to comment on it like it’s any one thing. It’s dynamic and multifaceted, and when people want something of or for the community, they create it (The New Shit Show, Golden State Slam, Slamazon, Cal Slam, and so on times about twenty). That’s why there are so many shows spread across the region. The corner of the Bay poetry scene that feels most like home to me is full of socially anxious but endearing (to me) compulsive writers/readers, a combination of old and new guard organizers who are willing to throw down to make great things happen for our community. It feels familial (and yes, even in dysfunctional ways) in that often people stick around even after there’s a falling out or drama, sometimes for generations. I believe we benefit hugely from this connection to our local roots. There are shows around that have been going for coming up on two decades, and there are newer initiatives that haven’t yet hit the year mark. As someone who’s been around for about five years, it’s exciting to see what that mix of stability and innovation produces.

 

 

Like any teaching artist, I like to talk about how teaching challenges your idea of what is or isn’t possible within the craft. What do you gain from teaching?

 

So, this one time I went skydiving. My instructor was a total creep (popped collar and an unsolicited blowjob joke at our introduction), but I mostly didn’t mind being strapped to him for the twenty minutes of our lives or so that we shared because he’d done it twenty five thousand times before. When you’re flinging your body out of a plane into the goddamned atmosphere, proficiency trumps pleasantries, you know?

 

Anyway, we jump, we free-fall, he pulls the cord for the parachute, and for the first minute that we’re hanging six thousand feet above the earth, I’m speechless. It’s sunset, and below is miles and miles of pastoral farmland. There’s a creek and a lake and I swear they sparkle below us. There’s no sound but the wind, and we are tiny specks, blinking and staring at a panorama you just can’t see anywhere else, any other way. I realize we’re connected to nothing but each other and some nylon fabric, and somehow this doesn’t make me want to scream. The adrenaline is cooling in my veins, and the peace I feel is volcanic—after all that heat and pushing, rich stillness sets in. My heart is full and open both at once, and I swear the light has washed every doubt from my mind. Everything is far enough away that you can just say yes, obviously, just as it should be.

 

When I can finally transmute the wonder I feel into speech, I say (and this is profound in the moment, believe me), “Wow.”

 

Creepy instructor dude sighs and responds (again, profoundly), “I mean, yup.”

 

We stare for another impossible length of time, the ground pulling us in molasses slow and sugary. He finally says, “You know, it’s always like this. You can’t ever really get used to it. Just, wow. Every time.” I remember his twenty five thousand jumps before this one, and you know what? I believed him about how it never gets old. I still do.

 

On the really great days (which are just about all of them, barring catastrophe), that’s what my students make me feel. I learn from teaching constantly, and it’s not uncommon for a beginner in a workshop to pull out something really fresh and stunning that bowls me over and makes me want to be a better writer/thinker/human being. I will never stop being grateful for that. But the thing I live for, the bit I keep coming back for as an educator is the moment where a student finally really gets what poetry can do—what they can witness in it, what they can say for themselves. I get to be there with them in that discovery, the eye-widening joy of it that is not unlike falling in love, except with an idea (or the mind that produces it…and that often means the student is falling in love with themselves). It shakes all the weariness out of me, and reminds me what a miracle human connection actually is.

 

There is so much about the work of an independent poet/educator that can be exhausting, draining, or difficult. Some days my job makes me feel self-involved and useless. But being with a student when they wake up to what poetry is and can do is six thousand feet above the ground and staring, every single time.

 

 

 

This is going to be a multi-part question and I apologize in advance. I’m wondering what your ideas/thoughts around page and stage poetry are, and if you see a divide between the two. And if so, why that is. Do you think the stage is limiting, in some ways? And how important do you think it is to chase after some blurring of the two? I see more and more poets really finding an appreciation for the blurring of that line, it seems. Thoughts?

 

Man, you are not going to let me have any easy outs on this interview, huh?

 

The Lit Slam makes me think about this stuff all the time, so I can answer this question without much difficulty. I think the divide between page and stage (when there is one) has to do with the limitations of linear time. You can’t go back and reread a section of a live performance, so the work needs to stay both engaging and accessible for the audience in order for the full impact to be felt. Sometimes that means stating something for the audience that you’d rather leave the reader to discover on their own, and that can be a bummer. But those changes are by and large minor and cosmetic.

 

I find, more often than not, that the real limitation for great writers there is not about simplifying their work for the stage, but in allowing themselves to feel it. Performed poetry relies on the reader’s ability to relate to the audience. It’s the oldest magic we have, and though knucklehead critics act like it’s a parlor trick, it’s at the core of what makes live art of any kind compelling. Often we as writers crank out work that terrifies or weirds us out, and it’s easier to keep a safe, intellectual distance from it. Performing in a way that resonates does not allow that. You have to let the ideas behind the words all the way into your body, and then you have to be brave enough to let an audience see that. This is why so many great writers who’ve come up through slam (Patricia Smith, Jamaal May, Danez Smith, and so on) stand head and shoulders above their peers—performance spaces have taught them to relate to their readers/audiences viscerally.

 

Also, just for the record: the folks who blur the line on the stage/page divide (whether you consider that a construct or an absolute) aren’t groundbreaking. And “spoken word” isn’t a thing folks need to grow out of. They’re both connected to the roots of our tradition, and they’ll continue to hold profound significance for probably centuries to come.

 

 

Finally, who are the writers doing it right now who you appreciate? The ones that remind you why you write/love writing?

 

Okay, I’m going to limit myself to 20 names here, which feels almost criminal. In no particular order, here are the poets I’m carrying around in my bag: Roger Reeves (two copies of King Me, for reasons that are not at all silly), Natalie Diaz, Arisa White, Brynn Saito, Jamaal May, Ross Gay, Jason Bayani, Sam Sax, Danez Smith, Patricia Smith and Corrina Bain (CORRINA BAIN DO YOU HEAR ME PEOPLE YOU PROBABLY DON’T KNOW BUT YOU SHOULD). I guess what I’m saying is, check out the size of my backpack. It’s pretty heavy.

 

I also absolutely adore Cam Awkward-Rich and Nic Alea, Joshua Merchant (okay arbitrarily limiting the number of Bay folks I’m talking about now), Simone Beaubien, Tara Hardy, Karen Finneyfrock, Lauren Zuniga, Gypsee Yo, and you (not kidding you were absolutely one of my favorite readers from this past NPS).

 

There are so many more. Too many more. We live in a blessed era for poetry, that’s certain.

 

Thanks so much for doing this Tatyana. I hope we cross paths in the summer again, if not before.

 

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TATYANA BROWN  is the founding host/head curator of The Lit Slam (www.thelitslam.com), a San Francisco-based monthly reading series which produces an annual poetry anthology called Tandem. Her work has been featured on NPR’s Snap Judgment, and she was listed amongst Muzzle’s “Top 30 Poets Under 30” in 2013. In 2011, she placed 4th at the Individual World Poetry Slam. She is currently 10 away from having featured in all 50 of the United States and has lectured and read poems at Yale, Duke, and Indiana University, among others. She currently teaches the mechanics of writing using microfiction at themadscientistwriterslab.com

23/30: Ten Questions With Jon Sands

Jon Sands

Though he may not recall, Jon’s introduction to my work/me came a few years ago when he came through Columbus to feature at Writer’s Block. Scott Woods, always with the interest of entertainment in mind, had Jon stay on stage after he featured, in order to have him read the poems of two audience members, without having any knowledge of the poems beforehand. Of course, I was one of the audience members selected, and since i was BARELY writing anything resembling poetry at the time, all I had was this ridiculously long, sprawling, awful numbered piece about something I legitimately don’t recall, but I recall that being the first moment where I felt like I knew I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to keep writing poems. The first moment I understood that maybe I wasn’t doing this thing with all I had. Since then, I’ve been more than glad to call Jon a major influence, but more than that, a friend. His work has helped to shape and sharpen my work, the life he brings to any space he’s in really serves me well. Here is what I know. There aren’t a whole lot of people like Jon Sands. He gives valuable lessons on how to care for a room you’re performing in front of, how to build community, how to take your history and share it. I hope everyone gets as much from those lessons as I have.

 

We share a handful of things.  Great taste in music. A Collection of cool hats. Strong feelings about the Cincinnati Bengals. And perhaps most importantly, a home state. Even with that, I feel like your poems live in multiple spaces. All at once, sometimes even from one line to the next. How has geography been a service to your writing, in every form? Beyond just the cities, but also the couches, bars, open mics…the whole journey.

I feel like story and geography are so intertwined that they’re hard for me to separate. I remember this moment early in my writing identity: I had recently arrived in New York and was in a perpetual state of inspiration/feeling like at any moment I would be found out for being this “boring” person who had a job as a paralegal, and came from Cincinnati, and liked football, all these things that just made up who I was that I had “crossed off the list” of what belongs in a “good” poem. I believed that if I just addressed politics, religion, love, and society, then I would be doing it “right”.

One late night, I found myself in a deep conversation with Lynne Procope, the co-founder of the LouderARTS Project, and righteously talented Trinidadian-American poet. I let slip my insecurity in the form of a compliment. I said, “Lynne, your poems are so incredible that they make me feel like I don’t have anything to write about because I’m not from Trinidad.” Lynne immediately said, “That is crazy. I often feel like I don’t have anything to write about because I am from Trinidad.”

Such an unbelievable epiphany about any author’s journey towards honoring their own stories. From that point, it wasn’t a choice to go in pursuit of all the places I’ve been. The places I’ve been,  and what I’ve seen and imagined while there, they were trying to enter my writing the whole time. I was the one keeping them out. It was way more about permission than about pursuit. I needed to give myself permission to learn about my own life in the telling.

 

I firmly believe that when looking at the history of music, in the early days (the “record men” days), there were two types of record producers. The first is the one who serves themselves completely. The music fan who tries to make the shit they would listen to in their own car. Someone like Berry Gordy, even. The second is the documentarian. Someone like Leonard Chess who walks into a dive bar in Chicago, sees Muddy Waters playing, and decides to bring him into the studio the next day to play exactly what he played the night before. The person who sees a story, makes it beautiful, and gives it to the world. I consider you a documentarian in the same way Leonard Chess was a documentarian. Things like “Moons Over My Hammy” strike me as most incredible because even reading some of your work alone in a room, I feel like I’m gathered around a table listening to an old friend reminisce about our childhood. Even if we’re talking about lived experiences, not everyone can capture what you capture. What leads you to the clarity in the stories you share through your work?

 

I have fully subscribed to Toni Morrison’s quote, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I was with my old friend Ed Menchavez last night in this musty dark bar in the West Village where we used to be staples in our mid-twenties. He was saying that the poems he’s written that he’s most proud of share a simple through line. 1) Something happened. 2) He told that true story, but in a way that communicated how he felt about it.

He didn’t try to be anyone else in the telling. Which I think stands up even if you’re writing persona work, or non-personal narrative. An untrained writing mind (and often a trained one) can conspire to tell you that no one cares about the small details. But then you realize that the small details are EVERYTHING. That’s like saying that you want the ocean to be made out of something other than drops of water.

 

As Ellen Bass said, (paraphrasing), as a writer you risk not only the display of your story, but you risk showing people how your brain works. My brain often jumps from detail to detail, story to story, so with a poem like “Moons Over My Hammy” I already had all these detailed stories from high school, they were just looking for a format to enter. That poem is both my story AND how my brain works.

 

I hit a point early in my decision to grow as a writer where I committed to a search for poets who were writing work that allowed me to gain a belief in the fact that my voice, or my “style” was possible. I was just coming out of journalism, so a lot of the work I was writing was really heavy on this observation/examination-based narrative, and I wasn’t hearing or seeing a lot of that around. This was right after The New Clean dropped, and someone on the Columbus scene blessed me with a copy of it. First off, that book was one of a few that came to me at a crucial/urgent time in my development as a poet and opened a lot of doors for me. So, I really can’t thank you enough for that. I’m always fascinated by the fearless self-examination that comes through in your poems. That is a lived thing, I’ve learned. How do you continually motivate yourself to go into those places?

 

First off, thank you, my dude.

Second, all through high school, in creative writing, I feel like I was always told to “consider my audience”. I often wonder if that question was one of the main reasons that I didn’t actively pursue writing until my early twenties. Like, inherently I had to be doing it for someone else.

 

I love to read a book of poems and think “Wow! I can’t believe you just said that IN A BOOK!”. But none of our work gets written directly into a book. All of these poems have such humble beginnings. Me on a 4 train trying exorcise my learning of love and death and how all of it relates to my grandmother. I’m trying to use story to name something for my own self to be able to continue on this arduous, confusing, and profoundly beautiful journey.

Patricia Smith said that a poem happens when a narrative is stunned and can’t move forward without further commentary. I never assume that just because I’m writing something, everyone has to know it, or that I have an obligation to share it. There is often a lot of understanding to be gained in the sharing, but you always have a choice. There’s a growing cadre of poems that I may never share out or publish, but it doesn’t change that they were asking me to write them. There’s also often a gestation period before the sharing. I write a lot about my family, and we often get to experience and discuss those poems long before they’re released for consumption.

It was also very freeing to learn that I didn’t have to make sense of everything. It can be enough to tell the story. Once that burden was lifted, it was like a whole other door to my house opened with a strong breeze behind it.

 

It would be criminal to avoid mentioning your work with Pop Up Poets. I’m curious not only about how this idea came to be, but how it has changed any ideas you had about performance, or the placement of poetry in society.

 

There is a lot of info about Pop Up Poets (or Poets in Unexpected Places) here: www.popuppoets.com. But, it originated through conversations between myself, Samantha Thornhill, and Adam Falkner. We were quickly joined by Syreeta McFadden and Elana Bell. Originally the idea was, what would it take to put on a killer reading in a public space that the greater New York City population would enjoy? I remember being incredibly terrified by that first excursion, but we had already kind of set the wheels in motion and were accountable to each other to follow through.

I’m amazed at how many of the best things in my life have been preceded by terror. My friend Jeanne Kabenji once told me that “stage fright is only your body informing you of a trip into the unknown”. What it really meant is that I couldn’t imagine what would happen when we introduced our work, unsolicited, into people’s everyday lives. All we had was curiosity, and a hunch that something special had been happening for some time in our vast, but often insular, community, and that, if introduced, people from the spaces we inhabit on a daily basis could potentially feel like they had a stake in it. What we landed on was a complete re-imagining of the role that space and location play in the transfer of one’s story. I knew already that poems had many lives, but I have so much work that originated in New York’s public space, that to have the opportunity to bring some of those poems home has been one of the true joys of my life.

