I think I’ve had the pleasure of coming along at a really interesting time in Will’s life, and the life of his work. When I first started observing his poems, from afar, coming to Writing Wrongs in bursts and sitting in the back, or watching videos on YouTube, his work was in a different place than it was now. I’ve gotten to watch the evolution of one of the best writers on Columbus’ scene, and I don’t know if I appreciate that as much as I should. There are a million reasons why I love Bruce Springsteen, but one of the many reasons is that he’s a family man, and he’s not afraid to show that in his work, let it bleed through in a ton of ways. Even if it is a romantic snapshot about the possibility of family. I don’t know if Will is that much different, in that way. His work is still as heavy-hitting as it has ever been, but now we’re examining this new type of fear, this new type of love, this new type of frantic pace that revolves, I’m sure, around never ACTUALLY being prepared to be a husband/wife/father, but still wading out into that ocean nonetheless. Will also has an honesty about him as a human that is not only refreshing, but entirely necessary, especially in an art where so much of it can be created out of some less than honest moments. We have a lot in common, as people, but we are vastly different writers. I think this interests me the most. We’re both huge TV nerds. We both played college sports at small liberal arts colleges. We both played sports on that level that traditionally, American-born people of color “don’t” play. And so on. This generates a real interest in me, about how experiences can be similar, but writers can be shaped so differently.
Among other things, you are a poet with a deep sense of home. You write about Akron. You write about Columbus. A lot of poets do this, but you do it in a way that I find lends itself to something far more personal. Less of an invitation into the world, but a demand that the audience join you in the spaces you have occupied. What calls you to write about your origins in the manner that you do?
I write about my origins as much for me as I do for those to view it or hear it publicly. Over the last few years, I’ve had this desire, or more accurately a need to backtrack this path I’ve walked to the present, especially since I was not an artist that was ‘awake’ until I had already entered well into my twenties. I am always very aware of who I am presently, that my edges are pretty smooth, that I live like a suburbanite or that I weave in and out of the corporate world; all these attributes that aren’t normally associated with being working artist. So I write about ‘home’ in the manner I do, without invitation as you put it because that’s never how it was presented to me. Sometimes the memories are beautiful and nostalgic and sometimes its bloody brutal. Either way, for it to be authentic for me or anybody within earshot, it can’t be filtered or gift wrapped. Especially since, me not living in that world presently, sure as hell doesn’t mean it no longer exists.
I’m interested to talk about how you’ve evolved on page over the time you’ve spent in poetry. You’re on stages now significantly less than I imagine you were, say, five years ago. While your writing has always been a focus, I’m wondering if the move away from occupying the stage physically shaped the way you view your work on the page, or at least the way it can be consumed by a reader?
That’s a pretty interesting observation and I don’t know if I ever thought of one influencing the other as much as my stage time trimming down for other reasons, but not necessarily excluding my focus on writing. I’ve cut down my stage time for a myriad of reasons I suppose, time management being one, influence being another. I’ve been a part of a local scene and garnered enough knowledge about scenes across the country to know how this thing works. If you are a big influence in your local scene, if you don’t manage it well, you can stunt the growth of poets that are new or may want to emulate whatever “success” they think you’ve garnered. When you start seeing versions of yourself start showing up on stage (which is inevitable I’ve learned), it might stroke your ego for a moment, but it’s not helping your scene at all to nurture the proliferation of clones because it validates you as an artist. My goal was to help Columbus become more recognized as a growing and burgeoning poetry scene from the local and national view. Ironically, to me, being on stage less is probably more to forward that vision.
As for how it relates to my writing, I do think that rebalancing my time between my stage time and writing has helped me re-authenticate the voice in my work slightly. I still feel like anything I write, I can perform, but I’m less conscious of how a poem will be performed while writing it.
We’re of a similar era. We grew up when the Cosby Show and a Different World came and went, and turned into Martin and The Fresh Prince, and so on. There’s a certain power, I think, in being an artist of color. You get to offer a glimpse of an experience that is entirely yours, and that a lot of the people listening to you may genuinely never have insight to otherwise. What are your thoughts on shaping that experience, a genuine black experience, through your work?
