Month: April 2014

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.

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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.

 

15/30: A Conversation With Ethan Rivera

Ethan Rivera

When I was super, SUPER young on the poetry scene here in Columbus, trying to get a night off the ground, I was pretty lost. Not many people were showing up, I wasn’t writing poems, and I had no guide to show me how to work what I wanted to do. Eventually, Ethan Rivera began showing up to my night, just popping in here and there. I knew who he was, of course, and will never be able to thank him enough for really taking some stake in my development, when I had no clue what I was doing. There was a Saturday night the week before a poetry slam that I was worried about being in, and Ethan sat with me in a coffee shop for HOURS to convince me I had work that was good enough. All of this “Ethan is a great person” talk, while true, is to say nothing of his poems. He takes risks in ways that I still find myself afraid to do, he opens up difficult conversations about race/gender/sexuality/mental health. Above all, though, for me, Ethan is a friend. Maybe the first friend I made on the poetry scene. The first person to listen to me before a lot of people were hearing me, and say, “Yo. You’re more than capable of writing this stuff.” And I’ll always owe him for that. But also, the poems.

The following is a conversation which took place in my apartment.

HA:  So, I think people who are involved in poetry around here are surprised to find out how old you are.

ER: (laughs)

HA:  I mean, you’ve been doing this a while, but you’re also still really young, compared to your peers. What’s with that?

ER: This is my sixth team I’ve been on, and this is only the second time I haven’t been the youngest on a team. I came out when I was 17 years old. And when I was 20, I was fully ready to commit to everything. I didn’t have CUPSI or BNV, so I had to learn by fire at Nationals. I’ve always been the young one in most of my groups. Izetta is the one who reminds me most. She’s always telling me that she forgets I’m not her age. We’ve done a couple of slams where we do old heads vs. new heads, and I’m with the old heads. And that’s always funny. I got on the scene here when I was young and often times, when people are that young, they don’t have the time to give to poetry like I did.

HA: Obviously, The landscape of our scene is way different than it was. Writing Wrongs is what it is now, but that isn’t the way it started. What were your early days like?

ER: When I first jumped on the scene, it was 2008. Right after Ed Mabrey left for Arizona. He had a successful show called Black Pearl poetry where Will Evans was second in command. So when Will started Writing Wrongs, we all came over. Me, and Atticus, and Spike, Barb Fant. Black Pearl was in a bar in downtown Columbus, in the basement. It was more of a party. Writing Wrongs was in an upstairs loft with exposed brick, and we were trying to shift gears, and create this art scene with a young crowd. Will, and Rachel (Wiley) and Myself, we started working with high school students, and they all started to come out more. So, the audience changed from ’08-’09.

HA: So, you’re on Upworthy.

ER: That happened.

HA: None of us write poems for that kind of success, but what was it like to see that poem, that specific poem, make it viral?

ER: It was surreal. I didn’t believe it was happening. I was in Detroit when I found out, and I remember thinking that it wasn’t something I was ready for. I don’t sell myself when it comes to poetry. I don’t post my poems often, but with Button Poetry, they took it and liked it. I’m glad it went up there. That poem in particular, I’m glad it was that poem. I think it shows issues around racial ambiguity and ideas around how hard it is to be a race where people don’t know what you are, and make assumptions, and pin whatever they need to pin on you at that time. For me, that poem was less about being oppressed, and more about what is it that makes someone say things like that in a crowd. Why is t a common theme? I was really proud that poem went up. I’m glad that if people recognize me from a YouTube video, it will be that one, and not another one. Not one about my parents getting divorced.

HA: At this stage in your development as a poet, you’ve moved on to mentoring more frequently. What does that look like and how has it affected your writing?

ER: I’m hoping to work more at the high school level. At this point, that is my favorite level to work on, right now I work with Mosaic, and I love working with them on a weekly basis, and they’re still so excited about getting out and getting on a mic. And I get that some of it, at that age, is vanity. And I love that. Working with College kids was fine. I’d like to try it again. I think when I started that, I was too close to their age for them to get it.

As far as my writing, I’ve become more critical. I have the eye of an editor now, it helped me look at my poems the same way I look at the poems of others. I’m more open to sharing my work with other people, as well, before I considered it “ready”. I realized how important it was to have other people look at it work and tell you what they think it says. It has made me a better, more critical writer of my own work.

HA: I’m so impressed by the way you’re covering masculinity in your work lately. It’s so unique, and coming from a place a lot of men aren’t looking at. And you’re doing it without humor, which I think is the way a lot of people would take. What is that journey like?

ER: I think I’ve really gotten in touch with and accepted a lot of things about myself in the last year or two. A lot of the poems about masculinity in relationships come from me realizing what happens when I was in relationships not trying to be who I am. Really, writing about virginity and a different way of looking at sexuality for me is saying “This is who I am, not who I am expected to be”. People are ready to laugh at that part of you. If you haven’t had sex, it’s always a joke. I want people to know I CAN be humorous about it but at the same time, this is happening not only in the jokes. IT is happening when I have more serious moments in my life. I want people to be comfortable about it. I want people to know that. When I first started reading poems about being a virgin on stage, it was the single loneliest moment of my life. I’ve been surprised by a lot of crowds, by a lot of people who come up to me afterwards. I think we put a price on what sex can mean in a relationship. I’m not saying that anyone has made it less. I’m just saying that because I haven’t had it doesn’t mean I think it’s worth less. It’s just the situations I’ve been put it.

