(NOTE: Tatyana will be the final poet of this project. Like almost ALL 30/30’s, sure. This fell short of the goal. But, also like all 30/30’s, the goal was never actually ONLY about the number. So I call this a success, and I thank every single poet who contributed, and indulged this somewhat fanboy-ish idea.)
As I mention in these questions, I got to know Tatyana the artist years before I even said a word to Tatyana as a person. She came through Columbus to do a feature at Writing Wrongs a few years ago at a time when I was barely writing poems, and DEFINITELY not writing the kind of poems I was comfortable with other people hearing (even though in the privacy of my room, I thought they were GREAT). So I watched Tatyana unload this briliant, honest, intense feature. After the feature, I didn’t talk to anyone, I quietly slipped out of the back of the room, went home, and tried to piece together the gift I’d been given. At NPS 2013, in Boston, at around midnight on Tuesday, I get a text from my friend (and poet who has been interviewed this month) David Winter. He tells me that there are some poets reading poems to each other in his hotel room, and I should stop by. My initial thought was “Well, I’ll just sit and hang out and hear poems, but I’m probably not good enough to read anything”. Upon walking INTO the room, I thought (but almost exclaimed out loud), “Yep. DEFINITELY not good enough to read anything in this room, with these poets.” But, that isn’t exactly how ciphers work, it turns out. Someone reads, they call on you, and you read. Tatyana, really engaged in the movements of the room, and the poems being shared, read a poem, and then called on me to read. And I did. And I survived. And I found myself really thankful for this space where poets receive and enjoy their peers in a very honest fashion. So much of that is represented in the way Tatyana thinks/talks about poetry. The passion she brings to it, and the way she makes space for all writers is flat out beautiful. The way every voice is taken in, and given genuine respect is a lesson that even in those late nights/early mornings in hotel rooms at NPS, gave me so much life.
The writing of yours I find myself wanting to ask about first is the essay “Your Invitation to the Wake: For Alexandra Petri, After Her Article, ‘Is Poetry Dead?’” I found myself really rallying behind this really clear, important message. It seems, so often, that there are brief rushes to declare that poetry is dead or dying. What do you think provokes that type of thinking, and how can we, as writers/thinkers combat it most effectively?
Jeeze, Hanif. How about you open with a warm-up question, maybe? You know, something to let the reader ease in before shit gets serious. No? Okay, then. Let’s get to the politics of art and silencing, why don’t we?
(I love that you asked this, because it’s at the heart of what I believe is most important about our community and its work. And—dear reader, consider yourself warned—I also don’t know how to respond without engaging some pretty broad, abstract concepts. Also this is only going to make sense if I out myself as a radical progressive (really no one can be surprised by this), which is to say in a nutshell that I believe in constantly working to take apart and heal from the various forms of oppression we’ve historically inherited. I believe this work is the bravest and most necessary thing we as humans can do, and that the process requires that we rethink social structures and values at a near atomic level pretty much continuously. It also requires lots and lots of listening and patience with one another and love. If you don’t want to spend time exploring my political landscape, by all means skip to question #2. But if you stick with me through it, maybe we’ll generate dialogue?)
As far as I can tell, poetry gets declared dead for the same reasons that so many radically progressive, revolutionary art forms do: It’s either privileged and/or conservative people trying to annihilate/delegitimize/make invisible things that feel threatening or uncomfortable to them, or it’s progressive folks themselves experiencing a crisis of imagination.
This is not to say that all forms of poetry are radically progressive. I’m generalizing here, but I won’t go that far. But the kinds of poetry that most often get ignored, ridiculed, or written off as “illegitimate” are the ones where the real spark of change is most alive. I’ll say more about this in a second, but first we need some foundations laid for my theories to make sense.
Let’s pan out and think about progressive vs. conservative thought for a moment (compassionately, without demonizing folks for their views): In my experience, the driving force behind conservative perspectives is often some kind of fear. Fear of change, fear of scarcity, fear of violence, fear of the unknown, fear of humiliation or rejection—these are legit concerns, for sure. Fear-driven thought is rooted in the survival mechanisms that have helped preserve humankind for the entirety of our history. And it stands to reason that if you’re getting a lot of the good stuff that society has to offer, you’ll be worried about preserving the way of life that’s given you your treats. So conservative thought and privilege (along the lines of race, class, gender, education/access, etc.) can easily go hand in hand. When a privileged person feels their way of life being threatened, often they will attack. This isn’t always a conscious move, by the way. That’s an important thing keep in mind.