 

I’m realizing the part fear plays into my creative process, as I get older or prepare to tackle marriage or watch the people I love age or a million other things that life shows up and rides shotgun with. What is the one thing that your poems bloom out of? The one thing bigger than yourself that demands they be written?

 

The paradox that we are unbelievably connected to each other on a biological, energetic, and cosmic level. We truly are one being. And yet, we also experience the world as one individual entity alone in the universe. Shout out to my friend Vivien Shapra who I recently discussed this with in a way that elucidated my feelings.

 

Something crazy is that when I was doing a run of shows out East this winter, and I’d be out in these spots with all these poets who have work I really vibe with, I’d be like “Yo! Y’all gonna read on the open mic tonight or nah?” and more often than not, there would be this general discomfort with that idea.  And then I got back to Columbus and realized that my relationship with the open mic had also changed a bit over the past year. What are your thoughts on the importance of the open mic, and how have you seen your relationship with it shift as you’ve taken your poems to more and more places?

I remember when I first moved to New York from Athens, Ohio in 2006, fresh faced, with this idea that I was “graduating” in some way from the supportive open mic scene that I began writing at. I wanted to seek out the poetry slam and “see where I stood”. The first time I slammed at the Bowery Poetry Club, I remember seeing Jeanann Verlee and Darian Dauchan, and thinking, “I cannot believe how much better these people are than me!” I got dead last (and didn’t get robbed), and I thought, “I’ve made a terrible mistake! I was never supposed to be a poet.”

I stopped writing for months, and only then could I feel the absence of all that creativity had given to me. I remember thinking, “I had it all wrong ABOUT having it all wrong. What I’ve needed the whole time is a good open mic to challenge me and hold me responsible to create new work. That realization gave me so much permission to explore all the cliffs that I could possibly throw my work off of. It was an incredible editing tool, as I would find that there were these dead spots in poems, where I instantly didn’t want to be reading a line, so I could sit right down afterward and cut what needed to go. Or say, “No one knew what I was talking about there, so let me find a way to say it clearer.” It’s still the first place I go with a new poem. I don’t get to attend as many as I used to, but there’s always something in me that craves the discovery of the open mic. As far as the poets I’m inspired by, nothing beats the first read of a new banger on the open mic—getting to watch the poet realize the power contained in what they just wrote.

 

You’re now based in New York, but you travel pretty consistently. How do you find time to create in between all of the movement? How do you find the space to stay energized/on your toes/still able to give the kind of performances that people need, even if they don’t know they need them yet?

Downtime produces a significant amount of anxiety for me. I can’t say if creative writing will always play the alchemist role that turns anxiety into product, but it seems to have worked that way for the past few years. I try not to wait for my body to know what poem it needs to write. I just feel the swell that I should be doing something right now, and that something is often writing. It produces a lot of flawed poems, but you can’t get the real juice of the poems that you’re most proud of without writing all the others that got you there. I try to remember that. Especially in generative writing, I try to go easy on myself.

 

Who are you a fan of? The one thing I’ve liked about asking these questions of people so far is this part. So many of the people I’m asking questions are big fans of the craft. I remember one time when you were in Columbus, you couldn’t stop talking about Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia, which I’ve written whole praise songs to since you got me hip to it. Another time when you were here, we briefly discussed which of Patricia Smith’s masterpieces would be the equivalent of Illmatic. Right now, who is behind the work you’re most excited about?

Really, my holy trinity seems to be Patricia Smith, Aracelis Girmay, and Willie Perdomo. I’m lucky enough to be the Interviews Editor at Union Station Magazine, so I’ve gotten to go super in depth with all three of them. Talk about honor of honors. But if you’re reading this and want me to send you a vast booklist of some of the titles that changed the game for me, feel free to hit me at jon@jonsands.com and I’ll shoot it right back to you. Especially a good thing for educators!

 

You have written a handful of poems for weddings. You may be the Mike Jordan of wedding poems. It seems to me that there’s a pressure associated with pulling that off freshly and in a way that honors the moment. How do you rise to that occasion?

I think it’s simpler than people might think. As poets, our job is to tell a story. No matter how many times it happens, two people committing their lives to one another is its own incredible story. I’ve written four wedding poems, and each time I ask the couple a few simple questions: “When did you know you loved them? How did you/they propose? What do you love about them? What are some romantic things you do together?” Each time, the couple always manages to think that it’s not that romantic, just something silly that they do. My brother almost brushed off the fact that five months into his relationship, THE MAN HE WOULD MARRY JUMPED OUT OF BED IN HIS UNDERWEAR TO DO A FULL INTERPRETIVE SPY DANCE TO THE CREDITS OF A JAMES BOND MOVIE FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE OF MAKING HIM LAUGH. Jesus, this world can be SO beautiful sometimes.  It can be hurtful and dangerous too, but you can’t let that invalidate the beauty. There’s too much at stake. The love poem isn’t about whitewashing the pain (which always has its place in a great love poem), it’s just about not letting it stop you from walking toward the beauty.

 

Alright, on to the real shit. Top five MCs, who you got?

I really can’t answer THE top 5 MCs. But MY top 5 (as of today at 2:00 PM):

 

1)    Andre 3000

2)    Lauryn Hill

3)    Kendrick Lamar (I know it’s early…..that’s just how I feel)

4)    Kanye West

5)    Consequence (specifically, and maybe solely, any time he’s featured on a Kanye West track…specifically “Spaceship”. Realest verse ever.)

 

 

 

Jon, Thank you for doing this. I look forward to catching up properly soon.

 

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JON SANDS  is the author of  The New Clean (2011, Write Bloody Publishing). His work has been featured in The New York Times, and published in RattleThe MillionsLUMINAHanging LooseMuzzle, and others, as well as anthologized in 2014 Best American Poetry. He is the co-founder of Poets in Unexpected Places, and the Interviews Editor for Union Station Magazine. He is a Youth Mentor with Urban Word-NYC, and teaches creative writing at both Bailey House (an HIV/AIDS service center) and the Positive Health Project (a syringe exchange in Manhattan). He tours regularly, but lives in Brooklyn. <www.jonsands.com>

 

Additionally, a video of Jon discussing topics like this, and more can be watched HERE

22/30: Ten Questions With Meg Freado

Meg Freado

Meg represents a lot of things, for me. One of the least important, but the one I tend to feel the best about on days when I don’t feel great, is the fact that even though I’m not exactly the best at picking out people who are truly special, I knew almost instantly after meeting Meg one time, and hearing her poetry, that she was a special artist, and more importantly, a special person. It is an incredible privilege to be in an artistic community where you know that you’ve had your time, and someone else should have theirs. Hosting, and being the face of a night can give so much to the host, and it is something that truly special, and truly caring people should experience. I created Pen And Palette Poetry in 2009, and built it from a night where me and maybe three other people were just messing around for an hour, to a night where a wide range of new and established voices pack the house. When I decided to step down as host last year, with a wedding and move on the horizon, I had two options as a replacement host. Meg, and a a handful of other people in case I couldn’t convince Meg to do it. There are people who have gifts beyond the brilliant art that they’re capable of. Meg has a personality that people rally around. It’s natural. It doesn’t matter to them that she also writes incredible poetry. She could do literally anything and have the same impact on the community that she does, because she truly believes in making community spaces wherever she is. So when I handed the night over to her, it was one of the most confident decisions I’ve ever made, in a life where I can hardly decide what to eat during the course of a day. You don’t think anyone wants to be the host after the host everyone knew/loved (or in my case, tolerated), but Meg was born for the role. I’ve watched her confidence grow as a host, person, and artist. And all of this is to say nothing of her poems, which really do a lot of heavy lifting around family, activism, and tragedy I love listening to Meg’s work, or when I get an email from her, asking if I’ll look over a poem There’s no greater happiness than seeing someone breaking through, repeatedly, even when you know they’ve still got so much potential. Meg is going to absolutely bloom. I can’t wait.

 

I mostly want to talk about the way you interact with the local scene here. Of the local poets I’ve interviewed, you’re the one who is newest to the scene. But you’ve also been around almost as long as I have, or maybe just a year less. I remember when I first saw you read at Writer’s Block. There are open mic poets, and then there are open mic poets who you can tell have been a bit seasoned before hitting the open mic. And I felt like you were the latter. What caused you to venture out and really bleed into the community?

Actually, I began exploring the Columbus poetry scene after a break up. I was sitting at home one night, thinking “No. I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to sit around and mope alone. I’m not going to go mope publicly and in an appropriate fashion.” That’s probably not completely true but I do remember wanting to go out and do something by myself for myself and I wanted it to be something that scared me. And poetry did that. It still does. But it’s the best kind of scared and it just so happens that the people I’m doing this with are really beautiful and kind and supportive.

 

The way you write about your mother really resonates with me, as someone who also spends a lot of time writing about my relationship with my mother. I think there can be a very real bravery in processing grief on stage. What is your relationship with that? With allowing people into that very personal bit of yourself?

 

I’ve never really known any other way to grieve. Even in high school, writing has served as the best therapist. I have no dark, quiet corners to cry into. Those don’t help me the way they might help other people. But writing has always been an outlet. Whether it’s kept in a journal and never seen again or something I perform on stage, writing has been the thing that’s made the process a little easier. Plus I’m a really bad liar and the whole “Oh no, I’m fine” thing has never worked. Instead, being able to write about not being fine, about missing my mom, about being sad that she isn’t here has been the best therapy of all. And what’s even better is that I don’t feel alone on stage when I perform a poem that hurts to do. Opening that part of myself up is easy to do when I’m surrounded by extraordinary and caring human beings.

 

You’re growing, as a writer and a person, quickly. I would venture to say more quickly than many poets on our scene, with the exception of a handful (Besty, Zach, The Sons all come to mind). What do you do in order to challenge yourself as a writer, and what corners are you looking to turn next?

Recently I’ve had a minor upswing in poems and my biggest challenge has been putting poems aside that aren’t ready. I have two filed away that haven’t become what I want them to be and it was a really difficult decision to set them on a shelf because they’re ones I need to work, you know? But I started to hate them the more I worked at them and realized that wasn’t at all what I wanted. So I’ve decided the next time I bring them out, I’m going to try different styles. A couple friends and I have started getting together every couple weeks to sit down and critique each other’s work and so far it’s been incredibly helpful in challenging my style. Actually, after the most recent meeting we had, I talked about a poem I ended up slamming with at the Writing Wrong’s grand slam a couple days later. It was kind of a surreal experience for me, and one that made me realize how I’ve grown as a poet in the last year. To have the confidence in myself to do something like that.

I have several goals set for myself this year. The first of which is attending Nationals as an observer and supporter. I want to meet incredible poets, hear beautiful poems and learn as much as I can. Then, I’m gunning for IWPS. Again it’s to meet and hear and learn but by this time, I want to be on the same stage. 

 

One thing that we’ve talked about before, and one of the reasons I picked you as the future host of Pen and Palette Poetry (which we will talk about later) is how effective you are at bringing community together. Whether it’s poetry based, or whether it’s just for games at your house. You have a way of connecting with people that really draws them in. And it’s really been a joy to see your confidence grow in that gift. How natural is that, for you?

Thanks, Hanif!! Community has always been a really important part of my life. My parents made it a point for my brothers and I to know we were a part of something bigger than ourselves. My mom was a special education teacher so whether we were giving up toys for her classroom treasure box or volunteering, we were reminded that we were creating a sense of belonging by taking care of others. That’s a lesson that’s really resonated with me in my adult life and something my partner and I strive to provide for our friends. We want to take care of the people we love and we want them to know it everyday.

 

Early on, the best advice I got about writing poems was that anything in my poems could happen, because they’re MY poems. It helped me get very comfortable with imagery, especially since I was coming from a place where imagery wasn’t frequently used. I like how bold your work is, in this respect. You aren’t afraid to take risks when it comes to daring an audience to visualize you, like literally you, as something that you’re not. It’s unique, for me, in the best kind of way to have you drop these things into narratives that are extremely personal. Can you talk about your use of imagery, and how it relates to how you view yourself through your work?

I really like the challenge of attaching a very specific image or fact or idea to someone or a situation in my life. There are certain images that will always be the same in my writing. My dad is always a redwood tree. My best friend is usually referred to as some summer month. I have a poem about my family and we’re all hedgehogs because of a social psychology theory. I’m usually a weird animal. I was in a biology class in college when I professor was talking about the anatomical structure of a cephalopod. And instead of taking notes for a midterm I ended up writing a poem about why having three hearts would seriously suck for someone with an anxiety disorder. There is so much that I struggle to explain just by being human. (Anxiety, grief, dancing to Amy Winehouse, being stupid in love, working in a group home) So in a weird way, it’s easier to describe everything by making myself anything other than a person. It helps me process what’s happening in my own life by writing about it as if it’s not. Does that make sense? I hope that makes sense. 

 

So, when I decided to step down from hosting Pen and Palette, I ran through the options I had for people I wanted to take over, and you topped the list. I remember in the early days of P&P, when it was just me, and like five other people, and none of us were REALLY writing poems, and it was just some bullshit that we did on a Thursday. Now, obviously, it is much different.  I give you a lot of credit for the shift in the night since I left, clearly. Not many people can step down from somewhere, and see no drop-off in the following weeks/months. How were you able to come in and maintain the level of the night so effectively?

Honestly, I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit.

I appreciate that but I can and should say the same to you, though. That night is so radical and it mostly has to do with the people you initially drew in, the relationship you established with Short North Coffee House and the impact you’ve had in the poetry scene. I just came in as another socially anxious poet with a microphone who’s super stoked to be a part of all this. I am constantly thankful of the crowd who attends Pen & Palette. They are so gracious, so giving and so supportive of one another. I’m really lucky to spend time with them every week. Plus they listen to me tell weird stories and keep coming back. It’s pretty affirming.