HA: Who has work, locally, or nationally that pushes you?

ER: Locally, it’s pretty ridiculous to say, but I gotta keep it honest. Will Evans and Rachel Wiley. I had a friend come out and see a show recently and he was like, “So this is what it’s like to watch people who you feel like are better than you?” And it’s exactly what it is. I am so lucky to have that on our scene, where there are people who make me feel there’s so much I can be doing. Nationally? It’s so hard to break things down. Jeanann Verlee is always pushing me to be better. I remember being in awe of her for my first time at Nationals, and these days, watching her push the envelope. I feel like Good Ghost Bill does some stuff that I can’t do. It makes zero sense. I look at him and think, “Man. I wish I could make that work.” Too many of my favorite poets live in the northeast. Franny Choi and Sam Sax also come to mind a lot, when I’m listening to what they do. They see past the surface idea, and take the turn. We really value that a lot in Columbus, thinking about things in new ways. They’re my favorites when it comes to that.

HA: You’ve been on what? 7 NPS teams?

ER: This is my 6th team.

HA: How many more you got in you?

ER: (laughs) Maybe one or two more left, as far as the time I would love to spend doing slam. I think it’s at the point now where I’ve done a lot that I’ve wanted to do. The competition keeps me coming back. This year is mostly about growing the scene, though. With everyone else not slamming right now, I thought it would be a lot of fun to be on a team with a bunch of new people, and making them more a part of the Writing Wrongs family than they have been. There’s something about being on a great team where you know you won’t always get those players back. Every year has been so different. This year, I wanted to be a mentor, and be a part of the new people coming in, and seeing what they can do. I liked watching them grow. I’m glad that I’m gonna get a front row seat to that.

HA: But that team we were on was great.

ER: favorite team I’ve ever been on, by far.

HA: Even better than the finals stage team?

ER: If you compare the pieces, yeah. We had Will two years later, with new poems, and he was elite. You have Rachel, who was two years better. I wasn’t that good the year we made finals. I felt like I contributed on that team. And then you replace Jason with you and J.G. and it’s like, there are more poems that we can use. More flexibility. And the summer was fun. We had a great time, Rustbelt was so much more fun. Nationals was a great time. That year we made finals, we were like up and comers, no one expected us to challenge. Last year, we were the team to beat. That was a great feeling. I loved walking in there with four friends and being the team to beat.

This team is going to be harder because it’s not a team where we think going in that we can be a top five team. But we can still be pretty good. That’s exciting. Growing a team from a youth perspective, and not from the perspective of knowing we could make it far.

HA: Who on our scene will be relevant in five years when we’re all gone or working as accountants?

ER: That’s such an interesting question. I know the people I would LIKE to see. I think Alex Caplinger, if she puts her focus on the scene, she could be a relevant part of it for a long time. She could be a good organizer. I know it’s tough being in college, I wasn’t a huge part of the scene until I graduated. And honestly, Marshawn is someone who is enterprising and really has a stake in changing how people perceive a lot of social things that he’s gone through. He’s a great leader. As far as other people, I don’t know. There are so many factors. There are people who I thought would be here five years ago who aren’t. We all move on to bigger things. So, I’m hoping some of the people right out of college can come on the scene and make it stronger. Some of the high school kids, too. We’re building this great high school scene, and it’s sad to watch the talent come out of high school and go elsewhere.

HA: Like Shameaca Moore.

ER: Shameaca would be an absolute monster on the scene, if she stayed. And instead, she gets to be a monster on a different scene, and I get it, and I don’t think she’ll come back here.

HA: We talked about your plans for these poems about virginity and your relationship with sexuality. What is the journey going to look like for those poems?

ER: I would hope to get things published somewhere. I don’t know if I have the time right now to feel like I can adequately do those poems for an entire book. But I would like to start putting them out there and seeing if people are interested in publishing that work. I’ve always said I wanted to do a chapbook that’s printed on a press and call the book “My Father Offers To Buy Me A Prostitute”, but I think I need more time to write more poems and get more angles. And I firmly believe that the poems don’t have to stop if I lose my virginity, either.

HA: Well, yeah. There are a lot of poems about sex.

ER: I don’t know if I want people to picture me having sex, as much as I want people to picture me NOT having sex. I guess maybe that’s what I’m trying to accomplish (Laughs)

HA: What’s your relationship with your father hearing your work, because mine doesn’t understand any of mine.

ER: It’s important to first note that my dad is a musician, so he holds art of all kinds to be a paramount thing. And he has interesting relationships with the poems I’ve written about him, and I hide them for a while, and then show him. The first time I read “The Reasons Your Wife Left You” for my dad it was in my living room in Virginia, with just him. He took it surprisingly well. He understands the need to get those things out, but he also didn’t think some of those things were necessarily true. But he also understood it as me being an artist not me being his son. When I finally showed him the poem I wrote about him telling me he would commit suicide, he saw it on YouTube, and then he called me and told me he’d never do that to me. I’m fortunate enough to be really open with my dad. He loves the creativity, and doesn’t mind being written about. He’s super supportive, and I don’t think a lot of people get to have that. I think some people are afraid of their friends and family hearing their poems. I think my father is the one person I should be afraid of, when it comes to sharing my poems, but I’m not.

HA: Dope.

ER: Cool.

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ETHAN RIVERA has represented Columbus five times at the National poetry slam, appearing on finals stage in 2011, and semifinals stage in 2013. He serves on the board of Writing Wrongs Poetry, which he also hosts, he coaches and runs workshops for high school slam poetry in Columbus, and enjoys a good IPA from time to time.