Progressive thought, on the other hand, tends to be based in imagination. In order to reach for progress, you have to be able to envision something better than the inherited violence of our human lineage as possible (and here I’m talking about everything from rape culture and sweatshop labor to racially biased police brutality and homeless queer youth and beyond—complex and interrelated as all these issues are). Even the most outraged, rabid, “politically correct” (I put that in quotes because that is not a real thing) among us feel that anger because our imaginations tell us that we can do better than our past. Also, burn-out? That’s something progressive folks experience most severely when we no longer can imagine the next steps for building the world we want to live in. Sometimes we just need sleep or a well-cooked meal or a massage. But when we can’t imagine a solution, everything falls apart.
I wrote “Your Invitation…” because all the experience I have as a touring poet and educator tells me that contemporary American poetry is in the midst of a resurgence in significance and popularity, and that this wave of art is saving and transforming lives at an exponential rate. Inside this rising tide, there’s a large movement (particularly, though not exclusively, of young people) who are aware of the incredible, radical power of poetics to relate, inspire, and liberate independent of existing institutional support and/or legitimacy. These people are crafting themselves into masters due to a combination of innate genius and compulsion, and their work is getting to the minds of folks that need it most. People are listening to one another, and educating themselves, and finding the kind of hope that literally unifies and sustains revolutions. We’re building the tools we need to make the changes we imagine, and we’re putting the resources together from the existing art world to wake folks up and make greatness spread even further. It’s happening in bars and street corners and classrooms all over the country. When I’m in the presence of the kind of work I’m talking about, it feels like an unstoppable force. And the crazy part, the real reason I wrote that article, is that the mainstream inclination is to ignore this change. There are tons of privileged folks who are either legitimately oblivious or must be sticking their fingers in their ears and pretending it’s not happening. I wanted to reach them, and to send up a signal for other progressive folks in the field who might need some recognition. This movement is too precious to me to see it silenced or made invisible.
I have the good fortune to see the success of radical poetics (past, present, and future) this way because travel and networking affords me a chance to peek at the bigger picture. I can line up the tiny miracles I see on the road and recognize a trend where others might only get to see coincidence. And sometimes being immersed in the work (particularly when you only get a limited view from your vantage point) is hard. Sometimes nobody’s in the audience, or the student gives up on themselves for a moment and just a moment too soon, or the grant doesn’t come through. And in those situations, we (as progressives) are at our most vulnerable. We may find ourselves wondering whether or not we were crazy to take up this work, if we should’ve become investment bankers instead, if anyone will ever even care that we tried to make things better.
Weirdly enough, the greatest weapon conservatives have in their arsenal is the denial or diminishing of progress. It hits progressive people right where it hurts the most—our imaginations. All it takes is a little doubt, and the work is harder to sustain. How do you get up in the morning as a progressive person if there’s no possibility for shit to get better? That’s the thing we’ve got to be vigilant about if we want to combat the thinking present in “Is Poetry Dead?” and similar attacks.
Sincere affirmation takes the edge off the “your art’s not really a thing” blues, and it’s a pretty easy thing to produce once you’ve made a practice of it. When you see a breakthrough moment in your community (be it yours or someone else’s) celebrate it, and add it to an ongoing list of similar triumphs. Look at that list whenever you feel overwhelmed, underachieved, or any tinge of hopeless. Keep in touch with artists and organizers doing shit you love, and rely on one another to talk through the doubt when it arises. I have at least five people I can call for conversations like that on any given day, and knowing they share my values and believe in the process I’m committed to around art, education, and transformation has kept me from giving up on countless occasions—definitely 30 times this past year alone.
All I know is that what we’re doing is working. It’s working, so long as we ignore and outshine our doubters. So, when someone pretends that poetry is dead or “over,” use all the tools you need to remember that IT’S HAPPENING IN AMAZING WAYS ALL OVER THE WORLD AND GROWING, laugh (in as good-natured a fashion as you can manage), and invite them to the next show.