 

Also, you’re in an interesting position. Our scene does not have a lack of women’s voices doing fantastic/necessary work. That said, there aren’t many women leading weekly shows. A poet came through here once and told me that if we wanted to see young women finding their voices/being more open to get up on stages in rooms that are, sometimes, male dominated, it would go a long way to have women hosting/organizing/as the face of shows. You now do a dope job leading a fairly successful night, so I’m wondering what your thoughts on that idea are? This concept of your presence being an inspiration for voices?

 

I mean, that’s a really weird concept to think about for me. Because the thing about Pen & Palette is that the community is so undeniably welcoming. It’s like I said before, all I do is talk nonsense in between these awesome poets each week. So the idea that I could be an inspiration for voices is not a way I’ve thought about it before. I agree that having a female voice hosting on the mic each week is productive, but I’m not the one telling the teenage girls I’ve never met to show up. They do that on their own. They’re the ones with the voices. They’re the ones with the bravery to read on a mic when they’ve never done it before. The fact that I get to be the one to hand the mic off to them each week is probably one of the coolest things in the world. Ever.

 

As a performer, I’ve watched you grow in a really short time, but you’ve always been engaging for me in the ways that I like performers to be engaging. I don’t know how hard you’re ACTUALLY trying, but I’ve always liked that your performance style is loose, relaxed, even funny, in spots. I like that you’re not afraid to laugh on stage. So often, especially in slam, there are so many performers who don’t allow themselves to give in to whatever they feel on a stage, and you do that, so well. What is your relationship with performing like, and how has it changed?

Last year at Writing Wrong’s grand slam I was trying really hard and it showed. This year, something clicked. I realized that there was no algorithm for slam poetry. At least not one that I fit into and when I understood that, I was able to let go of a lot of pressure I had been putting on myself that I think stopped me from being a better poet. I had all these heavy expectations for myself that just didn’t fit into who I am. So instead of trying to make myself into what I saw three years ago on YouTube, I decided to work with what I had. Like, sometimes when I read poems, I sound really mad but I’m not mad at all. So instead of using this weird mad voice (which apparently is my ‘performance’ voice), I worked on being softer. I worked on performing a poem the way I would tell a story with friends. I laugh and cry and sit in silence with my friends. That’s what I did at the grand slam this year and I was really proud of my performance.  And that’s all I can really ask of myself.

 

Who influences your writing? What poets are the ones who push you to develop?

Man. Columbus is lovely place to be born into poetry. I could name so many people who have effected my writing. Rachel Wiley, definitely. There’s the really cool YouTube-ButtonPoetry-Upworthy Rachel Wiley poems and those are all, without a doubt beautiful but there’s this one poem she wrote and I’ve only ever heard her do it once but that’s how good it is. It’s stuck with me for like a year plus. It’s a reference to Yoko Ono. The entire house was done when she walked off stage. Tears. Hugging. Everything. It was such an incredible poem and I went home that night to write and I think I wrote like eight pages without taking a breath. I love poets like that. I love poets who can take down a house in one poem. Jon Sands is like that. Good Ghost Bill, Andrea Gibson, Jeanann Verlee. All those guys.

But I think the poet who most pushes me to develop is Ethan Rivera. I think you know him. Real talkative, glasses, hair for days. He’s ok. Anyways, we’re always talking poems. He’s constantly reminding me to just chill out and write. He’s the first person I send my poems to for edits because I know he’ll tear them to shreds when they need to be. There have been nights we’ve worked on poems over the phone for like three hours just to make them work. And he’s always willing to make them work. Like I said, he’s ok.

 

Finally, I feel like I have to ask. When you first starting popping in at open mics around the city and reading poems a couple of years ago, did you ever imagine that you would be hosting/running a weekly show?

 

Are you kidding me?! NO WAY. Up until we talked about it several months ago, it wasn’t even something that crossed my mind. I just figured it’s the way things were. But now that I have this opportunity I want you to know how much I appreciate your trust in me as a host and as a poet. I hope I can do the same for someone else along my way through the Columbus poetry scene. 

 

 

Meg, thanks so much for doing this. There’s literally no one else I would have trusted with the ship that is Pen and Palette, and I’m so proud of all that you bring to it.

 

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MEG FREADO  is a psychometrician for Nationwide Children’s Hospital by day, working with kids with developmental disabilities and is mostly a poet by night. She is the host of Pen & Palette Poetry on Thursday evenings at The Short North Coffee House and was the second place poet of the Columbus Arts Fest in 2013. She is currently in the process of putting together her first chapbook.

21/30: Ten Questions With Ryan Javery

Ryan Javery

The first time I was introduced to Ryan, the person and the poet, it was Valentine’s Day, 2013. He showed up to the open mic night I was running, which just happened to fall on Valentine’s Day that year, and read a love poem to the date he bought to the night. From the mic, I found out he was in high school, gave him a good-natured hard time, the way any host would, while also not hiding my legitimate shock revolving around the fact that THIS kid, who just read a stunningly effective love poem, was still in high school. Not even a senior. I really wanted to use this project to cover as many bases as possible. Find poets who could speak to as many experiences as possible. So, I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to include Ryan. In Columbus, we may get a youth poet on the scene every now and then, and not all of them stick around, or keep their passion/interest level high. So when I kept seeing Ryan popping up at open mics, taking big league swings on mics all around the city, I made a note to keep an eye on him. Not just because Ryan is an incredibly gifted writer, but also, perhaps more importantly, because his poems so often spark and contribute to necessary conversations that aren’t being had in some of the spaces that people his age (and let’s be honest…people YOUR age) occupy. I think there’s a difference in a writer who is ahead of their time, and a thinker who is ahead of their time. Ryan is the latter, and he just also happens to write. I’m terrible at predictions, which explains my dismal NCAA tournament bracket for the past decade. But I am entirely comfortable saying that Ryan Javery will have an incredible impact on the poetry community, in Columbus and beyond. And I can’t wait to watch it happen.

 

I think what most interests me about you is how socially aware you are. It flows into your work really well, I think. In the ways you dismantle the myth of the “friend zone”, and maneuver tough topics such as suicide. Let me say, for real, that your level of awareness around some really difficult topics is much higher than mine could ever dream of being when I was your age, and for many years after. Where does that come from?

 

A lot of it comes from a relatively early discovery of the issues.  When it come to my discovery of feminism and my current relationship with it I can really tie that down to a poem by Isabel Elliot and Massie Cramer about the word bitch. The poem just made me realize that I had been operating the world in a way that caused harm, which sparked a real attempt to self educate and change my behavior.

 

It also helped a lot that I had a great friends and mentors who were calling me out on the problematic shit that was coming out of my mouth. Especially after I told the about articles I was reading and the attempts to change my behavior I was making.

 

I really appreciate how you’ve come up in the scene. In what ways have you seen your work develop in your time on the scene?

 

I think I’ve started to find my voice a bit more in terms style and performance. When I was first starting I made a real attempt to try and write poems in other poets styles and voices to which ones I liked.  I’ve started making a conscious effort to get ride of my generic poetry voice and perform more like myself which I think is an important part of my growth as a poet.

 

I’ve also just become way more critical with my work. For instance I used a piece of about suicide for the Columbus District Slam Prelims, that I had been working on for almost a year. If you had told me when I first started out I’d be working on one poem for that long I would’ve laughed. The editing process is so much more important to me now,  and I’ve finally realized that there’s no such thing as a finished piece when it comes to poetry.

 

You’re another poet in the long line of young poets to come out of the Mosaic program here in the city. I really think we owe the growth of the scene, in part, to the work that gets done in that program. I have seen so many Mo’ Kids come into our scene and stick around long enough to really enhance it. How did you fall into Mosaic?

 

My high school journalism teacher had taught as at Mosaic almost a decade ago and she recommended me for the program. So I went to meeting and met some of the student in the program at the time and absolutely fell in love with what I heard. They talked about the value of the program in introducing you to new ideas and perspectives. A lot of the conversations in the first project revolve around issues of privilege which was really interesting to me.

I hear a lot, and talk a lot about the voices of youth not always being the most heard, or most respected, especially in art. I think that in poetry, there are some efforts being made to bend those expectations. What do you think about the respect given to the voice of people, especially artists, 18 and under?

 

Yeah I think I’m a weird place to answer that question because I tend to read as a lot older than  I am, so I personally haven’t felt that issue too much.  That said there is definitely a certain amount proving yourself you need to do a teenager in order for your voice to be taken seriously.

I think the expectation is more often than not that people in my age group having nothing of value to say, and I think that expectation is still very prevalent when it comes to artist communities. And we all feed into it, even youth artists.

 

When I hear a high schooler is about to go up on the open mic my first reaction is “this is probably gonna be bad.” Which a stupid reaction especially since I’ve been exposed to some of the best poetry I’ve ever heard coming from high school poets.

 

I’ve heard you talk about operating in spaces where your peers, or the people you spend a lot of the day around, don’t get a lot of the things you strive for/feel strongly about, and how exhausting that can potentially be for you. With that in mind, what responsibility do you feel like your work has to express some of those things?

 

I think that I have a responsibility to write the poems that can help educate people who don’t know about issues of social justice and in addition can be entertaining for the many people who do understand the issues that will be over hearing these poems. I try to make sure that when I write about that stuff that I let hit every member of the audience rather than say things most of the audience already knows.

 

Also in a lot of way writing social justice poems is refreshing  for me, it’s a way for me to try and find a more powerful and interesting than I do in my day today life. Which is really fun for me, and helps further my understanding of the issues that I write about.

 

On the back of that, your relationship with activism is fascinating, to me. As I mentioned earlier, when I was your age, I had a hard time grasping any thoughts around social justice, let alone articulating them. And I literally just watched you perform/talk brilliantly at Take Back The Night. So, I have always wondered where you found your voice, when it comes to activism, and how it has evolved in a high school setting?

 

I think a part of my voice when it comes to speaking out in activist circles comes from a number a things. One is just a general willingness to look stupid in front of people with whom I’m comfortable, and Mosaic gave me an opportunity to do that until I eventually got comfortable doing it that in front of people I didn’t know.

 

I also got involved with the Ohio Student Association a community organizing group, that really helped me grow as activist and made me more open to the idea of being  political in conversation.

 

You get to view the Columbus poetry scene through an interesting lens. I would say that your work has been extremely well received on the scene, and, along with all of the Mosaic crew, you’re seen as a breath of fresh air. That said, I’m curious to find out what it looks like from your end. What are some of the benefits  of the Columbus poetry scene, and what things about it have helped you grow as a writer?

 

I think I can really attribute most my strength as a poet to the scene in Columbus for so many reasons. Firstly, the exposure to incredible work that I’ve had coming out to shows in Columbus has been jaw-dropping. People like you, Will Evans, Rachel Willey, Mshaw, Ethan Rivera, and so many more I can’t name check have really given something to strive towards in terms of sheer quality.

 

In addition everyone is incredibly supportive and encouraging of  new poets, which makes it really easy to start getting comfortable on the open mic. As far as I’m aware there isn’t a host in Columbus that doesn’t actively encourage new artists to hit the mic which makes a massive impact on a people’s experience in the scene.

 

Lastly and this is a little more personal to me, the scene has provided me with some great mentors. Ethan Rivera especially has been a transformative factor in my work, as he has coached me on two of the Mosaic slam teams as of now.

 

I think there are more resources for young poets now than there have ever been. Which is fantastic. You’re an artist who seems very interested in the art you’re creating. Who are some poets (locally or beyond) who have had the biggest impact on you finding your voice?

 

Two local poets who have made a huge impact in me finding my voice have been Mshaw and  Rachel Wiley. Mshaw has basically thought me that absolutely everything can be a powerful piece of poetry with the right focus. It seems like there is nothing off limits for him as a poet and that’s something I seek to emulate I push further in what I’m willing to do in a poem.

Rachel is a different story for me. She has this incredible way of making political pieces confessional which is so admirable to me and something that I’m trying weave into my work. She also is an incredible performer, and I hope to get to place too. She talks on occasion about her background in theater something I share with her and am trying to work into my performance the way that she does.

 

Nationally speaking there is way to many to go into. Jon Sands is a huge inspiration, same with Jared Singer, and most of the poets out of New York to be honest.

So often, I think this idea of “high school poetry”, even now, gets dismissed or laughed off by people who are extremely unaware of the amount of brilliant work happening in those spaces. Do you have any thoughts on the advancement of youth poetry, and changing some of the perceptions around it?

 

Yeah I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can grow youth poetry, especially in Columbus. And I think we need a two part solution,  the first part is just getting more teenagers out to shows. The fact is more often than not the only high school kids in the audience are me and people from Mosaic.  I think if we want youth poetry to be taken seriously in Columbus that trend needs to change.

The other part of that is that we need to give the high school poets who are really passionate about their craft more avenues to showcase their work. Features that showcase the high schoolers in the city either as solo performers or as groups would be great. And tying into that creating more avenues for high school poets to tap into the parts of the national scene set a side for them would be really help encourage the youth really get even more aggressive about pursuing excellence in their craft.

 

Especially I’d love to see an easier way for the high schoolers in Columbus to go out to IWPS and compete in the youth division, and for us to get some Brave New Voices representation.

 

Finally, my dude. My dude. It kills me that you’re not staying in Columbus. Sure, I am ALSO not staying in Columbus, but I have always thought your voice is one that the scene could desperately use in the future. That said, what’s next? Is poetry still something you’re keeping on the table going forward? College and beyond?

 

Well then you be happy to know that I actually will be staying in Columbus for at least a few more years as I attend Columbus State and hope to transfer over to OSU.

 

As far as poetry goes and I plan on staying a part of the scene for as long as I can see moving forward. I plan on going out for a slot on a Columbus NPS team next and continue working on crafting new and more challenging material.

 

Ryan, thanks so much for doing this. Your voice is so valuable, and you’ve had an incredible impact on this scene already. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

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RYAN JAVERY  is a Columbus native and soon to be graduate of the Mosaic program. He has competed on two Columbus District High School poetry slam teams, making the individual finals in 2014.