4/14: Ten Questions With Stephanie Lane Sutton

Stephanie Lane Sutton

Chicago’s Green Mill is fantastic for a lot of reasons. That said, it isn’t always the best place to take in a poet for the first time. It can be loud, hectic, and such a dope spectacle that it doesn’t often lend itself to consuming the work of a poet for the first time. But yet there I was, in the winter of 2013, listening to Stephanie Lane Sutton hold the attention of a tough room filled with talented poets. I was really excited to reach out to Stephanie for this. I have had limited “in person” moments with her work, but every time she finishes a poem, I find myself looking around the room wondering, Did anyone else hear that? Am I the only one who loved that as much as I did? Why can’t I put my finger on all of the things that makes this work glorious and unique? There’s something that carries me into Stephanie’s work. As a thinker, and as an activist, Stephanie really does the work. This idea that unrepresented voices all need volume. That there isn’t just one answer. And most of all, as a poet and a person, Stephanie is not about the bullshit. And I think we could all use more of that.

 

You are a part (and a large contributor) to a fantastic scene, in Chicago. But you got there by way of Detroit. I’m always fascinated by the full scope/depth of Chicago’s scene. With that in mind, How was it for you finding a place in there, and where did you start?

Since you mentioned Detroit, it really starts there. I got into slam poetry because it was an extracurricular at my high school. I was mentored by a stand-out role model and amazing poet, Tom Budday.  I also had an equally amazing high school English teacher, Mr. Campion, who encouraged my literary talents but also brought down the hammer on my ego whenever necessary.

I moved here to go to Columbia College Chicago to study Poetry.  In the first poetry class I ever took – introduction to poetry – I met someone named Faith Rice. Faith went on to start a spoken word student organization, Verbatim, which I helped co-found and later became president of. That organization connected me to other poets my age on my campus.  We were all doing our different things, running open mics or making zines or just writing good poems.  We would get together, and usually we’d stay up until dawn reading poems.  Long story short, one day college was over and we didn’t stop doing the other stuff.  Actually, I go to bed early these days.

You also studied poetry at Columbia College, which interests me. How much of what you gained from that still follows you now?

I am really proud of the education I got at Columbia College.  There are very few undergraduate creative writing programs where I could have gotten the cutting edge education I received.  My workshop classes taught almost exclusively poetry by living poets.  My degree is technically in English, so I took a lot of literature classes and wrote critical essays (one of which I got published in a peer reviewed journal).  I feel my education ultimately cultivated intellect, which has fueled my dedication to poetry in my career.

I also minored in Television Writing at Columbia. My logic was that I’d be able to get a career in Hollywood off the ground.  I’ve always fantasized about being a screenwriter. I started off primarily as a fiction writer, and I also loved music, acting, and photography – so film made sense to me.  I didn’t get that TV writing career off the ground, but I am really glad I know how to write a script.  I also took a lot of classes in non-fiction and fiction writing, as well as video production.  I feel like I got a very well-rounded education as a writer; it’s made a strong foundation for my career. 

The biggest takeaway from my time at Columbia an obsession with how poetry looks on a page and how it is heard aloud.  I will never know exactly where I first heard that they should be equally good in both places, but this idea was hammered into me throughout my studies.  There was a good two years where every poem I wrote was intended to be published and be a slam poem.  I break that rule all the time now, but only because rules are meant to be broken.

 

Rachel McKibbens has an essay, The Male Slam Experience Vs. The Female Slam Experience, and while the entire thing was really important for me to read before taking on reading poems in public spaces, a part that really stands out to me will always be “women are expected to write poetry, men are rewarded for it.” Not only because I believe that is a true statement, something to be aware of, and something that I have benefitted from on shared stages due to simple perceptions of gender roles, but also because she goes on to talk about how women are punished more often for showing range, with their work. I think about that because the first three times I heard your work in person (at the Mill in early 2013, and then twice at Rustbelt 2013), I was really excited about the amount of space you covered, and the way that you did it. Upon reading Blood Dowry, it became really obvious that one of your many talents is putting a lens on a variety of experiences. How natural does that come to you, and do you consider it entirely necessary in your process?

I’ve always seen all of my work as very singular.  In Blood Dowry, for example, all of my poems are first-person narratives.  But this comment about “range” and “variety” is one I’ve heard often about my work.  I’m not sure where that perception comes from, but I always want to push myself to be more creative with my performance work. 

One of the most annoying things in slam – any poet will tell you – is that a well-written poem can be very hit or miss, regardless of how well you perform it.  It really depends on the judges.  And I do think subject matter is often equally or more important than craft in a poem – it’s all about what your audience wants to hear. What I think harms women the most is that it’s expected that we will experience violence and trauma.  If you win a slam with a poem you wrote to heal from something, as a woman, that’s pure luck.  Judges usually don’t care how well it’s written or how much we have to overcome to write those poems.  I don’t see men (particularly white, cis men) held to these standards as often.  But what is most troubling to me is the way poems about things we’ve witnessed, rather than experienced, tend to do better.  A poem about my opinion usually scores better than a poem about what I lived through, depending on the slam.