I’m always interested in poets who also organize. I found poetry through organizing. I hosted an open mic for about a year before even writing a poem, which is an incredibly flawed timeline. You have created spaces in your community for poets to grow/share/write/express. I’m wondering what impact that has had on you, the writer. Are the two linked, in your process?
Bad News first: Anyone who tries to say organizing won’t cut into your creative time/energy is LYING. And it is a nasty lie, because it’s one that allows you to beat yourself up over an inevitability. On more than one occasion, I’ve sat with a writing partner in a café for hours while he wrote poems and I cranked out promotional copy for The Lit Slam and posted it on twenty different event sites. When my poet friend read me his latest draft, I found myself thinking “God, that was brilliant. Ugh. Why don’t I write more poems? I’m so lazy.” …as though the process of building and managing space for audiences to encounter art wasn’t deeply important and engrossing creative work.
Overwhelmingly Good News now: I have never felt so constantly awed and grateful as when I get to watch everything The Lit Slam is and does takes flight. At least once a show I find myself slack-jawed at the art that happens on my stage just because we made an invitation and genius showed up. It keeps me on my toes creatively, and fuels further experimentation in my work. I do not write alone anymore, but rather in conversation. Now when I sit down to create for myself (and the poets I listen to at my show awaken an internal mandate to keep writing, even if I have less time for it), I feel lit up by the community around me. We’re in our third season now, and that feeling honestly just keeps growing.
It might be that creating and sustaining The Lit Slam and other projects will be a contribution that far outlasts any of my own writing. Instead of feeling burnt out and bitter, I honestly feel grateful to think that, because:
Extra-Surprising, Humbling GREAT News: Nothing makes an individual writer appreciate the power of the chorus quite like organizing can. Before my commitment to The Lit Slam, I understood that everyone’s voice contributed to something larger than the sum of its parts…intellectually. Hosting and producing has made me step back from the ego-driven pre-show jitters of performing as an individual, and made me pay attention what my peers create with an eye for the audience’s experience. I hear the brilliance in my community differently than I used to—poems bounce off and challenge one another, creating richness and depth that no single voice can bring alone. The rockstar impulse (which I think brings many people to spoken word, as backwards as that might seem) mellows out right quick in the face of the gorgeous mess that is the big picture, leaving behind gratitude and a sincere desire to contribute to growth and further inspiration. Nowadays, I just want to write poems that could stand up next to what happens at The Lit Slam. Believe me, that’s not a small goal.
I really like the idea of what the Lit Slam represents. When I finally got a grasp of what it was, it occurred to me that something like that just isn’t happening in other places. Can you talk a bit about the Lit Slam, how it came about, and what the future of it is?
So, this is a funny thing to think about, because (as I may have already made clear above) The Lit Slam is one of the most meaningful endeavors in my life to date, and it arose from a snobby art gripe.
Back before The Lit Slam started, major Bay Area slams offered $100 first prizes, and those of us who wanted to see the community “focus more on writing” kept theorizing that the money was getting in the way. Why take a big creative risk when highly performative, tried-and-true (read: boring) poems could pay your phone bill? So I tried to think of a prize that would encourage risk and attention to written craft, and it was suddenly obvious: Have the prize at a show be getting published alongside the feature. Put together an annual book. Only folks interested in writing would go for that, right? And that sounds like it’d make a fun night of poetry, wouldn’t it?
Nobody else trusts an audience to select poems for publication, and I’ve learned why over the past few years: Good god, it’s terrifying. The few hours of the show itself end up being Hitchcock-level harrowing for me, since my crew and I are having something permanent decided by a bunch of folks we just don’t know but have to trust. And while they sometimes pass on poems I wish we could print, it’s mostly because there are so many great poems onstage on any given night. The writers in my community step up and save the book every month. It’s like a trust fall, except it takes a year before I can all the way rest easy.
If that was all there was to The Lit Slam, it’d still be a pretty neat idea. But the more I pushed at the concept (and the more smart, capable, enthusiastic folks I talked into working on it with me), the richer and more compelling things became. I found myself talking regularly about how anthologies serve as historical documents, and how they could bridge the divide between academic and “non-traditional” poetry. (Seriously, what does “non-traditional” even mean? Why are the terms for poets who write because we must and do so without academic pedigree so absurdly othering?) Issues like representation, authority, and access started to sit at the forefront of my (and my crew’s) mind. And we found ourselves grappling with an exciting political imperative packaged as an enticing night of art.