 

 

20/30: Ten Questions With McKendy Fils-Aime

McKendy Fils-Aime

Contrary to growing belief, Mckendy and I are actually two different people. That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t pick up on the things we share in common after being around him for just a short amount of time. McKendy is perhaps who I would be if I happened to be more thoughtful, more interested in nuance. That said, the last time we were around each other, we talked more about hip-hop and shoes than poetry. Which is also a gift. I could talk for a long time about McKendy’s work. The way he puts a lens on being black in a space that is not. The way he uses images clearly, romantically, and accessibly. And, like so many of the other writers this month, how unafraid he is of putting unique work into any space. Even ones that don’t know they need what he has to give. But, ultimately, what McKendy does for me outside of all that is pretty simple. He gives me someone I can look to with a great deal of respect. Someone who works form in language in ways that I envy. But also, maybe more importantly, someone I can go to when I’m tired of talking about poems, and talk about release dates of shoes and albums. That’s incredibly valuable. I’ll never take that for granted.

 

I’m so interested in the NorthBeast poetry scene, especially as someone who is going to be diving right in, at least to some parts of it. It seems like there’s a deep sense of community, and a unique intersection of poets from all corners of Boston, Maine, New Hampshire, and so on. What does that kind of atmosphere do for a writer? Have you kind of become a sponge?

 

Its always fun watching someone new to the NorthBeast scene. For the first few months or so, they’re everywhere. I think that because there are so many  readings in New England, its hard not to spend the first six months in the scene being at a reading every night. It also doesn’t help that we’re a mostly welcoming community…or maybe it does? There’s so much quality poetry around its kind of hard not to want to absorb all of it.

Because there’s such a large condensation of poetry scenes in New England, there’s obviously going to be some creative crossover. I think something that keeps everyone here from sounding like carbon copies of each other is that we embrace our differences as much as our similarities. We’re all speaking the same language, but with different accents, letting the phrases that are unique to us bleed through. I also think that each scene celebrates different a aspect of poetry. I’d like to imagine that affects how people write too.

 

What I really like about your work, and what I feel the most connected to is your use of imagery. All of the images in your poems are well crafted, and they all serve a purpose within the work. I really connect to poems without a wasted image. In “Loa”, there are coffins carried in bellies. In “Dracula to Mina Harker”, the body shakes like a beggar’s hands. What importance do you place on imagery, and the clarity of it.

 

Being that the use of imagery is one of the stronger elements of my writing, I’d say it’s pretty important. I like to act out scenes things before I write them down. I like setting the mood of a piece with imagery. I’m trying to elicit very specific emotions from an audience so the picture I paint needs to be well constructed. A well crafted image can do so much for a poem. A lot of people don’t realize that. That being said, because there’s levels to this shit, I try not to forget to use the other tools as a writer as well. Good poems aren’t built on pretty images alone.

 

You’re Haitian-American. I’m wondering how that background informs your writing, or how you approach it. Do you feel connected to your heritage in a way that bleeds through the poems you write?

 

Sometimes, it really depends on the day of the week. I’m still very much trying to figure out what it means to be Haitian-American. Some days I explore that territory more than others. For the past few years, my motive for writing poems about Haiti has been to discover what my experiences on the island as a kid mean to me as an adult.

 

Regardless, when I write about being Haitian, even when the act feels more selfish than not, I try to honor my culture. It’s a part of me that I can’t deny.

As for as the actual writing goes, I may borrow a word here or there, if the piece calls for it, but overall I tend to use the techniques that I always do.

 

 

A piece of yours that really kicked in the door and shook me out of bed recently was a piece you were kind enough to send me after I asked (“For Those Who Have Whistled Vivaldi”). I’m really curious about the way race plays into your work. I don’t know how much more delicately to put this. You’re a young black creative living in New England. That piece really did a lot to talk about code switching, or finding yourself in spaces where you are very obviously an “other”. Talk, if you could, about the focus you place on making sure you present race in an accessible way in your poems?

 

New Hampshire is a very white state. There’s no getting around that. Because I spent a good chunk of my formative years there, being one of a few, in a sea of sameness, I rolled with some not okay shit. I think originally being from New York, a very cultured city, in some ways, didn’t really prepare me for the swarm of awkward white kids still trying to figure out what’s okay and not okay to say.

I think all of these experiences, catalyzed by the Jonathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride murders, woke me up to the fact that no personal & academic achievement or positive disposition will change the fact that I’m perceived as a threat first, in this country. I also became aware of the moments where I had modified my behavior to change people’s perception of me. I concluded that I shouldn’t have to change my behavior to make anyone feel safe, especially if I’m not doing anything threatening in the first place.

 

I remember in his interview with you, Omar Holmon mentioned that he initially didn’t want to be seen as a “black poet writing black poems.” I used to have similar feelings. For the longest time, I felt like writing poems about race was doing some sort of disservice to me as a writer. That all clearly changed, however.

 

One day in late 2009, at a national poetry event, a man approached my friend and I outside of a hotel and asked for our phones. When we said no, he started cursing and threatening us. We decided to walk away and as we did, he called me a nigger, repeatedly. At that point, it was the first time I had experienced something that deliberately hateful since high school. I realized that not speaking about race in my poems was the true disservice; that I shouldn’t ignore a part of me that a lot of people don’t. I figured since I’ll always be black first to the world, I might as well write about it.

 

Slam Free or Die is my shit. Period. I really enjoyed not only the time I spent out there this winter, but of course the semifinal bout at NPS 2013 where we shared a stage was a true highlight of my time in poetry last year. What makes that space such a good/necessary one? How do you/will you continue to contribute to it?

 

Slam Free or Die is the reason why I kept writing poetry, period. I’ve met some of my best friends because of that reading. I’ve also learned many life lessons because of my time at SFOD. Its warm and welcoming environment is what’s kept me around for so long. Slam Free or Die is kind of like the Cheers of NorthBeast. When you walk into a room, everyone knows your name. We always show support to newcomers and regulars alike, when they’re on the mic.

I owe SFOD a lot. As a result, I’ve promised to do my part, for as long as I can, to keep that wonderful reading, wonderful. Currently I book featured performers for SFOD, do occasional hosting, and run an affiliated writing workshop. I also can be seen trying to contain myself when an excellent feature comes through and bodies their set. Excellent Slam Free or Die feature, by the way.

Speaking of slam, you’ve been playing the game for a lot of years now, considering how young you still are. You’ve been doing it for longer than I have, and really seem to have had the benefit of being around some outstanding artists in the process. What have you learned/taken away from your time on that wild ride? What is the best team experience you’ve had?

 

I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from some of the best poets in the country. I guess one thing that I’ve taken away is to cherish the learning experiences that you have. Because of the nature of slam, I never see any of my achievements or opportunities as commonplace. Every good thing that comes my way because of slam is a blessing.

 

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had mostly completely positive team experiences, during my time in slam. I can’t think of a year where a team was so horrible that I wanted to quit. The most rewarding team experiences that I’ve had were with the 2012 Boston Poetry Slam team & the 2013 Slam Free or Die team. I had the opportunity to work with some hungry, talented, loving poets. Our practices were always productive. It was really great being in that kind of environment for a summer. I felt like I really became friends with those guys.

 

So, here’s the thing. My bookcase, as it stands, is old. And weary. It leans under the weight of the poetry books I own. And yet, it still desires more. In short, I need a full length book of your poems. What are the plans on that front?

 

I’ve been working on a manuscript for a couple of years now. Right now, it’s a combination of my better chapbooks. While I like most of the poems in the manuscript, I can’t say that I stand behind them all. I need to take some stuff out, which means I’m going to have to replace those poems, which means I might have to write new poems, which means it won’t be out for a while. Once the writing is done, I’ll get the wheels rolling on a release.

 

Alright, so let us move forward by addressing the elephant in the room. We are not the same person. I can almost promise this, and yet there are similarities that we both have probably shared for some time, that have gone undetected until this point. For whatever reason. So since we’re both sneakerheads, something that I haven’t found too frequently in the poetry community, I’ve got to ask a hard hitting shoe question. You can select from every available color option, but you can only wear one MODEL of retro Jordans from here on out. Which model would you go with?

 

You know, what’s funny? Before I go out, I often look in the mirror and think “Hanif, what pair of kicks do you want to wear today?” And then I go listen to my favorite Pogues album. All jokes aside, this is probably blasphemous, but I’m not really a big Jordans guy. I think they’re the high heels of sneakers. I mean, they look cool and all, but they’re a bit painful to wear. I’m a big fan of a lot of the deadstock Nike SB Dunks. I’ve been looking for De La Souls as well as the Tiffanys, the Red Lobsters, & the green Taxi Cabs. The first SBs I ever bought were MF Doom Dunks. I wear them for features and big slams sometimes. I’ve got a small sneaker collection, but most of the time I rotate between 3 or 4 pairs. So far this year I’ve found myself wearing my red Nike Dunk lows, my white 2013 Nike Flights, my black Skytop 3s, and my purple New Balance 574s.

 

But to answer your question, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Jordan 3s, despite the fact that the Toro Bravo 4s are actually my favorite Jordans. But yeah, I’d go with the 3s. They’re streamlined, adaptable to almost any occasion, and are supported by good colorways.

 

Back to poems, you’re an avid reader. I asked Oz a similar question, but how do you find yourself reading? Do you have any advice on gaining a healthy relationship with reading as a person who also writes?

 

I don’t really have any advice for readers who also write, except that you need to read to write. Whenever I read a collection, one of my goals is to understand the messages the writer is conveying. Another is to figure out what techniques were used to convey those messages. The most respected people in our genre are respected for a reason. They are doing things with craft, in a way that most of us aren’t hip to. With every collection I consume, I take it upon myself to figure out what those things are. There are reasons why you like or dislike a writer. I think it’s important to find out what those reasons are and use them to improve your skills. For me, the name of the game is to learn something from every poem I read.

 

 Finally, in some form or another, I’ve asked this of nearly everyone. What excites you about poems right now? Who is writing work that reminds you of what is possible?

 

I think one of the most exciting things about poetry right now is how blurry the line between “page” and “stage” poetry has become. I mean you’ve got “slam poets” being published in some of the most prestigious literary magazines in the country. You’ve got National Poetry Slam champions getting accepted into residencies and winning writing grants for thousands of dollars. I know that none of this is new, but what makes me so stoked is watching it become more common.

Something else that I’m interested in is how performance poetry has gone viral. Thanks to Youtube channels like Button Poetry, we have a hub of high quality performance poems that are watched by millions of people. Combine that with the several websites that support those poems and you’ve got the recipe for something. I don’t know what that thing is, but all of this commercialization has got to lead somewhere. Slam is more mainstream than it’s ever been and I’m interested in seeing how that affects the genre.

 

As you stated earlier, I’m a pretty avid reader. There are so many poets out right now that are really pushing me to improve my writing. People like Ocean Vuong, Jamaal May, Danez Smith, Saeed Jones, Sam Sax, Emma Torzs, Megan Falley, Eliza Griswold, Casey Rocheteau, Franny Choi, Hieu Nguyen, and Matt Rasmussen never cease to amaze me. There are also plenty of local cats who are starting to make a name for themselves. I’m excited to watch the evolution of artists like Tim Hopkins, Kayla Wheeler, William James, Lauren Fremont, Raven McGill, Chris Clauss, Emily Eastman, Sam Rush, Brandon Amico, Dillon Welch, Janae Johnson, Princess Chan, Allison Truj, Kieran Collier, etc. Basically, there are a lot of folks who are really good at poems right now and that scares me. It also keeps me on my toes.

 

McKendy, thank you. I look forward to moving and building on this friendship.

 

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MCKENDY FILS-AIME is a six-time competitor at the National Poetry Slam, representing Manchester’s Slam Free or Die (2008, 2010, 2013), Worcester Poets’ Asylum (2009), and Boston Poetry Slam (20112012), McKendy Fils-Aime  is a two-time NorthBEAST Regional Slam individual finalist, ranking third in 2011. In January of 2011, he toured the country as part of a poetry quartet called No More Ribcage. Some of his work can be found in literary journals such as AmoskeagRadiusSmashcake, and Borderline. Currently, he has three self-published books and is working on a manuscript. When not reading his own poetry or attending open mics, Mckendy runs writing and performance workshops around New England.

19/30: Ten Questions With Desireé Dallagiacomo

Desireé Dallagiacomo

I like that I have no idea what kind of pitch is coming when Desireé steps to the mound. I’ve heard her work go so many different places in the short time I’ve been familiar with it, so it’s always a real exciting thing any time I get to see what corner she’ll turn next. The thing that I am pretty aware of when consuming her work, is that no one is giving life to the stories that Desireé has. And the way she does it, with a willingness to give really large pieces of herself to audiences of almost complete strangers. Sometimes, I think it feels good to be reminded that beautiful writing doesn’t have to come from a place of beauty. A reminder that it can come from hard places, from difficult places, and from places of risk. Desireé is that constant reminder for us, every time she gives us another part of herself. 

 

First of all, for real, my fiancée loves your poem “Thighs”. I have also shared it around my office multiple times since it first hit the internet. It really connects, on a very honest level. While I wholeheartedly believe that we can all take necessary steps to love and be comfortable in our own bodies, it isn’t lost on me that the journey to that, for so many women I know, takes on a more challenging/unique path. How good does it feel for you to have a poem like that connect with so many women?

There’s this point in a poem’s life when it becomes exponentially more important than the person that wrote it- and I think that’s where this poem is right now.

That poem was born out of trying to claim for myself what I had previously left behind. I was almost shocked when the first woman came up to me and asked me how I became so “body positive”. My first thought was ‘WTF? ME? BODY POSITIVE? Psshhhhh. You got the wrong girl, lady.’

As that poem started making it’s way on to more platforms, and by other people connecting to it, I began to feel more connected to my body (and, well, my thighs). That poem has given me life in the same way it seems to give some of its audience life. Since that poem was put on Youtube, I have received endless emails from women thanking me, asking if they can use it in a classroom, asking for the text of it, etc. Having a poem like that definitely challenges me to accept myself in a way I had not felt challenged to before. It feels rewarding to know that women across the world are feeling empowered and challenged by that poem, because I am, too.

 

In the poems of yours that I think I love the most, you really do a lot of SUPER heavy lifting when discussing family. In really touching ways. What has been incredibly cool for me this month has been discussing the family dynamic and how it plays into an artist. Since you examine your family, ups and downs, thoroughly in your work, can you talk about what that does for you? Or if your family knows/loves the work you’re putting out?