I do want to recognize that there have and will always be women who break the formulaic tendency of slam and use the full potential of the art form, and they’ll crush anyone in a slam.  One of my favorites is my former teammate, Fatimah Asghar, put up exclusively persona work at Nationals and was the highest scoring poet on our team.  The poets she came up alongside at Brown – Franny Choi, Jamila Woods, Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie – have work I always return to.  I’ve never seen anything like it  Also, Patricia Smith – she’s the Godmother of Slam.  No one does it like her. 

 

You may be the only person I talk to this month who is as involved in Louder Than A Bomb as you have been. If you can, talk about what that entire festival is like, and also, why is what you have to give important, as a teacher of poetry? (Other than eliminating poet voice.)

Louder Than A Bomb is Chicago’s youth poetry festival.  It is also the largest poetry festival in the world.  This year, 120 teams competed, which is about twice the size of the National Poetry Slam.  Just think about that for a minute. 

The thing about Louder Than a Bomb that makes it so unique is that the culture belongs entirely to the students.  Their voices are the most important part of the festival.  Their incredible abilities to tell stories in earnest floors adults.  I have seen teenage poets accomplish artistic feats that adult poets would not. 

Chicago’s adult poetry scene really pales in comparison to its youth.  I saw a group piece from a youth hip-hop arts organization called Kuumba Lynx that flawlessly melded spoken word poetry with modern dance.  It got a perfect score.  I’m fairly certain it would have gotten the high score on any of the adult level finals stages I’ve seen. Speaking of which, this year two students I mentored for LTAB competed in local adult level slams as the only youth poets and took first place.  That’s what I’m talking about. 

 

A common thread with these questions addresses the activism that has shaped the artist/person. A while back, I saw you share some comments about pushing away from the boy’s club mentality of the art form and creating spaces where women’s voices were prominent and heard and at the forefront. I generally appreciate your ability to run, full sprint, into necessary and messy/difficult conversations, and that statement really stood out to me as something entirely possible/needed. Flawed culture and all, obviously, what are the things that have to happen in order to create more of those spaces?

Men need to do the work.  That’s it.  Male poets in Chicago are constantly damaging, silencing, and marginalizing female work, both artistically and in terms of organizational contributions. Women stand up, call out the bullshit, and demand change—they make new spaces that are supposed to be safe and women-led.  Men smile, nod, agree, then go into those spaces and continue to fuck shit up for us.  Or, even worse, they pretend to care – and benefit from that public image, while the women they’ve hurt get their reputations damaged.  These men actually don’t care about women. They just want people to think they care.  And that gives them more power, which they use to continue to hurt and marginalize women.

I know Chicago is not the only place where this happens.  Every week, I see someone on Facebook talking about how a man took credit for their organizational work, wrote an extremely offensive poem that appropriates women’s stories, or got defensive when someone called their behavior predatory. What are we supposed to do? Men need to be better. Men need to do the work.

I am tired of having these messy conversations.  I am tired of egos that fill up stages built by woman organizers whose names get misspelled or forgotten.  Two out of the three slams in Chicago would not exist if it were not for women organizers.  If we want to go to the other one we better be ready to be harassed for calling our misogyny on stage, or run into the prolific sexual predator who was supposedly banned for raping multiple women in our community but still makes appearances because he’s stayed cool with the men in our scene.  Some would argue that’s the case for all of our slams, since women are usually behind the scenes keeping shit from falling apart.  Again… I don’t think Chicago is the only place where this happens.

Not every man is like this.  I wish they would spend less time trying to show what good allies they are and instead challenge other men to be better.  Women don’t always do, and a lot of times it’s because they’re triggered or they don’t want to lose male approval (or because of the scenario I described in the first paragraph of my answer here).  Men have less to lose in those conversations, so they should be more willing to have them. 

As far as I’m concerned, men who claim to be allies to women but who aren’t willing to check other men are part of the problem.  Listen – men who pretend sexism doesn’t exist or openly talk about how much they hate women pretty much don’t exist.  Most men will say the equal treatment of women is a priority to them, but they don’t intervene on sexism because they still want to be one of the boys.  They don’t self-educate – that is a big one.  Men aren’t reading texts by women about their experience unless it doesn’t threaten them or they want to repute it.  Apparently the female experience isn’t a credible primary source.  If men don’t do this, they will never get familiar with the subversive ways masculine privilege hurts the women they claim to care about.  The exceptions to the rule need to make more noise, because the men who are part of the problem aren’t listening to women.

Let’s be clear: Allyism has been a failure across the board in our community.  I think that a lot of what I’m saying here as a woman would be nearly identical to the experiences of poets of color, LGBTQ poets, differently abled poets, and so on.  But the microcosm of slam intensifies these problems.  They get talked about all the time – and written about.  That creates a lot of potential for marginalized people, but it also makes a lot of opportunities for privileged people to benefit from marginalization.  They feel like it literally does not effect their life until someone accuses them of being sexist or racist.  Then they’re motivated to do damage control on their public image, but no real change actually comes.

The biggest reaction I’ve had to calling out sexism is that I get called unprofessional or blamed for my anger.  I feel like this is gaslighting.  I have a right to be mad about violence happening in my artistic community, particularly when it is violence I am experiencing first hand.  I strategize to make sure I am heard, I educate men, I try to get them on my side as allies; they smile and nod and repeat the new words I taught them.  Then they don’t comply with clear-cut requests from survivors to have repeat sexual predators banned from their venues.  They don’t bring in a female host for their slam, or give up their own stage time to showcase female voices, or book more female artists.  When a woman is on stage, they heckle her, which is a great way to pretend to look supportive but really make the show about you again.  Then they appropriate female issues and stories of female survival for their own poems. They win slams with those poems, because the world doesn’t want to hear women talk about their own experiences.  Again: men don’t do the work.  So I’m mad.  I didn’t wake up like this.  It took a huge personal journey to get this pissed off. 