At this point, The Lit Slam has produced two annual anthologies (called Tandem, and both volumes are for sale as ebooks and print books on Amazon), and we’re starting on our third. As an organization, we’re committed to interrupting and dismantling systemic oppression, providing access to publication to brilliant writers who folks might not otherwise get the chance to read, and doing so in a context that proves that our values are not out of place alongside the published works of contemporary poetic masters.
We’ve just split from our original publisher (Bicycle Comics) in pursuit of going nonprofit this year, and we intend to turn our ten monthly shows and a side event at the National Poetry Slam into Volume III of Tandem by April 2015. We’re coming out with Alight: The Best-Loved Poems of WoWPS 2014 just before NPS. Our team is expanding to include people who actually market and distribute Tandem, so it won’t just be me with a megaphone duct-taped to my Facebook page anymore. I can’t tell you how happy I am about that.
We’re going to keep producing exceptional poetry books through our ass-kicking live shows until the wheels fall off. The pipe dream is to expand The Lit Slam to other cities, and eventually produce Tandem as a quarterly/more frequent journal with other scenes contributing an annual anthology (and we’ve had offers from organizers in NYC, Boston, and Chicago), but that’s a couple years off, at least. We’re still working the kinks out of our system locally, and we’re not going to expand until we know we can support another crew while they get their sea legs. For now though, it’s pretty damned gratifying to know we’re doing something right, something that captures the finer qualities of live poetry shows in a book.
I’ve asked a similar version of this question this month, but I am most excited to get your answer. I was introduced to your work in about 2011, during a feature you had here in Columbus. But I think I was most introduced to you more personally through gaining an understanding for your appreciation of poetry. I get a vibe that you genuinely just crave hearing the poems of your peers. Which amazes me. So often, I think we see people who have heard poems so frequently that they’re just not into the idea of still being active listeners. What drives your relationship with listening?
What a fantastic question. I’m so flattered that that’s how you feel like you got to know me, Hanif. That’s awesome.
Today in practice, Jelal (my teammate on The New Shit Show’s slam team) was describing what he loved about Joy Harjo’s work and he said, “When she writes, you can just tell that she’s listening.” and something about that description lands in my heart and mind exactly right. The masters are master listeners. How do we engage properly as poets without spending the vast majority of our time listening? If we’re all just waiting for our turn to speak, where is the community?
I feel like I need to admit here that I’m not always the best listener some days. I’m a cynic, and sometimes it feels like all I do is listen to poems, so I have very little patience for being bored. Occasionally I’ll write a poem off ten seconds into performance due to an uninspired image, or an assumption, or some other arbitrary hiccup. This is something I work on, because I believe that really listening to one another (especially when it comes to poetry, a discipline that’s often dedicated to bearing witness and expressing a person’s internal reality) is the best way to challenge the ways I’ve been socialized not to see people around me, and the issues they face. Sometimes the best I can do is push myself to listen even when I disagree or dislike what I’m hearing—whether it’s a craft issue or a disagreement I have with the author’s content. Sometimes I decide to step outside instead. My best self knows to ask, “what made this person need to write that?” to bring me back to the poem, and most of the time that helps. But yeah, listening is a conscious and deliberate practice on my part. Even when I’m reluctant, I’m bound to learn something from it.
To answer more specifically, the nights I think you’re thinking of where you saw me being consistently enthusiastic were informal late night hotel room readings at Nationals, yeah? That’s something else entirely. If I’m being honest, those gatherings are the real reason I still attend national slam tournaments at this point. You’re right to say I’m genuinely excited to hear the work of my peers in those spaces. They’re essential to the way I think and reach and try to write.
My relationship with that kind of room started in the Fall of 2011. Danez Smith, Robyn Bateman and I had just made Finals for the first time together at iWPS, and we were at a bar celebrating with a ton of other writers we love (Sam Sax, April Ranger, Megan Falley, Miles Walser, and many more), and someone—probably Sam—mentioned that really all they wanted to do was take our party someplace quiet to say poems together. Everyone’s face sort of bashfully lit up. There was an earnest eagerness between us that had finally been named: a shared excitement for one another’s poems, and for the opportunity to share the work of our own that felt the most alive and see what other respected writers thought.