One quote that I really try to live by is by Audre Lorde, ‘when we are silent/ we are still afraid’. My writing was born in private when I was an awkward high schooler, and then I put it on stages that my family would never see. Then my poems started popping up on Youtube. When I realized my poems were on the Internet, where anyone could see them, I panicked. I just knew absolutely that my family would disown me, that they would tell me that my retelling was wrong, that I didn’t get to talk about them that way, blah blah blah. And then, my brother called me. The first thing he did was thank me. We then had a conversation about what it means for him to have his story told, how validating and permission-giving it was for him to hear an entire poem about himself. From that moment, I think, I’ve really dug into the idea that my family will likely never have the platform that I do. I’ve performed in front of hundreds of people at a time, so who am I to not tell the stories of the people that held me up and shaped me into the person that’s on stage? My mother was a single mother with 5 kids, so we depended on each other for a lot. They’ve absolutely shaped who I am and protected me and guided me into becoming the woman I am today. I think, for my family, having our stories told validates our experiences. Growing up as poor people, we walked with a lot of shame. Who am I to sit in that shame and not shake out of it?

 

The very first piece of yours I got introduced to was “One Side of an Ongoing Dialogue with Sharon, My Therapist”. Which REALLY got to the core of me in a lot of ways. I remember hearing it for the first time, and there’s the line at the end, “I stand in doorways, and I cry all the time”, and I was listening to it alone somewhere, probably while working, and I had this very real emotional reaction to that line coming in to anchor that piece and let it just sit with me for a while. I revisit that poem often, I’ve used it in workshops to discuss writing with honesty. As I discovered more of your work, I definitely realized that honesty seems to be your main gear. Which, obviously, is outstanding. How do you manage to give so much of your REAL self, so strongly/consistently/openly?

Because I did it once, and people responded to it in an equally genuine way. I was a teaching artist full-time for 2 years, and we always taught our young people to write what they knew, and so we as teachers wrote what we knew. It kind of just became the mode in which I wrote, I guess. I came up in the Baton Rouge slam scene (with Xero Skidmore and Donney Rose), and we are a group of relentlessly honest writers. Working with poets that really wrote themselves out of shame and confinement showed me that that is a real thing that can happen- I could write and read aloud and escape the shame that I walked around with everyday. I could take all my muddled up feelings and thoughts and I could give them away, and the audience has always held me in that. They have always said, “I hear you. Keep talking”, and so I do.

 

I am a really, really big Sasha Banks fan. For real. So, I am super interested to hear about the ideas/thoughts that led to From Her Mouth Came The Flood. What was the aim of it, and do you feel like it succeeded?

 

I am a massive Sasha Banks fan, too. Isn’t she just incredible? Within weeks of Sasha and I meeting, we knew that we had more in common than we could articulate. We had lots of conversations about race and class and gender and womanness and humor and poetry and performance and we decided we wanted to write a show examining all these things- so we started writing. 11 months later, we premiered it at the New Orleans Fringe Festival. The Show was really incredible to write and perform and live in for the months that we did. We originally wanted to bring our stories to a stage they had not been (theatre vs. slam). We wanted to interrupt the conversations that were happening and insert out own (dominant narrative vs. marginalized narrative). Above the content and writings of the show came the fruits from the process of working so closely. Since then, both of our writings have shifted dramatically, and there is no doubt that it’s because of the work we put into Flood. We definitely succeeded. We collaborated, we held each other in some tough artistic shifts and moments, we pushed each other into vulnerability and honesty, we tried something new, and we did it in front of about 200 people. Win? Win.

 

 

The way you write about poverty/class issues as a lived experience is something I don’t hear a lot. Your poems about growing up white and poor always strike me as unique, and give me a real window into that part of your youth. I also grew up poor, and hear a lot of my story/past in the things that you mention, so I feel a real strong connection to that kind of work. I often talk about how poverty shaped me as a person, and then later as an artist. Do you feel the same way?

 

I absolutely feel that way. My womanness and my poor identity are the two things that drive my writing and my personhood the most. I write about it so much because it is something that I am always aware of.

 

When I first started coming up in the scene, I was looking for women that wrote what I wanted to write- and the pickings were slim. There were poets that I looked up to, but often times something was missing- and that something was the kindredship that came with meeting someone that came from the same struggle I did. And maybe there are people that do, but maybe they are just not writing about it, or maybe we just haven’t crossed paths yet (Not to say no one is writing about being poor, but no one in the slam scene is writing a story that I hear myself in in regards to alla that). So, in an effort to bring that conversation to the front (and it is ALWAYS at the front for me, because it is something I live everyday) I write about it vigorously. It is important for me to stay true to that identity, and most days that feels really heavy and shame filled, so I want to write through that.

 

Us Poor Girls need anthems, too. We need people rooting for us. We need a light that looks like us shinin’ in the world of slam. Not to say that I am a shiny light, but maybe my story will inspire someone to share hers.

 

New Orleans seems to have an interesting poetry scene. Slam New Orleans has won two NPS titles in a row, so off of that alone, I would think that there has been a shift in how the poetry scene is viewed down there. Since you’ve been on it for a while, can you talk about how poetry is viewed, and how it moves in the region? Also, what parts of it have changed, if at all, since team SNO’s back to back titles?

Yeah, SNO is pretty badass. This is actually my first year slamming with them. Like I touched on a little bit earlier, I really came up in Baton Rouge. I spent a lot of time with SNO, but Baton Rouge felt like a better fit for me for a long time. I decided to slam with SNO this year, and it feels like the right fit. New Orleans has a lot of poetry to offer- spoken word poetry, slam poetry, and academic poetry (not to say those are by any means mutually exclusive). There are many segments of the scene here, and we are all doing different things for the community. I think it has shifted since SNO won Nats, but not as much as I expected it to. We still have our regular shows with our regular amount of audience. We still have our regular poets and our regular community. The biggest shift, I think, shows up in what is expected from being on the team. We have shows almost every weekend, and I think that comes with winning Nats.

 

I’ve mentioned a few times that I find your writing/performance/whole package as an artist to be unique. That said, I imagine it was born out of somewhere, and sharpened with a lot of tools. So, that pulls me to ask who you read? Who are the poets pushing you to write and perform even on the days you don’t feel like you can?

 

I relentlessly read Etheridge Knight, Audre Lorde, Cheryl Strayed, Malcolm Gladwell, Zora Neale Hurston, Jeffrey McDaniel, Yusef Komunyakaa, Richard Siken, Ann Sexton, and Toni Morrison.

 

I get lots of inspiration from the artists I feel the closest to, like my friend Jeana Poindexter- she’s an incredible artist based out of Oakland. She does a lot of art based around the body and how the self exists in the world and she makes me want to do the same. Sasha Banks helps me get my shit together most days. Xero Skidmore is one of my closest friends and stays making me rehearse when I don’t want to. Carrie Rudzinski is one of my biggest cheerleaders, and a poet in the larger community that helps me keep myself accountable. Joaquin Zihuatanejo is a close friend of mine, and really believes in my work in a way that helps me believe in it myself. Donney Rose and I were on a slam team together for a few years and he is often my sounding board for my crazy artistic endeavors. Slam New Orleans and the other poets in NOLA inspire me to keep creating and offer me so many stages to share my work on.

 

Kinda back to New Orleans, I was out there this winter for the first time in years. I found myself going on a run, pretty close to New Years, and I found myself thinking, Wow. What would it be like to create things out here? I’m not sure about you, but I’m someone who absorbs my surroundings, and they almost always, without fail, come out in the work I create. A big thing I’ve been asking writers is about regional voice, which I’m curious about with you, as well. But also, how does location/scenery influence your creativity?

 

I don’t think that scenery has much of an aesthetic influence on me, but the way that people interact does. I grew up moving a lot and living in government housing, so we didn’t have a lot of privacy. We were always part of a community, so I think that has a huge influence on my writing and I think that’s also why I feel so at home in New Orleans, where everyone is a community.

 

 I’m originally from north of the Bay Area (which may or may not change the way you read this entire interview, haha). I’ve been in Louisiana (Baton Rouge, and now NOLA) for about 5 years. I really love New Orleans. I love it for it’s character and it’s loud voice. I love it for it’s resiliency and it’s joy. Those things definitely influence my writing and performance.

 

I think my voice is more reflective of California than it is Louisiana, but living here has definitely colored the way I see my childhood. The South is a big social shift from liberal California, haha. In Louisiana, everything is so rooted in race and culture that it’s almost impossible to ignore that. To have these regional backgrounds merge has absolutely given me an unexpected lens to work with.

 

Do you view art as activism? If so, and I imagine you do, what messages do you think are most important in your poems? The things you really want to reach out and grab listeners?

 

Yes, I do. I don’t really subscribe to the idea of ‘art for arts sake’. Lately, I’ve been really struggling with the idea of identity politics. We all walk around with our own subsets of privilege and oppression and power and lack of. I believe that identity is a complicated, fluid thing. I think it’s really important for people to write through our identities, to examine our own selves and hope it brings others to do the same. Everyone has a story to tell, and we should tell it. By inserting my narrative and voice into the conversation, it often disrupts what other narratives are happening in the room. This in itself feels like activism- to interrupt the dominant power at play. Isn’t that how we stop oppressive forces in real life, by interrupting them and calling them out? I feel like my work does that- sometimes more explicitly than others- in the way it addresses womanness, poverty, class, and family dynamics (mostly in relation to the injustices that poor people face on a daily basis). Those are the important messages, both the content and the action of placing it in the center of the dialogue.

 

Finally, I’m curious to hear what you have coming next. A manuscript? Future in slam? Etc?

 

Gaahhhh. What’s next? Whew. Well, I’ve been working on this larger piece of work about (surprise surprise) poverty, and trying to define it. You know those cultural guides for dummies? Well, I’d like one of those for the culture of poor people, because I consider those people my people. So I’m trying to write one of those in the form of poems. There is so much shame around poverty and us folks that spend our lives always wanting. I’ve got a small portion of that project for sale as a tiny little chapbook called ‘Dimly Lit’. It’s 10 of the poems that may or may not show up in this larger project. I’m also working heavily on Slam New Orleans stuff for NPS right now, and trying to finish my degree in creative writing at the University of New Orleans. I write poems and put them on my tumblr (poemsbydes.tumblr.com) a few times a week, so that’s always available to check out. Other than that, I’m just trying to enjoy the sun and read some good books while drinking root beer on my balcony.

 

Desireé, thank you so much for doing this. I look forward to talking/seeing each other soon.

 

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DESIREE’ DALLAGIACOMO  is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a member of Slam New Orleans (2-time NPS Champions), a creative writing major at University of New Orleans, and a teaching artist in Southern Louisiana. Her work can be found in Words Dance lit magazine, Allen Review, Ellipsis, Tandem, and many online reviews. You can keep up with her work, and purchase her two chapbooks (“The Year of the Institution” and “Dimly Lit”) at poemsbydes.tumblr.com.

18/30: Ten Questions With Fatimah Asghar

Fatimah Asghar

The real joy about my second full year committing myself to poetry was really expanding and hearing so much fresh work from so many voices that were still new to me. There were moments last year that felt like I still had training wheels on a bike at the Tour de France, and I hope that there are always moments like that for me to drink in. Fatimah Asghar is a purveyor of these moments. No one loves risk takers more than I do, I think. It transfers over from my years playing music and watching music. There’s a refreshing break from the norm that I crave. After Rumours, Fleetwood Mac could have made another straightforward pop album and sold a billion copies. Instead, they made Tusk, right? Because as artists, we have the power to take those risks and draw in the audience we want. If you ever have the pleasure of reading Fatimah’s poetry, you’ll pick up instantly on the idea that this is someone familiar with stepping to the plate and taking big swings. However, beyond that, if you ever have the pleasure of SEEING Fatimah read her poems, it is truly an invitation. The way Fatimah honors everything that exists in her poems is a true joy. Something that must be seen to fully be taken in. There is a warmth, even when navigating dark, uncomfortable spaces. But we all come out better. More poets should take such risks. Truly.

Two of your poems, “For Jonylah Watkins” and “Monophobia” stand out to me because they really operate inside these really traumatic moments that you give a voice to. I found myself really blown away by both of them, watching the videos and giving in to allow myself to  let your performance/writing have the message arrive. What place do you feel like you need to go to in order to so brilliantly and effectively give a voice to things that are so heavy?

 

First, I love your work, so I’m really honored to hear you speak so highly of mine, particularly those two poems.

 

So, I start my answer to this question with a quote I recently heard by Mary Oliver that says, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” I love this quote. I don’t think that darkness, or trauma, are things to shy away from. I think that often, we feel that they are, or aren’t given tools to talk about grief properly, or talk about trauma, or confront the reality that we live in a world that is both full of pain and full of light, and that these things can exist in all people.

 

I was born into quite a strange existence; my mother was very sick when she had me and knew that she was going to die shortly after my birth. A few years later, my father died. What does loneliness look like to an orphan? It feels like it has been written into my bones, that it is my blood type. My body is full of wholes I am trying to plug.

 

My writing has always been a way for me to build a home for myself and others like me, to feel less lonely. It doesn’t feel like there is a place I go in order to write like this. I write about feelings that consume me. It doesn’t always feel like a deliberate decision, rather it feels like the natural way of my expression, through trying to make sense of the world around me—both its light and its incredible dark.

 

In the case of Jonylah Watkins and Gordon Northcott, these were both stories that I had read about that I couldn’t shake, for different reasons. I was in a café when I read about Jonylah on the news—I instantly started crying. What world do we live in, that a baby can be shot five times while her father is changing her diaper? After I wrote the poem, a friend told me that Jonylah had actually already survived a gunshot wound; her mom had been shot when pregnant. How does that make sense? How are we not in the streets, rioting about this? It doesn’t make sense to me.  I had to write that poem. I wanted everyone to know what had happened, to not be able to shy away from the world we live in.

 

I got to ask Aaron Samuels about this, but I’m going to cross the question over, and maybe phrase it differently, I hope you’ll forgive me. What has being in the Dark Noise Collective done for you, as a creative, and as a creative of color? I get really excited about the idea of collectives working collaboratively to improve each other as artists and people. And you guys seem to have it down. What does it do for you, personally?

