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.

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