You were a member of one of my absolute favorite NPS 2013 teams, and it really bummed me out that I never got to watch you guys. What was that experience like? It seemed like you all really dug past the basic “Well, we’re on a team so we gotta spend the summer together” thing.

That team was Fatimah Asghar, Amy David, and Eric Sirota, with veteran Billy Tuggle as our coach.  We still consider each other teammates, even though we’ll probably never compete at an NPS together again.  I was actually not planning on being on a team last year, but at the end of the grand slam, I looked at the company I was in and realized I had made my Chicago Dream Team.

We set a bunch of lofty goals for ourselves – that we would fundraise our entire expenses, write original group pieces, and bring new indy poems.  It was incredibly difficult, and there was at least one email thread everyone wants to forget, but we accomplished it all.  We made it to semifinals.  We’ve become great friends.  More importantly, I finally squashed my own poet voice.

We really did just spend the whole summer together, though.  When I was on a team before, we had weekly practices, and sometimes we’d hang out.  We were working together every time our schedules synced; we’d have practice even if only two or three of us could meet.  We also did a lot of shows together – I think we did something like seven in two months.  I think one difference in Chicago is that our artistic culture is less competitive than other cities; we were more concerned with achieving artistic goals and trying things we hadn’t tried before.  That’s how Amy ended up writing “Rape Jokes,” Fati did “Monophobia,” and we wrote a group piece about Marina Abramovic that involved slapping each other on stage. 

 

The one thing I really connect with poets on easily is when they write poems about where they’re from. So, naturally, my favorite piece of yours is “Motown To Chicago Blues”. I can’t fairly express how much I enjoy how Detroit is embodied in that poem. How important is Detroit to the artist you are right now?

As it stands, I have a very complex relationship with Detroit.  For one thing, I pretty much had to move out of the city to learn any of its real history.  When my parents separated in 2009, I moved back for six weeks.  I spent most of my time in the Wayne State University libraries looking at microfilms of The Detroit News from the 60’s as research for a script I was writing.  There were stories about police brutality alongside coverage of new Motown releases.  I went back to the moment of the Twelfth Street Riots of ’68 and saw that decimation of the city.  Then I kept reading up through the 70’s; the biggest story was how they kept delaying the construction of the Renaissance Center, which is ironic because it was supposed to be a symbol of rebirth in the wake of those riots. 

That’s how I know Detroit.  The story of that city is the most accurate and unflinching portrait of the American Dream we will ever have.  

But my experience growing up there defined me too.  The garage rock scene took up more of my time than poetry for most of high school.  During the summer, there were street festivals every weekend.  Most of the bands I loved were made up of middle-aged rockers who had been around forever.  This is how I got into the DIY and punk culture that informs my approach to organizing today. 

So I’m very excited that Rustbelt is taking place in Detroit this year.  I’ll be volunteering in the festival, and I’m hoping to learn about the poetry scene I feel I missed out on while I was there.  Detroit has produced some of the most recently influential and cutting edge poets – francine j. harris and Javon Mays wrote two of the best books of poetry I’ve read in the past year.  From what I can see of the online connections I’ve made, it sounds like there are people in Detroit who are doing the work to oppose the systematic racism in the city and make an integrated arts community—perhaps the first true one the city has ever seen. 

I have fantasized often about moving back to Detroit.  If I could get a job there, I probably would.

So, going back to your role as a teaching artist. How does what you pour into teaching/coaching impact the work that you put out?

I once read that poets should be gardeners so they could live a life that would produce material for poetry.  I personally disagree.  My work as a teaching artist is inseparable from my work as an artist.  Pedagogy is as much a craft as writing. 

A lot of great artists don’t care for teaching, or wish they could make money off only their art.  That doesn’t appeal to me.  I think that poetry has the biggest impact in the world when it is being taught.  Self-expression increases self-awareness which improves individual quality of life.  Cheryl Maddalena has studied the effects of performance poetry and internal conflict (such as a trauma) and found that it is an effective form of emotional intervention.  Performance poetry might be a form of treatment as effective as counseling and antidepressants. (More here: http://cherylmaddalena.vpweb.com/Research-Interests.html)

The ability to read poetry makes you smarter.  Studies show that it improves analytical and abstract thinking.  So many instructors find poetry too difficult, so it becomes a week long unit rather than an instructional tool throughout the year.  It’s a shame, because poetry can often accomplish the literary techniques of a great novel and the persuasion of an argumentative essay in the span of half a page.  The kids at my school who are consistent with their craft score several points higher on their ACT and AP exams. 

 

 

Who are the poets you go to when you feel the need to be pushed or motivated, and what led you to them/the connection you have with their work?

 

The poets I’ve been going back to the most lately are Terrence Hayes and Patricia Smith.  I go to Patricia Smith because of how much she does with language.  Her poems are intense, wordy, and can be complicated, but I think these are all good qualities; the complexity emerges because her language is actually very economic, and I don’t think she chooses a single word that doesn’t do multiple things. 

Terrence Hayes is very good at expressing ideas.  Reading a poem by him is rejuvenating.  While there is a richness and complexity that invites close reading, I feel like I know what he is getting at after a surface read.  When go back to his poem, it isn’t to figure out what he means, but because I want to see so much more.  I think it is incredibly hard to pull that off in a poem.