 

Dark Noise is one of my strongest families; I am grateful for them. They do so many things for me—from posting silly memes on my facebook wall, to sending me writing prompts, to actively critiquing my work. But this writing world is hard! Its hard when people don’t look like you or lead lives like yours. Last month, I was having a really hard time and didn’t believe in myself as a writer. The manuscript I am working on shatters me—a lot of it is about sexual assault and it’s hard to go back into that place sometimes. I was really down. And then Nate sent me a beautiful email—he responded to an excerpt from an interview I had sent everyone months before with Ellen Bass. Mind you, when I first sent out this exerpt no one had responded, so I thought no one had read it. She had written about how poetry, the work of it, is so hard, but necessary. That we are writing out some of our darkest parts and the journey to understanding will never be easy. His email to me was one line—“Remember this. And hold this close, love.” I was floored. He reminded me that I had the strength all along.

 

I watched your talk that you did for/with the Nantucket Project, and you mentioned losing your parents when you were young, and being an orphan. Since in a lot of these interviews, I’ve taken a lot of interest in the origins of writers, and the impact it has on their art, this really interested me when I approached the asking of questions for you. Has growing up in the manner you touched on in your talk informed your writing in any way? What thoughts do you have on the connection to any one specific thing/place/time?

 

Growing up as an orphan has definitely influenced my poetry, because it’s influenced my entire being. It is as much a part of my identity as my race, sexuality, gender and class. But it’s bizarre, because no one sees it. Everyone assumes you have parents. Everyday I get asked about my mom and dad because it’s quite a normal topic of conversations—from strangers and coworkers and acquaintances. They just assume. I feel really guilty breaking it to people sometimes, because it introduces a wave of sadness.

 

My mom and dad take on really strong imagery in my writing. Every time I write about water I know I am actually writing about my mom. Every time I write about dreaming or penguins, I am writing about my dad. They show up everywhere.

 

So, I’ve started to write imagined correspondences with them. Imagined letters, imagined apologies, imagined scenes with them. I am allowed to do that because I am a writer, I am allowed to build any world around myself that I want. So why not have them be there with me? Why not let them live there?

 

I’m bad at guessing the motivations for writing. But I’ve really dug your work pretty closely, at least as much of it as I can get my hands on. I’ve read you in journals, I’ve read your chapbook multiple times, I hope I’m not worrying you. I just really like the feeling I get that you write out of some necessity to get the work outside of you. I say this because I think so much of why I write stems from the same thing, and I always wonder if/hope that the writers I love so much also deal with that. How accurate is that, for you?

 

Yes! Yes! Yes! I think my best poems are the ones that have poured straight out of me, when I stop worrying about self-editing and just allow the story that needs to be written a place to live. When I first started writing and encountering poetry, the idea of ‘poetry’ felt really daunting. Therefore, to give myself the space and freedom to write I created a difference in my head about ‘academic’ poetry and ‘performance’ poetry. Academic poetry felt clinical, like it was meant to fit into a certain form or structure or rhyme scheme. It was hard for me to write like that. Performance poetry felt free, felt like I could do whatever I wanted and perform not only in my body, but also in how I placed the words on a page. Of course, those distinctions are arbitrary and not correct. But, for a while, it was easier for me to think about them like that because it allowed me the ability to just be free, to make my art my own and to create a new category for myself that allowed me to pour the work out of myself in whatever way I needed to and not worry if I was fitting into the ‘right’ genre or form.

 

I’ve talked a lot about Chicago with poets, and how even though it is in the Midwest, like Columbus, the poetry scene there seems very other wordly, in the best possible way. What parts of being on that scene have you really enjoyed/how have you been able to benefit?

 

I’ve only lived in Chicago for about a year and a half and I’ve loved being a part of this scene—both in terms of poetry and theater. Like it’s theater scene, Chicago’s poetry scene is rooted in stark realism, something that I didn’t have as part of my voice before moving here. It’s pushed me a lot; I’ve simultaneously pushed against it and let it absorb in my work.

 

Aside from that, the people here are fucking fantastic. It’s been an honor to see people in this scene grow and hear their work. There’s a lot of people here that blow my mind with their art, that take risks and challenge me both in my writing and performance.  

 

I really, really like the ways you examine. The relationship you have with the body, and all of its functions, and all of its movements. For example, you have a poem that I heard last summer about a urinary tract infection, and it really made me happy to hear that experience brought to life in the way you did. You have poems about “granny” panties, about a Brazilian wax. All of this stuff is great, because it shines a lot on topics that aren’t being looked at, and it does it in a way that bends the expectations of how those things are “supposed” to be approached. What drives that part of your writing?

It’s an attempt to eliminate shame around it. There’s a line I have in the UTI poem: “Everyone in the restaurant knows I am leaking suns/ I went around and told them all individually/ I think they should know how badly this hurts.” In general, that’s my mentality when it comes to my body. Everything that my body does is normal and beautiful. If its not, I will make it so. All bodies are perfect; why do we pretend that they aren’t?

I’m Muslim. In Muslim culture, there is deep shame around the way that bodies, especially women’s bodies, are perceived. When a woman is bleeding, she is considered to be dirty. I don’t understand that and I don’t want that to be taught. Once every month, a woman’s body is structured to simultaneously grieve and celebrate. Isn’t that God-like?  Why do we twist that to be dirty, to be shameful?

Something has always stood out to me, in your bio. Every time I see it, my eyes light up a bit, because it seems cool. And when I first saw it, I meant to shoot you a message of some sort to ask you about it. But now, it seems to be as good a time as any. “In 2011 she created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Spoken Word Poetry group, REFLEKS”.  Can you tell me a bit about that experience?

I went to Bosnia on a Fulbright to research the way that structural violence impacts art-making. When I was there, I was overwhelmed by how necessary everyone’s stories were. People would sit and tell heartbreaking stories everyday- over lunch, coffee, cooking, work. I just couldn’t believe it—everyone around me was a poet. And I would ask people about it and people would say “Oh, to be an artist you have to be a ballerina or do opera.” So many people had these really classical ideas of what art was and yet everyone was practicing art everyday.

And so I worked with my friend, who was Bosnian and American, to create Bosnia’s first bi-lingual spoken word group. But, I got to start a spoken-word group in a place where spoken word hadn’t formally existed before- therefore I had an amazing amount of freedom in defining what it was and setting the ‘rules’ for it. Articulating why it was necessary over and over to people who had never heard of it before made me love and appreciate the art form even more. 

Another thing you mentioned in your talk was your relationship with traditional womanhood, growing up. What was the journey like, for you to reshape the ideas you had around womanhood, and how it related to your educations, self-expression, and art?

The journey was really painful. I spent a lot of my life hating myself because I didn’t feel like enough—woman enough or American enough or Pakistiani enough or beautiful enough. There was no definition that I fit into. Being undefined is hard. That’s why poetry is so important to me; it’s allowed me to define and redefine myself, to construct new worlds where I am allowed to be my most free self.

In a lot of ways, the manuscript I am working on is about the reshaping of my mind, the way that I learned love in stages: through family (or its absence), through men, and then through myself. The last one, learning to love yourself, is the hardest. I think that’s something that feels like everyone is journeying towards, loving themselves unconditionally.

What I really like about your work is that there is no urgency, no need to resolve. So many poems that we hear tend to hold, hold, hold, and then rush to the end for a nice/neat resolution. When I read your poems, sometimes, they just end. And if nothing is resolved by the end, nothing is resolved. I dig that, because, in short, I think it reflects the world, and more people need to shine that back in their work. Providing that I’m not entirely missing the mark, what is your relationship with resolution in your poems?

There’s no resolution in my poems because I don’t believe in endings. I was born to a woman who was in the ending of her life; I have to believe that some part of her lives on in me for me to be okay with that. I don’t really believe that things ever end. I think they just change, they just put forth different energy. Therefore, I don’t feel the need to resolve my poems, especially if I don’t see a clear resolution in sight.

My poems are quiet. They ripple; they are a drizzle versus a storm. I don’t think they need to shout their point or roar an ending—not that I think that’s a bad approach. That’s just not how I write. For a long time, I thought because my poems didn’t have standard ‘endings’ they wouldn’t do well in performance or slam. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, I feel like I’ve grown into my performance and writing style a lot more. 

Finally, poetry right now is being led by a lot of young, fiercely talented artists who are doing things that really push forward the groundwork that we were given by those who have been doing it since before many of us decided to write, and so many who are STILL doing it, at levels we can’t figure out. I consider you once of the artists ensuring poetry remains relevant. Who are you pushed and inspired by, and what direction do you see poetry being carried in?

 

Right now I am obsessed with Douglas Kearney. I can’t stop reading him. I love Ross Gay. I love Kamau Brathwaite. I love Toni Morrison, Roger Reeves, Adrienne Kennedy and Jan Beatty. I love writing that screams from the page, that makes me feel. I’m also blessed in that some of my closest friends are my favorite writers—Laura Brown Lavoie, Franny Choi, Jamila Woods, Danez Smith, Nate Marshall, Aaron Samuels, Hieu Nguyen, Sam Sax. I love being able to get poems from them in my email, and seeing them all go through the process of writing or creating longer projects, such as manuscripts.

As for what direction do I want to see poetry moving forward—I am most interested in writers that make the everyday poetic. There is a playwright named Stephen Adly Guirgis that writes with such amazing lyrical vulgarity. I am obsessed with that idea; how there is such lyricism and poetics in everyday vernacular—be it cursing, grocery store lists, or conversations overheard on busses. Everywhere is a stage; everyone’s a poet. 

 

Fatimah, thank you so much for doing this. I so look forward to the next time I get to hear some of your work in person.

 

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FATIMAH ASGHAR is a nationally touring poet and performer who is almost always in-between two places. Her literary work hovers between prose and poetry, examining fact through a lyrical lens. Her work has appeared in Drunken BoatWord RiotMuzzle MagazineDecomPFringe and many others. In 2011 she created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Spoken Word Poetry group, REFLEKS, while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-genocidal countries. Last year she was a Multicultural Fellow at the Steppenwolf Theater, where she worked in the Literary department. She is the co-founder of The Glass City Project, a Chicago-based arts organization that combines poetry, theory, and activism. She currently serves as an Associate Artist for the Redmoon Theater in Chicago, and is helping to produce the Great Chicago Fire Festival.

17/30: Ten Questions With Marty McConnell

Marty McConnell

I saw this interview with Michael Jordan once where he talked about that game vs. The Blazers. The one where he hit all of those threes and shrugged. He said the game was happening in slow motion for him. That everything was coming at him, and he was absorbing all of it, becoming a smarter/better player with each minute. I sometimes think I’m watching Marty McConnell in slow motion. I learn so much from her work, even in three-five minute bursts when she performs it in front of me, I can’t explain it any other way. When I got this idea, Marty was on the “must have” list. I’m glad she (excitedly) said yes, because the things I have gotten from her, even in ways she doesn’t know, have been incredibly necessary to my development as a writer/artist. When I was last in Chicago, Marty was kind enough to trade me her book for my chapbook (a trade that I got the better end of, to be fair), and I spent the whole trip home reading. Re-reading. Quoting poems out loud. There are times when you turn a very real corner. When you can feel it as it happens. Reading Marty’s Wine For A Shotgun changed me. And larger than just me, Marty has been taking risks with her work for years. Teaching all of us how to push against the boundaries. I’m really thankful for that. I truly think that we do something interesting. We engage and engage and engage without truly understanding our impact. I hope Marty fully understands what her impact has been, and how so many of us have benefited. 

 

First of all. Can I tell you how cool it was for me to not know a damn thing about slam (or poetry at all) in 2012, and STILL have the absolute joy of watching you on stage within hours of participating in my first ever Rustbelt? There aren’t a lot of times I can express those kinds of things to people in a direct manner. I think of the layers in your work, and the way that you seem to find a great balance in using language that is poetic, sharp, and accessible. I often times hear younger writers talking about writing “slam poems”, or writing “performance poems”. What guidance can you give on just writing good poems and letting the rest sort itself out?

 

Well, I feel like this question basically answers itself: write poems, make them as good as you can, and then say them on stage as well as you can. It’s interesting because when I first started performing and slamming, we had a sense of performance as fleeting, momentary — if you had any desire for your work to be accessible to your great-grandchildren, or even just shared with people not directly in front of you, it was going to need to be in print. I mean, think about it: when I first went on tour in 1999, 2000, and 2001, our merch included just chapbooks, bumper stickers, and t-shirts. Why no CDs? Because making a CD would have required going to a studio, having someone record and edit it, and having it pressed and packaged. 

 

And that was kind of amazing, actually. There’s this pretty terrible TV show running now called Once Upon a Time, and one of the recurring concepts in the show is the idea that all magic has a price. That’s how I think about technological advances, in a way: you gain some amazing ability, but in exchange, something is taken away. It’s phenomenal that people can access recorded performances easily, that any time you get up on stage there may be a camera or phone recording you, and thousands of people might get to witness that. It’s had a huge impact on the growth of the art form, particularly in terms of bringing young people to a new understanding of the role poetry can play in their lives.

 

But it can be restrictive. In the same way that it can be totally crippling to think during your writing process about what magazines or publishing houses might like your work, it can be extremely limiting to focus on about what audiences, live or internetted, will think of your poems. We didn’t have as broad an audience to which to aspire in performance, in the absence of YouTube and Upworthy and Def Jam, so the stakes were lower and therefore in some ways it was easier to take risks.

 

The last thing I’ll say about this (note that I said the question answers itself and then went on and on and on) is that one of my favorite experiences as a poet is that of surprise. Because I’m not trying to write for editors or for slam judges, I’m constantly surprised by which poems resonate for people on paper or aloud. And if that stops, if I start knowing what’s going to score or get accepted, then I will have collapsed into formula and need to take up topiary sculpture or puppetry or something. 

 

You have put down roots in both Chicago AND New York. I want to touch on both, in two separate questions. You were kind of around in the earlier days of LouderARTS. What was that like, and how did being there guide you towards slam?

 

Oh, louderARTS. I was actually there from the very beginning of there being an actual louderARTS Project – the first year of “a little bit louder,” the reading series that preceded the organization, I was still in Chicago, but I got involved pretty soon after I moved to NYC (well, Bronxville for school), in 1999. In the early 2000s, the scene around louderARTS was wild. We were obsessed with poetry, with the slam and breaking down the barriers between academia and performance (though that was a little later in the decade). In retrospect at least, it seems like nobody was married, nobody had kids, nobody had a job that couldn’t be done hung over every Tuesday morning. The show would start at 7:30 or so, and run until midnight sometimes, and then we’d go get food and more to drink, and argue about poems and argue about poets and argue about who left without paying her share of the check and then we’d do it again the next week. Over the years, it was like a lot of things – it’s hard to condense it – but that was how it felt to me at the beginning. Heady, and engulfing, and very, very New York.

