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.
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.