It’s not like we invented the cipher in that moment, but it was my first time I’d been in a space with so many stunningly talented people with that same relentless enthusiasm. We read together that night and the next, and managed to pick up even more great writers (like Jamaal May, who hadn’t yet become one of my living favorites) as folks in our group pulled poets they admired and wanted to share into the circle. Both nights we stayed up till dawn, unable to stop reading to one another. The work shimmered all the more brightly, considering the vulnerability of putting it in front of so many discerning and talented eyes. It was mesmerizing.
I’d never felt that kind of alive before, and though it’s a familiar feeling now, I appreciate its uniqueness. It’s a mix of family reunion, space expedition, and quiet fireside chat in the pantheon. I can never really all the way believe how lucky I am to know and like folks who blow me away as writers, and to be able to sit in a room with so many of them at once. That I get to watch them love one another and be inspired by each other, and feel like there’s a fraction of hope that I might also belong there. Considering how widespread our tribe is across the country, coming together and examining our growth together is pinch-me-I’m-dreaming gratifying when it happens. It’s a strange thing to admit, but every time I’m in a room like that, a large part of me is thinking, I have no idea how fate let me be here, but please god just let me be good enough to belong in this room. Please let me be good enough to stay and listen and maybe say another poem.
All of this to say: I believe in the fire and genius of my peers (do I even get to call them that?), and I feel blessed to get to be alive in this moment, as part of the conversation—especially as a witness. It’s an honor to listen year after year, reading after reading, as young enthusiasts step into their own mastery—one I don’t intend to waste. It’s also a challenge, and a constant source of delight.
I really like how you examine and write about relationships. I think there are many ways to do that, and so few of them are honest, and too many of them are kind of easy exits. I’ve heard pieces of yours that really hit at the heart of relationships, or the end of relationships, at their most ugly. Of course, “How To Move Into A House That Is On Fire” has always been something I turn to when writing about the end of something. Anything. It’s kind of a test I run through, “Is this as honest as Tatyana?” How important is giving an honest story its due, even if it’s also an ugly story?
Holy crap, what a compliment. This means so much to me, especially considering the fact that “extremely important, to the point of being essential” is the short answer to this question. Thank you a few thousand times over.
Similarly to The Lit Slam, I fell into a profound relationship with honesty by being a snob at first. As a young writer, the first thing that made me cynical about slam was the way it rewards folks with savior complexes. I’m guilty of indulging in epic self-righteousness myself, and I understand the impulse (I mean, the poem I wrote as a 20 year old about volunteering in a soup kitchen for homeless HIV positive folks? Yeah, I’m not proud of it, but it happened.). When you’re standing in front of a crowd, it’s human to want them to like you, and to find a comfortable place to speak from. It’s human to want to show only the most attractive version of yourself and erase the rest. But the insincerity hollows out what is an otherwise rich and complex opportunity. It flattens the discourse, and leaves little room for growth. Everyone can pat themselves on the back and go home without experiencing self-reflection or vulnerability.
So after a slam where I heard not one, not two, but five Noble Teacher Poems in the first round (you know what I’m talking about, where the writer appropriates the raw deal their students got in order to talk about themselves as a hardworking everyman’s hero?), I decided to set myself a challenge: turn the comfortable bombast of slam on its head and write a poem where I was (am?) the villain. Get ugly onstage, if only to create some kind of diversity of message.
It started off as an act of defiance, but the first thing that fell into my notebook was a vignette about punching my younger sister in the stomach and realizing that I was perpetuating the abuse I survived as a child, and I basically couldn’t sleep for a week after writing it. The game changed pretty much immediately then. It was like switching the lights on and discovering you’re in a slaughterhouse instead of a library. I realized I could either spend the rest of my life in denial, or start taking my history apart and writing to get free.