I think regardless of whether people catch a reference from my era, people will recognize the idea of owning your creative space. You’re right, we lived in an era where White America for the first time was sitting down on a weeknight and watching the comedic beats of a Black family. That is no small feat. But even that was the handshake invitation side of that black experience. I was watching the Cosby Show with my family and then sneaking up to my room and listening to “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” with headphones on. Specifically for me, because I was privileged enough to be in a stable home, I never saw a conflict between the two. That’s why I always flinch when people have a suggestion that the black experience is one thing or defined by one set of circumstances. My father got his Master’s Degree in Bio Chemistry, read J.R.R Tolkein and would tell me how dangerous it was to walk home alone from school as a black boy in the countryside. I learned early that the black experience is a different experience, but it doesn’t exclude any experiences either. So for me, all my experience is a black experience just as I’m comfortable if someone says or thinks that I write “black poetry” even if race isn’t addressed in the text. I push back on those that want to discard any kind of identification showing up in art. I tend to think those people are delusional that it doesn’t show up there even if they aren’t aware of it. The poets that write, “I’m not a black poet” poems, in my opinion, are only telling us what kind of black poet they are.
One of my favorite pieces of yours, and it’s one that I think will hold up well regardless of age, is “Kingslayer”. I’m not sure how often we challenge ourselves to face our mortality, and go to the places required to do so in our poems. What did going through brain surgery do for you? Did you come out the other side an entirely different artist?
Well the first thing going through brain surgery did for me was keeping me alive, haha. I mean, I kid but the reality is, I try to never gloss over that, even if I’ve been healthy for a quite a while now after that. There’s a number of times where my life was threatened, well before my body tried to stage a coup on me but I was never comfortable with death feeling that close. Of course, I was delusional because I felt invincible. I was a prime athlete, peak shape, smart guy…basically I felt like I was dragging the world around by the hair and nothing was going to derail that. So that was a hard lesson for me to learn, that your natural gifts owe you nothing in the larger scheme. But I also learned that I like my life and don’t do well with it being threatened in anyway.
It didn’t affect me as an artist until much later. I didn’t invest heavily into writing and performance until after my surgery, yet I didn’t write to that experience until about three to four years later. If people look at my writing in those first few years, I am largely absent from the work. It really took Barbra Fant asking me why I don’t write about myself at all, to make me begin to speak about myself. I was still shying away from that vulnerability because I had built this kind of bulletproof, above-it-all persona that wasn’t wholly genuine. Exploring that interiority has helped me balance the confessional and the political voice in my work, and it really began with me being able to write about my survival.
There’s a flipside to that question, which may be more hopeful. You now have a daughter who is growing rapidly, and you often joke about how unprepared you are for her to rise to the throne which is rightfully hers. I really enjoyed watching the range of your work expand. You have really touching poems about fatherhood, ones that explore a kind of fear about raising a daughter, and some poems that are flat out hilarious. Did you ever expect your experiences as a husband and father would inform your work so much?
I would say that early on, especially since I didn’t write about myself much, I wouldn’t have guessed that they would shape my work so much. Because my art has become much more about my world as opposed to the world, then my wife and daughter inevitably show up in my work. My daughter seems to be hiding in the margins of all my poems and it’s taken me a while to accept that and embrace it. It’s one thing to sit down and say I’m going to write a poem about my daughter, it’s another to try and write about the ocean, just to discover, that’s about your daughter too. Even my upcoming book being published on Penmanship Books is mostly about how my life has prepared me to be a father. I’m finding, that essentially, these poems are really showing how much I enjoy being a father and how big of a deal I think being a father is, so if my art has expanded its voice because of that, I’m grateful, but it’s really a side effect. While my marriage shows up less overtly in my poems than my daughter, I feel like it has had a greater effect on my work, because it has had a greater effect on me as a person. There are so many similarities between my wife and I, and yet, our experiences are so different. Our union has made me so much more aware of the world I didn’t walk through, or more honestly, trampled through without knowing. She’s taught me how to put myself in conversation about gender, feminism, race and social commentary in ways I wasn’t capable of before. That has done more for my art than anything else I can credit. It always helps to be married to someone smarter than you as well, keeps me from ever hitting a brick wall.
Addressing my marriage in my art directly has had an interesting effect on how treat the “beloved” in my writing. I now feel more obligation to give that previously faceless character more depth and body because I would feel like I was betraying “her” if I didn’t.
