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.
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.