I write for my own liberation, and to invite others to continue (or begin) the hard work for themselves. I come from a background of poverty and violence, and I was born into a body that’s valued as an object or source of service. I learned some pretty terrible things about love early on, things I’m spending a lot of effort to un-learn (Have I mentioned that my therapist is the greatest? And that therapy and poetry are not the same thing? They can inspire one another, but neither does the other’s job all the way.). And on top of that, I’ve been socialized into a position of often un-interrogated privilege as a white person, so sometimes I walk into spaces where I mean to be supportive, considerate, and kind and my actions come out like it’s opposite day. This process of rebuilding and reimagining and accepting and listening is such an ugly one—like birth. It’s disorienting and overwhelming and the only way I know to get to growing. Sometimes beauty is stasis. Survival depends on learning. The better world I want requires art that lets this process be seen, so we can all feel less alone and freakish for it. So we can be encouraged towards the next step while acknowledging the complexity and difficulty at hand, instead of shutting down in fear.
There are ways my heart has been broken and never set right. There are crooked parts of me that need recognition just as dearly as the bits that are easier to love. There are stories in my life where the unglamorous details are the most universal. In order for that to be true for me, it stands to reason that it’s true for just about anyone. And when I think about the artists whose work I love the most, it’s pretty clear the trend in what draws me in has to do with the byproducts of honesty: vulnerability, honesty, originality, and bravery (not as in, “look what a hero I am,” but rather “holy shit, I can’t believe I’m admitting this out loud”). That’s where the magic happens in the creative world, far as I can tell.
How are you as a reader, and as a critic? I think listening is one thing, but I also feel like you call for a type of awareness of the work that is happening in the moment (like, of course, with the Lit Slam). What is your relationship with reading and critique?
As a reader and listener, I think it’s super important to separate critical analysis and critique. I didn’t know how to do this for a long time, and it got me into sticky situations all the time.
When it comes to critical analysis, I’m voracious and incessant. This keeps me engaged, aware, and reaching at all times, which is pretty important to me. I view every piece of art as being is in conversation with its surroundings, its creator, its predecessors, and so on. I take apart and think about each choice—conscious and unconscious—and spend time as I read or listen considering both the performance and motivation behind them. I consider the relevancy of the piece to its environment, and how its reception occurred. I try and do this even with work I don’t like, because I believe examining what doesn’t work for me can be just as valuable as understanding what does (so long as I give myself permission to fuck up horribly and make a mess). I do this with everything all the time—poems, billboards, news articles, speeches at rallies, facebook statuses, outfits on passers-by. My mind is constantly churning on the mechanisms of authority and publication. I don’t really know how to turn it off, and I’m not sure I would if I could. It fuels my own creative process, and it helps give me a sense of my environment that’s nuanced.
Critique is another thing entirely. The more involved I’ve gotten in writing intimate work, the more highly I value consent-based relationships around critique. I feel like creative people deserve to feel understood and respected by the folks who tear apart their poems, and that it’s important for it to feel like the critic appreciates the art under renovation. If I can’t engage with that level of care, and if there isn’t that level of trust and intimacy between myself and the artist, I try to hold my tongue unless it’s to deliver sincere praise. If I feel an absolute need to talk to a poet, I try to ask if they’re interested in my opinion first. And when I do talk with poets about their work, I tend to try and consider everything in the process—where the individual piece is occurring in the development of their voice, what their intention is, how they tend to read—in order to make sure that I’m offering critique from a place of advocacy for their own voice. I know what it feels like to be in a shitty critique relationship, and I’d like to do everything in my power not to perpetuate that. (Please note that I mess this one up constantly. I’m a nosy Jewish grandmother in training, and sometimes when I want to help I push my way into situations that I shouldn’t. Sometimes I also forget that no matter how much I gush adoringly at poets I love, each poem also deserves this kind of gentleness. It makes the growing process so much less obstacle-laden and more kind.)
There are two major exceptions to the above standards around critique: New poets and problematic/oppressive work.
With new poets, since I want as many people writing and exploring as possible (again, progressive agenda), I try and come with enthusiasm for their work, encouragement, and a few tips to get them started (“so the mic stand here is tricky, you might want to only adjust this knob,” or “hey, have you heard of (insert relevant poet to their interests)? You might want to check out this poem by them. I think you’ll like it.”), and then I’ll invite them to talk with the local regulars about poems. I do this because most folks don’t know that they robust conversations about art are even happening at all in the local scene when they get started. I think it’s important for folks to know that it’s available, so I’ll get a little hands-on then.