One of the handful of things that we have in common is that we both played a sport at the collegiate level. I actually find it surprising that there isn’t more of a crossover in the poetry community there. Poets who were/are athletes. Especially because so much can come out of the experience of being an athlete in college, ESPECIALLY at a small school. You write about it often, if I recall, you’ve done an entire feature set about baseball. I’ve almost taken a weird interest in talking to poets who played sports, our scene is interesting because there’s at least three of us (including the two of us, and J.G.) who have gone that route. If you could, talk about your athletic journey and how it ended with poems?
Remember that scene in the Departed when Wahlburg’s character said, “You were a double kid weren’t you […] I bet you had two different accents, didn’t you?” Well, that described my athletics in high school. Playing both basketball and baseball at a predominantly white high school means that half your black friends are on the basketball team with you, but when it becomes baseball season, you might be the only black kid on the squad. My boys used to call me Jackie (Robinson) during baseball season because I was the only black baseball player in the school. Not on the varsity, the whole school. By the time I got to Shawnee State University, I was even further isolated because I didn’t have the same support system I built in high school. It’s the only time in my life I’ve felt lonely and I thought for a while, it was just the familiar trope of going away to college. In retrospect, I realize it was more about me spending so much time with people that I had nothing in common with except we were about the same age and played the same sport. I do have some isolated poems that are about baseball in a vacuum or about specific player or moment, but 90% of my baseball poems are about race and isolation. There just isn’t any getting around that. There is such an irony in Jackie Robinson being a symbol for integration, yet the percentage of American-born Black baseball players decreases every year. I always hear generic theories of why that is and many of them are valid, but I just don’t know how many people know how difficult it is to be in a locker room where so few people share your life experience and still decide on that being your life’s work.
Writing Wrongs was my second big poetry discovery in Columbus. I would say that when I first started reading out, I was afraid to read bad poems in public. But I also was so unaware of the fact that I was writing bad poems. I think one of my earliest memories of the fact that I was probably writing bad poems was when I watched that Win & You’re In the year it was at Writing Wrongs, and Writer’s Block was there, and Scott broke out “Red Tails”, and the whole Writing Wrongs squad was dope. And I remember thinking about being in this space where REALLY good writing was being received, everyone who hit the stage was giving fantastic writing. And I remember thinking, “Ok. My work isn’t engaging people like this, and I should examine that.” When initially starting Writing Wrongs, how important was it for you to build it into the environment it is now, where that work is loudly and excitedly appreciated?
I didn’t want to start Writing Wrongs as just another open mic and vessel for people to go the National Poetry Slam. I wanted more from it, quality wise. I didn’t want to be three years after the inception, to show up at the open mic I started and detest the poetry. And while that’s a matter of personal taste, I wanted to create an environment where the work mattered. And not the work in the abstract, but the work in terms of effort. Poetry and performing poetry isn’t some hidden trade in a basement anymore. Everyone is doing it. Which, by the law of averages, suggests that there are probably less people doing it well. From the beginning, I wanted Writing Wrongs to be more than just another night to get up and impress your friends because you have the guts to read something you wrote in front of people. I intentionally chose to read and cover a lot of work that was nuanced and complex but not necessarily showy when opening the night. I brought in a lot of features those first few years that weren’t conventional or produced bite-size punchlines. While they would still blow people away, I could point to them and say, “This is what the work, looks like!” Now, there was a price for that. We’ve been called the “uppity open mic.” Or, that we take poetry “so seriously.” My counter to that is, we keep the event that is Writing Wrongs light and playful, but yeah, we take the work seriously. I understand that doesn’t appeal to everyone, and I don’t begrudge people for how they prefer their poetry open mic experience, but I’ve also come to terms with knowing that Writing Wrongs doesn’t have to be the one to service every poetry attendee in the city. To set a standard that we have and still have a strong participation and investment in us, is really rewarding.
And at the same time, you’ve begun this process that seems like you’re stepping back from the forefront a bit. When I came to you for advice about handing my show off way back when, knowing that I would soon be planning a wedding/moving/going for fellowships/etc, you told me that it was never your intention to host beyond the first couple of years. You’ve done a really good job of empowering people who keep the night the way it is, even when you’re not physically present, but I’ll ask you the same question I asked Scott. Where do you see Columbus’ poetry scene going, and how do you play into that? Also, what has this time afforded you/what are you working on?