I keep going back to these two because I feel like I’m taking apart a machine to see how it works when I read them.   I own multiple works, but “Muscular Music” by Hayes and “Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah” are the ones I use the most. 

But when I have “writer’s block,” or I feel stuck in a poem, I’m way more likely to pick up something new.  I read a lot of online literary magazines.  I think Birdfeast is my favorite right now.  Since I worked in a bookstore for two years, I bought every used poetry book that looked interesting to me or was written by a poet I recognized.  I haven’t read them all yet, so a few times I month I pick one randomly off the shelf and won’t do anything else until I finish reading it.  I think it is important to expose yourself to as much new poetry as possible; good or bad, seeing different approaches and different voices in poetry prevents stagnancy.

 

 

Finally, where are you taking your work next? You had a whole set of poems become a finalist for last year’s Write Bloody manuscript contest. What journey are those things going on?

Right now, I’m taking a step from the book.  I’m very happy with how far it went in the Write Bloody competition.  But I’ve also been working on it since I was in college.  Right now, I am focusing on graduate school.  I have committed myself to applying to Poetry MFA’s this fall.  Mainly I’m working on my writing sample. 

I’m also trying to write more new poems and get them published.  My goal is to have 30 new pieces published by the end of 2014.  Supposedly, more people submit poems to literary magazines than they submit applications to graduate school.  Every acceptance makes me a little more hopeful, and every rejection makes my skin thicker. 

I also have a new chapbook manuscript.  It is specifically about the female experience.  I’m very excited about the fact that I’ve accumulated enough poems on that topic to make a tiny book.

It would be cool to have a book out, but I’m not sure I’m ready.  It feels like enough to say that my book was a finalist in something.  You can only ever publish one first book.  I want it to be my best.  So I’m glad to take time to build a strong foundation to get there.

 

Thanks so much for doing this, Stephanie. Come and see us in Columbus sometime.

 

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STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON  is a poet, performer, and educator.  She represented Chicago at two consecutive National Poetry Slams and at the Women of the World Poetry Slam. She is a co-founder and former member of the West Side School for the Desperate collective and is the member of the inaugural Spoken Word Educators Cohort at Concordia University. Her recent poems can be found online in Radius, The Bakery, elimae, Wicked Banshee, and Vocation:Vacation.  Learn more at stephanielanesays.wordpress.com

13/30: Ten Question With Aaron Samuels

Aaron Samuels

I recently mentioned the joy I get out of seeing poets operate in the cities they call home. I was out east doing some shows this winter, and I happened to have a free night at the same time Aaron Samuels was having his book release party in Providence, where he grew up. I got to really take in his love for community. This idea of home being home, and the love he has for it. I think that may be what I appreciate most of what I know of Aaron. Sure, I also appreciate his approach to his work. How structured and organized he is as an artist is a firm reminder to me as I look at a bedroom with poems in ten different places. Of course, I appreciate his poems. The way his work invites us in to the hard conversations, sits us down, and guides us through, always using himself as a lens. I appreciate the way he thinks, and the conversations I’ve had with him. How he can excitedly bounce from topic to topic so seamlessly, you often wish for more time to pick his brain. But like all of the artists I’m using this platform to talk to/about, I really enjoy Aaron’s sense of community. Not just that he writes about where he’s from, but the way that the people where he’s from talk about him. The way artists in his home area talk about not just him, but his family, and what they’ve meant. The way everyone in the room that night looked at him, proud. Knowing they were watching one of their own, a greatness that still has barely scratched the surface. You can learn so much by watching people watch the people they are proud of. Aaron’s work, personality, and way of thinking greets us with a sense of pride that is contagious. And I couldn’t be happier about that.

When I was out doing some shows in the Northeast earlier this year, I had the pleasure of having the timing work out so that I could make your book release party in your home area of Providence. There is something really magical about watching an artist being received and congratulated in their own environment. It was an incredibly touching experience that I was glad to be able to witness. Also, I feel like I learned a lot about you as a person, just watching you navigate the stories that show up in your poems on familiar turf. I love origins. And you are proud of yours. Tell me about Edgewood?

Edgewood was the neighborhood I grew up in. It is maybe one square mile of an intersecting community, right on the border of Southside Providence and Warwick. It’s in between three cities, so that makes it pretty interesting. The bay rides it along the eastside and brings three very different communities together. Warwick is like a strip mall, Cranston is the biggest city, geographically, and Southside Providence is one of the rougher areas in Rhode Island. So you get this really interesting mix of class, race, and religion, and it’s a community based on a lot of these intersections happening, which I think is representative of the state of Rhode Island, on the whole. I can walk from the exurbs to the suburbs to the hood in 30 minutes, which is a crazy experience.

 

We’ve spoken before about how race played a role in our respective childhoods, and how where we grew up played into that. You’ve told me about growing up in a mixed race household, and in an area that sometimes wasn’t completely supportive of that. How did that shape you as a writer/person?

Tremendously. At the onset, I grew up in a mixed race household, so having a black protestant father and a white Jewish mom; I was forced to start thinking about race a lot earlier than many of my mono-racial peers. I was always seeing a conversation about race happening within my own family and household. My parents were also very open to talking about it, so even before I was writing these were things that I was processing and thinking about in really deep ways.

Now days? It’s still really deeply ingrained. I focus on identity intersection. I’m most interested in the moments when different identities inside of us come into conversation with each other. When race comes into conversation with gender. When sexuality comes into conversations with class. And the conversations inside of those conversations are the most interesting to me.