When it comes to problematic/oppressive works, I try and make sure that shit gets addressed by somebody at a show. At this point, I’m committed to also making sure that no one is trying to take on all of it by themselves, so I check in to make sure it’s my turn (there are a few folks in my scene who informally split this work), and then I start by asking questions. “Hey, I’m curious why you made the choice to say (insert problematic thing)” tends to work nicely once we’ve been talking for a bit. I try not to come in anger, but with earnest curiosity and at least some modicum of care for the person I’m asking. If I can’t do that, then it’s not my turn to do the work, so I find someone who can.
I think what I’m trying to say is that when it comes to critique, I’m a pragmatist at this point. It’s got to be valuable to both parties, and it’s got to yield results. Otherwise it’s masturbation—and not the good kind. Really pompous, somewhat boring masturbation.
The Bay Area poetry scene, from afar, seems like this really energetic, bursting thing. I’ve had friends make the trip out and come back so refreshed and excited about poetry. I’m assuming that it isn’t just the weather. What parts of community are most important to you, and what do you love about being so heavily in the mix out there in the Bay?
What’s hella funny about this question is that there was a long period where, because I was touring so much, if I had the chance to go to a show in the Bay (which was something like once a month or—for shows that weren’t The Lit Slam—every two), there were people who would actually yell, “YOU DON’T EVEN GO HERE!” (which, I had to be informed, is a Mean Girls reference) in my face whenever they saw me. They did this because they missed me, I think? That’s indicative of something, I guess. The parts of the Bay that I love the most (and that love me, or love telling me about myself, or something) are playful and pretty goofy with one another, no matter what happens onstage.
But seriously, the Bay scene is way too big for me to comment on it like it’s any one thing. It’s dynamic and multifaceted, and when people want something of or for the community, they create it (The New Shit Show, Golden State Slam, Slamazon, Cal Slam, and so on times about twenty). That’s why there are so many shows spread across the region. The corner of the Bay poetry scene that feels most like home to me is full of socially anxious but endearing (to me) compulsive writers/readers, a combination of old and new guard organizers who are willing to throw down to make great things happen for our community. It feels familial (and yes, even in dysfunctional ways) in that often people stick around even after there’s a falling out or drama, sometimes for generations. I believe we benefit hugely from this connection to our local roots. There are shows around that have been going for coming up on two decades, and there are newer initiatives that haven’t yet hit the year mark. As someone who’s been around for about five years, it’s exciting to see what that mix of stability and innovation produces.
Like any teaching artist, I like to talk about how teaching challenges your idea of what is or isn’t possible within the craft. What do you gain from teaching?
So, this one time I went skydiving. My instructor was a total creep (popped collar and an unsolicited blowjob joke at our introduction), but I mostly didn’t mind being strapped to him for the twenty minutes of our lives or so that we shared because he’d done it twenty five thousand times before. When you’re flinging your body out of a plane into the goddamned atmosphere, proficiency trumps pleasantries, you know?
Anyway, we jump, we free-fall, he pulls the cord for the parachute, and for the first minute that we’re hanging six thousand feet above the earth, I’m speechless. It’s sunset, and below is miles and miles of pastoral farmland. There’s a creek and a lake and I swear they sparkle below us. There’s no sound but the wind, and we are tiny specks, blinking and staring at a panorama you just can’t see anywhere else, any other way. I realize we’re connected to nothing but each other and some nylon fabric, and somehow this doesn’t make me want to scream. The adrenaline is cooling in my veins, and the peace I feel is volcanic—after all that heat and pushing, rich stillness sets in. My heart is full and open both at once, and I swear the light has washed every doubt from my mind. Everything is far enough away that you can just say yes, obviously, just as it should be.
When I can finally transmute the wonder I feel into speech, I say (and this is profound in the moment, believe me), “Wow.”
Creepy instructor dude sighs and responds (again, profoundly), “I mean, yup.”
We stare for another impossible length of time, the ground pulling us in molasses slow and sugary. He finally says, “You know, it’s always like this. You can’t ever really get used to it. Just, wow. Every time.” I remember his twenty five thousand jumps before this one, and you know what? I believed him about how it never gets old. I still do.