 

Before I got to New York, I’d become invested in performance poetry, but wasn’t wild about the slam. Trick was, by the time I got to Bar 13 from Sarah Lawrence, often the open mic list would be full, but there would be space in the slam. So I’d slam with what I brought for the open mic. Because we were so invested in the fusion of great writing and performance, and eliminating the divide between them, I didn’t have to create some great distinction between what I was writing for grad school and what I was slamming. I think you probably can’t ask for a better launching point to the competition than that.

 

I’m going to be asking questions of a few Chicago poets this month, and I think I may ask them all this question, formed in different ways. I feel like the Chicago scene is unlike so many others that I’ve spent time around. There was this weird moment after I featured at the Green Mill last year where I sat down at this long table at the Mexican spot next door, and I looked down the table, and you’re there, and Marc Smith is there, and Emily Rose is there, and Patricia Smith is there, and real valuable/consistent contributors to the art. Not just locally, but nationally. And everyone was joking around, laughing, drunk and/or drinking. And I remember thinking, “This is it. This is what a community of talented AND good people looks like.” Granted, that was just a snapshot, but how has moving in that Chicago scene been healthy for your art, and what role do you feel you play in it?

 

Coming back to Chicago has been so healthy for me, and by extension my art. There are times I miss the constant stimulation/overstimulation of New York, the sense that Something Important is Happening All of the Time, but I feel sometimes that I survived New York, and I live in Chicago. There is a groundedness to this city, I suppose especially for me since my blood family is here, that anchors my work in crucial ways.

 

One of the really rewarding parts about being part of the Chicago scene is how comparatively easy it is to have an impact – I know intellectually that my work with louderARTS affected the city and national landscape, but it always felt kind of incremental or a stone in the ocean of everything that was always going on in that city. Here, I was able to identify a specific need, and fill it, and see fairly immediate changes in people and spaces because of that.

 

Can you tell me a bit about Vox Ferus? The origins of it, and where you hope for it to go?

 

Nice segue! So initially, Vox Ferus was a concept that Andi Strickland (of the Morrigan, the group that toured together starting in 1999) and I came up with in thinking about my move back to Chicago in 2009. It had very lofty goals including an artists’ residency, which actually did run for two years, but to make a long story short, eventually it narrowed to me running a regular writing workshop out of my living room, along with occasional salons and other workshops focused on performance, publishing and other topics. This is strange for me to say, but I don’t really hope for it to go anywhere. I love how simple it is, how straightforward, how people find it when they need it and stay as long as it serves them. I’ve mapped out big plans, and know it could be more, do more, reach further, and so on, but I’m not sure it needs to or should. I’d like to compile and have someone publish a guide to community-based workshopping using the format, poems, and prompts I’ve developed over the past few years, because I really believe there’s a need for spaces like Vox Ferus to be developed and maintained, but it’s not urgent. When it becomes urgent, I’ll make it happen, but I’m very aware of only doing what I can do and no more. 

 

So often, we see poets take a difficult/tense subject matter and ride in on horseback, blindly waving a sword. While I don’t want to discount the many ways there are to dig something out of yourself and lay it bare, what I notice in my reading (and re-reading. And re-reading.) of Wine For A Shotgun isn’t only how fearlessly you take on some of those subjects, but the gentle way you handle them. Not gentle like soft…more in a way where the crafting around these topics is very evident. There’s an overpowering honesty in what you’ve created with many of the poems in that collection. I couldn’t help but be carried away by even the loudest moments in the book. How do you reach such heights? What responsibility do you feel to the topics you approach?

 

I feel an enormous responsibility to tell the truth about the world. I think that the gentleness you speak of in this question comes from the way that I experience the world when I am most aware of and engaged with it, as when I’m writing or in love or deeply afraid. At those times, I’m experiencing a moment or a person with my entire being, and that requires gentleness. That requires, sometimes, being submerged in water. That requires, sometimes, pouring the experience into the container of metaphor so that it can acquire some visible form.

 

I think that what you’re talking about with the poet riding in on horseback, is the ego writing the poem. Reading or watching those poems, I feel like all I can see is the poet standing in front of the experience she or he theoretically wants to share with me, the reader or listener.  My goal is to get out of the way, and maybe that’s what you’re experiencing as overpowering honesty, or as craft – it’s my belief that technique is only useful in releasing the meaning of the poem, which is to say enabling the reader or listener to have the experience of the poem without becoming distracted by the intervening presence of me, the writer, the ego on horseback.

 

 

I’m super interested in your relationship with myth and magic. Some of your poems have characters pulled from tarot cards. You write sometimes of monsters, both literally, and as metaphor. It adds an element of depth to a lot of the work. How did you build this relationship with magic and get comfortable with working into the poems so well? Also, are you a wizard?

 

Magic is everything, and everywhere. Air is magic. How is it that this invisible stuff, made up of gajillions of other invisible things, enters us and leaves us and makes life possible? Magic. And we don’t see it. I think that what I do, what poems do, is make magic visible. We point out the magic. When Adrienne Rich writes, “which of our visions will claim us,” we know in that moment the magic of manifestation, of making things happen, and we also know that what we make happen makes us happen, makes our lives happen.

 

I built a relationship with magic by paying attention. This is the thing about art, right? It forces us to pay attention. So much wants us to tune out, to sleepwalk, to tolerate, to just make do. But art says no, look at the car. It’s not just how you get to work, it’s what your father gave you when he taught you to drive. It’s your procrastination in the gas tank on empty. It’s the miraculous way we all abide by the written and unwritten rules of not smashing into each other in giant steel machines.

 

Also, I’m a witch. Not a wizard.

 

I like your relationship with the internet. I follow you on Twitter, and many of your tweets start with “Steal This Line:” before exploding into something brilliant. I think that is appropriate, since so many corners of the internet have fallen in love with “Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell”. Which, on the surface, isn’t a bad thing. But, of course because the internet is the internet, it has become less of a good thing. On top of that, there is this kind of fantastic career timeline of you that plays out on the internet. There are videos of you on Def Poetry that still hit me as hard as videos of you performing in 2013. I don’t know if a lot of poets can say that, or have that experience. At the risk of presenting a broad question, what is your relationship with the internet, when taking those things into consideration?

 

I talked a little bit about this in the first question – the internet is the proverbial double-edged sword. I think that as with all forms of self-representation, it’s dangerous to take too seriously. If you are hyper aware that every performance could be broadcast to thousands, you can either let that push you to do new and terrifying things each performance, or you can let it box you in to doing the same thing every time you take a stage, so that you’re sure you won’t make a mistake or do something embarrassing. If you are super concerned about your work being misattributed or plagiarized, you can spend your life policing instead of making art.

 

The Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell poem is a good example. There’s part of me that is so annoyed by the misattribution and the overwhelming amount of poor font choices used in making designed versions of its most commonly quoted line all over the internet. But on the other hand, literally thousands and thousands of people have read and loved that poem, or at least one line from it, and I know that would not have happened without the confusion over its authorship. So on some level, I have to put my ego in check and understand that the poem has a life of its own and is doing good work in the world.

 

I do draw the line at people making money off it, though – that crosses into “do your homework/Google that shit and look at more than the first page” territory.

 

So in sum, the internet is awesome and also a portal to madness.

 

Some of the aforementioned topics that you navigate comfortably and in a way that really speaks to me, as a reader are gender and sexuality. Poems like “The Empress Is A Drag Queen” really stick out to me as pieces that allow the reader an informed platform to explore and discover. How important is working messages that teach us about desires, and how the body deserves to indulge in them?

 

I mean, desire is at the root of everything. Without desire, we are either fully transcendent or inanimate lumps of clay, depending on how we got to that absence of desire. Either way, we’re not moving and doing things in the world. I think your question though means to deal more with sexual desire, which we’re generally taught to repress or leverage in ways which are often unhealthy to us as whole humans.

 

In writing “wine for a shotgun,” I was particularly interested in exploring issues related to sexual desire, and how that gets embodied or sublimated. I think it’s incredibly important, especially in this era, for us to talk about these things. In this country at this time, we are at the cusp of a new and broader understanding of gender, a new and better concept of sexual consent, and a new level of integration between queer and mainstream worlds. As a poet, I am interested and invested in writing about and of  and from my time, and these are the issues that echo in my body and brain daily.

 

You have been an introduction into poetry for many, many people. With that in mind, who are the people you found early on in your discovery, and who do you turn to as inspiration now?

 

I’ve been a reader of poetry for as long as I’ve been a reader, really. One of my favorite books as a small child was A.A. Milne’s “Now We Are Six,” this (in retrospect) kind of bizarre collection of poems. I mean, come on:

 

Daffodowndilly

 

She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,

She wore her greenest gown;

She turned to the south wind

And curtsied up and down.

She turned to the sunlight

And shook her yellow head,

And whispered to her neighbour:

“Winter is dead.”

 

In high school, I memorized William Blake and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, fully unaware that there were living, breathing poets writing things that might be more relevant to my actual life.

 

Once I started reading poems publicly, after undergrad, at open mics and such, someone handed me a copy of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel,” shortly after I’d stumbled on Adrienne Rich’s essays on poetry and politics, and from there I started reading the poets, mostly women, whose poems sounded like the inside of my head: Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, and more Anne Sexton.

 

My inspiration now is a mixture of those I regard as friends and peers, and those poets I think of as mentors at a distance – though these two groups come closer together the longer I work in this art. In the first group, at the peril of leaving out many important people, are Jamaal May, Rachel McKibbens, Patrick Rosal, and lots of others. I have a long-standing obsession with Li-Young Lee, and currently am wildly inspired by the work of Keetje Kuipers, Matthew Zapruder, Terrance Hayes… and Anne Sexton.

 

 I read an interview with you in Muzzle once, where you talked about the hardest part of slam being knowing when to NOT slam. Knowing when you don’t need to engage or compete in that way. To expand on that, how do you know when that time is? What are the things that tell you that you are not needed in that way, and what does your work do in the meantime?

 

At the time of that interview, I was slamming a lot more than I am now. I’ve been so focused this year or so on getting the book out into the world, and figuring out the direction for the next half of my life (turning 40 is no joke), that I haven’t been engaging as actively with the slam world. Which I think is healthy – the slam community is my family, and I hope and believe that I’ll always have a place there, and a role to play on some level. In my last few years of actually competing, I really felt like my job was to bring poems to the stage that didn’t fit any mold, that were unlikely to score well, to take different kinds of chances than someone brand new to the game might be psychologically able to without my accrued numbness to losing. I still compete occasionally at the Green Mill or Mental Graffiti, just for the fun of it, especially when I can rope other old folks into doing it so that we can really rumble. Maybe winning the underground nationals was a swan song? Can you top doing poems barefoot in an alley at 4 in the morning, and as a consequence getting to do a poem on finals stage for thousands of people? I don’t know.

 

What my work does in the meantime is get performed in non-slam settings – I still do shows and lectures and send the work out to magazines and anthologies. I am working on a multi-disciplinary, audience-collaborative, strange and terrifying (to me) new performance with my partner who is a visual artist – it builds on a poem of mine entitled “when they say you can’t go home again, what they mean is you were never there” and deals with the idea of voluntary exile, mark-making, and the untrustworthiness of memory. The city is putting it up this fall, so we’ll see where that takes us. Somewhere new and strange, I’m sure.

 

Marty, thank you so much. Thank you for being such a hero, for me. 

 

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MARTY MCCONNELL is the author of wine for a shotgun, released in October 2012 on EM Press. Part of the vanguard of poets fusing and refusing the delineations between literary and oral poetry, McConnell’s work blurs the lines between autobiography and personae to comment on and illuminate what it means to live and love outside the lines in early 21st century America.

“wine for a shotgun” is a finalist for both the Audre Lorde Award (Publishing Triangle) and the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian poetry. Both prizes will be announced in spring 2013.

McConnell’s work has been published in numerous anthologies, including A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry, Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Movement, Spoken Word Revolution Redux, Women of the Bowery, Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader, Bullets and Butterflies: Queer Spoken Word Poetry, Will Work for Peace, Women.Period and In Our Own Words: Poetry of Generation X, as well as journals including Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Crab Orchard, Salt Hill Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Drunken Boat, Rattle, and more.

A member of seven National Poetry Slam teams representing New York City and Chicago, McConnell is the 2012 National Underground Poetry Individual Competition (NUPIC) Champion. In 2011, she completed her first European tour and debuted her one-woman show, “vicebox.” She is a two-time recipient of the Community Arts Assistance Program grant from the City of Chicago’s Office of Tourism and Culture, and received a 2013 grant from the Illinois Arts Council.

 

 

 

16/30: Ten Questions With Megan Falley

Megan Falley

Full disclosure. I like Megan. A lot. I always have. Like so many people I’ve asked questions of this month, even though it’s getting repetitive, this is a good person. This would be a good person if they never wrote anything as long as they were alive. But, wow. I’m glad they choose to create. Because so much of my work revolves around the movements of popular culture, and how that mixes in with how I consider social issues, I have a sharp ear for writers who are capable of doing the same thing. What draws me in about Megan, and I don’t know if she gets enough credit for it, is that she really gives you these fantastic bits of things that she truly enjoys as a person, and works them into her poems. Invites you in. Makes you curious. I had no idea who the Long Island Medium was at this point last year. After hearing Megan’s poem (of the same name) just one time, I felt like I had watched every episode of the show, and isn’t that what references to the things we take in are supposed to do to an audience? I read Megan’s first book, After The Witch Huntin 2012. I recently re-read it, in preparation for her newest release, Redhead And The Slaughter Kingcoming out this fall. In between her two books, we’ve heard our poems in each other’s cities, and I’ve followed the work she’s been getting published at a pretty high rate lately. It occurs to me, now, that Megan is still turning corners with her work at a pretty high rate. It’s alarming, in the best kind of way, to watch a writer you have a deep respect for, still growing at that rate. Still urging everyone to catch up.