 

What I’m finding, the more I discover my own voice, is that a powerful tool that we have is our own experience, and the revisiting of various things to express a larger message within the work. You have so many poems that strike me as nostalgic. These beautiful snapshots of places, people, events. After reading just two poems, I felt like I knew Kevin. I felt like I could have lived in Edgewood. I felt all of those things. As the author, I hope you appreciate what that does for a reader. What role does nostalgia play in your work?

I think I’m a nostalgic person. As far as the tool as a literary device, for me, it is an enabler. A lot of times when we enter into difficult conversations about race or sexuality or identity, we enter them from our adult lens, which makes it hard. So, a lot of times in my work, I try to take the reader back to a place before these notions were created. Somewhat of an original position where using nostalgia helps to emotionally transfer the writer and reader to an earlier childhood place where they can be more open to processing these types of things. Some of the characters in my book are processing things for the first time.

 

Dark Noise Collective. I’ve been really excited to talk to one of you about this group, and what the mission of it is. I really love this idea of talented people forming one unit and working/creating together. How did this start, and is the nature of it truly as collaborative it looks to me, as an outsider?

On face value, the collective is a support network, and it’s a family. And the operating thesis was can we take a small group of emerging artists of color in their mid 20’s who are already doing well in their forms, and then by combining our energy and building a support network of deep friendship and deep interest in each other’s personal and professional pursuits, will that amplify each of us? And I think the resounding answer is yes. I think all six of us have seen pretty great growth, both artistically and professionally. And we also do collaborative shows, with the six of us and with different combinations. We’re working on different projects. Video poems, a lot of surprises.

At a music festival a few years ago, I covered a talk that Nas was doing where he talked about how much of his life went into making Illmatic, and how once it was complete, he was a little lost, from a creative standpoint. Kind of how putting that much into one single thing can drain you, regardless of the gifts you have to give. We have all of our lives to create our first thing, be it an album, book, painting, whatever. And when it’s done, we’re still alive. We’re still living, and still artists, and still documenting that experience. So I wonder, after putting so much of yourself into a brilliant project like the book Yarmulkes And Fitted Caps, what do you do next?

I put three years of my life explicitly into that project, but it is also a story of my life, to this point. So I’ve been working on it for like 25 years, so that’s an important question. The short answer is that the project is not over. The creation of the book is just the first step. There are writing workshops and identity discussion workshops in the back of the book. I really hope to push it as a teaching instrument to push difficult conversations about social identity. After the book, I went on tour for six months not only performing, but teaching workshops from the book, and showing that it can be used as a teaching device. I’m still working on projects around it, developing video poems and potentially a one man show. Of course, as an artist, I need to move on to other projects. I have some other manuscripts in the works, but those are maybe a few years out. But in many ways, I have enjoyed writing poems that don’t have to fit into this project and exploring where my creative juices are taking me.

A thing that we have in common is that in addition to our creative pursuits, we both work full time jobs. Now, of course, being an artist is ALSO a full time job, and then some. But I really enjoy having these conversations with artists who work in office settings, and you in particular, because you work in what many would describe as Corporate America. I remember, during your book release, you mentioned being excited to find out that a co-worker was also an artist. How do you balance these worlds?

It’s not easy. I think that there’s a paradox here. The paradox is that working a job where I’m working 60-80 hours a week, it doesn’t leave time for anything else, especially creative pursuits. The flipside is that when I was on the road, doing art all day, when I got to whatever bed I was crashing on, the last thing I wanted to do was write a poem after living in art all day. When you spend all day doing financial analysis, when I get home at night, I am wired for creative ability. I often fantasize about a life where I can create poems every day, but sometimes I wonder if I create better art after building the quantitative side of my brain because they balance each other. It’s not sustainable to put 60 hours into a job and 20 into poetry, but then again, who has an existence in their 20s that is sustainable into later life? I think part of me will always be a mix between quantitative and creative. Part of me will always be a business man and a poet. It’s another intersection. I don’t think they have to be in conflict, I think it’s about finding balance.

 

And what of your relationship with slam? That is how so many of us have discovered your work, and something that I know you have great roots in. Even if you see yourself taking time off, do you still feel connected?

I’ve been a competitor in slam every year since 2005. Up until now. So that’s nine group competitions, two individual competitions, and several coaching positions on top of that. So I’m very rooted in the community on every level. So, in some ways, if I took a year off, I don’t think that means I’m not interested. This is my family; this is where I came from. I can take five years off, and it will still be my home. This past year, the slam community went through a lot of challenges, and that was hard for me, because it was always my home. It was my reprieve from the corporate world where I think I don’t feel emotionally recharged, and slam helps me through that. So to watch that community, in some ways, go up in flames and then start to rebuild was difficult. It became just another source of anxiety. That being said, the community is constantly exploding and recharging and there’s a history of that too. And I believe that there are lots of good people and this community has been an incredible springboard. I’m thankful for what the community has given me and I’m not done receiving or giving back. Coaching youth poetry has always fulfilled me and I know I have some of that left before I throw in the towel. The community and the art form are inseparable. It has always been a part of the community for me. The art is secondary, because it happens in the context of the community.

 

I like how the pride in your various identities can’t help but to bleed into your work, as well. Like many of the poets I’m interviewing this month, I have used your book as a teaching tool, and it works wonders in classrooms with teenagers. There’s a very real permission in your work that echoes this message of identity acceptance, even up against some overwhelming odds. Where does that pride come from?