On the really great days (which are just about all of them, barring catastrophe), that’s what my students make me feel. I learn from teaching constantly, and it’s not uncommon for a beginner in a workshop to pull out something really fresh and stunning that bowls me over and makes me want to be a better writer/thinker/human being. I will never stop being grateful for that. But the thing I live for, the bit I keep coming back for as an educator is the moment where a student finally really gets what poetry can do—what they can witness in it, what they can say for themselves. I get to be there with them in that discovery, the eye-widening joy of it that is not unlike falling in love, except with an idea (or the mind that produces it…and that often means the student is falling in love with themselves). It shakes all the weariness out of me, and reminds me what a miracle human connection actually is.
There is so much about the work of an independent poet/educator that can be exhausting, draining, or difficult. Some days my job makes me feel self-involved and useless. But being with a student when they wake up to what poetry is and can do is six thousand feet above the ground and staring, every single time.
This is going to be a multi-part question and I apologize in advance. I’m wondering what your ideas/thoughts around page and stage poetry are, and if you see a divide between the two. And if so, why that is. Do you think the stage is limiting, in some ways? And how important do you think it is to chase after some blurring of the two? I see more and more poets really finding an appreciation for the blurring of that line, it seems. Thoughts?
Man, you are not going to let me have any easy outs on this interview, huh?
The Lit Slam makes me think about this stuff all the time, so I can answer this question without much difficulty. I think the divide between page and stage (when there is one) has to do with the limitations of linear time. You can’t go back and reread a section of a live performance, so the work needs to stay both engaging and accessible for the audience in order for the full impact to be felt. Sometimes that means stating something for the audience that you’d rather leave the reader to discover on their own, and that can be a bummer. But those changes are by and large minor and cosmetic.
I find, more often than not, that the real limitation for great writers there is not about simplifying their work for the stage, but in allowing themselves to feel it. Performed poetry relies on the reader’s ability to relate to the audience. It’s the oldest magic we have, and though knucklehead critics act like it’s a parlor trick, it’s at the core of what makes live art of any kind compelling. Often we as writers crank out work that terrifies or weirds us out, and it’s easier to keep a safe, intellectual distance from it. Performing in a way that resonates does not allow that. You have to let the ideas behind the words all the way into your body, and then you have to be brave enough to let an audience see that. This is why so many great writers who’ve come up through slam (Patricia Smith, Jamaal May, Danez Smith, and so on) stand head and shoulders above their peers—performance spaces have taught them to relate to their readers/audiences viscerally.
Also, just for the record: the folks who blur the line on the stage/page divide (whether you consider that a construct or an absolute) aren’t groundbreaking. And “spoken word” isn’t a thing folks need to grow out of. They’re both connected to the roots of our tradition, and they’ll continue to hold profound significance for probably centuries to come.
Finally, who are the writers doing it right now who you appreciate? The ones that remind you why you write/love writing?
Okay, I’m going to limit myself to 20 names here, which feels almost criminal. In no particular order, here are the poets I’m carrying around in my bag: Roger Reeves (two copies of King Me, for reasons that are not at all silly), Natalie Diaz, Arisa White, Brynn Saito, Jamaal May, Ross Gay, Jason Bayani, Sam Sax, Danez Smith, Patricia Smith and Corrina Bain (CORRINA BAIN DO YOU HEAR ME PEOPLE YOU PROBABLY DON’T KNOW BUT YOU SHOULD). I guess what I’m saying is, check out the size of my backpack. It’s pretty heavy.
I also absolutely adore Cam Awkward-Rich and Nic Alea, Joshua Merchant (okay arbitrarily limiting the number of Bay folks I’m talking about now), Simone Beaubien, Tara Hardy, Karen Finneyfrock, Lauren Zuniga, Gypsee Yo, and you (not kidding you were absolutely one of my favorite readers from this past NPS).
There are so many more. Too many more. We live in a blessed era for poetry, that’s certain.
Thanks so much for doing this Tatyana. I hope we cross paths in the summer again, if not before.
TATYANA BROWN is the founding host/head curator of The Lit Slam (www.thelitslam.com), a San Francisco-based monthly reading series which produces an annual poetry anthology called Tandem. Her work has been featured on NPR’s Snap Judgment, and she was listed amongst Muzzle’s “Top 30 Poets Under 30” in 2013. In 2011, she placed 4th at the Individual World Poetry Slam. She is currently 10 away from having featured in all 50 of the United States and has lectured and read poems at Yale, Duke, and Indiana University, among others. She currently teaches the mechanics of writing using microfiction at themadscientistwriterslab.com