 

Your mere existence kind of holds me accountable, when it comes to writing. I am sure you don’t know that, but I often think to myself, “has Megan written today?” And the answer is usually, “Yeah. Probably, dude.” And then I think, “Well, why haven’t you?” I find a lot of joy in the discipline you have. You’re a volume writer, but (it seems) not in the sense where you’re writing a sentence or two a day and kicking back. You’re writing high volumes of good shit. What pushes that commitment to the craft?

You know that scene in 500 Days of Summer where the screen splits and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character acts in two side-by-side scenes, one titled “Expectations” and the other “Reality”? This interview feels remarkably similar to that, except it’s “Self-Perception” and “Community’s Perception”.

Anyway, the volume writing (in my self-perception screen) really only started this year. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and then thought—for a full-time writer—I hardly write. So one of my (many) resolutions for this year was to participate in a 365|365. To complete a new poem every day of the year. As of April 16th, 2014 – I’ve written 105 poems, and haven’t skipped a day. (I still haven’t filed my taxes.)

Before that, my process was more like this: write when inspired (boo), submit to a book contest I was not ready for, find out I am a finalist, write half a book in three weeks with detonating pressure as I shut out the entire world to birth this wild thing. Then, whether I lost (2010) or won the contest (2011 and 2013), I’d take an accidental five month break from writing anything at all. I’m talking about the Write Bloody Competition, of course, published After the Witch Hunt and is putting out my second book in the Fall.

Even though my process yielded favorable results—I don’t think it’s a healthy one, so now I am committed to making writing (and reading!) part of my daily life. There were years when I’d only write poems during April & November’s 30/30 challenges. So I guess I’d say outside forces, like deadlines/contests/and challenges really push my commitment to the craft. And when there’s no outside force, I’m the type of writer who will invent my own.

 

Following that up, the evidence of you writing high volumes of good shit shows up in the fact that you are on your second book, Redhead and the Slaughter King, coming out this fall. Like a lot of people, I loved After The Witch Hunt and really found myself (pleasantly) surprised that you had something ready to go as a follow up so quickly. What kind of growth was there in between the two manuscripts, and what can people who enjoyed your first go-round expect this time out?

Again, I’m having that split screen moment. Let me explain — in the “self-perception” screen, it’s 2012, I just had my book release party for After the Witch Hunt and I’m a little disappointed in myself for not having a second book to submit to another contest that same week. In another shot, I’m reading this interview question and thinking my books will be published over two years apart. Thats how long people wait between babies—why not books? I’m not saying the self-perception scene isn’t crazy. The people who know me very well know that I am incredibly hard on myself—I never think I am doing enough. That’s probably fueled both awful and incredible things.

That being said, Redhead and the Slaughter King is something I am really excited about. It’s darker than After the Witch Hunt, if you can imagine that. I think it’s abundantly clear I’ve grown as a writer and a person when comparing the texts side by side. It’s almost a prequel to the first book—the poems in it navigate the landscape that created the woman in, for example, poems like The First Time I Met His Mother and even Fat Girl.

Redhead and the Slaughter King feels like an alarmingly honest piece of literature. I am afraid of the repercussions of some of the pieces, to be honest. That’s how I know it has power. The book disrupts some long-held family myths. The poems in the book are unafraid to be ugly. I didn’t feel the need to play the victim or the survivor in this new book as much. I just play me—who can be ugly, and mean, and morbid, and so so brave.

Those who liked After the Witch Hunt will be happy to see more feminist themes, a dissection of rape culture, personal narrative surrounding relationships and family. I think many people will pick up Redhead and say did she really just say that? and send me their jaw in the mail.

 

I don’t know how else to frame this other than by stating an obvious truth. You work extremely hard. I think you set an interesting bar for what could be possible on your first tour. You covered a lot of dates, in not a lot of time, all over the country. In a car, by yourself. I toured for like 2.5 weeks and I got an unapologetic speeding ticket on my way home because I missed it so bad. I was extremely impressed by your run. What did you gain from that whirlwind, and also, what kind of message do you think that sent? To yourself, and others?

 

Man, I really want to write a novel about that tour. This is me acknowledging that this interview is not the place for that, but he’s an abridged version:

When I started planning my first book tour, I thought I could do it in 4-6 weeks. I remember sitting in a coffee shop in my hometown, my huge atlas before me, starring cities I wanted to visit and dragging my hot pink highlighter from state to state as it foreshadowed the routes my car would soon take. I knew I wanted to make it to the other coast and back. I started e-mailing, calling, facebooking, and networking like an overcaffeinated engine—reaching out to everyone I had even a thread of connection to—and trying to book shows. I think something about the title “Write Bloody Author Touring Near You” in my subject line helped, plus some rad videos from my book release party. As I kept getting affirmative responses, the tour stretched longer and longer. Sorry, I’ll be in Portland for Halloween. Sorry, darling, I’m going to have to miss your birthday. I could come back, but I really want to see New Orleans! Mom, is it okay if I’m not home for Thanksgiving? The tour ended up being exactly 100 days (the evenness of that number was not an accident. If you haven’t noticed, Type A All Day.)

I’d been working for Trader Joe’s at the time. It’s a nice enough company to work for—cool people, health insurance benefits, good food—but God, the monotony is kind of obliterating for a creative person. When I left they promised I could have my old job back upon return, and that was kind of the thought, until somewhere along an empty road when I’d already touched the other ocean and had sold more books that I thought I ever would and found I was actually making money doing this, I called my mom and said I can’t go back to Trader Joe’s. And my mom, who had always been a pretty big proponent of but you have to have a back up plan! Said no, you can’t. Hasn’t this proved you can do anything? So I was pretty unaware that this set a bar for anyone else in the world except myself. But the bar is just that: I can do anything. And if I can do anything, so can you.

 

You’ll forgive me, I hope, for writing a broad question in here. But I feel like if we were having a one on one conversation, I would want to ask this and listen to your answer, so I’m going to ask it here and hope that everyone can experience the answer with me. What I like about you as a person, more than just as a writer, is that you are intensely clear on where you stand, and are unafraid to make that clarity known in often difficult spaces. The focus you have on overcoming. I enjoy how that bleeds into your work. How you sometimes give the women in your poems difficulty and then triumph. I enjoy the overwhelming feeling that you write for survivors, for those often dismissed and/or not given a voice. How important is that voice of survival in your work?

I wouldn’t say that survival is something I actively think about in my work, but it is ever present because I did survive a lot of things. I think the voice of survival comes through less in my poems, and more so in my presence. Having books published and being able to tour with them and say my poems on stages all over the country—that’s testament. That’s proof.

You have to remember — after I came forth about being abused by a fellow community member—people wanted to silence me. People wanted me to leave the community because it was more comfortable to ignore the truth. But I stayed. My story is unique. Many women in the slam community have been shamed, silenced, or abused out of it. My hope is that when I tell my story, when I achieve things — it encourages other women to speak out, to stay, to push against the forces that oppress them until they score and shine and winwinwin.

 

I want to talk about two of your poems specifically. Both of them reference reality shows. And I love them both. “Bridalplasty” and “Long Island Medium” take two different approaches to kind of freezing moments in pop culture, and analyzing them from two entirely different angles. Whenever we all, as artists, dip into the well of popular culture, there are always fun things we get in return from the audience. Is there something that draws you to write about reality television? And I’m curious to know what different reactions, if any, you’ve gotten to those pieces?

I love pop culture. I sort of think of pop culture as a little keyhole. The whole universe is behind it, but this is one frame through which to see it. I am not really writing about reality television, but about reality through the vessel of a current phenomenon. Does that make sense?

“Bridalplasty” is an abomination of a show, and while I wrote it “to the competitors” — the poem was for me. Every time I read the poem out loud I am not imagining the women on the show, but myself. It’s ME who dreamed of “taking [my] tummy to the butcher shop so he could carve [me] clean with a deli slicer.” It’s me who needs to be reminded of my own beauty within a society that tries so hard to negate it.

As for the Long Island Medium, I did grow up on Long Island, and I actually love that show. Like, ugly-cry-on-an-airplane that show. I’ve never been sure where I stand on the God & Afterlife Scale, but I started losing people in my life very young—a friend died of cancer in the sixth grade. I learned death was real early, and that it didn’t discriminate. The heaviest of death’s blows was my first cousin Ana, who After the Witch Hunt is dedicated to. The Long Island Medium poem certainly leads in with the humor—I mimic her accent, etc—but that poem is about grieving Ana. It’s about forcing myself to believe in Theresa Caputo and mediums because it means that Ana is not so far away. The line about the slot machine lever flashing $10,000 and a “lost one’s hand on the lever” — that happened. That’s real.

So essentially, reality television doesn’t move me at all, really. But I am always aware of the connections in things and the nerves that lead back to my own heart. I sometimes teach these pieces in High Schools just to be like—you can write about ANYTHING. You can make anything relevant. I try to take the snobbery out. While I appreciate people being well-read, not everyone is or has access to that, and there is inspiration outside of academia and institutions. Young people need to know that inspiration is possible even in something as insipid as Bridalplasty.

 

One of my favorite stories, in my short time in slam, involves you. My very first slam, ever (Rustbelt 2012), I was preparing to go on stage for the first time in that type of setting, running my poem, and etc. And I just happened to have to go up after you. You did “The First Time I Met His Mother”, and I remember looking at someone beside me and freaking out like, “What is this?? This is what slam is like??? I can’t do this. I can’t follow that, no. no. no.” I say that to say, what an introduction to your work. I enjoy the way you perform, because I feel like it really honors the poem as I see it on the page. How do you connect your poems with your performance?

There is nothing off-limits for me in slam. I will bring any poem I’ve ever written into a poetry slam. I also don’t have any ‘slam’ poems that I’d never try to publish. I cringe when people say ‘this is a page poem.’ To me that means ‘this is hard to decipher an understand to anyone outside of my own brain and really I’m just masturbating right now.’ I think never making that distinction is what keeps my work feeling fresh in both arenas.

 

You’ve really done some big things with teaching. You have a reading, writing, and performance course, Poems That Don’t Suck. I’ve heard such incredible things from poets who have taken it. How did the idea for this come about, and when you initially got into writing poetry, did you see yourself teaching?

The idea came about because I needed to survive as an artist during the months where the shows were slow and I couldn’t dream about bagging groceries or stocking shelves. So that was the main motivator — but then I fell in love with it. I really dig teaching and watching students come to the class afraid of their pens, and leave the class blooming with an intimidating roster of publications. When writers get better for having taken the class, I feel like the world is a little bit better—or at least local open mics across the country are.

 

On the back of that, I’ve asked almost every teaching artist this question. How has teaching changed or informed your work? I imagine working that intimately with the word, and giving that gift to so many others has to have had some impact on you?

I honestly can compartmentalize that very well. If teaching informed my work (I do a lot of teaching in stuffy High Schools), I probably would curse less and talk about more on-the-surface things. A small fraction of my stuff is High School friendly (or really, administration friendly) and that’s the work I do, unless there’s a really rad teacher (looking at you, Jeff Kass.)

Mostly I’d say opening myself up to learn from my students in near equal parts to what I teach has been the best part of teaching. Allowing myself to be surprised. And I always am.

 

You are really in control of all things that go on with your career. Can you talk about the importance of taking control there, kind of being your own PR/Agent/Etc?

I mean, I’d love to have an agent who does my booking and makes sure I don’t say dumb stuff on twitter, but I don’t. Im not trying to be Alicia Keys about it, I’d love someone else to do it. But I don’t think this is the age of that, so working hard as a writer doesn’t just mean writing and reading. It’s a business. I’m my own boss. And some days I cry because my boss is the meanest bitch on the planet and I’m afraid of what she’ll do if I slack off.

 

Finally, I really pride myself on changing my mind on pop culture figures. Most lately, I’ve turned over a new leaf regarding Lena Dunham (in part, because of that Donald Glover clip you showed me way back). You are passionate about Lana Del Rey. I’m on the fence but I’m willing to be sold. Sell me on the glory of Lana Del Rey.

I don’t know why people clown her, to be honest. Listen to all of the album “Born to Die”, straight through, on good speakers. Watch the videos for ‘National Anthem’, ‘Ride’, and her ‘Chelsea Hotel 2’ Leonard Cohen cover. Listen to her cover the Disney song “Once Upon a Dream” for the upcoming Maleficent movie and let it ruin your childhood. If you don’t say “Lady Gaga WHO?” after all that, don’t talk to me.

First of all, her voice. Her voice sounds like a haunted jukebox oozing honey. Her voice is a better ad campaign for cigarettes than death. Her voice has all the nostalgia of my parent’s generation—but she’s not wholesome—she’s dark and dirty, glamorous and grungy. Her aesthetic is flawless but never campy. Her image changes from Jackie O to Trailer Park but I always want to be her. Her lyrics are evocative and steeped with so much filthy Americana. She’s melancholy and blinged out in the same song. She refers to her genre of music as “Hollywood SadCore.” Even that is everything. She sounds like Neil Young with a pussy. Her pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola. That’s an actual lyric. 

Mostly, singing along to Lana Del Rey makes me feel like a sex kitten, no matter what I’m wearing or what weird thing my hair is doing, and for a person whose struggled with self-image and confidence since she was eight—that’s monumental.

I’m also curious as to why female artists are so picked apart and debated in a way that dude artist’s aren’t. Actually, I’m not curious. The answer is sexism. This came full-circle, didn’t it?

 

Thanks so much, Megan. As you know, I think you’re one of the best, and I hope to see you soon.

 

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MEGAN FALLEY is a full-time writer, performer, and a two-time winner of the Write Bloody Open Book Competition. Her first full-length collection of poetry After the Witch Hunt was published in 2012. Her forthcoming collection Redhead and the Slaughter King is slated for publication in Fall 2014. Falley was featured on TV One’s Verses & Flow, a television show dedicated to showcasing the best in spoken word. In 2012, she represented NYC at the National Poetry Slam as part of the LouderArts Team. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rattling Wall, TheUncommon Core, and a party of online journals. Falley teaches an online poetry course called “Poems That Don’t Suck,” dedicated to improving the craft of aspiring writers. In 2012, she toured the US and Canada for 100 days in her car, reading poems. She lives in Brooklyn with a dog named Taco. Visit her online at www.meganfalley.com.