Short answer is that I can’t be anybody but myself, and I have a lot of pride in my family and parents and the heritages that I come from. The more I got older, the more I learned that being black means so many things. There’s more genetic diversity among black people than any other diaspora in the world. Being black doesn’t mean one thing. And the more I learn about Judaism, I find the exact same thing. There are so many different Jews in the world. In representing those things, it means so much, due to the fact that there isn’t just one version of black and one version of Jewish, so I’m operating at the intersection of millions of things, as we all are. That said, there are things about being black and Jewish that have shaped the way I view my world and art. The one tough thing about being black and Jewish is knowing that, for years, people have been trying to kill you or enslave you and profit off of your body. And while I don’t like to wake up in a bad mood every day, part of waking up knowing that you’re black and Jewish is waking up knowing that you’re a target. Maybe not now, maybe not in this particular room, but in many places in the world. There are people trying to destroy you, and have been, as a project, for thousands of years. I think that there’s something there that you carry with you. I think most black people carry it with them. I think most Jews carry it with them. This idea of never believing in safety. And I think that shows up in my work, as well. Even if you’re comfortable, the need to always look over your shoulder and cover your bases. That’s not all that blackness is, or Jewishness is. There’s also magic. There’s also survival. There’s also making humor in the face of overwhelming odds, and I try to put that in my work as well.

 

I appreciate, also, the discussions that you generate on gender. Your work really challenges me, as a reader, to rethink some long-held ideas on gender, and how I operate in that world of thought. What drives you to challenge gender in your work the way you do?

It’s important for me to not look at gender, or any identity in isolation. So, again, it’s all about intersection. So I look at how being black and Jewish IS gendered, and the legacy of masculinity within those two cultures. I think it’s interesting, if you look at the history of black and Jewish people in the world, there has been a project to dismantle notions of masculinity. I think Jews from the beginning of history as I know it, Jews have been circumcising their males, and there was propaganda about how that made Jews less manly, and the portrayals of the Jewish male as slimy, emasculated characters. And that’s one of the stereotypes of the Jew throughout history. I think in many ways, the figure of the black man has been emasculated through hyper masculinity. These over sexual brutes that rape and pillage white women and start fights, and have sex with anything that moves, and I think that stereotype is in service of emasculating men. And these are the two cultures that I grew up in, and I think about how the world wants to take away my masculinity, and I think of how the culture has fought back against that, sometimes in great ways or in problematic ways. Some men trying to overcompensate in ways that are problematic to women, and men who don’t fall in line. And so that forces my work to look at the legacies of misogyny and the legacies of sexism in blackness and Judaism. And there’s a complication there. So my work is not just looking at these legacies, but also asking what comes next. How do you be a good black man, or a good Jewish man, and what are my responsibilities. Understanding the burdens and privileges that masculinity provides me.

 

Finally, when you were last here, we hit on something in a conversation at Thurman’s, but we couldn’t linger on it. But, man, I really, really wanted to go back to it and have an hour long discussion on it, because it is something I have written on extensively, it is something I have taught extensively, and it is something that I fight internally with, also extensively. We were talking about “Blurred Lines”, and how, while we were not fans of the song, that there are ways to have problematic music (or film, or etc) be some shit that you vibe to. I was wondering if we could expand on that now. Can something problematic be your jam? How do you manage it?

This is tough, and everyone has to draw their own lines. It’s hard, because what music isn’t problematic? It’s a reflection of the culture that we live in. I try to minimize the amount of problematic messages that I put in my ears, but I also recognize that chronicling history sometimes means recognizing the problematic stuff around us. Now, do I think Blurred Lines is problematic? ABSOLUTELY, and I can’t get down with it. If you can, that’s on you.

But I can also understand my own hypocrisy.  Because I have definitely gotten down to songs that are messed up, or artists who have done messed up things, so I’m not sure that’s where I draw the line. I think there is something bigger here, which is that hip hop often gets a bad rap for being misogynistic. People are quick to say “I don’t listen to hip hop”. I think statements like that boil down to racism. There’s a legacy of misogyny in every musical tradition. I find it in country, I find in Jewish cultural music. In the blues, in rock, in folk. There’s problematic stuff everywhere. Songs about rape or violence against women, in every tradition. Does that make it OK? Nah, not at all. I just don’t want it to be written off as a problem that black people have. It’s a problem that men have, and I don’t think black men are immune to that problem. I’m not into the Blurred lines video, but I don’t think that means I’m anti  hip-hop or anti- R&B. It means that’s where my line is, and that’s a decision people have to make.

 Aaron, thank you so much for doing this. You know I believe so strongly in your work, and I look forward to talking again soon.

 

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AARON LEVY SAMUELS is a Pushcart-nominated poet, a TEDx speaker, and an acclaimed facilitator of critical identity discussions.  Raised in Providence, Rhode Island, by a Jewish-American mother and an African-American father, Aaron discovered spoken word poetry at age 14 when his English teacher told him he was not allowed to break meter.  After declining this advice, Aaron went on to become one of the premiere performance poets in the country, featuring on TV One’s Verses & Flow, HBO’s Brave New Voices, and TEDx Washington University. His work has appeared in multiple journals including the Tidal Basin Review, Apogee Journal, and Muzzle Magazine.  His debut collection of poetry, Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps, was released by Write Bloody Publishing in fall 2013.