I think that the Columbus’ poetry scene is healthy, as in, if certain people that were deemed important in the scene stepped away, then it wouldn’t fold in on itself. Not every scene can say that with confidence. That being said, I still think we have a long way to go to be able to call our scene vibrant or robust. While I don’t think we have too many open mics in the city per se, I’m not sure that we have as many people hitting the mic every week as we should, for the amount of stages that are available. We also, in my opinion have too many poets that never cross over to other mics in the city. And while that’s a criticism, it’s one I know I’m guilty of as well for not participating more throughout the city. I think more collective show or spaces that feel neutral to everyone helps in propping up just how talented the poets in this scene are.
I have been stepping back more from the night, but I’m hoping it can be more a change in role as opposed to secession. I don’t need to be out in front for myself and I hope I don’t have to be for the sake of the night either. I want to focus my efforts towards how to make the night more successful structurally and organizationally, which I can probably do better off stage.
As for personal projects, I have a few things simmering, but the big one I have details on is a new book being printed by Penmanship Books titled lowercase boy. It will be released in the fall, it’s a complete, cohesive collection that’s been built over the last few years and I’m really excited for people to see it.
I want to open this door. I read this thing you said once maybe two years ago about art, specifically THIS art. About how there are too many limitless egos, and too much limited talent. By any measure, you’ve paid almost all of the dues that one can pay. So when you say that, having seen all that you have, I consider it heavily. Is that still something you feel, and if so, how do you push back against it?
Well, there are elements of that I still feel and yet there are ways I’ve learned to re-organize how I look at this. Do I still believe that performance poetry can still launch outsized egos? Absolutely. There are so many different ways for a poet to feel validated as an A-1 badass whether its 100,000 hits on YouTube or a slam finish or someone buying their CD. Which is fine for them, but I think so many forget that this art form is SO subjective and its possible for you to have a video that went viral, but my audience may hate your work. Taking criticism isn’t always the most human thing to do, but it’s absolutely essential if you want to grow as an artist. What I have no time for are those that aren’t interested in growing because they figured out how to get a certain set of people to book them for shows regularly. Doesn’t make them a bad person any more than it makes me a good one. But that’s the artist I personally don’t have time to invest in.
Where I have softened on this stance some is really me recognizing my own privilege when it comes to esteem, confidence and validation. I have never had to want for confidence. I had both my parents in the home who had HUGE expectations on me, my journey through school systems seldom discouraged me, I was an athlete with big natural talent; basically, I had so few moments of rejection. If anything, people always expected so much from me, which in this context, is a little like complaining about having a house so big that it’s hard keep clean. But it took me a long time to recognize where my disposition was and relate to people that didn’t have that kind of confidence instilled. So, where I used to see as big ego for some people, I know recognize as self-proclamation or empowering because for them to thrive it is absolutely necessary. I think I’ve learned to recognize that more in people and therefore be a little less of a jerk about it.
Finally, the important question. In order, your top five television characters of all time.
Ha! This is so loaded and limiting this to five is killing me as I know, somebody I adore will be left out. Let me just say this to cheat a little, Tony Soprano, Omar Little and Gustavo Fring are my first ones out. The Soprano shutout is a tough pill to swallow, but my waning interest in the show the last few seasons probably contributes to that.
5. Brenda Leigh Johnson (The Closer) – Kyra Sedgwick (people gonna hate that one)
4. CJ. Cregg (The West Wing) – Allison Janney
3. Al Swearingen (Deadwood) – Ian McShane
2. Claire Huxtable (The Cosby Show) – Phylicia Rashad
1. Walter White (Breaking Bad)- Bryan Cranston Da Gawd
Thank you, Will. I’m glad we share a city.
WILLIAM EVANS is a writer and instructor from Columbus, OH. He founded the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam in 2008 and has appeared on seven Columbus teams that have competed at the National Poetry Slam. He is the author of two poetry manuscripts on Penmanship Books: In the Event You are Caught Behind Enemy Lines (2008) and lowercase boy (Fall 2014). He also teaches and facilitates workshops in Columbus City schools and has coached the The Ohio State University at the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational.